In today’s multigenerational, global, constantly changing world, communication skills—both oral and written—are more important than anything else you can bring to a job.
You can’t lead without good communication, and no matter how technical or virtual the workplace becomes, your ability to speak and write well will differentiate you from your peers and determine your ability to advance and succeed.
Moreover, in every survey that asks about millennials, employers say communication skills are what they want the most. They also say millennials tend to lack those skills.
If you count yourself among the millennials (a.k.a. Generation Y), and you are a leader now or hope to move into a leadership role in the next few years, follow these tips to prepare yourself and show your employer your potential.
Ditch immature-sounding speech patterns
The top three problematic expressions I hear when students and young employees talk to me after I’ve given a speech are “um,” “like,” and “you know.” I also hear a lot of upspeak, which occurs when you use a higher tone of voice at the end of a sentence as if you’re asking a question even when you aren’t.
These verbal quirks send the message that you’re young and inexperienced. Using them is a habit you’ll want to drop if you want to be taken seriously and advance at work.
A lot of people don’t realize they’re talking this way, so listen to yourself or ask a friend to listen and let you know.
Communicate in your audience’s style
Communication is not about asserting yourself; it’s about getting your message across.
For the first time in history, we have a four-generation workplace, and those generations like to communicate in different ways. The best leaders and most effective communicators find out how their colleagues like to communicate and use that preferred method as much as possible.
That may mean you have to call people who like to talk on the phone even though you’re most comfortable sending an email. Or it could mean you have to use a more formal tone in your communications even though you prefer casual interaction.
Remember: Shorter is better
In the academic environments where you’ve spent most of your lives, you’ve learned to write long sentences using flowery, complicated language, because that’s what your teachers rewarded and it helped you hit the mandatory word counts on assignments (or maybe that was just me). Now that you’re in the business world, you have to learn to do the exact opposite.
I hear so many employers and workers from other generations complain about millennials who write really long emails with too much detail. Whether you’re writing an email, a report, or some other business document, you should make every effort to be concise and use short sentences and bullet points to convey your message. My mantra: When in doubt, edit it out.
Don’t hide behind technology
Many millennials use email as their go-to method of communication, but there are many times when you should just pick up the phone or walk over to a colleague’s desk for a quick conversation. Choosing a more personal, direct communication style also builds your credibility and relationship with the other person.
Don’t assume it’s OK to text
A lot of millennials ask me when it’s OK to text people for business purposes. That’s an important question, because some generations don’t perceive texting as professional. It’s fine to text your peers, but with a client, boss, or a senior colleague, you should wait until the other person invites you to text or sends you a text first.
Speaking of texting, be very careful about using “text speak” in business communications. Years ago I remember feeling old and out of it when someone first sent me an email that included “TTYS” and I didn’t know what it meant. You never want to make a colleague or client feel uninformed or uncomfortable. It’s always safer to err on the side of formality.
Understand how to contact a senior associate
I find many millennials are unaware of what I learned as proper business etiquette. Even if you work in a relatively casual organization or industry, offer respect to people who are in more senior positions or have a lot more experience than you do.
For example, when you’re in the junior position, you shouldn’t just hand over your phone number to someone you’d like to talk to and say, “Call me.” The junior person should always make the effort to call the senior person. As a rule, the service provider should call the client, and the seller should call the buyer.
When there’s no emergency, you should be sure to set up an appointment for a phone call at least 24 hours in advance. Always confirm who’s calling whom.
Give yourself time to practice
Learning to communicate well in a work environment with four generations (comprising people with different communication styles) takes time. Don’t beat yourself up over your shortcomings; just give yourself time to practice skills such as writing emails, talking on the phone, giving speeches, and speaking up in meetings. And don’t be afraid to ask for feedback and advice along the way.
Lindsey Pollak is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and expert on managing and marketing to the millennial generation. She is the author of “Getting from College to Career,” an official ambassador for LinkedIn, and spokesperson for The Hartford. A version of this article originally appeared on SmartBlog on Leadership.
This article first appeared on Ragan.com in March 2014.