Why you can’t learn communication skills from videos, books and online courses

Communication skills are critical for success in the workplace. So it is only natural that a whole industry has emerged to fill this need – as evidenced by the thousands of videos, books, podcasts, and online courses out there. These cover a wide range of topics, from management to leadership to sales training.

Yet, only one out of every 10 managers feels proficient at these skills, according to Development Dimensions International’s survey of 2,001 mid-level leaders worldwide. And published research from training experts confirms that as much as 90 percent of the investment in management training is wasted.

Why is that?

I think it is because the two primary employee training approaches we use – instructor-led workshops and videos/books/eLearning courses – are poorly suited to the challenge of training on communication skills. I cover the problems with instructor-led workshops elsewhere, so will focus on the latter here.

Why These Approaches are Ineffective at Improving Interpersonal Skills

Videos, books and podcasts (and most online courses) are helpful, but are not effective at building interpersonal skills because:

  • Content vs. Practice. Communication skills are a contact sport – just like you learn to ride a bicycle by getting onto the seat, holding the handlebars, and pedaling, you acquire communication skills through practicing with other people. Meanwhile, books, videos and the like focus primarily on delivering content / information to you. Instead, if you could flip this model and spend the bulk of your time practicing these leadership skills, you would improve much faster.
  • Inadequate Feedback. Closely related to practice is the aspect of getting feedback from your peers. Again, it is critically important to get specific, personalized feedback on how you did – this is what moves you from just practicing over and over again without making any real progress to the state of what Malcolm Gladwell calls “deliberate practice” in his bestselling book Outliers. This feedback is key to helping you improve on a skill every time you practice it.
  • Lower levels of learning. As I discuss in my post on learning science, Bloom’s Taxonomy shows us how higher-order levels of learning (analyzing, evaluating, creating) are needed to truly build up your people skills – this is best done through practice, interaction, and feedback, especially in real-world situations. Meanwhile, videos, books, and podcasts (and the vast majority of online courses) are mainly focused on passive lectures, transferring content, and testing for knowledge acquisition.
  • Framework, jargon, theory. A subtle but important problem with content such as videos, books, podcasts, and most online courses is that the authors of this content know that they are entering a crowded field. So they come up with new jargon and frameworks so that their piece of content will stand out on the crowded shelf – real or virtual. All this jostling for space just creates cognitive overload for the learner with limited benefits. Rather than worry about all this new terminology that each new piece of content tries to shove down their throats, they are much better off if they spent their limited time practicing these leadership skills in real-world scenarios (rather than learning new systems, jargon, and frameworks).

So in a nutshell, videos, books and podcasts (and most online courses) are not an effective way to build interpersonal skills. Ask yourself – how much has any of these media really changed your behavior and your practice of these skills in your daily work like?

We need to get past old ways of doing things – we need a new paradigm for how we train people in these interpersonal skills.


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