October 7, 2019 ~ 4 min read

Practice Forcing Functions for Communication Skills

Weekly TipsSpeaking

Like any other skill, your communication skills will only get better if you practice them.

You can read all of my articles, watch videos, learn new mental models... but if you don't actually try these things out, you won't get better at them.

But there's something different about communication than a lot of skills we might try to learn...

It's public.

And because it's public, it's profoundly uncomfortable and you need to set up some forcing functions to get yourself too do it.

Communication skills are public

Many skills you can work on by yourself until you get to some level of skill. You can practice your knitting, or work on your coding skills, or practice video games, and measure your progress without needing anyone else involved.

But communication is fundamentally about interaction.

Your speaking won't improve by talking to yourself in a monologue.

Your writing won't improve if nobody is reading it.

Your listening won't improve if you don't have anyone to listen to.

And this means that improving can be profoundly uncomfortable. You want everything to be perfect before you begin, and so you never begin.

Creating forcing functions

Whenever I run into places where I'm facing internal resistance, I use a trick I call forcing functions.

I set something up that is a strong enough motivator that it's going to push me into doing it.

For example, to get myself to run more a couple years ago, I signed up for a 10k race. And told all of my friends about it. Suddenly I had it hanging over my head - if I don't run regularly, I won't be able to do the race, and it will be profoundly embarrassing. And that threat of embarrassment was enough to get me to run regularly.

Elements of a good forcing function

There are 2 factors that I look for in forcing functions. They should be public and they should be recurring.

  1. Forcing functions should be public.

The reason here is simple: I'm not always self-disciplined enough to follow through if my forcing function is not public. I'll eat the pain for myself, even though I will strongly resist letting someone else down. So to be effective, for me I need to make some sort of commitment to someone else.

  1. Forcing functions should be recurring.

The problem with my 10k race example above is that once I ran the race, I no longer had a forcing function to keep running. And in fact, after I ran that race I dropped way off for a number of months before I found a new way to force myself into regular running. I do much better when my public commitment is something that is recurring and keeps coming up.

Forcing functions for writing and speaking

If you're working on your writing, what will be the forcing function that gets you to write?

I can tell you what mine is: I commit to a newsletter with a specific time period. Like this one. Despite being passionate about communication, I was struggling to write about it, until I committed to doing a daily newsletter. Now every day I'm sitting down, thinking and writing about communication skills.

I use the same trick at ZenDev to force myself to write about technical subjects - I have a weekly newsletter there.

For speaking, I used to use Toastmasters as a forcing function to get myself out speaking regularly. Now I use podcasting with JSParty.

You could also try committing to speak at local meetups or internal tech talks.

But whatever it is... if you're going to get better at communication, you're going to need something that forces you to practice every week.

What will it be for you?

If you'd like someone to hold you accountable, shoot me a quick email (kball@speakwritelisten.com) or just REPLY to this if you're getting it by email. I'm happy to help.

Like what you read? You might be interested in my weekly communication tips. I send out a short email each week with communication tips, tactic, mental models, and ideas for improvement. No fluff, all focused on helping you improve.

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Kevin Ball

Hi, I'm Kevin Ball (alias KBall). I'm a software engineer turned trainer and coach focused on communication and leadership skills. You can follow me on Twitter, or check out my software-focused work at Zendev.com.