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1.3: Becoming a Competent Communicator

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    Learning Objectives

    1. Define communication competence. 
    2. Explain the four responsibilities of a competent communicator. 

    Competent Communicator

    Competent communication means 

    • the knowledge about how to communicate effectively and appropriately and
    • the ability to use and adapt that knowledge to various communication contexts                                                                                                            

    A competent communicator understands there is no single effective way to communicate, that communication must be adapted to the context and receiver.  A competent communicator takes time to learn communication skills that will enable him or her to communicate appropriately in different communication situations. 

    Four Characteristics of Competent Communicators

    In addition to having knowledge and the ability to adapt to various communication contexts, competent communicators also have the following four qualities in common:  they are prepared, clear, concise, and ethical. 

    A Competent Communicator is Prepared

    Whether interviewing for a job, participating in a class discussion over a reading assignment, giving a speech, writing an email, or training a new employee at work, a competent communicator has taken the time to prepare.  He or she respects the receiver or audience and does not insult them by wasting their time.  A competent communicator does not risk communication failure by sending a poorly written email or giving an unrehearsed speech.  If you are participating in a meeting on Zoom or Microsoft Teams or using presentation technology such as PowerPoint in a speech, being prepared includes testing the equipment ahead of time to see it works properly and making certain you know how to use it.

    A Competent Communicator is Clear

    A message that is clear is understandable to the audience is said to have clarity. If your message lacks clarity, the audience may misinterpret what you are trying to communicate or simply give up trying to understand. 

    Interestingly, clarity begins with intrapersonal communication, which is communication within your own mind, or "self-talk."  You need to have a clear idea about what you are trying to communicate before you can clearly convey your message to someone else.  A communicator must carefully consider his or her audience and choose words and phrases meaningful to them, avoiding jargon or slang that may be unfamiliar. 

    Clarity is also important in the delivery of your message.  You must deliver your message so that your audience can understand it. In written communication, grammar, sentence structure, and wording should be accurate.  In conversation or public speaking, if you mumble, speak too fast, use a monotonous tone of voice, or stumble over words or phrases, clarity will suffer.  If you are using a microphone, participating in a Zoom or TEAMS meeting, or using presentation technology such as PowerPoint in your speech, clarity may depend on the equipment functioning properly—which brings us back to the importance of preparation. 

    A Competent Communicator is Concise

    A concise communicator is able to state ideas in a direct, relatively straightforward way without wasting time or words.  A concise speaker does not ramble on and on, get off-topic, or use twenty words to describe something that could be better described in two words.  It may be tempting to show how much you know by incorporating unnecessary information into your document or speech, but in doing so you run the risk of boring, confusing, or overloading your audience. Be to the point and concise in your choice of words, organization, and even visual aids.  

    Being concise also involves being sensitive to time constraints. How many times have you listened to a speaker say “in conclusion” only to continue speaking for what seems like forever? How many meetings and conference calls have you attended that got started late or ran beyond the planned ending time? If you are asked to give a five-minute presentation at a meeting, your coworkers will not appreciate your taking fifteen minutes, any more than your supervisor would appreciate your submitting a fifteen-page report when you were asked to write five pages. For speeches, time yourself when you rehearse and make sure you can deliver your message within the allotted number of minutes.  

    Since we have brought up the use of time in this section, it is important to address punctuality as well as conciseness.  Being punctual means doing something at the agreed or proper time; on time.  In the classroom or in business, penalties for lack of punctuality can be more serious than for lack of conciseness.  Submitting a test or asking to present a speech when the due date has passed not only will likely carry a heavy grade penalty but may also communicate that the student does not prioritize or value his or her education.  The same is true of consistently arriving late to class or leaving early.  Not only does this behavior nonverbally communicate a poor message about the student, but it also creates interference in the classroom. Arriving late to a job interview will likely lead to missing out on that career opportunity.  Being late to work may eventually lead to losing your job.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Good communicators do not waste words or time. "Times! Of! The World!" by Anz-i is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    The word ethical echoes what Aristotle called ethos, the communicator’s good character and reputation for doing what is right.  An ethical communicator considers the welfare of his or her audience and is guided by moral principles and standards. An ethical communication strives to do what is right and understands his or her responsibility to keep society civil.  Name-calling among political figures and on social media and the preponderance of "fake news" are just a couple of examples of why a review of standards of ethical communication is needed now more than ever.  Because ethics is so important, we will look at this characteristic in more detail. 

    Ethical communicators are egalitarian.

    The word “egalitarian” comes from the root “equal.”   An egalitarian communicator believes in equality and is inclusive of all receivers or listeners.  This means using ideas and language appropriate for and inclusive of all the message’s readers or listeners, not just some of them.  Egalitarian communicators respect diversity and do not speak to only those who are “like them” in terms of religion, age, gender, race, or ethnicity. In terms of your own communication, egalitarianism means avoiding stereotypical, discriminatory language. Use communication to unite, not incite or divide. We will discuss inclusive, nondiscriminatory language in Chapter Three, Elements of Verbal Communication.

    Ethical communicators are respectful.

    We may have also seen people hurt by sarcasm, insults, and other disrespectful forms of communication. These are behaviors a respectful communicator will avoid.  Losing one’s temper and being abusive are generally regarded as showing a lack of professionalism (and could even involve legal consequences for you or your employer). When you disagree strongly with a classmate, coworker, or friend, or when you feel deeply annoyed with a difficult customer, it is important to express such sentiments respectfully. For example, instead of telling a customer, “I’ve had it with your complaints!” a respectful business communicator might say, “I’m having trouble seeing how I can fix this situation. Would you explain to me what you want to see happen?”  Taking time to observe and familiarize yourself with customs and viewpoints of those from different cultures than your own is another way of showing respect.  Avoid telling jokes or using language that may be offensive to others.  And if you inadvertently offend, apologize sincerely. Consider your nonverbal communication, as well.  Eye-rolling and other forms of nonverbal communication can be just as disrespectful as words.

    Ethical communicators are trustworthy.

    Trust is a key component in communication. As a consumer, would you choose to buy merchandise from a company you did not trust? If you were an employer, would you hire someone you did not trust? Would you want to be friends with someone who betrays your trust by revealing something you told that friend in confidence? Being worthy of trust is something you earn with others.  A communicator may not know something and still be trustworthy, but it’s a violation of trust to pretend you know something when you don’t. Communicate what you know, and if you don’t know something, research it before you speak or write. If you are asked a question you don't know how to respond to, say “I don’t know the answer but I will research it and get back to you” (and then make sure you follow through later). This will go over much better with listeners than trying to cover by stumbling through an answer or portraying yourself as knowledgeable on an issue that you are not.  A trustworthy communicator also does not hide relevant information from an audience. As many wise communicators have observed, "Trust is hard to build but takes only seconds to destroy."

    Ethical communicators do not plagiarize. 

    Another important ethical obligation is to avoid plagiarism in all its forms. Plagiarism is the act of presenting another's work or ideas as though they are your own. It is a form of theft or cheating. Plagiarism can range from copying a classmate’s answers and submitting them instead of your own work all the way to submitting an outline or giving a speech written by another.  Plagiarism can have extremely serious consequences in academics, such as earning an F on an assignment or failing a course.  In the workplace or community, a person who plagiarizes may lose his or her job and perhaps his or her reputation. Since plagiarism has such serious repercussions, it is important to understand what plagiarism is. 

    Examples of plagiarism

    • Copying another student's work and submitting the work as though it were your own.
    • Turning in a paper,  outline, or speech you wrote for a different class (unless approved by your instructor)
    • Buying or "borrowing" a paper, outline, or speech from the internet and submitting it as though you wrote it
    • Using large sections of chunks of information from sources without adding your own analysis and original thoughts
    • Failing to acknowledge the source of ideas and research both orally and in writing. 

    We will discuss plagiarism and how to avoid it in more detail in later chapters.

    Check Your Facts!

    To communicate ethically, check your facts and make certain they are accurate.  Here are two fact-checking tools that can help:

    FactCheck is a nonpartisan project of the Annenberg Center for Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

    PolitiFact is a nonpartisan project of the St. Petersburg Times; it won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

    NCA Credo for Ethical Communication

    The National Communication Association (NCA) is a professional organization that represents communication scholars and practitioners in the United States. The NCA’s “Credo for Ethical Communication” reminds us that communication ethics is relevant across contexts and applies to every channel of communication, including media. The credo goes on to say that human worth and dignity are fostered through ethical communication practices such as truthfulness, fairness, integrity, and respect for self and others. It is up to each one of us to put ethical principles into practice. The following are some of the principles stated in the credo:

    • We endorse freedom of expression, diversity of perspective, and tolerance of dissent to achieve the informed and responsible decision-making fundamental to civil society.
    • We condemn communication that degrades individuals and humanity through the expression of intolerance and hatred.
    • We are committed to the courageous expression of personal convictions in pursuit of fairness and justice.
    • We accept responsibility for the short- and long-term consequences of our own communication and expect the same of others.
    1. What are some examples of unethical communication that you have witnessed?
    2. Read through the whole credo. Of the nine principles listed, which do you think is most important and why? The credo can be accessed at the following link:

    Key Takeaways

    • A competent communicator has the knowledge about how to communicate effectively and appropriately and the ability to use that knowledge to communicate in various communication contexts.
    • Competent communicators are prepared, clear, punctual, concise, respectful, and ethical.
    • Resources for Exploration and Research

    Additional Resources

    The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) is a global network of communication professionals committed to improving organizational effectiveness through strategic communication.  

    Explore the Web site of the National Communication Association, the largest U.S. organization dedicated to communication.  

    Read The National Commission on Writing’s findings about the importance of communication skills in business.  


    This page titled 1.3: Becoming a Competent Communicator is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Lisa Coleman, Thomas King, & William Turner.

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