Setting Students up for Success: Don’t Just Teach them Content—Teach Them How to Talk about What They Know

teacher 1015630 1920

Have you ever sat through a lecture or had a conversation with someone who was a renowned expert in their field and come away feeling like you hadn’t understood a word? This person may be able to understand complex concepts and produce amazing results, from powerful software applications to beautiful advertisements to sleek investor presentations, but if they don’t know how to communicate their expertise in a way that helps their audience get on board, they’ll soon find all that knowledge can only take them so far.

In fact, recent studies have shown that it’s not expertise that’s a recruiter’s top priority when looking for new hires, but communication skills.

So as professors and administrators in higher education, your goal should be not only to give students all the technical knowledge they’ll need to perform their jobs, but also to teach them the communication skills that will turn them into team players, high-performers, and leaders.

Three Key Communication Skills Students Should Develop Before They Graduate

1.   Clarity

If we had to pick just one cornerstone of successful communication (but please don’t ask us to do that), it would probably be clarity. Because no matter how fascinating the work someone’s done or how great the message, if audiences can’t understand it, they won’t internalize it. So if you teach students anything about how to communicate, teach them to communicate clearly

So what does clear language look like? The simplest way to think about it is the structure of the language: clear communication uses fewer words per sentence, fewer syllables per word, and lays out an unmistakable path of cause and effect. This way, non-experts can grasp a speaker’s complex topic without feeling talked down to or insulted.

To learn more about clear communication, check out the way Sheryl Sandberg begins a recent commencement address in our blog post, “The Secret to Communicating Like a Visionary.”

2.   Confidence

If you’ve ever watched someone hem and haw through a presentation, peppering it with “ums” and “maybes” and “I don’t knows,” you know how damaging a lack of confidence can be to a speaker’s credibility. So when you’re teaching students to communicate with confidence, there are two elements to keep in mind: language and nonverbal communication.

In terms of language, the more words we use that indicate we’re not so sure about what we’re saying—“approximately,” “I think,” “I don’t know”—the less confident we sound. So encourage students to practice making their points directly and concisely, using language that conveys certainty rather than hesitance.

A speaker’s nonverbals say as much about his confidence as his language, so it’s important that students practice maintaining eye contact, standing upright, and gesturing naturally to indicate their comfort in front of the audience.

An air of confidence is contagious. So when a speaker seems comfortable and certain, the audience will, too.

To learn more about speaking confidently in impromptu situations, read our guest post from Stanford GSB lecturer Matt Abrahams.

3.    Charisma

“Charisma” is one of those buzzwords we throw around a lot, but rarely stop to define, and it’s often attributed to luck of the draw. But in reality, charisma is a trait that can be both measured and improved. And that’s a good thing, because it’s the key to keeping audiences engaged and involved.

Charisma boils down to is a combination of two elements:

  • Engaging your audience through active, storytelling language and effective eye contact
  • Demonstrating your passion through alert, energetic posture, authentic vocal tone, and natural, animated gestures.

By showing your audience that you are excited about what you’re telling them, you’ll give them permission to be excited, too. In fact, they won’t be able to help it.

To learn more about that communication “X-factor,” check out our blog post, “What Is Charisma, Anyway?”

It may be tempting, as an educator with limited resources and an already-packed syllabus, to let these skills fall by the wayside. But research has shown time and again that strong communication skills give graduates a competitive edge both in corporate recruiting and throughout their careers.