How can I improve my communication skills?

Q:  I have been advised that to succeed in America I should improve my communication skills and be more assertive.

Oct 1st, 2009
Th Mchang

Milton Chang

Q: I have been advised that to succeed in America I should improve my communication skills and be more assertive. But that’s not natural to me. Just what is it that I have to do to succeed as an employee or even just to keep my job?

A: From the company standpoint, you have to earn your keep, carry your weight, or make a significant contribution to the business. Whichever way it is said, the point is you need to be very good at whatever you are hired to do. One aspect of communication is to let your colleagues know that you are being productive. Another one is to coordinate your activities with the rest of the team for everyone to work in sync. The admonition to “improve your communication skills” is overused advice given to people whose mother tongue is not English. Improve your verbal skills, by all means, to be able to express yourself. The important thing is that you get your point across rather than the form in which it is delivered. I have met people who are really successful but spoke poor English. But what little they said made sense, and was insightful and meaningful.

Being very good at what you are hired to do will help you keep your job today. Constantly learning and growing in your abilities will help you remain competent tomorrow. Taking on project management responsibilities will broaden your experience and build your reputation and network of contacts. What you learn in the process will make you employable, not to mention being more valuable to your company.

Q: I have invented three technologies related to energy saving. A broker offered to raise multimillion dollars from overseas investors for a 20% commission. Do you think I should go ahead and start a company even though I have no business experience?

A: People who ask questions like this are usually hoping to get approval for what they have already decided. I am afraid I may disappoint you because I am not sure this scenario can pass my smell test. I am always reminded of the simple truth in business, and in life: “If it is too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.” The first thing you should do, right now, is engage someone with business experience to help you, and maybe even engage the best law firm in town. The commission this broker is asking for is way out of line. There is also something fishy about raising money from faraway places. Remember you are the one who has to sign off on the offering document. That means you are fully responsible for the accuracy of its content and how it represents the business. Given that these technologies are still in the embryonic stage and development time for new material systems are notoriously long, it is likely that these projects are a long way from being a revenue-generating business. It wouldn’t be hard for an impatient investor, anytime down the road, to claim misrepresentation based on some technicality. By then, the middlemen would be long gone and you will be held legally responsible. Even if there is no misrepresentation, life could get difficult. And you will be held personally liable if anything that was stated can be construed as being fraudulent. Putting it bluntly, you could lose everything.

From a business angle, taking on three projects simultaneously may be overly ambitious. Consider taking on only one—the one that you have the most confidence will produce results in the shortest timeframe. You need a successful outcome to support your credibility and to mitigate the downside of being overly promotional. It is difficult to resist the lure of big money, especially when it appears to be the chance of a lifetime. But you wouldn’t want to gamble your career, reputation, and the time that could be put to productive use.

Click here to enlarge image


MILTON CHANG is managing director of Incubic Venture Fund, which invests in photonics applications. He was CEO/president of Newport and New Focus, and currently sits on the board of Precision Photonics. He holds a B.S. degree from the U. of Illinois and a Ph.D. from Caltech. He is a Fellow of IEEE, OSA, and LIA, a former president of LEOS and LIA, recipient of Distinguished Alumni Awards from both universities, serves on the board of trustees of Caltech, and is a member of the Committee of 100. Visit www.incubic.com for other articles he has written.

More in Home