There are many things that you can develop to enhance your professional skills, but I believe the following four, in order, are what should be considered absolute core skills you need to develop and continue developing if you want to give yourself every opportunity in your profession.
Cores Skill 1 = Reading
They say, “Leaders are readers” and I couldn’t agree more. The ability to digest and comprehend vast amounts of information is a key skill today. Personally, I probably spend more time reading per week than I spend doing anything else, including sleep.
I know many people don’t like to read and many don’t have the discipline to read but there’s the key point, reading is a form of mental training. It develops the skill of translating what someone else has written into something that you comprehend.
Reading is a skill. It is something you develop. It is isn’t something you are born with. The more that you do it the better you become. I would encourage you to read widely for a variety of sources both fiction and non-fiction, both for business and knowledge. You don’t have to start out reading ‘War and Peace’, just pick a topic you are interested in and start there. Look for reading recommendations from others. You can find mine here:
I also can’t recommend an Amazon Kindle enough. The device is so convenient to use anywhere and a single charge lasts weeks. The Kindle service allows to read your books on any device and pick up where you last left off on any other device. Pure magic.
Now some people claim that reading takes too long or they don’t enjoy it so they prefer audio books. Yup, they are great but you are not exercising the same parts of the brain when you actually read something. I firmly believe that my enhanced ability to digest and absorb information comes from the amount of regular reading that I do.
So, read more.
Core Skill 2 – Writing
Writing is the flip side of reading, it is the process of you communicating your thoughts to others. If you can’t express yourself in a manner that others can understand, then you are going to find the going tough.
Like reading, writing improves the more that you do it. Firing off a dozen or so emails everyday is not really exercising your writing skills. You need to spend more time and write long form. A great place for this is a blog like this one of mine.
My blog is place where I can ‘memory dump’ things out of my head into a form that I can retrieve and search later. Thus, initially it was a place to store my knowledge and avoid having to retain everything in my brain. I did this publically so other could potentially benefit from what I discovered. Over time, the way I wrote changed to be more about my audience that about me. I began to take more time to think about my target audience and what they needed to understand about the topic at hand. In short, I began to see writing as a craft.
Thus, I strongly recommend that you blog regularly. It is a great way to discipline yourself to write and write regularly. It is a great way to do documentation and importantly, it is a body of work that you can point to to demonstrate your knowledge and commitment to your profession. Case in point, my blog is now over 10 years old!
The majority of your writing time will probably be spent writing at a keyboard, however I do feel there is a place for using pen and paper still. I still really enjoy actually writing down and drawing stuff out. You may elect to do something like a daily journal or the like to get more practice. Technology tends to fail but a good ol’ pen and paper always work a treat in my books.
Writing improves your reading because you can read something and think you understand it but you’ll never know until you have to express it in your own words. Writing helps you understand where the gaps and weakness are in your knowledge which can only be improved via reading.
So, write more
Core Skill 3 = Speaking
Reading is typically something you do solo. Writing is something you also do solo but you get more benefits when you make that writing public. Doing anything in front of others in public is nerve wracking and many can’t stand the thought. That alone should prompt you to understand that if you want to be one of the few then you need to do the stuff that few do. That means making your output public.
Doing anything in public is added pressure but the more times you do it the less the pressure becomes. If it was easy, then everyone would do it? If you want to be one of the few, you need to push yourself through the stress.
For the vast majority of people nothing is more stressful than public speaking. Why? Because you are now the center of attention. Everyone is looking to you to give them information. People fear making a mistake in from of others. You also need to get you point across to many different types of people, some who may be hostile, some who may not care. How do you do this successfully? In a word, you practice.
As the core skill of writing builds on reading so does speaking build on writing. Writing gives you all the time in the world to adjust and fix errors or omissions. Not so with speaking. There is also also the added fact of being under pressure and having to communicate clearly on the go.
Speaking as well is not a talent, it is a skill. A skill is something that can be learned and developed. It is something that can always be refined. It is really a skill that few professional people have however. How many people do you know that can stand up in front of any crowd and speak about almost any topic confidentially and get their message across to their audience? I don’t think many would spring to mind. That should illustrate how rare good public speaking is and how much in demand it is, because great ideas are useless unless they can be communicated to others.
in short, you can’t go wrong investing time and improving your speaking skills. It takes plenty of practice and dedication but it will pay off the more that you do it. One of the ways that I practiced my speaking was doing technical presentations at user groups, at training events and within other organisations. Another easy way is to make videos on your phone or computer, this will give you the benefit of many attempts before releasing something publically. There are also plenty of groups like Toastmaster that help you build your speaking skills.
Take the opportunity to speak when it is offered, there are so many benefits and you’ll establish yourself as one of the few with this unique skill.
So, speak more.
Core skill 4 = Listening
Many would say that listening should be the first core skill you focus on, however, I suggest otherwise. I think that once you have become a skilled reader, writer and speaker you are better able to listen. People don’t listen well because they don’t take the time to hear what is being said (reading gives you that discipline). They also don’t take the time to actually understand what is being said (that is where writing helps). Finally, they miss the non-verbal signals the speaker sends (and that’s where speaking helps). Thus, if you develop your reading, writing and speaking skill as a priority you will become a better listener.
Even if you are proficient in the other core skills, learning to listen is a challenge and it is the hardest of the core skills to develop as it is all about consuming information that you don’t control and is being presented by a foreign source. Listening is also tough because you really can’t rewind and review like you can with reading, writing and to an extent speaking. If you miss a key piece, then you may miss the whole meaning. Listening is also something that most people need to do more of. As they say, we have two ears and only one mouth, thus we need to listen twice as much as we speak.
True, listening is something that requires real discipline to do well as it is does not just involve audio input. The manner and emotion with which it is delivered is also part of the message. Many would in fact say that this is the biggest part of the message.
The good thing about learning to listen is that it something that we do more than any of the core skills everyday. We are not only involved in business conversations but also personal ones, conversations with all different types of people fill our days so we get lost of opportunity to practice. The question is, do you take the opportunity to practice the skill of listening?
Next time you are in a business conversation, try to focus just on listening. Focus on trying to get the whole message. You’ll probably find it much harder than you thought but like al the other core skills mentioned here, the more you do it the easier and more comprehensive it becomes.
So, listen more.
So what’s the best way to practice all these core skills together? Teach. Yup, go out and start teaching others. Developing the course material will mean you have to read and write. Presenting the material will mean you have to speak and listen. Thus, there is no better way to polish all these skills to a high degree than to teach.
But it doesn’t stop there. You’ll need to continue to work at improving your core skills. The more you invest, the less work it will become. Initially, there will be big improvements as you grow your skills and over time you’ll only need to make minor tweaks but that is still an improvement.
Think about the last few times you have been a student or required to learn something. Was the teacher effective? Did you actually learn something new? Although many people stand up in front of others in business today, few have the ability to actually teach in the true sense of the word. Imagine the opportunities that would become available to you if you could teach and teach well. The sky’s the limit.
So start with the first core skill of reading and then progress through the rest in sequence. Continue to learn and improve and I can pretty much guarantee you that the more you invest the greater your returns will be and more in demand you will become professionally. Why? Because you now have skills that few others have and businesses are prepared to pay for rarity.