Monday, November 16, 2009
They weren't talking about public speaking per se. Entry level jobs generally don't involve a lot of speeches. They were talking about being articulate on the job. As one of them put it, the receptionist is the face of the firm to the new client. When the face of the firm is inarticulate, or scattered, or mumbly, real damage is done. One employer was particularly happy about a recent hire, whom he described as having it all. When pressed, he clarified that she doesn't seem to be any 'smarter' than others he's had, but that she always maintains a professional demeanor, even when things get hectic.
I'm not sure how to teach that, but I'm pretty sure that we don't really try.
We require at least two semesters of composition -- more than that for those who place developmental -- to make sure that students can produce readable prose that actually says something. That skill is reinforced in most of the upper-level classes in most majors. But we don't require speech courses of almost anybody -- theater being an obvious exception -- and in many classes students can skate by without speaking much at all. When they do speak, it's along the "don't speak unless spoken to" model, and very brief, canned answers suffice.
(A rough parallel may exist in hiring people based on their skill at research, then expecting them to just 'know' how to teach. The written word is assumed to matter; the spoken word is an afterthought.)
Students are routinely exposed to professional speech in class, but in a format that doesn't address what the employers wanted. What they seemed to be looking for was something like poise, an ability to banter in an upbeat way, and the ability to keep professionally cool in the face of stress. You don't really learn any of those by watching and listening to lectures, even if the lectures are good. The speaking they have in mind isn't speechifying; it's something closer to 'conversing,' but in a very specific style.
In a sense, a classroom is a uniquely awful venue for learning this kind of speech. In a workplace, the rookie will be outnumbered by the veterans, and will either raise her game or not. In a classroom, the veteran is badly outnumbered, so the students won't get the feel of it as easily. Worse, the classroom is only a few hours a week.
Internships and co-ops are helpful, but at the cc level, they're pretty limited. Four-year colleges rarely accept the credits in transfer, and relatively few students can afford to work for free. Depending on the placement, too, some of them may not lead to the kind of professional development the employers themselves say they want. (I got the Xerox tan over a few summers myself.) If the local economy were in better shape, we might be able to generate more traction here, but outside of a few specified programs, there isn't much.
So once again, I'll turn to my wise and worldly readers for advice. Have you found ways to help students learn the conventions of speech in the professional workplace?
2) My CC *did* make everyone take speech, which was annoying in that it didn't transfer particularly usefully, but incredibly valuable in that A) if you can write a speech you can write a paper- the format is more constraining and emphasizes the Function of Communication rather than style (since style is supposed to be added in with delivery) and B) it allowed our CC to keep excellent speech professors and therefore sometimes develop a good speech team (like most extracuriculars at CCs, I suspect how good it was in any given year was kind of variable).
3) Easier to implement: ask your local Toastmasters.
Also keep in mind that to some degree, professionalism has to come from seeing it modeled and maturity. Though if there's a class/training program to accelerate the process, I'd be happy to know about it.
My fall course (yes, I have a light teaching load) is for the incoming grad students, and it's meant to teach them how to engage with the literature in a meaningful way. It's also prep for their first qualifying exam, which is oral format. So, they are forced to actually get up, present, and then answer challenging questions from me and the other students. I have a good crop of students this year, and they are very lively with each other. That gives me lots of opportunities for sharpening their ability to think on their feet, and respond professionally to unexpected and complex situations.
I think it's a twofer: it forces the students to be awake and engaged in class, and it also gives them the training your employers say they want.
Your local employers are asking for maturity, not a specific skill set. Now students can acquire that maturity in college, but not in any one course. I think Becca and Rick Bales are on the mark. Its about students developing interpersonal skills through toastmasters, debate team, student clubs, and really well run discussions with a professor.
But these same qualities: maturity, professionalism, and an understanding of workplace etiquette, can also be learned in the military or on the job. There is no one way to do learn it.
Also, some of the "how to behave" issues get covered on one of our two (in business) career orientation and job search courses (a total of 3 credit hours). This is, again, something our A&S students can skip.
Otherwise, look into something like the "social skills for business-people" exercises that some colleges and universities run. Along with learning how to eat nicely at a table with colleagues, these programs usually touch on exactly the questions your people raise about being articulate, precise and presentable.
Having students peer-review other presentations after having shown them some examples of excellence in brief presentation can be another great eye-opener for the reviewers and recipients.
I'll also mention Toastmasters. I know most areas have clubs that looking for places to meet, to hold contests, and for conferences. You could also form a club for faculty (most professor I know are not that good at public speaking) and or students. Just contact a district or area officer for help and they will assign a club mentor.
In 2 minutes.
This semester, I have noticed that I am a bit stricter when it comes to how my students articulate their thoughts. I always encourage discussions, but now I really push my students to be clear and, sometimes, concise when they speak.
In my remedial English class, I have my students deliver argumentative presentations. I stress the presentation, noting that I do not want them to read off of a powerpoint or piece of paper, but rather to really argue their point of view. Part of their grade is to respond to other groups and this makes for a lively debate. I think it helps with communication too as, we all know, being clear is extremely important in an argument.
I also plan on having my freshman comp students lead class discussion on an essay or short story of their choice. This will be the first time I do this exercise and I'm excited to see the results!
"Poise" and "conversing" are no learned only or primarily in school. They are learned in he home and in all of life in human society. People who come from dysfunctional environments (which are of course not linked only to socioeconomic factors) will be at a disadvantage here.
Your blog paints such a sad portrait of a CC, which I fear is more or the less the average for U.S. higher ed.
Additionally, engineering degrees required a Personal & Professional Development course that touched on these things and others. http://www.engg.ksu.edu/rld/Leadership%20Development/ppd.html