Businessman Bob Shelton, MBA, BSME, well understands the importance of proficient communication skills in today’s work environment and, particularly, the business world. In a recent interview via email and phone call, Shelton emphasizes the idea of “speaking to sell” – after all, time is a scarce resource, especially for an entrepreneur like himself. Among other skills, speaking with direction and conciseness is an obvious way to manage the cost of time in business contexts. Whether it be completing mundane tasks like sending e-mails, requesting capital, or delivering motivating speeches to potential consumers, communicating effectively is critical to success in our digital age. If you’re not diligent and careful, Shelton explains, “your audience – often dominated by Millennials – will be checking their Twitter posts before you know it.”
- What is your professional history?
“In 2002, after tiring of the long hours, high risk, and uncertain rewards of entrepreneurship*, I became an employee of a friend’s new startup company and helped them recruit, train and build a sales organization and take their software products to market. For the next 12 years, I thoroughly enjoyed leaving the office at 5:00pm and letting other entrepreneurs worry about how not to run out of money. At the ripe old age of 73, I am now making the transition to retirement and planning to take my new Tesla Model 3 on numerous cross-country road trips.”
*Mr. Shelton’s more complete biography can be found at the conclusion of this post. His accomplishments include working in mechanical engineering, software development, information systems, and pursuing professional and continuing education.
- What writing advice do you have for professional communicators?
“Write as often as you can in the early days of your career. Writing forces you to organize your thoughts (create a beginning, a middle, and an end), expands your vocabulary, and locks those thoughts in your brain’s muscle memory so that you can present your case smoothly and confidently.”
- What is your one pet peeve when it comes to professional writing?
“Truthfully, I can’t think of one. I enjoy the whole process of communicating ideas in writing.”
- What kind of business reports do/did you read and/or compose regularly?
Throughout my career, I have written the business case for loan applications for bankers, the business plan for funding requests for venture capitalists, quarterly and annual reports for the board of directors, and a countless number of sales proposals for prospective customers.”
- What are your writing suggestions to make those types of reports successful?
“Write it out completely in long-form, and then make several passes to edit it down to the least amount of words that conveys your message succinctly. Use a chart, graph, or picture to further enhance your message with even fewer words. Then, take the final draft and create an executive summary of not more than one page to open the report with. You should always assume that your audience will not read more than the executive summary, because they won’t. If your audience is Millennials, convert the report to a 3-minute video and text them a You-Tube link. 😊”
- What speaking advice do you have for professional communicators?
“Whether you are speaking to a group of 2, or 200, or 2000 people, you are undoubtedly trying to sell a product, a service, a concept, or a course of action; if not, you should question the purpose of the speech. Now that you know the speech’s objective, begin your speech with the most dramatic and compelling statement of the problem you are about to solve as possible. Don’t waste any time introducing yourself, citing your background, or telling them what you are about to tell them; the audience will immediately begin scanning their Instagram posts, if they haven’t already. Now pick out two or three people in the audience and maintain eye contact with them as you deliver your message with energy and enthusiasm.”
- Name one thing you wish you had known about business communication prior to your professional career?
“I wish I understood in high school and college how important oral communication is to business success. In high school, I avoided every opportunity to speak to anyone outside my circle of friends. I only took Speech classes that were required to graduate, and I anguished for weeks before each speech. Then, in my second job out of college, I was asked to make a presentation to company executives about the engineering project I was leading. It went very well because I was very comfortable with the subject matter. After the presentation, the Company President told my boss that I should consider going into Sales because I spoke with a lot of credibility. Hearing that gave me such confidence that I spent the rest of my career making high-pressure presentations of one kind or the other.”
- After assessing the Burning Glass list of Baseline Skills (2016), which skills not in the top 5 would you move into the top 5…and why?
“I would move the following skills into the top 5:
9) Typing: Yes, touch typing (without looking at the keyboard) is the most important skill I learned in high school, because it is the fastest way to record one’s thoughts in a stream of consciousness and create the first draft of every business communication. In the very near future, this may be replaced by direct voice dictation, but for now, learn to type!
10) Research: When I went to college, research involved going to the library and scanning the stacks for relevant books on a subject. Now, of course, we can “Ask Alexa” or formulate a search string in Google on your nearest digital device. The point is, the world’s information is at everybody’s fingertips so there is an expectation that all business communications are well-researched and supported by facts and citations.
15) Multi-tasking: Most business professionals are perfectionists who get a lot of satisfaction out of certain activities that they can really focus on. The problem is that focusing on one task that they really love is a luxury that most professionals can’t afford. They have to learn to spread their attention across a set of very complex and important tasks with no time to do them all perfectly.
25) Self-starter: No one ever has enough training, guidance and oversight to perform every task their job exposes them to. An employee who sees unfamiliar tasks that need to be accomplished and tackles them with enthusiasm will be noticed and highly valued by a manager or executive. Someone who waits for direction or instruction will also be noticed, but not in a good way.
27) Critical thinking: As a student, you should attend classes to learn how to think, not what to think. Learn to how to analyze problems, avoid conventional wisdom, test various hypotheses, evaluate alternative solutions, and make a decision. Then, evaluate the results, make adjustments where necessary, and repeat.”
- How have communication mediums changed over the years (e.g., email, text messaging)? Even though a lot of modern-day communication occurs virtually, does it require the same responsibility and professionalism as do face-to-face interaction(s)?
“Even though business communications have evolved from long-form letters and proposals to short-form emails and texts (a more extensive graphic can be found here) the sender is still responsible for the completeness, accuracy and professionalism of those communications. Email senders must still proof-read their drafts, correct grammar, and fix spelling errors before sending. Likewise, email senders must be aware of the rules of email etiquette to only copy relevant personnel, never convey emotion or anger using “ALL CAPS” or inappropriate language, and never ambush a colleague or co-worker by blind-copying his boss on the email.”
- What team skills do you feel young professionals need the most?
Be a good listener, allow your colleagues to finish their thoughts and don’t interrupt them to state your thoughts.”
Arguably the most important takeaway from the interview with Mr. Shelton is the critical principle of acting boldly in all business endeavors and communications. For one, poor execution can distract your “receiver,” and sometimes create unintended consequences. These can come with economic costs – a missed opportunity on not closing a sale, a misunderstanding of directions, etc. Over the phone, Shelton explained that there are many stakeholders who rely on what you say and write (type); with that, a duty exists to communicate as fairly and effectively as possible, thus minimizing any potential conflict(s).
Also, Shelton encouraged individuals to be bold in getting out of comfort zones and being courageous. Although many have a fear of public speaking/writing, Shelton explained that, as a (successful) businessperson, it will have to be done at some point or another. For him, that meant making his first professional presentation in front of company executives. Earlier in the interview, Shelton made a reference to how stereo typically fast-paced the youth is; but, as he stated, mainstream forms of electronic communication still come with much responsibility. Contrary to the belief of many, he says, the convenient text messaging and emails do not replace face-to-face interaction. This upholds his idea the growing importance of practicing your own communication skills!
More Detailed Professional History: How did you choose and begin your career path?
“After spending my sophomore year of high school (1960-61) as a Page in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, DC, I returned to my hometown of Boonville, Indiana and graduated from its only high school. After perusing all of the pamphlets in the Guidance Office, I used a process of elimination to select Engineering as a career and headed off to Purdue University. I graduated from Purdue in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering (BSME) and headed to St. Louis where I worked for Emerson Electric Company as a newly-minted Engineer. In the evening, I attended Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Illinois to earn a master’s degree in Business Administration (MBA) in 1970.
In 1970, I moved to Columbus, Ohio to work as a System Engineer with Industrial Nucleonics, an Ohio-based manufacturer of industrial control systems for the worldwide process industries, including pulp & paper, plastics, steel & aluminum, and rubber (for tires). This job allowed me to mature and grow into a Project Engineer leading teams of other engineers, and ultimately the opportunity to travel to many other countries to present the sale pitch and demonstrate our systems to the engineers and executives of prospective customers in other countries.
In 1978, I followed a passion I discovered while working on the MBA to become an entrepreneur; think Elon Musk, but on a much, much smaller scale (insert smiley face here). Along with a friend with more business experience than I, we started a technology company and focused on developing software for Insurance Industry applications. After six years of 18-hour days, the company and I violated Rule #1 of business formation: “Don’t run out of money.” Fortunately, the Safeco Insurance Company in Seattle took pity on us and purchased the Company’s only software product for just enough money for us to pay our bills and close the doors with dignity (although it didn’t seem very dignified at the time}.
In 1984, as if to prove that passion trumps good sense, I sold my home, moved into an apartment and used the equity from the house to start a fresh new technology company. At this point, I became aware of a large unfulfilled market for communications software in those industries served by Industrial Nucleonics (which had recently been acquired by a Swiss-based company called ABB). So, we developed products to meet those needs and signed ABB as a reseller. This approach worked pretty well, and the company grew and thrived until 2001 when ABB purchased the company outright.”
Parker Collignon is a freshman at the University of Southern Indiana located in Evansville, IN and is pursuing degrees in Accounting and Finance. He plays on the USI Tennis Team and hopes to become a CPA once he finishes his studies.