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Developing Communication Skills for the Workforce

This page is based on discussions at the 2013 Geoscience in the 21st Century Workforce workshop and stems from work by Roger Bezdek (President, Management Information Services), Dan Vaughn (Vincennes University), Petra Dekens (San Francisco State University), and Dave Douglass (Pasadena City College).

Jump down to: Audience | Improving Student Writing | Improving Student Presentations

Employers frequently list strong communication as an essential skill for the workforce, and look for good communication skills in potential hires. In fact, a candidate's initial impressions with a potential employer are dependent on communication skills, as a cover letter and job interview are two opportunities for students to "sell themselves" by showcasing written and oral communication skills.

Professional communication demands clarity, accuracy and brevity. On-the-job communication can include emails, memos, reports to clients, phone calls and presentations. Bullet points and graphics become important tools, and the ability to adapt communications for different audiences is critical.

Communication Skills as Learning Outcomes

Practice is often cited as the best method for improving communication skills. Not only do students need to practice, but they also need to receive and respond to feedback from their audience. In the workforce, students will be interacting with a variety of people with different backgrounds, potentially including other professionals in their field, professionals from other fields (both STEM and non-STEM disciplines), and/or a 'lay' audience. Students can strengthen these skills by preparing and giving presentations for a variety of audiences. Instructors can provide students with opportunities to strengthen communication skills through oral and written class assignments and projects, service learning project presentations, internships, and more.

These learning outcomes, among many others, were generated at the 2013 Geoscience in the 21st Century Workforce workshop. Students with strong communication skills will be able to:

  • clearly express geoscience concepts orally and in writing, present results from laboratory and field investigations, and effectively incorporate appropriate maps and graphs into presentations and reports
  • express geographic concepts in writing and speaking to discipline-specific and general audiences
  • explain ideas and results through written, statistical, graphical, oral and computer-based forms of communication

Audience

Professionals often have to interact with a variety of audiences on the job. Some of these audiences will have an extensive scientific background and others will have none. Employees should be adept at effectively communicating with co-workers at their peer-level with similar backgrounds as well as those from other disciplines. Oftentimes professionals will also need to communicate with others who rely on them as 'experts' for a particular field or topic, including clients, media, politicians, and the general public. Thus, it is important for students to have effective communication skills for a similar variety of audiences.

Students must be able to determine what level of communication is appropriate, and adapt their presentations - whether written or oral - accordingly. For example, an entry-level environmental consultant could routinely communicate with the following audiences: co-workers at their peer-level (e.g., other hydrologists), co-workers from other disciplines (e.g., chemists), project managers, executives, clients, technicians, drillers/tradespeople, site owners/managers, regulatory agencies, and stakeholders (e.g. community groups, parents, Nature Conservancy). Comparing literature written for various audiences, like articles from Science and Scientific American, and attending talks and lectures for various audience types are great ways for students to learn what different levels of communication sound like.

Improving Student Writing

Written communication in the workforce needs to have clarity and brevity and should be written to the appropriate target audience. Cover letters and resumes are often used to gauge students' written communication skills and can be opportunities for students to 'sell themselves' to potential employers.

Students are often trained to use many of words, but employers want the opposite: clear, common-sense writing that gets the point across. Regardless of what students are writing, there are three guidelines they should always follow: know your audience, be clear, and keep the goal in mind.

Whether writing an email or a report, some common writing tips include:

  • know your audience
  • be professional - do not use slang terms or text abbreviations
  • be clear and concise
  • focus on the take-home message

Resources

Improving Student Presentations

Oral communication is prevalent in the workforce, from making initial contact with a potential employer through the interview process, and experiences on the job itself. The best way to prepare students for the types of oral/visual presentations they will encounter in the workforce is to have them practice giving talks at all scales and for multiple types of audiences. Students can start to practice these skills giving talks to their peers in student class projects. They can also gain invaluable experience communicating science to the general public via service learning community report-outs or by volunteering to informally teach at a local school or participate in an after-school program or summer camp. More advanced students can continue to hone their professional communication skills by presenting their research at local, regional, or national conferences. To improve upon skills related to attaining a job, a campus career center or the department could hold informal interviews or practice sessions during which students can practice giving short elevator talks about their research or answering practice interview questions.

The Elevator Talk

The elevator talk is a short, 1-2 minute conversation-starting technique students can use to introduce and 'sell' themselves and their work to potential future employers or collaborators. While it is a short introduction, students will benefit by practicing it with peers and mentors. An elevator talk should be professional, succinct, and should be tailored to its audience, meaning, be cautious to not get bogged down with jargon that makes it difficult for your audience to understand. Learn more about elevator talks.

Short and Long Talks

Like the elevator talk, a talk should be aimed at the appropriate audience level, be clear, and free of superfluous jargon. Both short and long talks benefit greatly from the use of clear and not overly complicated visuals such as images and graphs. Presenters should stay away from using strange fonts and should keep animations to a minimum. Humor is generally well-received, but one should be cautious on overstepping bounds with humor. And, as with all communication, speakers should practice several times prior to giving their talk; this can help with timing, pacing, and overall comfort of giving the talk.

A general rule of thumb is to spend 1 minute on each slide and to allow time for some questions at the end of the talk; it is important to stay within the allotted time. Presenters should think about and anticipate how they would answer questions they receive following the talk (practicing in front of peers and colleagues can help to identify some of these questions). It's okay to say you don't know the answer to particular questions, but do so gracefully.

Resources

  • The Effectively Communicating Your Research: From Elevator Talks to Job Interview Presentations webinar contains tips and advice for those entering the workforce, especially for those interested in academic careers.
  • The On the Cutting Edge module about assessing student learning has some great tips on grading oral reports and poster presentations.
  • A good way to give students the opportunity to practice their communication skills is to have them write a paper and then summarize it in a Powerpoint presentation. The table below contains a rubric for grading such an activity:

    Student can communicate clearly and concisely

    Students will be able to: Exemplary Adequate Inadequate
    Communicate orally at an audience appropriate level. Audience is engaged and responsive. They ask relevant questions. Appropriate use of language and visuals. Audience awake but not asking questions. Audience asleep, texting, or generally not engaged.
    Align communication goals with communication mode/level. Work precisely meets requirements and stays within the constraints of the request. For example, a request for a 2000 word proposal with 4 major components contains those components concisely communicated in close to 2000 words. The work meets the length requirements but either does not include one or more of the required components or does not structure the work in a way that is clear and concise. The work does not include the requested components and either far exceeds the length limit or is much too short.
    Demonstrate competency across the spectrum of communication formats/options. Effectively summarize and restate information into a more concise format. Example: 20 page paper - executive summary - 10 min powerpoint - 90 second verbal opportunity. The main points in the longer written documents are unclear, making it challenging to summarize effectively. An attempt to squeeze in all information in shorter formats rather than summarizing the key points. The main points of the shorter oral presentations are different and not clearly related to the information stated in the longer written formats.
    Demonstrate effective use of technologies in communicating ideas (spreadsheets, figures, pictures, text). Judicious use of text, legible at a distance, shows evidence of thoughtful design. Figures effectively communicate the desired goal. Mostly clear and concise communication of points, but occasionally too much text or figures that are challenging to read. Too much text in powerpoint slides, distracting animations/colors, figure labels difficult to read, take-home message of figures is unclear to the audience.

    downloadable version of this rubric (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 9kB Aug7 13)