Self-Obsession: The Lost Art of Communication


Your 10k+ Twitter followers will count for nothing, if you’ve forgotten how to make eye contact.

Debrett’s is known as the arbiter of social etiquette, but these days it’s not teaching the upwardly mobile how to address the wife of a duke or how to mix a perfect G&T.

Instead, it’s going after a more lucrative gap in the market – teaching a generation of digital natives how to communicate with each other. For in an age of 140-character tweets, Snapchats and Instagram posts, conveying a message face to face is becoming a forgotten art.

“Once, we took interpersonal skills for granted, but we’ve all been influenced by social media,” says Debrett’s chairman Richard Thompson. “Now, our biggest commercial opportunity is summer schools to re-teach the art of communication: conversational skills, behavioural skills, body language and conveying a good first impression.”

Lawrence Bernstein runs Great Speech Writing, a thriving business that does what it says on the tin. He says that we’ve forgotten the cardinal rule of good communication: understand your audience. Twitter has made it easy to express an opinion; Facebook is made for show-offs. But neither encourages us to think about whom we’re addressing.

“The biggest mistake most people make is getting their content the wrong way round,” he says. “You need to switch the emphasis from yourself to them. Ask yourself: what do they want to hear, not what do I want to say.”

Many of the tricks of face-to-face communication need to be re-learnt.

It’s the same whether you’re a CEO addressing a business audience or a nervous best man delivering the wedding speech you’ve been dreading. And the same mistakes that can undermine either speech, whether it’s an ill-advised anecdote about nocturnal escapades, or a self-reverential account of the perfect putt on the company golf day.

The trick is to marry content – empathy for your audience – with effective delivery. We’re so used to looking down at our smartphones, we’ve forgotten the importance of eye contact. Most of us talk too fast, with no understanding of the time it takes the listener to process our words. And we forget that we write in monotone, but when we speak we need to bring the words to life by changes in emphasis, which guide the listener.

“If you want a basic rule of thumb, think about it this way,” says Bernstein. “Could an eight-year-old understand you? If the answer’s no, you’re not communicating effectively.”

Many of the tricks of face-to-face communication need to be re-learnt. Think about Skype: speaking into a screen, often with a time lag, you need to slow down and simplify your body language but exaggerate your mannerisms.

And, above all, put down the selfie stick. ML