A recent Conference Board survey of human resource officials revealed that only 25% of today's college graduates enter the world of work with well-developed speaking skills. Both employers and educators acknowledge the importance of oral communication—95% of HR officials rated oral communication as very important (the highest of 13 entry workplace skills), and other research (see Fast Facts, this issue) reports that the majority of colleges and universities require students to take a course or instruction in public speaking. Obviously, there is a discrepancy between the number of students who have instruction in public speaking and those who excel at this communication task. There are a number of explanations for this seeming inconsistency.
First, it's unrealistic to believe that a single course in public speaking is going to make students competent public speakers. Just like a single course in biology doesn't make a biologist, a single course in public speaking doesn't make a person proficient in public speaking. In fact, for many students, college-level public speaking is the first time they have ever been exposed to Communication as an academic discipline. When students enter college, they usually have a foundation in history, science, and math, which gives the instructor a starting point. With public speaking, most instructors spend valuable instructional time laying out the foundation and providing instruction in basic speaking principles.
Second, surveys have regularly demonstrated that almost all Americans fear speaking in public. This fear has to be properly managed before students can begin to develop public speaking competencies. The good news is that public speaking courses have been shown to reduce the fear of public speaking for students who have a moderate level of what is referred to as public speaking apprehension. The bad news is that public speaking courses have also been shown to intensify the fear for students who experience high levels of public speaking apprehension. In the same way that throwing a bunch of snakes in the lap of a person who is incredibly fearful of snakes will probably not reduce their fear of snakes, forcing high public speaking apprehensive students to make a speech in public rarely reduces their fear for public speaking. After working through the fear issues with the majority of students, which is the primary objective for most instructors of public speaking, these instructors know that developing proficient public speakers is not a realistic expectation for the required course in public speaking.
Third, there has been a slow shift in how the required public speaking course is taught in colleges and universities. In years past, the required course was solely focused on public speaking. Today, the required course focuses on public speaking in addition to other important oral communication skills that are valued at work such as critical thinking and the development of messages, learning how to manage conflict constructively, lead others, conduct effective business meetings, and solve problems as a member of a group or team. In many ways, these communication competencies may be less visible to employers than presentational skills, however they are highly valued. According to the same Conference Board study, human resource officials consider college graduates' abilities to collaborate and work in teams, critically think through problems, identify solutions to problems, and lead others to be significantly more important (by 30 percentage points) than graduates' mathematical competencies.
These three reasons may help explain why new employees, who were required to take a college course in public speaking, do not always meet employer's expectations for communication competence. Additionally, there is always room to improve our teaching of communication, and public speaking in particular. Here are a few suggestions:
Focus on public speaking skill development. Some instructors may find it more important to engage students in discussions focusing on the theory, research, and critique of public speaking (referred to as Rhetoric) than on the actual development of public speaking skills. Although theory-based discussions are important and needed for students to be effective public speakers, it's important that communication theory be balanced with communication skill development. In fact, students learn theory (cognitive learning) much faster than skills (behavioral learning). Helping students develop communication skills is time consuming and requires our giving students multiple opportunities to perform their newly acquired skills while also providing them with corrective feedback. Unfortunately, large class sizes at some colleges prevent many instructors from doing what they prefer, which is to coach students on public speaking skill development.
Develop public speaking skills that meet the needs of employers. There is a long tradition in college classrooms as to how public speaking is taught. In fact, we teach public speaking today in the same manner it was taught when I was an undergraduate in the early ‘80s. New communication technologies have changed how we communicate and how we work. It may be time to modify this long-standing tradition of how public speaking is taught to more accurately meet the needs of today's employees. Public speaking instructors are encouraged to break away from the tradition and develop new teaching methods and speaking assignments that will develop the communication skills needed for the 21st century workplace.
Teach students how to transfer their communication skills. Instructors commonly express frustration when their students fail to see how their new communication skills can be used outside the public speaking classroom. Public speaking instructors assume that students know how to transfer their skills to their other classes as well as to their communities and jobs. Many instructors blame students for their inability to transfer their skills. They consider it a learning problem. In reality, it's a teaching problem. If we want our students to use and transfer their skills, we need to teach them how to transfer. It could be that students have the public speaking skills needed for work, but don't see the relevance to their jobs.
In summary, it's important to clarify public perceptions of public speaking education by explaining that a single course in public speaking doesn't make a person an exceptional speaker, public speaking apprehension is a challenge that instructors must carefully manage before skills can be developed, and public speaking isn't the only communication skill being taught and developed in most required communication course. In addition to clarifying what a single public speaking course can and cannot do, it's also important to acknowledge that we can always do a better job of teaching public speaking by investing more time developing public speaking skills that meet the needs of the 21st century workplace, as well as teaching students how to transfer their communication skills from the classroom to their jobs and communities.