Why security needs good communication skills from…everybody!


Think about the skills you use to accomplish your primary role at work. Then think about the skills you highlighted on your CV and your LinkedIn profile. Where did your mind go first? Computer proficiency? Experience with certain brands or types of equipment? Processes that require certifications or formal recognition? Those answers all make sense. They’re easy to list on a résumé, too. Still, are the skills you listed really all the skills that you need to excel?

Consider: National Cyber Security Awareness Month (NCSAM) takes place every October. This year we put on a wide range of activities designed to appeal to our colleagues that promoted the theme of personal and collective self-improvement. Based on feedback we received, I believe our 2019 NCSAM was a success.

After one of our presentations, a colleague mentioned “Have you considered doing some podcasting? You should really make a living with your voice.” I thanked him and shared that I’ve been told that many times. I added if I could ever figure out a way to make a living speaking, I’d probably leap at it. He laughed and advised me to seriously consider it.

I got to thinking that what I’d told my colleague wasn’t entirely true. I have made a living partially based on my speaking voice. I was a Public Affairs flack during the post-9/11 crisis; I was the official spokesperson for the soldiers working the airport security mission in North Texas from October 2001 through April 2002. Every time someone mistakenly breached the “secure area” or a “suspicious package” was discovered on airport property, I’d go on the news to set people’s minds at ease. I was even interviewed in November 2001 when Flight 587 went down in Queens, NY and everyone feared it was another terrorist attack. For over a year after that, strangers would recognize me on the street and approach me to express their thanks.

When I left Public Affairs, I thought that would be the end of me getting paid a salary to speak. It turned out that wasn’t entirely correct. In all the roles I held afterwards, I found myself constantly “on stage” … military formations, ceremonies, briefings, training, roundtable discussions, and interviews all requiring a little bit of performance art. Using my voice and stage presence wasn’t listed as a job requirement in any of those roles, however it proved to be a critical contribution to my success.

Getting over stage fright and learning how to be comfortably genuine in front of a large audience is one of the most important skills you can master if you want to move into senior leadership.

These days, a great deal of my work in Security Awareness involves talking with people. Sometimes it’s one-way, like in a recorded computer-based training module. More often, it’s interpersonal; like when teaching a live class, interviewing users, assessing vendors, or coordinating with key stakeholders. My ability to do my job well depends on establishing a good rapport with my audience. Everything I learned about using my voice for work can be traced back to my time in PA.

Admittedly, my example might not apply so directly in what you do. If you’re more of a technical professional, you might think that your interpersonal skills in general (and the use of your voice in particular) is of secondary or even tertiary importance compared to your various technical proficiencies. It’s a common, but usually mistaken, belief.

Yes, I acknowledge and agree that technical skills are essential for everyone in the modern workplace, doubly so for someone filling a technical role. I’m not suggesting we value singers and orators over firewall engineers for our network defence positions.  No, what I’m describing is how critical it is for everyone to be able to communicate effectively. Consider:

  • We can’t expect that everyone else in our organisation shares our level of expertise over our area of specialisation. Therefore, we can’t expect them to understand the issues that concern us the most. For others to work well with us, we must first teach
  • Similarly, we can’t expect to get the help we need unless we can articulate what we need, why we need it, and why our request is important to the business. This means understanding the perspective of the person or people we’re asking so that we can structure our request to make sense to them.

This seems like common sense. Of course everyone needs interpersonal communications skills to be effective. That’s a given. We shouldn’t need to say it … let alone train on it. Why would we?

Basic communication is easy; technical communication is difficult; crisis communication is staggeringly difficult. If all you’ve ever needed to succeed was basic skills, you might be overestimating your proficiency at advanced tier applications.

Well … no. If we accept that interpersonal communications is a critical skill, and we agree that most everyone in our organisation would benefit by enhancing this skill, ask yourself: why don’t we train for greater proficiency in it? Seriously. Consider your annual mandatory training regimen. What classes are listed? Probably a security course. An ethics or compliance course. Maybe a safety course.  What you don’t see in most companies is a communications skills course. Why is that?

Tempting as it might be to invoke the Dunning-Kruger effect here, I think that’s far too harsh. A simpler explanation is that everyone believes themselves to be a perfectly effective communicator. After all, we all know exactly what we mean when we speak; when we’re misunderstood, it must be because someone else has a skills gap! This fallacy is compounded by our culture. As sociologist Charles Derber wrote in The Pursuit of Attention, American culture’s lack of social support drives people to crave attention from others. Rather than communicate to inform, speakers mostly use interaction to steer a conversation towards themselves.

These two lessons were drilled into us in PA school. As an official spokesperson, our role was to accurately inform the public in the clearest, most concise, and least ambiguous manner possible. We were not allowed to interject ourselves into the story. I’ve been able to apply those lessons to every event that I’ve taken part in over the last twenty years. Those concepts have probably done more to increase my effectiveness than my “voice” ever did.

That’s why I propose every organisation should add “communications skills” to their annual training regimen. Interpersonal information transfers are essential to business. Our effectiveness hinges on our ability to convey meaning correctly, regardless of our technical speciality. Therefore, investing in improved communications skills for everyone is a prudent, cost-effective path to success.



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