You can be the most brilliant digital marketer in the world, but if you can’t effectively communicate it won’t matter.
In 22 years in this business, I’ve learned just how critical communication skills are to digital marketers.
And in this column, you’ll learn how to develop and practice the top 15 communication skills that can drive your success in digital.
Ready? Let’s get right to it!
1. The Ability to Listen
Not only does listening belong on this list, but there’s also a good reason it’s the first one up.
I’ve seen talented marketers give what seemed on the surface to be a well-received presentation, only to later find out it didn’t really resonate with their intended audience.
In almost all of those cases, it was an issue where the client or stakeholder didn’t feel like the presenter properly addressed the issues they believed had been previously communicated.
- First, listen.
- Make sure you fully understand the issues/challenges you’re expected to address in the presentation. If not, ask questions and keep listening until you’re crystal clear.
2. The Ability to Quickly Pivot From the Script When Needed
Marketers who properly prepare for a presentation spend hours crafting and reviewing a deck intended to be covered in 30 minutes.
Then, two slides into a brilliant deck, the executive in the room asks a question or throws out a challenge that completely disrupts the flow of that presentation.
You’ll go no further until you can answer the query or address the challenge you just received.
I’ve seen many marketers who were good at their craft, but couldn’t handle getting thrown off their scripted remarks.
- Know your material. Sometimes the question or challenge is something you’re already planning to cover later in the presentation. If so, be quick on your feet and politely let the executive you’ll be diving into detail later in the presentation.
- It’s okay if you don’t know the answer to the question being asked. Some marketers think they need to provide that answer or “do the dance.” Just be honest and say you don’t know, but you’ve taken down the question and you’ll follow up.
- Remember the objective of your presentation. You’re likely trying to gain approval on an action plan, get signoff on a goal, ensure the executive understands the value of your work, etc. Sometimes you need to go beyond the rehearsed script and be able to think on your feet.
- Seek advice from people who’ve gone before you and know what to expect with a particular executive or team. A few minutes of advice can really help you be better prepared.
3. The Art of Brevity
People are busy. Get to the point quickly.
- To practice this art, write a one-sentence synopsis of your favorite movie or book (without mentioning the title or main character’s name). Then ask someone to read it and ask if they either guess it or at least find it interesting.
- “Take the time to make it brief.” My college journalism professor said this. I’m sure he stole it from someone else, but those words have stuck with me. The first draft of anything (presentation, email, promotion, etc.) is usually chock full of information. What does the recipient of your communication actually need to know to make a decision?
- If you’re presenting a chart on a slide, the headline should tell the viewer the point you’re trying to get across. For example, when showing a graph about when sales happen, don’t just write “Best Sales Days of the Week.” Instead, write something like “Friday is the Top Sales Day” with a possible subhead (if justified) of “45% of all sales occur Friday.”
4. The Ability to Distill the Complex Down to Simple Terms
My favorite Einstein quote isn’t his definition of insanity (although that’s a great one). It’s this:
“If you can’t explain something in simple terms, then you do not understand it.”
Remember that it’s hard for a decision-maker to approve what they don’t understand. You’re the expert in your particular area of marketing. That decision-maker is not.
- Always think about the one or two points you want to make sure get across. Repeat those points out loud or write them down.
- In written communications, bullet points are effective as long as you don’t use too many in a single list.
- Connect with an experienced marketer who always seems to be able to take the complex and make it simple. Explain the complexity of the campaigns, programs, SEO initiatives, etc., to that person and ask how they would quickly summarize that into simplified terms. Then practice that art for yourself.
- If you have no choice but to write a long email about something very complicated, give the short version up-front before going into the long, detailed explanation. That way you have a much better chance of the recipients at least getting a high-level overview of what you’re communicating to them.
5. Proper Grammar
Don’t sabotage your brilliant point with poor grammar.
I’ll admit that I’m lucky. For this article, I have editors. If you have access to a good editor, take advantage of that every single time.
- For written communications, do the standard spelling/grammar checks and then print out the document if you have access to a printer. Read the paper version. I can almost guarantee you’ll find something you didn’t on just the digital format.
- Some people swear by online services like Grammarly.
- Have someone – anyone – proof it for you. A second set of eyes will usually always catch something.
All good marketers fight imposter syndrome from time to time. Many who have confidence in their ability to do the work lack it when presenting to a stakeholder.
It’s critical for a marketer to project confidence when addressing stakeholders. This doesn’t mean you make stuff up when you’re not confident in a plan or data you’ve received.
Being honest and transparent about what you don’t know or potential holes in the plan instills confidence in those with whom you’re communicating.
You need them to believe you’ve thought things through.
- Always remember that if you don’t believe you belong, no one else will, either.
- Network and engage with a group of peers on a regular basis. Ask for feedback and take any constructive critiques as an opportunity for growth.
- Be mindful of how fast you speak. People who talk too fast do so for various reasons, and doing so may not mean a lack of confidence. However, your audience may understand you better when you just slow it down a little, and that in turn will feed your confidence.
7. Humility in Your Voice
Confidence does not mean arrogance. Never confuse the two.
- If you’re not already, become a lifelong learner who’s forever curious.
- Constantly remind yourself that you’re a lifelong learner and a work in progress.
- Ask for feedback on your presentations, emails, and any other type of communication.
8. An Ability to Use a Relatable Analogy
I use a few different analogies, depending on the client.
I have a lot of experience with manufacturers and retailers in the home improvement space, for example. For them, using an analogy of building or remodeling a house always works.
When educating them about the point during a new website launch where the SEO needs to be brought in, I’ll talk about how a good home architect who draws up the blueprint wants to know about the people who will occupy the house.
Are they the type who want to entertain a lot? If so, that helps guide how the kitchen, dining, and bathrooms are drawn up.
It’s important to know this type of information upfront. Once the frame is built, it’s too late. From there, I bring it back to the website launch.
Since so much of SEO is understanding user needs, those efforts will be hampered if the site architecture and hierarchy have already been established without consultation.
- If you’re an agency/freelancer, think about the clients you serve and what type of analogies would resonate with them.
- If you’re in-house, think about the market your company serves. Find an appropriate analogy that your internal stakeholders and decision-makers can relate to.
9. Speaking From Abbreviated Notes or Prompts
This is more important than many realize. I’ve seen too many slide decks with great information from talented marketers who fall into the trap of reading directly from the slides.
Nothing — I repeat, nothing — will cause someone to tune out faster than reading from the slides.
Same with standing up and reading an entire document verbatim. Learn to work with notes and prompts.
- The best communicators need a 1-2 word prompt and off they go. You don’t need to start there; just figure out the minimum amount of detail you need to remember what you want to say about a topic or slide.
- Practice. If you’re not already good at this, the only way you will get there is to practice. I’ve found no other method.
10. Rationally Defend, But Do Not Be Defensive
Being a marketer is a little bit like being a sports coach in that a lot of people think they could do a better job than you.
As a marketer, you are going to get challenged. I guarantee you’ll eventually encounter someone who:
- Won’t like the creative you came up with.
- Disagreed with the ad copy headline.
- Doesn’t trust the numbers.
- Just isn’t pleased with the results.
It’s important to defend what deserves it without becoming defensive.
Sometimes that’s incredibly difficult, but the most effective marketers I’ve met practice this.
- Dig deeper and ask relevant questions, even if those questions are technically out of your scope. For example, a relatively new client felt their conversions from paid search were underperforming and their internal reporting disagreed with the numbers from our team (which come from Google and Microsoft). Upon further digging, we found that customers who fill out a form weren’t getting passed into the CRM system so there was a huge breaking point.
- Stay factual. Communicate the facts and then reiterate your assessment of what to do with those facts.
- Keep your emotions in check. It’s probably not personal.
11. Understanding and Communicating the “Why”
“Why are we doing this campaign?”
“Why are we meeting, again?”
“Why are we redoing this site, again?”
“Why are we looking at THESE numbers?”
The people you’re communicating with are all asking some kind of “why” question (maybe not openly, or perhaps only subconsciously).
The last thing you need is for that why to distract from the point you’re trying to make.
Understand the why and communicate it upfront.
- Read Simon Sinek’s famous book “Start With Why.”
- Before you send out an email, stand up to speak, or finalize that presentation deck, ask yourself, “Why am I communicating this?”
12. Adjusting “What” and “How” You Communicate Based on “Who” You’re Interacting With
A good friend of mine once gave me advice I’ve often repeated and always follow: “When communicating to the C-level, pretend you’re presenting to an 8-year-old. Simple numbers and a pretty picture.”
That advice has never once failed me.
There is a big difference in presenting the SEO plan to an operations team deep in the weeds of the technical development of the site versus giving the CMO an update.
It is not the same presentation.
- Always ask “What, exactly, does this person need to know to keep this initiative moving forward based on the role they play?”
- Be mindful of how much time you have. Never try to cram an hour’s worth of material into a 20-minute slot. It never works.
13. Clarity, Clarity, Clarity
You’re not hosting a game show where contestants have to guess the answer or piece clues together. Your communication must be crystal clear.
If you believe you need better content about a specific topic, clearly communicate that.
If you believe it’s a good idea to double the budget on a particular campaign or ad group, clearly communicate that.
- Asking “why?” (see #11) will clarify your objective.
- When communicating your ask, spell out the objective.
“In order to hit our revenue stretch goal for the quarter, we must double the budget on this campaign given the results to date and our research, which shows we haven’t come close to meeting the current demand.”
There’s nothing wrong with repeating yourself if that’s what it takes to get your point across.
There’s nothing wrong with repeating yourself if that’s what it takes to get your point across.
- Follow the old adage: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them.”
15. An Ability to Guide Others to Find the Answers
I’ve heard disparaging remarks made about consultants with phrases like, “Well, they didn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know.”
Sometimes these complaints are legitimate. That’s on the consultant for not doing their homework during the discovery phase.
However, sometimes the whole point of bringing in the consultant is to help an organization flesh out the answers they may already know.
- Remember that just because an organization has an answer to something, it doesn’t mean they’re prepared to take action.
- When you feed someone the answer, nothing is really learned. When you guide someone to discovering the answer, that’s where the “Aha!” moment can happen.
I hope these insights have been helpful.
This list is not comprehensive, of course, but hopefully provides you with a good start to build your communication skills in ways that will benefit your digital marketing career for years to come.