Five Hacks To Improve Your Workplace Communication Skills

Written by Michelle Riklan

Managing Director of Riklan Resources LLC and expert in employment, employee relations, and training and development coaching.


Millennials like to communicate using texts, emails, chats and emojis. They rely on technology so much that 83% of millennials surveyed in a Nielsen study admit to sleeping with their smartphone, while more than 30% use social media in the bathroom.

It’s hard to blame them — they’re the first generation who grew up with social media and smartphones. So it’s not surprising that 64% of college students consider social media access important enough to ask about it in their job interviews. Some young employees (45%) are even willing to accept a lower-paying job if the employer is more flexible in terms of social media access, mobility and choice of device for work.

Comfortable Behind A Screen

Preference for on-screen communication also affects young people’s career choices, with 70% of college students believing it’s not necessary to be in the office all the time unless there’s an important meeting.

 A Hart Research Associates survey found that there’s a huge gap between the students’ perception of their own skills and what employers think. About 62% of students believe their oral communication skills are enough to help them succeed at work, but only 28% of employers agree. Their ability to work with others is also questioned, as 64% of students think they play well with others but only 37% of employers agree.

While their communication and social skills are debatable, it’s no question that there are countless situations when a person’s communication skills will affect their career. It could be an interview, networking event, sales pitch or important meeting. In any case, it pays to pay attention.

Five Hacks To Improve Your Workplace Communication Skills

1. Reframe the negative questions in your mind.

It’s easy to get worked up when you’re worried about a meeting. Negative self-talk like, “What if I stutter?” or “What if I forget my materials?” will make you even more anxious and jittery. Why? Because these questions prompt negative answers such as, “I won’t get the promotion” or “They will decline my proposal.”

I often coach new managers and executives who are not used to the spotlight, and the first thing we work on is changing their mindset — specifically the questions that pop up into their heads moments before they present to an audience. Here’s how that works:

First, list three to five positive “what if” questions you can ask yourself. Examples:

  • “What if my boss likes my idea?”
  • “What if they laugh at my opening joke?”
  • “What if I nail the presentation?”
  • “What if they ask me questions instead of immediately rejecting my idea?”
  • “What if they pay attention instead of checking their emails?”

These questions prompt positive responses, and some of them even trigger your brain to plan ahead. It diverts your attention from all the things that could go wrong, to the things that could go right so your nervousness turns to excitement. Tackle nerves by having a powerful opening to your presentation or speech.

2. Focus on your fans.

Ignore the people who are not paying attention to you — the guy with his arms crossed, the lady busy checking her emails and everyone else spacing out while you’re talking. You’ll just get discouraged if you look at them while delivering an important presentation.

When you’re talking to a crowd, whether that’s a group of five or a seminar with 100 attendees, your best bet is to concentrate on the people paying attention. Find the nodders, smilers and note takers, then focus your attention on them.

3. Be mindful of your body language.

This one is obvious but it bears repeating. The way you stand, how you place your hands and your facial expressions all affect people’s perception of you. Take note of these basic body language tips you can apply in different situations at work.

At a meeting:

  • Don’t fold your arms. It signals that you’re not interested or don’t believe in what you’re hearing.
  • Lean in to show that you’re listening.
  • Smile and make eye contact with whoever is talking. Remember to blink so you don’t look like a zombie.

In a presentation:

  • Don’t be afraid to use hand gestures to make a point
  • Walk around the stage or in front of the table if you’re presenting during a meeting. Sticking to one side shows you’re nervous.
  • Don’t hunch. Stand up straight with your shoulders relaxed. This stance boosts your confidence without making you look stiff.
  • Make eye contact with people in your audience when asking questions. Remember to focus on your fans.

4. Accept people’s facial expressions.

Not everyone will agree with what you have to say during a meeting. Accept it. If it’s your boss who doesn’t look pleased, just carry on and know that you can address negative remarks or questions they have at the end of the presentation. You can redeem yourself then.

In big audiences, it’s impossible to get everyone’s approval so don’t let the audience’s blank stare lower your confidence. Sometimes, they’re just trying to process your message.

If someone keeps interrupting you or shouting negative remarks, don’t let it faze you. Let them share your spotlight or stop talking entirely until your audience turns to them.

5. Stop hiding behind a screen.

If you expect your first in-person meeting or presentation to be perfect, I wouldn’t be surprised if you never spoke up and just continued relying on emails and texts to communicate. It’s such a huge loss, though.

It doesn’t matter if your presentation is a bust, or if your comment doesn’t make you look smart in a meeting. What matters is that you stepped outside your comfort zone and spoke up. Your anxiety and mental insecurities will diminish as you get more comfortable talking in meetings and giving presentations in person.

Original article:

Lessons in Strategy from the Nonprofit World

by Nicola Tyler 

Nestled in the heart of the Austrian Alps, Tyrol is home to some of the world’s best wines (yes, who knew?), heritage architectural sites and, of course, ski resorts.   Innsbruck, the capital is the only city to be found within the Alps.  Innsbruck is also home to one of the world’s most diverse organisations – SOS Children’s Villages.  This 1.2 billion euro non-profit supports over 1 million parentless and homeless children around the world and lives for its mission that “no child should grow up alone”.   During a recent trip to Innsbruck to work with SOS, I learned a lot about the parallel workings of the for profit and nonprofit worlds.

Serious About Strategy

It was clear to me as co-facilitator that this is a non-profit with a very clear plan.  Childcare isn’t a short-term plan; it requires long-term thinking, particularly when you are working with children from the age of 9 days old to 19.  During the first week of February, more than 100 leaders from around the world gathered in Innsbruck, representing more than 15 countries from all continents. It became a knowledge incubator for sharing best practice, lessons on advocacy and children’s rights.  A veritable feast of case studies was prepared, shared, consumed and cross-referenced.  The goal? To kick off the 2030 Strategy and to ensure that SOS is sustained beyond 2030.

Lesson learned: Strategy, good strategy, not only requires clear planning, but also a serious investment in engaging leadership to take ownership and implement that strategy.  Great strategy involves the people.  Awesome strategy ensures that people own the strategy beyond the leadership team.

Democratic Decision Making

The SOS Children’s Villages operate a federal system.  Long term decisions are made in the Senate, comprising representatives from Member Associates, who are made up of country members that meet a specific set of criteria.  A Quality Assurance model is in place to ensure appropriate governance and practices for child care within a country or region.  Members have a vote in the Senate, and these votes are used to appoint a President, Vice President, and “a Board” for a finite period of time.  The Senate meets every 4 years to decide and plan on the future leadership team, and to sanction a strategy for both fundraising and child care.  National Associates, are also present but do not have a vote.  These aspirant members, participate vigorously in the debates but a vote is only granted once they have met the criteria for inclusion.

Lesson Learned: While democracy often appears to be a slow wheel to turn, there is much to be said for the level of debate that occurs among equals, giving rise to higher levels of engagement and transparency, not often seen in a typical “for profit” environment.  While potentially flawed, the voting system of this working world ensured vigorous and non-adversarial debates.  A welcome sight indeed.

Knowledge Sharing

The world of this NGO, like any typical organisation, is broken down into Regions, with Directors appointed to work and lobby Governments and organisations, NGOs and communities.  When it comes to child rearing, everyone is involved.  For 3 days, Innsbruck became home to a brains trust of skills, experiences and case studies on child care, and everyone had a voice.  A powerhouse of insights was garnered by participants through a carefully planned and well orchestrated event allowing knowledge sharing and debate.

Lesson learned: When you invest that heavily in getting the right people in a room, invest as heavily in having them lead the learning.  This was not about leadership and “at you” presentations, this was about questions, answers, and engagement.  The presentations from leadership were not only brief but encompassed carefully facilitated Q&A sessions that were entirely interactive with the audience.  

Programme Review & Undo

What in business we might call a Strategic Initiative, in the world of NGOs is often called a Programme.  These are specific projects to which specific funds are allocated.  It is an incubator of ideas and opportunities. External organisations sponsor the research programmes, conferences, interventions, development programmes, and more.  What is clear is that these funds are respected, and protected, with careful monitoring and review processes in place from the outset.  Programmes may be funded for short periods of time, or over the longer-term.  Those that are considered successful may then be integrated into the ongoing care programmes.

Lesson learned: we could take a leaf out of this world when it comes to innovation in business.  It would be nice to see more frequent strategy testing programmes, where initiatives are first funded and tested, before being implemented.  A real incubator for strategic initiatives, instead of full steam ahead with ideas that may end up in file 13.  Worth thinking about.  Worth considering.  Worth doing!

Strength in Diversity

The group of thinkers was diverse, with participants from more than over 15 countries. Diversity is often seen as “colour” or race in South Africa, but here we witnessed the true power of diversity.  Diversity of race for sure, but also diversity of expertise, of culture, economic background and age. Diversity of experience (some had been in the organisation for a few weeks and others for two decades), diversity of information, perspectives, and outlook. The mix was electric. It was also respectful and inclusive and brought about new insights, creativity and a considerable drive toward a common purpose (no child should grow up alone). People from all walks of life came come together to achieve a common objective.

Lesson learned: diversity can be difficult, causing discomfort, a lack of trust and communication challenges among other things, but the commitment to a truly diverse team can bring profound value. Diversity works! It encourages the consideration of alternatives, drives creativity and a thirst for innovation. I cannot underemphasize the value of a clear strategic goal that goes beyond the numbers and unites a team. What could be achieved if everyone in your organisation woke up as committed today as they were yesterday, to the goal of your organisation?  I’ve said for years – people don’t get out of bed for a number.  Don’t have a mission, create a movement.  

Nicola Tyler is a highly respected strategic thinker. With over 20 years of experience in Strategy, Consulting, Leadership, Development and Coaching, she is an Associate of the Gordon Institute of Business, a Master Trainer in a full range of de Bono Thinking tools. Working both locally and internationally, she delivers her own “Strategic Conversation” methodology to senior teams committed to innovation and driving sustainable results.

Nicola has shared the stage with world renowned thought leaders such as Tom Peters, Robert Kaplan, Ricardo Semler, Edward de Bono, Dave Ulrich, Martin Seligman, Richard Koch and Martin Lindstrom. 

The ability to think, plan and operate strategically is fast becoming the true competitive advantage. Click HERE to find out more or contact us at to book a needs assessment.

5 Top Tips for Revisiting your Strategy

by Nicola Tyler 

Nicola Tyler, famous for her Strategic Conversations, gives some great tips and tricks for when you next revisit your strategy.



1. Create a movement beyond your mission

Today, it is important to build on the value and assets that you have.  Don’t reinvent the wheel. The wheel serves a purpose.  Stay true to your mission, and to your cause.  Believe in your purpose.  Service and hone your core capability as it will stand the test of time, and retain customers (donors) that have supported you for years.

2. Let go!

Plan for the future and continuously review your plans and improve on what you have.  Continuous improvement is key to longevity, but in the process, review your initiatives (programmes) and let go of that which is no longer serving your needs.

3. Be clear on your ‘To-Don’t’ list!

Tom Peters has long claimed that a “To-Don’t” list is critically important for personal and organizational success and this underpins a good strategy. He says “I have made more mistakes in my life by saying “yes” to too many things than probably any other thing that I’ve done”.  Be as clear on what you’ll say “NO” to, as you are about what you say “yes” to.

4. Innovate to be on-trend not off-track

Innovate with the curve, not necessarily ahead of it.  Trends, like waves, come and go.  It’s vital that you know what wave to catch, and which to let go.  Don’t innovate for the sake of it, as it may just destroy the value that created your business in the first place.  Innovate because it makes sense to your business model, and keeps you on trend instead of taking you off track.

5. Cross-functional integration is more important than alignment

Research tells us that the effective implementation of strategy is not just about cascading and alignment, it’s about creating a level of fluidity across units.  What is called “cross functional integration”.  Strategies are not implemented by stealth, they are implemented by teams.  If the leader is the bottleneck when it comes to decisions, then the wheel of strategy implementation will always be a slow wheel to turn.  Create teams.  Across the functions, not just within them and see what magic happens.

Nicola Tyler is a highly respected strategic thinker. With over 20 years of experience in Strategy, Consulting, Leadership, Development and Coaching, she is an Associate of the Gordon Institute of Business, a Master Trainer in a full range of de Bono Thinking tools. Working both locally and internationally, she delivers her own “Strategic Conversation” methodology to senior teams committed to innovation and driving sustainable results.

Nicola has shared the stage with world renowned thought leaders such as Dr Tara Swart, Tom Peters, Prof Robert Kaplan, Ricardo Semler, Edward de Bono, Prof Dave Ulrich, Martin Seligman, Richard Koch and Martin Lindstrom. 

The ability to think, plan and operate strategically is fast becoming the true competitive advantage. Click HERE to find out more or contact us at to book a needs assessment.


Managing Strategic Conversations for Results – Part 3

Where to from here?
Register for our seminar to learn how to manage strategic conversations for results. Click here to read more. In my first blog post, “Strategic Conversations” I outlined a concept for holding a strategic conversation. This simple framework shows how a series of simple questions, when asked in a particular sequence, can produce great strategies, ideas and commitment from a team in terms of a future state and goal. The outcomes of these facilitated conversations have certain things in common. Each of them includes:

  1. A compelling ambitious future goal (something that creates stickiness for the team)
  2. Defining and doing more of what works, valuing the goodness and greatness in what we do(operational efficiency)
  3. Solving problems and finding ways we can do things better. Better, faster, cheaper – (function, process, systems, resources, suppliers)
  4. Innovating (not emulating) to stay ahead and give us that all important competitive advantage.

When viewed in isolation one might see that there is a great strategy, but when put together I realized that innovation can distort the balance. This is a different kind of balance to the traditional Kaplan and Norton Balanced Scorecard. This is more about acknowledging the disruption that innovation can cause within your existing business. I began to map the outcome into a “balanced” new model which I have called “The Strategic Landscape”. It is intended to assist clients in focusing their thinking and to acknowledge context relative to their strategy. The landscape ensures that “why” we are doing this has equal importance to the “how”.

Mapping a Strategy
There are five kinds of strategies in a business:

  1. Grow Future Value (GFV) – This is the kind of strategy that raises the bar. It’s the utopia of all strategies and looks at ways to substantially and substantively raise the bar of the organisation. It’s about preparing a business for what’s coming next; it’s about innovation and doing this, potentially, radically differently from your peers, competitors and counter parts.
  2. Optimize Current Value (OCV) – This is what is known in many environments as asset optimization, getting more from less, sweating the asset, operational efficiency. If the business has assets let’s make them work. And obsessively measure our Return on Assets.
  3. Rethink the Business Model (RBM) – This is where the business looks at improving systems, processes and ways of doing things. New systems typically fit here like a glove, as do our operating structures or business models. Too much rethinking and too many new initiatives can overwhelm people and cause destabilization of the business as usual. “Change fatigue” is increasingly acknowledged by executives who rethink their business models too often.
  4. Navigating Out of Trouble (NOT) – I affectionately call this NOT Strategy. I argue, that, the only reason we got into trouble in the first place was because our leaders were not doing their job. But there are sometimes circumstances beyond our control that forgive the lack of leadership skill and end us firmly in the dwang. “Disruptive innovations”, new legislation or dramatic change in your economic climate can create untold trouble for your business. But, for the most part, executives take an Ostrich approach as Navigating Out of Trouble is a strategy that forces them to admit what they didn’t do to begin with. You may end up in this area because of a lack of compliance and commitment to your own operating models. Companies or institutions that have many NOT strategies are often in a mode of ‘depression’ and it is hard to inspire employee morale. If you find yourself with lots of strategies ‘down here’ then focus on one, and fix it. Fix it quickly. It’s imperative that you convert entropy into synergy to force the required change in your business.
  5. Trends, Competition & Talent (TCT) – No business is immune to the constant ebb and flow of external forces. Being overly focused on the ‘outside’ will sometimes result in a lack of focus on the inside. This is where balance becomes an essential requisite. While you are keeping yourself very busy working in your own back yard, someone out there – your competitor, colleague or keen entrepreneur can come at your business and blind side you. Competitors are increasingly aggressive, the best talent doesn’t stick around and trends can knock you off track in a moment. Trends, competition and talent require a new leadership mantra which includes: “Nimble, flexible, adaptable and responsive” to change.

What can you do?
If you want to value innovation in your business or team, you need to do several things.
Here’s my 7 tip checklist to guide your strategic thinking process:

  1. Remember strategy is a conversation, not a destination. Involve as many people as you can in the dialogue process. Evolve the strategy, rather than dictate it. The closer someone is to the generation of an idea the more likely they are to act on it.
  2. Prioritize your strategies – try not to do everything at once as an over emphasis on one strategy will probably result in a loss of opportunity elsewhere.
  3. Map your strategy onto the strategic landscape and determine what time, energy and money (resources) you are willing to invest in each level. Do not have too many in any one category
  4. Ensure that at least one strategy focuses on the ‘back-yard business’ to ensure you Optimize the Current Value (OCV) of your business in parallel to Growing Future Value.
  5. If you believe in innovation, invest in it. Don’t try and raise the bar without being willing to invest risk capital to make it happen.
  6. Move out non-performers quickly. The minute you tolerate non-performance in your team it sends a message to the rest and may unleash a host of problems into the environment. Growing your business requires people who are beyond mediocrity.
  7. If you are in the dwang and everything on your landscape is about Navigating Out of Trouble (NOT) then put ONE thing on the framework and fix it. Fix it fast. When that one is done, pick the next and so on until there is NOTHING beneath the foundation other than strength and success.

Good luck!
Nicola Tyler | Thinker

Managing Strategic Conversations for Results – Part 2

What happens at work, really?
Organizations evolve over time, they don’t just pop out of the ground. What happens over time is that the organization builds a foundation – the solid ground on which a business can be built. This evolves with applied systems, processes, operating models, policies and procedures. As any good franchise consultant will tell you – you need a system. Financial service companies the same. Systems allow for scalability, without which it would be difficult to escalate growth.

Register for our seminar to learn how to manage strategic conversations for results. Click here to read more. What we then do is employ more people to operate within our systems, according to our procedures and in accordance with our policies and regulations. The biggest variable by far in a business is the minds of its people, not its market. People alone can bring about the success of a business but at the same time are THE biggest influencers that can topple even the soundest organizations. We start out with administrators that conform to our sound procedures and systems. As our businesses grow and evolve we end up with a hierarchical pyramid of leaders, managers, supervisors and ‘doers’ – the people close to the coal face responsible for getting things done. Eventually, over time, we reach a ceiling. We plateau with our extreme efficiencies and bureaucratic semblance of order. It is at this time that leaders realize the only way to continue to grow is to innovate.

If a business isn’t growing it’s dying. How many businesses that you know of will survive another 10, 20 or 50 years by operating in their current status quo?

Growth is a key contributing factor to attracting and retaining talent. Talent is the key to building a business with a better future.

Even more so, no-one wants to jump onto a sinking ship. One way to raise the bar is to introduce the concepts of strategy and innovation, and sometimes both in the same sentence “Strategic Innovation”. What we want as business owners, from our leaders, is for them to ‘raise the bar’ – to help in growing the future of the business. To do this we start to think about the future, but in doing so can easily lose sight of the present. The natural remedy to this business challenge, particularly in good times, is to acquire and leverage more resources.

Unfortunately, most people strive to be competitive and ground breaking, in some or other way. In South Africa, in particular, we are fortunate to have a pioneering culture accustomed to pushing limits, testing boundaries and challenging the status quo. It is this kind of thinking that has gotten us where we are today. On the other hand, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. It can be both destructive and unproductive for a business. People begin to chop ‘holes’ in the foundation of the very environment they have worked so hard to create. These transgressions are not always conscious. It is said that approximately 85% of our thinking happens at a sub-conscious level. However, transgressions of policy, bending rules, tolerating non-performance and political game playing all form part of a malaise that can quickly lead to the demise of a team, and its leadership.

Eventually, fraught with challenges beyond their competence, leaders turn to Human Resources in an attempt to find a way to ‘get their team to perform’. Inevitably HR does the “right thing” and arms their leaders with a cadre of tools, processes and systems – the ultimate of panaceas being a Performance Management System. Now, still ill equipped for the real conversations, and heavily burdened with another toolkit, managers try to implement the PMS in their team. Tragically, what frequently happens is the manager falls through the cracks and finds himself knee deep in the proverbial!

That’s when the AHA moment arrives! Someone in the team, often the leader says “it’s time we did a strategy workshop” and sets off in search of a remote venue where he or she will sit with their team and pontificate all the woes of their current situation, come up with some back slapping ideas and concur that they are all (momentary) Einstein’s. Everyone will commit to the refreshing new strategy, the plan will be documented and – for the most part – that’s where it ends.

Back to the coal face, strategy plan in hand, and team firmly committed to the future goals of the business everyone arrives at their desk to a plethora of e-mails, non-performing suppliers, sick employees pulling duvet days, lack of skilled resources and a need to meet targets because that’s what their KPA’s say they must achieve. Invariably, this is the second hurdle that sabotages the momentum of the new strategy.

All the while, something else is happening. Competitors have been watching you closely, like wolves waiting to pounce – the minute the leader takes his eye off the ball the wolf steps through the door. In little red riding hood fashion, the wolf will arrive with an empty basket and leave with a full one filled with your skilled resources, ideas and even your strategy. Add to the mix a bit of trend analysis, “Generation Y talent” that doesn’t want to stick around for more than two years and a fluctuating economy and you have the recipe for extinction facing most businesses in South Africa today.

In the next discussion of the Strategic Landscape, I will discuss how the outcomes of the Strategic Conversation model can be mapped onto the 5 types of Strategy, and used to enable both the how and the why of implementation.

Nicola Tyler | Thinker

Managing Strategic Conversations For Results

Having facilitated strategic conversations for more than 10 years I have discovered that the closer people are to the generation of an idea, the greater the chances that they will implement the solution. In most instances people are much more likely to act on an idea which they perceive to be their own, than they are to implement another person’s thinking. With this in mind I set about researching a set of questions that would assist people to not only find suitable solutions to problems, but one that could also be applied in teams – assisting them to identify collaborative solutions that provoked a common understanding, and motivation, towards a goal. What started out as a fairly complex process has, over the years, evolved into a simple and practical approach to strategic dialogue.

Each strategic conversation follows a particular sequence of questions backed up by a philosophy about how to approach the conversation. These are what we call ‘critical success factors’ and include:

  1. Purpose – defining and understanding the outcome for a session
  2. Participation – ensuring everyone in the room has an opportunity to participate
  3. Process – following a pre-defined process
  4. Innovation – providing an opportunity to think differently and to generate ideas
  5. Results – refining outputs into actions so that the team ultimately achieves a result

1. Purpose
If you are planning a strategic conversation with your team be sure to clearly define the purpose and outcome of the session.

2. Participation
Offered as a useful alternative to adversarial thinking, parallel thinking ensures the participation and involvement of those present, ensuring a robust conversation, but also permitting time and space for creative thinking.

3. Process
Here is a simple illustration of the 7 questions in a framework demonstrating that as we ask the questions we are defining the future, understanding the past, outlining what does and does not work, and then moving forward to identify what we can do to achieve the future state.

7 Strategic Questions Illustration

7 Strategic Questions Illustration

4. Innovation
Questions 6 & 7 provide a natural place for innovation to take place. That said, there are times when further creativity is required as the current solutions may mirror previous solutions that either haven’t been implemented or haven’t worked in the past. Lateral thinking provides an excellent toolkit for breakthrough thinking and can be applied during this session.

5. Results
At this stage the output of the dialogue is put into a plan of action. This is where focus becomes a key aspect to ensure priorities will get done. Momentum is important for results to be achieved and quick wins will generally ensure that the team ‘moves in the right direction’ to begin with.

Whatever your application (problem solving, innovation, decision making or strategic conversations) this simple sequence of thinking, supported with the underlying principles of parallel thinking, have been a successful formula over and over again. I hope this short blog has given you some insight into how to conduct a strategic conversation, and that you get an opportunity to apply the method to produce some of the amazing results I have seen produced over the years.

My next blog post will cover the Strategic Landscape, and how organisations come to realise that, although leadership, strategy and innovation are crucially important to talent attraction and retention, productivity and business differentiation, traditional methods of creation and implementation can actually adversely affect the very thing they were designed to correct.

Nicola Tyler | Thinker