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Gift of the gab

Vicky McWilliam explains the importance of good communication skills.

With David Beckham being heralded an excellent role model for fathers and 'Ali G speak' permeating playgrounds nationwide, popular culture has a lot to answer for - and not just among the youngest members of the population.

Cristina Stuart, managing director of communications company Speak First Training, recognises an urgent need for a communication focus in the British workplace, not least in the construction industry.

Technically skilled people very often pay a great deal of attention to detail, says Stuart, and while this is an important part of being an engineer, taking a more general perspective may help boost an individual's interpersonal skills. 'This enables them to see the bigger picture', she asserts, 'to communicate ideas effectively and in a way clients will understand.'

And even with skilled staff or those educated to a high level, it falls to employers to provide some form of training to make a more productive working environment.

Verbal communication and presentation skills are playing an increasingly critical role within the construction industry, asserts Anne Cronin, associate director of corporate affairs at Gibb. 'And considering the speed with which we communicate nowadays, the need to concentrate on effectiveness has never been greater.'

Communications training is critical to a growing number of firms in the construction sector. Gibb, for example, runs a comprehensive training programme focusing on improving communication skills - from using the telephone to high level business negotiation. 'It is not simply aimed at developing relationships with clients and prospective clients, ' Cronin explains, 'but with colleagues too.'

But poor verbal communication is not the only thorn in the side of British business. While illiteracy is hardly rife among civil engineers, as an industry sector we are not renowned for our literary capabilities. But with e-mail fast becoming the favoured form of business communication - is it not time we all brushed up our grammar and writing skills?

Written communication and report writing are being addressed by a growing number of companies, generally within staff training programmes.

At Gibb, a technical report writing workshop highlights the skills needed for 'the different types and styles of written communication used in engineering and infrastructure consultancy'.

The company also enforces a formal e-mail policy emphasising the need for courtesy and the awareness of cultural issues.

The informality of e-mailing can easily lead to unintentional offence, Cronin explains, especially where international business is concerned. Omit the respectful Mr/Ms prefix with German colleagues, for example, and eyebrows will soon be raised.

Gibb's guidelines stress, among other things, that all emails should be dealt with immediately, capitals should be avoided as they can appear to be shouting at the reader, terse messages can be construed as rude, and humour can be misunderstood.

As anyone who has ever tried to translate a joke for a foreign friend can testify, humour can be a cultural minefield - and one which is best left outside the workplace.

Perhaps it is time secondary school education placed more emphasis on the need for effective communication skills for the job market. If technically minded pupils are still being pigeon holed and channelled along the science only route, leaving only the arty ones to benefit from role-playing in drama classes, then the situation cannot hope to improve.

Key points

Good communication skills are increasingly sought after

These skills are of particular help in an environment where the level of technical detail is high

The range of skills covers written communication, body language and face to face interaction

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