When Warren Buffett gives financial advice, it’s a good idea to listen. Eight years ago, Buffett told Columbia Business School students that they could increase their lifetime income 50% by learning to communicate better. Think about that! By those numbers, people who make $75,000 per year could raise their annual income to $112,500 just by learning to communicate better. Carry that number out a few decades and the increase in lifetime earnings grows by more than a million dollars. Fascinating.
I’m not sure if there is a way to determine exactly how much more money people can make if they communicate well—but I know it’s a lot. In my case, it’s way more than 50%. You see, I didn’t come from a wealthy family. My father died when I was nine years old. Government welfare bought my first pair of glasses. I only graduated high school after my mother begged the dean. I never attended a single class in college. In my thirties, I got in trouble with the law because of unpaid bills. If it weren’t for the ability to communicate well, I think I might have ended up as a taxi driver. No kidding.
In my case, the financial benefits of communication skills have far exceeded Buffett’s estimations. Being able to communicate well has probably increased my lifetime earnings by a hundred-fold (or about 10,000%). It’s opened a world of opportunity that I never dreamed possible. I’ve interviewed eight U.S. Presidents, numerous heads of state, and countless celebrities. Not bad for a poor kid from Brooklyn. But the thing is, I’m not so special. Learning to communicate well isn’t brain surgery. There are three basic skills that great communicators learn to master:
- Great communicators know how to control their tone and pacing. Let me ask you a question, who was the most boring teacher that you ever had in school? Did they keep you on your toes by varying their talking speed and vocal inflection? No way. They probably sounded monotone and never changed their pace.Great communicators do the opposite. They use the entire vocal scale—high tones, low tones. And they switch their speed up frequently. Have you ever heard the great Dodger baseball announcer, Vin Scully? He’s a master at this. It’s been said of him that he could read the phone book and keep you on the edge of your seat. The great communicators of all time have this same ability (think, Barack and Michelle Obama, Ronald Reagan, Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Martin Luther King Jr.—they all vary their tone and pacing).
- Great communicators know how to listen. I once asked a successful doctor, “what makes a good physician?” His answer: “someone who loves sick people.” Digging a little deeper, I learned that great doctors take the time to listen to how their patients actually feel. Great bosses listen to their employees. Great sales people listen to their customers. It’s a master skill.The ability to listen well, I think, has been one of the biggest reasons I’ve been successful as a radio and television host. Many of today’s hosts make the show about themselves—using the guest as a mere prop. There are plenty of examples of this, so I won’t mention names. But these types of hosts rarely have staying power. The hosts that succeed over the decades in my business (Oprah, Mike Wallace, etc.) don’t make the show about themselves, so they never wear out their welcome.
- Great communicators are authentic. They believe what they say and say what they believe. Most people are pretty good BS detectors—they know when someone is trying to pull one over on them. That’s why it never pays to lie. I remember my first day on the radio, being so nervous that I couldn’t get a word out. I kept on turning the music down to say something, but nothing would come. Vocal impotence. Finally, the station manager kicked open the door and screamed, “This is a communications business, dammit! Communicate!”Shaken, I leaned in to the mic and said, “This is my first day ever on the radio. I’ve always wanted to be on the air. I’ve been practicing all weekend. A few minutes ago, they gave me my new name. I’ve had a theme song ready to play, but my mouth is dry. I’m nervous. And the general manager just kicked open the door and said, ‘This is a communications business!’”All I did was told the audience the truth. And the most amazing thing happened—they loved it! People called in saying, “you’re doing great, kid. Keep it up.” You see, my honesty with them—my authenticity—came across. They knew that I wasn’t trying to be something I wasn’t, and they appreciated it. The great communicators in the world always do this. They say what they mean and mean what they say, unapologetically.
I’m so grateful to have learned how to communicate well. It hasn’t always been easy—I’ve come a long way since that first day on the radio. But I’ve kept at it. And it’s paid off. If you work hard on improving your communication skills, it’ll pay off for you too.