Though they were once considered “nice to haves,” we now know soft skills are critical predictors of workplace performance. Though they were once considered entirely subjective, we now know they can be quantified. And though soft skills were once considered traits you were either born with or not, we now know they can be taught and improved.
But, like with any skill you want to improve, the first step to getting better is knowing where you’re starting from. In sports, a coach will evaluate players’ skills to identify where they most need to improve and how they should approach training. In school, test scores help students understand which areas they need to keep studying and which ones they’ve mastered. And when it comes to developing soft skills, the same is true: we need to know where we stand before we can come up with an effective, efficient improvement plan.
Why Identifying a Baseline Is the First Step
Take communication, for example. It’s the number-one skill recruiters are looking for, and it’s the activity that drives 80 percent of our work on any given day. The way we communicate with each other in group meetings, sales pitches, and one-on-one conversations dictates how we impact our audience.
But here’s the catch: we may not know why we’re impacting the audience the way we are. Did your team love something you said? Did you irritate your boss in your last one-on-one? Unless you know exactly why they happened, it’s hard to replicate previous successes—or avoid future misunderstandings.
But understanding your impact is easier said than done. Research has found that we’re only aware of 5 to 10 percent of the signals we’re sending at any given time. But it’s those signals we don’t notice—the pronouns, the gestures, and the subtle variations in tone—that drive reactions. If we can’t identify and control those signals, we can’t control our audiences’ reactions.
So it’s only by evaluating our current communication skills—understanding how we come across today and which aspects of our communication style are causing people to respond the way they are—that we can really start to improve and control the outcomes of our interactions.
How Can We Evaluate Our Current Skills?
Like many so-called soft skills, communication has traditionally been considered subjective—an art—and therefore impossible to measure objectively. So we’ve relied on subjective evaluation methods like direct feedback from peers, superiors, and even subordinates.
That’s not a bad place to start, as asking how we come across may lead to some honest insights. But the responses will likely be sugarcoated, and they’ll certainly be colored by someone’s bad mood, rough morning, or shared appreciation for the topic at hand. What’s more, even the most honest feedback is likely to be fairly general. Just like we can’t necessarily identify many of the signals we’re sending, audience members can’t often tell exactly why someone inspires them or rubs them the wrong way.
What we really need if we want to improve is an objective view of our overall impact as communicators and a detailed dive into the verbal and nonverbal communication traits driving that impact.
While once upon a time, that objective evaluation was nearly impossible to come by—or, at the very least, prohibitively expensive—today, innovations in technologies like natural language processing, vocal recognition, and facial analysis mean we can conduct quantitative, AI-driven evaluations of our communication skills—and our colleagues’ and our leaders’ and our potential new hires—at scale, with unique, accurate, data-driven results for every user.
So what does this mean? Today, we can upload a video of ourselves in a recent communication event and receive specific, detailed feedback not only on our overall impact—how audiences will perceive us as leaders based on our communication skills—but the minute traits driving that impact. Our vocal tone, our facial expressions and gestures, our posture, and the tiny filler words that pepper our speech without us even realizing it.
While, initially, we were unaware of 90 percent of the signals that were shaping the way our audiences perceived us, this baseline evaluation brings them to our attention and shows us how they’re undermining our confidence or persuasive abilities, or supporting our perceived trustworthiness or authenticity.
And then—once we know where we stand—we can use that data to make a game plan for improvement, focusing on our biggest development opportunities in order to meet our communication and leadership goals.