Interview with Communication Skills Specialist Alan Barker
Alan BarkerToday I had the pleasure of chatting to Alan Barker, who is a communication skills specialist, training coach and author, with a number of successful books under his belt.

He gave us some thought provoking insights into different styles of communication, the importance of soft skills, cultural differences in communication, and more.

So allow me to introduce today’s guest, Alan Barker.

Hi Alan, thanks so much for stopping by the Activia Training blog. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself for our readers?

I'm an author and training consultant specialising in communication skills and creativity. I've been training and coaching since the early 1990s, and I've written about 20 books. (It depends what you call a book...) I train a whole range of skills, from persuasion and influencing to copywriting and technical report writing, presenting, speechwriting, meeting skills...

How did you become interested in helping others with their communication skills?

It’s all based on a passion for words. I was an actor for fifteen years before becoming a trainer. People think that acting is pretending to be someone else, but it’s not, really; acting is about finding that part of yourself that will express the person you’re playing - or the situation you’re playing. My two favourite playwrights are probably Shakespeare and Brecht – Bert Brecht, the great German playwright. Both of those geniuses saw the magic in action – in what happens between people, rather than inside them. That’s what I try to concentrate on. We’re most fully ourselves when we’re in contact with others.

But don’t different personalities communicate differently?

Well – maybe. But I’m interested in behaviour, not character. I prefer to talk about preferred styles of communicating. I like that word ‘style’. Social styles, like styles of clothing, are things we can choose to adopt. (A bit like Edward de Bono’s thinking hats, which are great thinking tools for exactly the same reason.) We can choose to communicate differently.  I see my job as helping people to make new choices.

Improve Your Communication Skills by Alan BarkerYour new book, Improve Your Communication Skills, is due for paperback release later this year - could you tell us a little bit about it?

It’s going into its fourth edition, so the book has been around for some time. It’s really about conversation. Someone once said that an organisation is nothing more than a network of conversations. I love that.

Is the book for business communications only, or can it relate to everyone in some way?

Well, obviously, I hope that anyone might be interested in it – but yes, it’s principally about communicating at work. If you’re not communicating, you’re not managing or leading. But then, communication is pretty important in our personal relationships, and even the fleeting encounters we have every day.

How essential are soft skills, such as communication, for career development?

Absolutely essential. Survey after survey tells us that employers are looking for three skills above all in the people they hire: the ability to communicate, the ability to think flexibly, and the ability to work in a team. I’m really interested in the relationship between communicating and thinking. We think when we want better results than we’d get without thinking, and management is getting results through other people, so managerial thinking must mean holding productive conversations. You know: a meeting is a group of people thinking together. Or should be. So without the ability to communicate, you’ll struggle. And many managers do struggle.

When working with corporations of any size, what are some common communication issues that arise?

Well, I think that many managers come to management with a one-sided view of communication.  They think that success depends on how they talk: how they get their points across, how they instruct or inspire. And that is precisely half the job. It’s vitally important, but it’s 50%. The other 50% is listening, asking, enquiring, finding out what matters to the people they’re leading. It’s what Stephen Covey said: seek first to understand, then to be understood. Too many of us do the opposite. We seek to be understood first. It’s the wrong way around.

You know, I was working in Riyadh a few weeks ago, for a great German company. And I was talking to a customer account manager, a Saudi, who described his manager for fifteen years. He was a German engineer. And every day, he would ask his team the same question: “What do you think?”  And that Saudi has tried to ask his team the same question, every day. Wonderful. I think those might be the most valuable four words any manager could use.

How important is non-verbal communication?

Hugely important. And less important than you might think! Of course visual signals matter: we respond to them very quickly and intuitively, and they can give us a wide range of information. And the music of our voice is extremely important as well. We can be extremely persuasive in the way we vary the tone, volume and pace of our speaking. I’m a musician and a singer, so I see lots of connections between music and language.

But the words do matter, partly because of the connotations they carry – all the associations that crowd around them and suggest layers on layers of extra significance. You know, you could talk about a change management project as a struggle to overcome a crisis, or as a journey into exciting new territory. Which would you prefer to be involved in? So yes, those words must be delivered with conviction, and the leader must look as if they mean it; but without the words, it would just be a strange pantomime.

What advice would you give to someone who is naturally introverted, and struggles to network?

Practise. How are you going to introduce yourself? What questions are you going to ask to show that you’re interested in someone? And then, what will you say to make yourself sound interesting?  Practise with friends. Don’t be afraid to have some scripted lines to help you along. I’m an ex-actor, of course, so I love having a script. And I love rehearsing, too. So rehearse success. Rehearse looking this new person in the eye, smiling, asking those questions, listening to their answers, finding something to say about what they have said. Then, when you’re there, actually doing it, you’ll be a bit more prepared.

When giving a presentation, what is a simple tip to keep the audience engaged?

Start where the audience is. Too many presenters begin by telling the audience what they’re going to talk about. Instead, start with a question or a problem that the audience is currently facing. Then provide them with your answer. And don’t talk to your audience about something. Instead, decide what you want to say to them. Instead of a subject, have a message. And then construct your presentation around that single, take-home message.

That’s two tips. Sorry!

Have you noticed any cultural differences in communication between countries? What are some examples?

Yes, I suppose I have - but I’m a bit nervous about discussing them. I think it’s far too easy to slip into damaging stereotypes. But I might suggest that virtually every other culture I’ve encountered is more direct than the British. Maybe I mean the southern British! I was surprised to learn, when I started training in Europe, that the Brits have something of a reputation for being hypocritical. And the reason is that we’re so polite! We say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ far more than other folk. And ‘sorry’.

And then, I suppose it’s important to understand the place of pride in some other cultures.  You know, what we call ‘face’. But good manners are pretty much the same wherever you go. Keep asking, “what do you think?”, and you won’t go far wrong – even if you don’t always get a straight answer!

Do you have a memory of when you have felt particularly proud of helping an individual or organisation overcome their communication issues?

I don’t know about ‘overcoming’, but I think one of my proudest projects was working with the Scrutiny Team at the London Assembly on their report about the emergency services’ response to the attacks of 7 July. There were important lessons to be learned from that tragedy, and I think I helped the team to articulate those lessons clearly and powerfully. And that may help to save lives in the future. That report was front-page news when they published it. I was really proud of that.

Are you working on any new projects at the moment that you can share with us?

Well, I’m training in a whole range of different places. Hong Kong, Seoul, Eastbourne! And I’m working on a number of writing projects. There are four short study guides for Business Expert Press in New York: on thinking under pressure, tough conversations, creativity and networking. And I’m going to be covering the British Science Festival in Swansea in September 2016 – blogging mostly, on the festival website.

Sounds exciting – we’re looking forward to seeing your future work. Thanks for stopping by the blog, Alan!

Alan's latest book, Improve Your Communication Skills (4th edition) is due for release in October, 2016, and is available to pre-order from Amazon. If you'd like to connect with Alan, you can say hello to him on Twitter at @alanbarker830.