Communication is a social or personal skill that when done right, plays a role in your success in college, on the job market, and in work settings. Here are some basic tips to consider when communicating (written, oral, or nonverbal) with others in professional settings.
Written or electronic communication
Written or electronic communication may be one of the first contacts that you make with a professional. First impressions are critical.
- Address professors, employers, or potential employers with proper salutations. Although you may hear someone else call that person by their first name, do not take it upon yourself to consider it okay to do the same unless that person offers (e.g., “You can call me ‘Justin’ rather than Dr. Smith.” For those that have PhDs or MDs, addressing them as “Dr. X” is appropriate. If it is a professor and you are unsure, you can always say, “Professor X.” If an employer and you are unsure, you can always use a title as a salutation (e.g., “Director of Marketing” or “Dear Nutrition Educator”). If you are unsure of an individual’s gender or title, it may be best to avoid any kind of salutation and just begin with, “Hello. My name is X, and I am interested in applying for X.” Salutations also apply in face-to-face settings.
- What you say in the email or letter depends on what you were asked to provide. Follow directions and answer their specific questions or follow the job requirements. For example, if you are writing a cover letter, make sure that you reference your strengths as they fit the requirements on the job listing. When seeking out a professional for work, research, or volunteer opportunities, briefly state who you are, your qualifications, why you are interested, how you knew about their research or work, what you are interested in working on, and how they can contact you. Do not write every single detail of your life or academic history. The shorter and more concise the letter or email is, the better. If they want to contact you to get more information, they will. You could also attach your resume if applicable.
- Make sure the questions you ask them are clear and focused. In other words, ask specific questions rather than those that are vague or that may require a long response. If you want to know the answers to these types of questions, you can save it for a face-to-face meeting. In fact, requesting a face to face meeting may be something you could write in your initial, brief email. Additionally, do not ask questions that are readily available on their or anyone’s website. Asking information that is readily available to the public will condone that you have not done your homework. Read through the company or departmental website thoroughly before you send any emails.
- Remember that with emails, it is difficult to read tone. Although you want to avoid emoticons, all capital letters, or extensive punctuation marks in professional emails or letters, make sure that your words are clear, and the email or letter conveys what you want it to.
- Avoid using personal emails (e.g., yahoo, gmail, or hotmai); when possible, use your University or college or professional emails. If you do not have a professional email, try to create an email account that has your name, yet reveals very little personal information about you or your personal values.
- Use a plain, black, 10-12 pt. standard email font (e.g., Times New Roman or Calibri) rather than larger, colored, or unique fonts and italics.
- For important emails, ask professors, teaching assistants, research assistants, or other mentors to read your emails for you send them out. If you are establishing a first connection, you can ask a skilled peer or another professional you know in another field to proof this.
Face to face communication
- Do not stand too close to the other person; a general rule of thumb is 2-3 feet away, but this may vary by setting (e.g., elevator or in a crowded space vs. an office or street setting). You have to do what makes you feel comfortable, but if you can smell their breath and have the space to back away, do so. Also watch for signs in others; if you have them backed into a corner, take a step back.
- Avoid checking texts or email messages from mobile devices unless it is relevant to the conversation and the person is aware of what you are doing. Otherwise, it will be perceived as rude and as if you do not actually care about what the person is saying. Remember that although you may be checking your calendar or verifying information the person is talking about, you may want to tell them what you are doing so they know the reason you are on your mobile device pertains to that particular interaction.
- Maintain a professional tone of voice. Speak loud and clearly, but do not over do it. Do not try to intentionally talk loud so that everyone around can hear you; this may make the person on the receiving end of the conversation feel like you are not really into the conversation with her or him if you are trying to catch the attention of a larger group. Moreover, remember that speaking to aging populations or individuals with disabilities does NOT mean you need to speak louder—or as if they are deaf; this can be offensive to the individual on the receiving end of your projection.
Be aware of your facial expressions and responses. Forms of nonverbal communication may include, but are not limited to: raising your eyebrows, frowning, rolling your eyes, playing with your hair, scents, or slouching. Each of these send message to professionals on the other side of the desk, and you may eliminate an opportunity by not recognizing the messages you are portraying or anticipating how they are interpreting you.
- You want to convey a positive attitude and an appreciation for the job or work opportunity. Although it takes skill, you may want to practice your “no reaction” face for tough situations; this may not always be appropriate, but useful in situations (e.g., where you are thinking something negative about the person or place, but want to maintain a positive persona).
- You also want to maintain a professional demeanor, so avoid touching your face or other body parts. Try to keep your hands down at your side or folded on your lap and control the amount/frequency of gestures you use.
- Be aware of your appearance. This can include clothing, smell, or hygiene at large. Although not all professional settings may require suits, ties, or other business attire, be aware of messages that your t-shirts or clothing portray For example, sometimes words or symbols on t-shirts may be offensive to others around you, portray that you are overly confident, or give the message that you have a bad attitude or would be difficult to work with. Although you may try to hide the smell of smoke with perfumes or lotions, it may seep through and too much perfume may give those around you headaches or trigger allergies.
- It most cultures, it is important to maintain eye contact. It condones truth, confidence, active listening, and competence.
Good communication requires confidence, connection, active listening, and critically thinking about how you will be perceived or make others feel with your words or actions. Reach out to your mentors or professionals you know for feedback on your communication skills.
Additional communication resources: