Is Social Media Killing Influencing Skills?


I can’t remember the last time I saw a job description that didn’t ask for great communication skills. And for leaders in the data industry, a large part of that requirement is often the ability to influence. Data as a discipline is still relatively new and often misunderstood, so CDOs almost always have to explain how data can transform business operations to their board colleagues and gain buy-in to large capital expenditure projects.

The data industry is full of technical specialists and the breakout stars who are also good at communication are rare. But what’s worrying me is that I think they are becoming increasingly rare, as a cohort of millennials are now rising through the ranks to leadership positions.

What’s the underlying problem?

Well, let’s start by defining what we mean by influencing skills. It’s the ability to see things from other people’s position, to empathise, to listen and to adapt your tactics to the needs and style of your audience. Many people liken it to being a good storyteller. For instance, CFOs are always going to want to know “how much and what’s the ROI?”, so have your evidence ready, in a digestible format. Commercial managers will want to understand how your proposal benefits customers and makes a sale more likely; customer insight plus qualitative feedback will be your friends here.

So why do I think influencing skills are dying out? At the risk of sounding like an old fart when I’m officially a millennial myself, too many of my generation have lost the art of having a face to face conversation and practicing the skill of taking a thought and running with it.

When you’ve grown up communicating via WhatsApp and Snapchat, you’ve never learned to read body language, to hear tone or even to interrupt politely. Communications are truncated and very linear ie you take turns, and only answer when you’re ready. When you don’t practice spoken conversations, or making eye contact, or any other myriad of behaviours we see when people are together, you get rusty. More and more young employees are nervous about presenting, speaking on the phone or asking questions in group forums, and it means they just don’t gain enough experience with these less tangible skills as they progress through their careers.

The changing nature of influencing skills

When we discussed this in the office, I was challenged on my assumptions about what constitute good influencing skills. Does it matter if you can only write in text speak when voice notes are on the rise? There are some people who struggle with eye contact and non-verbal communications – it’s not fair to exclude them. Consider the growth of online influencers and the skills they use. There, the value of other people’s recommendations matters a whole lot more than a warm chat over a cup of coffee.

The team cited loads of instances, admittedly forced through lockdown, where whole projects had been completed successfully without people ever meeting and all conversations taking place only on email or Slack. As so many employers are now offering hybrid work patterns with some time in the office and some at home, the chances are this trend will stay.

If the rest of the board that you’re trying to influence have a new style of business management which involves a much better grasp of the power of data, combined with an increasing focus on letting decisions be taken by subject experts, will the CDOs of the future even have to be such good influencers?

It’s an interesting concept. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Chris Bongard

December 14th, 2021 View my profile

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