Communication skills expert discusses how words can motivate, educate or inspire
As a young person, Helen Packham was shy, went red easily and found any authority figure intimidating. Her Mum encouraged her to express herself through ballet and dance, and she joined the local village pantomime group at 13. She found when onstage, the shyness and lack of confidence seemed to go. During her gap year, she landed a job at Virgin Atlantic Airways training new hires into the call centre and entered the world of learning and leadership development.
Over the years her experience grew, and more leaders were asking her to help with their communication skills. Working within financial services with many people who weren’t naturally extroverted, Helen picked up some tools; including storytelling and how to engage a room with your words. This led to supporting leaders in resolving conflict and creating more harmonious and productive working environments, looking at their own behaviour and communication styles, and adapting them to get better results.
After having her daughter, she was diagnosed with postnatal anxiety disorder, so stepped away from this career, vowing never to stand up in front of a room full of people again. Journeying back to herself through therapy and personal development, she applied for a TEDx talk. In a few months Helen was standing on the Brighton Dome stage sharing her story. After this, she was approached by people asking her how she did it and realised she possessed skills which people needed. Since then, she’s run speaker and communication programmes, workshops and conferences, becoming a TEDx coach and curator, and being passionate about helping people speak up and share their stories and ideas.
After losing her own voice and finding it again, she’s made it her mission to help others harness the power of their words. With her new podcast being released this month, we spoke to Helen to find out more.
What are the most common barriers to effective communication?
I think that this comes down to three main things. Clarity, confidence and structure. The clients I work with often have so much in their heads that they want to say, but they tell me that they find it difficult to communicate it succinctly and in a compelling way, they often doubt what they have to say is the right thing (and they are all experts in what they do!) This can lead to going off on tangents, being caught off guard and rambling, which creates anxiety around speaking up or sharing their ideas.
A big part of my work also involves coaching and training leadership teams within organisations. One of the most common barriers I see is how their feelings can affect their communication. We are all human, and our natural primitive instincts kick in and can affect how we communicate. We might go quiet, feel we have to defend ourselves or prove something. This affects how we deliver messages or have important conversations and can have the opposite outcome of what we want.
Can having good communication skills impact your quality of life? Can poor communication skills have an impact on things like anxiety?
I really do believe this to be true and can speak from personal experience. If we are fearful of speaking up, putting ideas forward or navigating conflict or disagreement, it can affect how we communicate. Oftentimes, this means not speaking up, not being able to be assertive, or communicate our needs. In my own experience this exacerbated my anxiety and meant that my communication skills weren’t developed in these areas, and I didn’t feel confident. Staying quiet and not getting our needs met leads to resentment and can have a big impact on our well-being.
Conversely, if we have developed communication skills, we feel more confident to speak up, get our needs met, put ideas forward and put ourselves out there for opportunities. I really do believe that focusing on these skills develops the courage muscle to lead a happier and fulfilling life in all areas. From personal relationships to careers.
Is it becoming harder to communicate and connect with each other? How much of a role does the internet play on this, or are people simply not developing their skills during the developmental years?
The advances in technology and the pandemic have had a big impact on our ability to really connect with each other. With communication sitting more and more in the virtual, text-based space, I see a lot of people (and young people) finding it hard to say how they feel or articulate themselves in effective ways. It feels easier when we can sit behind a computer and post online, respond to comments online or speak over email and text. But in doing so, the verbal skills which are essential for connection and growth are dwindling. It’s something I speak to my daughter about a lot and is another reason I am passionate about helping people to develop their communication skills, as the benefits can not only help them, but can ripple out to others too.
Do people naturally possess excellent social skills, or are they something which are developed through environment or teaching?
Another area of my work focuses on communication and behaviour from a psychological perspective. I use psychometric tools in my leadership work, that show different traits and strengths and how they lend themselves to effective communication. There are some innate traits that do lend themselves to excellent social skills. Salespeople for example, usually have a particular set of internal drivers and traits that lend themselves to connecting, influencing and persuading others. I have however worked with highly technical people who don’t have those traits, and I have been able to teach them specific skills, approaches and strategies to adopt that can have the same effect. So, I do believe environment and teaching can help anyone harness the power of their words. Also, we all can tell stories, it’s hard wired into our DNA through many generations of our primitive ancestors telling stories to make meaning of the world.
How does focusing on the words we use help us in all aspects of our life?
I think the benefits are far reaching. Focusing on our words can help us have more open and honest, trusting conversations with our partners, family and friends.
It can further our careers by speaking up, putting forward our ideas at work, sharing our expertise and having the courage to be visible and be noticed for our strengths.
It can help us build businesses, pitch ideas, win contracts and differentiate ourselves from competition.
It can also help us make an impact in society, sharing our ideas and stories that can motivate and inspire others, on the TEDx stage, at a speaking event, or in the local community.
How much of a part does vulnerability play in forming a connection with others?
I think that a big part of effective communication lies in the ability to be vulnerable. Brene Brown gave an excellent TED talk on the power of vulnerability that I recommend watching.
If we can put our hands up and admit mistakes, ask for clarification, say when we don’t know or that we messed up, we create a trusting foundation with others. Barriers come down and communication is strengthened. A big part of the work I do, and love very much is helping people to share their stories. The reaction from the crowd is incredible and is always warm, supportive and inspiring. Everyone has a story to share, those stories have the power to help others, and in each story lies vulnerability.
Can using stories help us to make a big impact with our words?
Absolutely! As I mentioned, storytelling is an innate skill that every human possesses, we are hard-wired for stories, we love to hear them and they can help us bond, connect and make meaning of the world. Using stories when you present, pitch an idea or share a message, can hugely increase the impact of what you are saying. I deliver a workshop in corporate organisations on how to transform dry and boring data led presentations into engaging stories that captivate the audience.
Could you tell us about your new podcast?
I wanted to find a way of creating space for these types of conversations and how we can harness the power of our words to change our own (and other peoples) lives for the better. In biweekly episodes I’ll be exploring how we can speak more honestly, talk more authentically, and communicate more effectively to motivate, educate and inspire.
The podcast is for anyone who wants to increase the impact of their communication from 121 conversations to groups online and in person. Whether you want to stand on the TEDx stage, pitch an idea, influence a group of people, resolve conflict or inspire action in others, there’s something for you in the podcast!
I will be sharing my own wisdom, insight and approaches, as well as speaking to top experts in the field of verbal communication, going head to head on topics such as public speaking vs stand-up comedy and AI vs humans, and having candid conversations on topics all focused on how we can harness the power of our words.
What are the five most important things we can do to improve how we interact with others?
- Seek to understand first: holding space for someone and finding out their point of view before giving yours can help reduce misunderstanding and conflict.
- Believe in yourself: imposter syndrome can play havoc on confidence. Knowing that what you have to say is valid and worthy is a crucial foundation to effective communication.
- Less is more: we often think that getting everything that’s in our head out is the most important thing. But when it comes to presentations communicating a message or giving a talk, the opposite is true! Keep it simple so that your message lands in the most impactful way.
- Winging it doesn’t work: if you want to really make a difference, to motivate, educate or inspire a group of people, winging it will only take you so far. Having a simple tried and tested structure to your communication will ensure you stay on point, think of the outcome and don’t wander off course.
- Be yourself: it’s the best way to connect with the people you want to influence. That means sharing your quirks, using humour, and telling stories that show vulnerability and an insight into who you are as a person.
Helen Packham ‘s The Words That Change Lives podcast launches Mon 15 Jan, available on all good platforms. You can also contact her on: