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7 communication tips for millennial leaders

6 min read


This post is part of the series “Communication,” a weeklong effort co-hosted by SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership and the folks at Switch & ShiftKeep track of the series here and check out our daily e-mail newsletter, SmartBrief on Leadership. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.

In today’s multigenerational, global, constantly changing world, communication skills — both oral and written — are more important than anything else you can bring to a job. You can’t lead without good communication and no matter how technical or virtual the workplace becomes, your ability to speak and write well will differentiate you from your peers and determine the amount of success you’ll achieve.

Moreover, in every employer survey I read where they ask about millennials, the employers say communication skills are what they want the most. They also say millennials tend to lack those skills.

If you count yourself among the millennials (aka Gen Y), and are a leader now or hope to move into a leadership role in the next few years, follow these tips to prepare yourself and show your employer what you’re capable of.

Watch out for speech patterns that make you sound too young

The top three problematic expressions I tend to hear when students and young employees come up to talk to me after I’ve given a speech are “um,” “like” and “you know.” I also hear a lot of upspeak, which occurs when you use a higher tone of voice at the end of a sentence as if you’re asking a question even when you aren’t.

These verbal quirks send the message that you’re young and inexperienced. Using them is a habit you’ll want to drop sooner rather than later, if you want to be taken seriously and advance at work.

A lot of people don’t realize they’re talking this way, so make an effort to listen to yourself or ask a friend to listen and let you know.

Communicate in your audience’s style

Communication is not about asserting yourself; it’s about getting your message across.

For the first time in history, we have a four-generation workplace, and each generation, generally, likes to communicate in different ways. The best leaders and most effective communicators find out how their colleagues like to communicate and use that preferred method as much as possible.

That may mean you have to call people who like to talk on the phone even though you’re most comfortable sending an e-mail. Or it could mean you have to use a more formal tone in your communications even though you prefer casual interactions.

Remember: Shorter is better

In the academic environments where you’ve spent most of your lives, you’ve learned to write long sentences using flowery, complicated language because that’s what your teachers rewarded and it helped you hit the mandatory word counts on assignments (or maybe that was just me …). Now that you’re in the business world, you need to learn to do the exact opposite.

I hear so many employers and workers from other generations complain about millennials writing really long e-mails with too much detail. Whether you’re writing an e-mail, a report or some other business document, you should make every effort to be concise and use short sentences and bullet points to convey your message. My mantra: When in doubt, edit it out!

Don’t hide behind technology

Many millennials use e-mail as their go-to method of communication, but in some situations it can take longer to achieve your goal that way. There are so many times when you can get things done more effectively by just picking up the phone or taking a short walk over to a colleague’s desk for a quick conversation. Choosing a more personal, direct communication style also builds your credibility and relationship with the other person.

Don’t assume it’s OK to text

A lot of millennials ask me when it’s OK to text people for business purposes. That’s an important question because some generations don’t perceive texting as professional. It’s fine to text your peers, but with a client, boss or more senior colleague, you should wait until the other person invites you to text or sends you a text first.

Speaking of texting, be very careful about using “text speak” in business communications. Years ago I remember feeling old and out of it when someone first sent me an email that included “TTYS” and I didn’t know what it meant. You never want to make a colleague or client feel that way or make them otherwise uncomfortable. It’s always safer to err on the side of formality.

Understand how to contact someone in a more senior position

I find many millennials are unaware of what I learned as proper business etiquette. Even if you work in a relatively casual organization or industry, offer respect to people who are in more senior positions or have a lot more experience than you do. For example, when you’re in the more junior position, you shouldn’t just hand over your phone number to someone you’d like to talk to and say “call me.” The more junior person should always make the effort to call the more senior person. Also, as a general rule, the service provider should call the client, and the seller should call the buyer.

When there’s no emergency, you should be sure to set up an appointment for a phone call at least 24 hours in advance. And always confirm who’s calling whom.

Give yourself time to practice

Learning to communicate well in a work environment with four different generations of people (who are also individuals with different communication styles) takes time. Don’t beat yourself up over your shortcomings; just give yourself time to practice skills such as writing e-mails, talking on the phone, giving speeches and speaking up in meetings. And don’t be afraid to ask for feedback and advice along the way.

Lindsey Pollak is a best-selling author, keynote speaker and one of the world’s leading experts on managing and marketing to the Millennial generation. She is the author of “Getting from College to Career,” an official ambassador for LinkedIn and spokesperson for The Hartford. She is busy at work on her next book, the essential guide for new millennial leaders, which is scheduled for release by HarperCollins this fall. Connect with Pollak on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.