What Is Effective Communication? Skills for Work, School, and Life

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Discover how improving your communication skills can benefit your career, education, and personal life.

[Featured image] A group of professionals in business suits sit in front of microphones at an international press conference.

Communication is a part of everyday life, whether we communicate in person or on the countless digital platforms available to us. But how much of our communication actually reaches the intended audience or person the way we hoped? Effective communication requires us to be clear and complete in what we are trying to express.

Being an effective communicator in our professional and personal lives involves learning the skills to exchange information with clarity, empathy, and understanding. In this article, we’ll define what effective communication looks like, discuss its benefits, and offer ways to improve your communication skills.

What is effective communication?

Effective communication is the process of exchanging ideas, thoughts, opinions, knowledge, and data so that the message is received and understood with clarity and purpose. When we communicate effectively, both the sender and receiver feel satisfied.

Communication occurs in many forms, including verbal and non-verbal, written, visual, and listening. It can occur in person, on the internet (on forums, social media, and websites), over the phone (through apps, calls, and video), or by mail.

For communication to be effective, it must be clear, correct, complete, concise, and compassionate. We consider these to be the 5 Cs of communication, though they may vary depending on who you’re asking. 

While the effectiveness of communication can be difficult to measure, its impact is hard to deny. According to one study, surveyed companies in the United States and United Kingdom with at least 100,000 employees lost $62.4 million per year on average due to poor communication. On the flip side, companies led by effective communicators had nearly 50 percent higher total returns to shareholders over companies with less effective communicators at the helm [1].

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Benefits of effective communication

The benefits of communication effectiveness can be witnessed in the workplace, in an educational setting, and in your personal life. Learning how to communicate well can be a boon in each of these areas.

In the workplace, effective communication can help you: 

  • Manage employees and build teams

  • Grow your organization more rapidly and retain employees

  • Benefit from enhanced creativity and innovation

  • Become a better public speaker

  • Build strong relationships and attract more opportunities for you or your organization

Read more: Why Is Workplace Communication Important? + How to Improve It

In your personal life, effective communication can lead to:

  • Improved social, emotional, and mental health

  • Deeper connections with people you care about

  • New bonds based on trust and transparency

  • Better problem–solving and conflict resolution skills

Say it with your body

In face-to-face conversation, body language plays an important role. Communication is 55 percent non-verbal, 38 percent vocal (tone and inflection), and 7 percent words, according to Albert Mehrabian, a researcher who pioneered studies on body language [2]. Up to 93 percent of communication, then, does not involve what you are actually saying. 

Positive body language is open—your posture is upright and receptive, your palms are open, you lean in when speaking or listening, and nod encouragingly. Negative body language can include biting your lip nervously, looking bored, crossing your arms, putting your hands on your hips, or tapping your foot impatiently.


How to improve your communication skills

Communication, like any other skill, is one you can improve upon with practice. Here are a few ways to start improving your communication skills, whether at home or on the job.

1. Consider your audience.

Who are you communicating with? Make sure you are aware of your audience—those you intend to communicate with may differ from those who actually receive your messages. Knowing your audience can be key to delivering the right messages effectively. Their age, race, ethnicity, gender, marital status, income, education level, subject knowledge, and professional experience can all affect how they’ll receive your message. 

If you’re advertising a fast food restaurant, for example, you might want to deliver your message to an audience that’s likely to be hungry. This could be a billboard on the side of a busy highway that shows a giant cheeseburger and informs drivers that the closest location is just two miles away. 

Or suppose you’re announcing your engagement to your family. You might host a gathering afterwards to celebrate, send them photos of the engagement in a group chat, surprise them in conversation over dinner, or tag your family members in your announcement on social media. Your chosen form of communication will depend on your family dynamics.

2. Practice active listening.

Active listening is the practice of giving your full attention in a communication exchange. 

Some techniques include paying attention to body language, giving encouraging verbal cues, asking questions, and practicing non-judgment. Before executing your communication, be sure to consider your audience and practice active listening to get to the heart of their needs and desires. This way, you can improve your communication as a counselor, social worker, marketer, professor, colleague, or friend. 

Here are some examples of active listening in practice:

  • If you work in marketing, you might engage in social listening to gather consumer data on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok. 

  • If you are a professor, you might take advantage of end-of-semester feedback forms and act on your students' needs by hosting one-on-one meetings during office hours. Likewise, your students might choose to participate in discussions after your lecture or at least sit attentively and ask questions.

  • If you are a team leader, you might read Slack messages from your teammates, gauge that they are frustrated with the workload, and respond by resetting priorities for the next few weeks. This communicates to the team that their voices are heard.

  • If you are a parent, you might have a disagreement with your child about finishing their homework, but if you probe deeper with open communication, they may confess that their teacher made a discouraging comment that left them unmotivated.

Read more: What Is Active Listening and How Can You Improve This Key Skill?

3. Make your message as clear as possible.

Once you have successfully identified your audience and listened to their intentions, needs, and desires, you may have something to communicate. To do this effectively, turn to the 5 Cs of communication to ensure your message is:

  • Clear

  • Correct

  • Complete

  • Concise

  • Compassionate

Prepare to communicate in a way that achieves most of these characteristics.

4. Use the right medium or platform.

Using the right medium or platform to communicate matters. Effective communication requires you to consider whether you need to meet in person or if Zoom would suffice. Is your message casual enough to use WhatsApp, or would a formal email be more efficient and thorough? If you are catching up with a friend, do you two prefer to talk on the phone or via old-fashioned letters? Whatever you choose should be intuitive and appropriate for you and your current situation.

You might assess the priority level and the type of communication needed. In a marketing campaign, is there a visual component on Instagram or is it a spoken podcast ad? Will the platform be a Facebook post, product placement in a film, or a printed poster hung in cafes? For a university lecture, do students prefer to be online or meet in person? Will there be a discussion afterward, and would it be fruitful to conduct it in a pub, cafe, or in a field outdoors? 

By considering your audience, practicing active listening, clarifying your communication, and choosing the right medium or environment, you are well on your way to exercising communication effectiveness.

Effective communication starts here

Start building better communication with Improving your Communication Skills from the University of Pennsylvania, Successful Negotiation: Essential Strategies and Skills from the University of Michigan, or Effective Communication: Writing, Design, and Presentation from the University of Colorado Boulder. 

Article sources


PRovoke Media. "The Cost Of Poor Communications, https://www.provokemedia.com/latest/article/the-cost-of-poor-communications." Accessed January 17, 2024.

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