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Speaking of Success: Colleges are Finally Teaching Students How to Talk


The ability to speak well and write clearly are two of the most commonly sought attributes of new hires across all industries, yet ironically, they’re the ones that employers say they have the most difficulty finding. It’s become a glaring skills gap in the college graduate job market that higher education can no longer ignore. And despite negative press to the contrary, there is reason to hope that the tide is slowly but surely beginning to turn.

Social Media Kills Social Skills

But first, an investigation of the problem. What is it that’s robbing kids of their ability to communicate intelligently? Traditional wisdom has held that reading is one of the best ways to improve language and vocabulary skills, but how much are kids reading? In a word (well, two words), not much. A 2011 piece by NYU professor Richard Arum entitled “Academically Adrift” found that 32% of undergrads took no courses that required more than 40 pages of reading a week, while half took no classes that required them to write more than 20 pages the entire semester.

The latter stat is especially troubling in light of a 2007 research project called the Partnership for the Study of Writing in College. Elon University English professor Paul V. Anderson and his fellow researchers found that having students write out what they’d studied resulted in “more engagement in deep learning activities and greater self-reported gains in practical competence, personal and social development, and general education.”

Ellen Bremen — an interpersonal communications professor at Highline Community College, author of Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success, and alter ego of “the Chatty Professor” — is unequivocal in her diagnosis of the root of the problem.

“I hate to blame it on social media, but I can’t help but blame it on social media,” she said. “With too much texting and Facebooking, you really can let those [communication] skills go.”

To put the situation in perspective, Bremen spoke of nearly being run over on campus by students too glued to their Facebook-connected phones to look where they are driving, and “a blatant lack of awareness” that they haven’t developed the communication skills they will need in the workplace. And the facts bear out her experiences: 18- to 34-year-olds spend the most time of any age group on Facebook, with 8.5 hours per week and 98% of them social media users. As for texting, 18- to 29-year-olds send and receive 88 text messages a day on average.

In her own communication class, Bremen mandates a three-day “social media fast” to get students to come to grips with their virtual dependencies on tweeting and texting, forcing them to have actual conversations. She said most of them come away from it amazed at how much time they spend socializing online. But Bremen wishes (only half-seriously) that colleges could have “text-free zones” or times where students were forced to use real-world communication to connect with each other.

She’s hardly alone in her concerns. Many worry that by leaning so heavily on technology, young people are missing out on a key area of their personal and career development. Interpersonal communication is still a bedrock job qualification for practically every white-collar job and most blue-collar ones. As the Chatty Professor put it, only one person per company gets to be the social media manager. Everybody else needs to know how to talk face-to-face.

B-School Banter

But it’s not just young undergrads who need a consult with Professor Henry Higgins. Although they are thought of as accomplished, responsible students, MBA grads aren’t necessarily leaving business school with perfect oratorical expertise either. They have been criticized for communication that’s too rambling, overblown, and casual. A 2011 study of business leaders found 94% to believe top management people needed more training in basic communication.

Fortunately, after a decade of wakeup calls (Enron, the Great Recession, the Libor scandal), b-schools have become accustomed to the necessity of revamping their curriculum to prepare today’s students to avoid the mistakes and shortcomings of their predecessors. Some have begun to heed employers’ concerns and have launched programs and requirements to address the issue that could serve as a model for other schools.

For example, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School doubled its communication requirements and introduced an MBA writing requirement. University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business has gone so far as to get students writing who may not even be admitted by requiring resumes as part of the admissions process. This February will see the advent of MIT’s 20th annual Charm School, which instructs students in elements of real-world communication like how to ask about salary during an interview and how to interact with coworkers and clients of different cultural backgrounds.

In December 2012, the first semester of classes wrapped after a partnership formed among the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and five business schools (at Dartmouth, University of Maryland, Northwestern, Quinnipiac University, and University of Texas at El Paso). The project was to offer a public relations course to MBA students. The class was slated to include business communications situations like negotiations, testifying before Congress, and reputation management.

Tuck School of Business professor Paul Argenti designed the curriculum for the class. As he told Businessweek, “If you ask CEOs what is important to them and how much time they spend communicating, they’ll tell you it is a huge part of their job. But it has sort of been cordoned off as an area of specialty, and I don’t think people realize the power of it. … Now we have to convince the deans and the business schools that this is an important thing to teach students.”

Brushing Up for Undergrads

But undergrads aren’t being left in the cold, either. For one thing, required writing is popping up in some unexpected places. Duke University biology assistant professor Julie Reynolds counts “writing-to-learn pedagogies in STEM disciplines” as her first area of academic interest. She puts that interest into practice by having freshmen students interview scientists about their work and complete “persuasive writing” assignments evaluating their opinion of that work.

Already a leader in the SAT-optional movement in higher education, Bates College offers a promising answer to the communication hurdle with its Peer Writing and Speaking Center. In 2011-2012, more than 900 students came in to receive one-on-one training with dozens of peer assistants for help with their research papers, PowerPoint presentations, senior theses, and more. The center has been especially popular because Bates requires three writing-centric courses of all students, beginning with a seminar during freshman year and ending with the senior thesis.

Other schools have begun to ask for a similar amount of communication study. Portland State University and Brown University recently upped their writing requirements to two courses. In Fall 2012, Rice University timed the opening of its Center for Writing, Oral, and Visual Communication to coincide with a new requirement of a writing-focused seminar for all freshmen students. “Writing-intensive” programs, which allow certain courses to be taken with writing deeply ingrained into the curriculum despite not being a liberal arts subject, have been around for years but have also caught on with schools like University of Hawaii-Hilo and Drexel University.

As for oratory education, you have to search a little bit harder. Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, created the Speech Lab to provide students with either professional help perfecting their verbal skills or just a “safe environment” in which to practice them. Students also have the option of having their practices taped for first-hand reviewing of their own strengths and weaknesses. At Emerson College, the Department of Communication Studies promotes a speech contest during Communication Week with a cash prize to the winner.

Prepare Today for Tomorrow’s Success

Colleges also pay to bring in outside speakers like Professor Bremen, who stress to them the importance of communication skills in all facets of their lives. In fact, the day we spoke to her, she had just concluded one. The speech had drawn a crowd of about 30 students, a paltry number considering every student needs to hear the message. But as with help centers, labs, contests, and career fairs, such seminars are voluntary and up to the student to take advantage of them. Colleges are still reluctant to mandate more than one course in public speaking.

Maybe, in a roundabout way, that is the moral of the story — students have to see college as a time to prepare themselves for their careers. After all, isn’t that the issue: career preparedness? At some point, the “lead a horse to water” effect comes into play. In a contracted job market, students who aren’t sharp enough to realize that success means knowing how to talk in an interview, or how to draft a resume cover letter, are probably going to have difficulty anyway.

According to Bremen, the wise kids will arrive on campus freshman year, look around, and make the choice to start working on their communication right then and there.

“Students have to really be smart and build their brand, network with professors, ask them for help with resumes. … They have to be savvy enough to do that,” she said. “Graduation is too late to find out you don’t know how to communicate.”

February 6th, 2013 written by Staff Writers

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