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Talking Points: Modern Professional Presentations

Students in Professor Stephen Lind’s Modern Professional Presentations course could be forgiven for being a bit nervous, since surveys routinely show that public speaking is one of the top three fears for adults (along with death and spiders). That fear is largely unfounded, but also very real, said Lind, a visiting assistant professor of business administration.

The course, and Lind’s appointment, is part of Washington and Lee’s new oral communication initiative, spearheaded by the Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics. While Lind’s courses are extremely relevant to business administration majors, they’re benefitting students across the University.

The initiative stands apart from programs offered at most universities because it provides context and teaches digital oratory. While most universities rely on traditional public speaking classes, Lind helps students see the big picture by discussing oral communication as it relates to all forms of modern communication–everything from briefings and pitches to interviews and presentations.

Amanda Bower, the Charles C. Holbrook Jr. ’72 Professor of Business Administration, has been making the case for courses like Lind’s since she joined the faculty in 2002. She made presentations to the Williams School Board of Advisors, faculty and interested alumni and developed the proposal that resulted in Lind’s hiring.

She argues that learning the effective use of different modalities of communication, and in particular modern digital approaches, makes students more adaptable. Bower loves the quote by Einstein, who said ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’

“We needed somebody who could teach the digital technology to prepare our students for the future,” she explained. “But [the right person] also needed to be grounded in the knowledge of linguistics and an overall solid theoretical foundation.”

Lind’s educational background in classical rhetoric–he earned his PhD in Rhetorics, Communication and Information Design from Clemson University–as well as his experience competing in and coaching national inter-collegiate policy debates, proved ideal.

“I have constantly looked for a class to improve my presentation and speaking skills at Washington and Lee,” said senior James Lewis, an economics and business administration double major. “I expected to become a more comfortable, confident speaker in Professor Lind’s class. But I was surprised to find it went beyond improving delivery by asking students to think critically about the audience, content, phrasing, structure and other less obvious aspects of a presentation.”

Lind’s classes examine digital oratory through a very wide lens. A six-second Vine video, a voicemail, an elevator pitch, a PowerPoint presentation, or a YouTube video are all forms of modern professional communication.

“People are flocking to YouTube in droves to share their ideas with the world–digitally, but through oral communication,” said Lind.

For students who can’t devote 12 weeks to one of Lind’s classes, he offers a two-night “Crash Course in Effective Presentations.” On night one, students learn tips and tricks to create and deliver powerful presentations, and on night two they practice their skills–delivering a presentation that shows off what they’ve learned.

Ninety-eight percent of human resources executives rate communication skills as important or very important in their hiring decisions, according to a 2012 study by Millenial Branding. Lind reminds his students that communication skills are not only essential to getting the job but also to being promoted within that job. “I think it’s critically important that W&L students graduate not only as super-smart students, but as super-smart students who can also communicate in efficient and effective ways.”

Lind wants all students at Washington and Lee to walk away with a better understanding of what it means to study communication. “One of the neat things for me is that, by teaching at a liberal arts university, we get to talk about the whats and whys of communication, rather than just the dos and don’ts of communication.”