Don’t Communicate Like You’re Still in the Military: 5 Tips for Transitioning Veterans

Captain Javier Gonzalez, an infantry officer with Company F, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, conducts a radio operations check for a fire support operation during exercises (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Angel Serna/Released).

We often hear about the communication disconnect between military veterans and civilian workers. It’s as if we speak different languages, when we’re both speaking in English.

To better understand the challenges and opportunities for veterans entering the private sector workforce, I interviewed Debbi G. McCullough, a business communication lecturer for MBA@UNC, the online MBA program at UNC Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Here are her insights:

Lida: What percentage of your MBA classes are military veterans?

Around 30 percent of our students are military veterans or active duty military—from helicopter pilots, flight commanders for the US Airforce, to submarine officers. Since we are an online MBA program, several of my students are active duty—often deployed overseas.

Debbi: What are some of the biggest communications challenges (and strengths) your veteran students bring?

Many veteran students have already transitioned to the civilian world and seek skills in sounding more polished and charismatic to their teams at work. They’re already experts at brevity, and speaking and writing directly to their audience—their time as active military in high-stakes situations trained them to do this well. They tell me they feel less confident inspiring others with their words and many feel they come across as too direct, too gruff and/or too impatient.

The military individuals in my classes often ask for help warming up the tone of their writing. Military communication can sound stiff, formulaic and formal. Our professional best practices encourage a warmer, more approachable tone using contractions (e.g. we’ve vs. we have), personal pronouns, and also offering the writer’s personality within the writing. This part takes some coaching—but once these communicators try these tips out, they usually love it.

Others struggle with oral communication—they sound (and say they feel) confident, but they struggle with looking upbeat and relaxed. For instance, for some, smiling seems fake and forced. If smiling doesn’t feel right, I suggest smiling with your eyes. Make your hand gestures open. Maintain some eye contact with your audience. And if sitting still becomes difficult, stand and move around instead. 

I believe my veteran students provide amazing strengths as communicators. They’re focused, determined, quick, and open to trying new things. Most respond confidently to feedback and I rarely hear military students using upspeak (which many perceive as insecurity) at the end of their declarative statements. My helicopter pilot students (and those training helicopter pilots) often ace the class. I’d love for your readers to analyze why!

Lida: What are your top 5 tips for communicating with confidence and impact?

Debbi:

  1. Believe in yourself and know you have value and wisdom to share. Many veterans feel they have nothing of value to the business community. When I offer examples where military presenters have delicately shared stories about problem solving, navigating, saving lives, strategizing in the middle of the night—lights go on.
  2. Ground yourself before you present. Try to stop fidgeting, relax your facial expressions and suppress any verbal filler (like ‘um’ or ‘uh.’) All these traits tell our audience we’re not comfortable. In a live audience, even simple breathing exercises can help.  
  3. Prepare and practice before you present. The more we know the material, the better we sound.
  4. Choose topics to write and present on that genuinely excite you. Your love for the material will come through in your body language, facial expressions and words.
  5. Keep practicing your craft. If you feel weak at writing, find a coach or mentor to help. If you are nervous when presenting, practice speaking before small crowds.

About Lida:

Lida Citroën is an international reputation management and branding specialist, and CEO of LIDA360.  Lida serves her corporate clients with personal branding, reputation management, online positioning and reputation repair strategies and implementation programs

Lida is passionate about helping our nation's Veterans navigate the military-to-civilian career transition, and is a popular speaker at military installations and events on Veteran hiring. Her best-selling book, Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition,  offers veterans the tools to successfully move to meaningful civilian careers. 

Lida also leverages her 20+ years in corporate branding to help private employers recruit, onboard and grow veteran employees. Her book, Engaging with Veteran Talent: A quick and practical guide to sourcing, hiring, onboarding and developing Veteran employees, provides companies seeking to start or build on their Veteran Hiring Initiatives with the tools and insights to be successful. This resource follows

Lida is a regular contributor for Military.com and Entrepreneur.com, and is the recipient of numerous awards for her service to our veterans.

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