Monday, November 16, 2009


Last week I had a chance to speak with some local employers who occasionally hire our graduates. They were gracious and supportive, but when asked about our grads' primary deficiency, the feedback was quick and uniform: speaking skills.

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?