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W&L’s New Communication Initiative Hones Students’ Presentation Skills

Students at Washington and Lee University taking the new course Modern Professional Communication 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 the course’s teacher, Stephen Lind, visiting professor of business administration.

The course is part of the innovative new oral communication initiative at W&L’s Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics. All the students taking the course are business administration majors, but many are also majors in other areas in the College.

The initiative expands on the successful written communications program in the Williams School’s CommCenter (formerly known as the Williams Communications Center), which provides four writing consultants to support students. According to Rob Straughan, associate dean of the Williams School and professor of business administration/marketing, the success of the writing program has been reflected in the improved writing assignments that faculty receive from students.

Some faculty, however, also wanted to broaden the school’s efforts to teach oral communication. “The sense was that although students were actually quite good at the cocktail-party conversation, they weren’t as comfortable giving presentations in more formal settings,” explained Straughan. “Under the old model, this was addressed during classes by faculty who were comfortable giving that sort of feedback, but the reality was that students trying to avoid making presentations could pick their classes to avoid doing so.”

Most notable in her enthusiasm for a new approach was Amanda Bower, the Charles C. Holbrook Jr. ’72 Professor of Business Administration, who developed the proposal that resulted in Lind’s hiring and made presentations to the Williams School Board of Advisors, faculty and interested alumni.

“I’ve been passionately advocating for this type of education almost since I stepped foot on W&L’s campus,” said Bower. “And I’ve worked very hard for a little over a year to get this off the ground. So I’m very excited by what’s happening and that we are now proactively teaching communications.”

Some alumni also advocated for the oral-communication initiative, including Ross Singletary and Frank Sands, both Class of 1989, who provided the seed money for Lind’s two-year position.

In 2011, Singletary said in “The Bridge,” the campaign newsletter,  that his original gift of $50,000 (it was subsequently increased to $87,500) was a tribute to former W&L professor of public speaking Halford Ross Ryan, whom he credited with helping him understand that good-oral communication skills are key to personal and professional success in any field. Prior to the addition of Lind’s class, no single class at W&L has focused on this topic since Professor Ryan’s retirement.

“My gift was specifically to support Washington and Lee’s efforts to promote verbal competency and speaking skills—whether in one-on-one interview situations or delivering a speech to hundreds of people,” said Singletary. “These skills are of vital importance for all students.”

According to Lind, the benefits to students include a definite advantage in the competitive job market. He said that 98 percent of human resources executives rate communication skills as important or very important in their hiring decisions, citing a 2012 study by Millenial Branding. “It’s not only essential to getting the job,” said Lind, “but also to being promoted within that job. So 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 said the W&L initiative stands apart from programs offered at most universities in that it provides context and teaches digital oratory. “These are features that my colleagues at other schools would love to have,” he said. While most universities rely on general-education public speaking classes, Lind provides context by discussing oral communication within business-related themes such as briefings, pitches, interviews and presentations.

Lind described the inclusion of digital oratory in his course as a “cutting-edge innovation” usually offered only in the context of a degree in journalism or broadcasting. “People are flocking to YouTube in droves to share their ideas with the world—digitally, but through oral communication,” said Lind.

Lind also wants students to have a better understanding of the definition of 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 communications.”

“Thinking it a weakness of mine, 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.”

Bower added that learning the effective use of different modalities of communication, and in particular modern digital approaches, will make students more adaptable. “It also has the added effect of helping students’ critical thinking,” she said, “consistent with Einstein’s quote ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.’ “

This past summer, Lind trained the writing consultants in the CommCenter on coaching oral communication the same way they coach written communication. This enables students to go there before a class and give their presentation to someone trained in crafting messages.

When Bower was developing the proposal, she looked at not only the best practices of other schools but also the best practices in the world. “We needed somebody who could teach the digital technology to prepare our students for the future,” she explained. “But it also needed to be grounded in the knowledge of linguistics and an overall solid theoretical foundation.”

Lind’s educational background in classical rhetoric, as well as competing in and coaching national inter-collegiate policy debates, proved ideal. “Stephen was exactly what we needed,” said Bower. “Students in his class that I’ve talked to have been blown away and feel more empowered and better prepared. It’s not an exaggeration to say he has changed some lives.”

Lind hopes that the oral communication initiative will flourish with the necessary logistical support beyond his two-year appointment. “I would love to see potential future development of the CommCenter,” he said. “I would also love to see the development of a modern business-writing course where students get more explicit training on what writing means today in terms of the online platform—how to write for a website, a jobs blog or Twitter, and how to craft an e-mail. I think students would benefit from that.”

He can also imagine a number of Spring Term courses; for example, teaching students how to use low-resource technology to create videos for small businesses.

“This is all speculative, because we’re still in the early stages of implementation,” Lind continued. “But my desire would be to see this develop into a program where students receive a certificate in professional communication with the value of credentials. I think that would be fantastic for W&L students.”

“Stephen has helped us imagine what sorts of additional things we may want to put on our wish list,” said Straughan, “so this may be step four or five of what could be a multi-step process. This initiative is a big part of what we’re doing strategically to support student outcomes, and I am optimistic that when we look back five years from now, we’re going to do so with a pride about how this program has evolved.”