How to boost your students’ communication skills

Try these practical tips for improving students’ writing and speaking.
By Matthew Philpott

Tom Hall, CPA, assistant professor of the practice in the School of Accountancy at the University of Denver, knows the power of putting a face to a name, and he’s seen firsthand the difference good communication can make in a working relationship.

“I had a client I’d never met, but I’d spoken to him on the phone many times,” said Hall, who has worked for Deloitte and Goldman Sachs.

“It was kind of a tough relationship. I get along with most people but when we finally took my team out and met him in his office it changed everything. He told us, ‘Now that we’ve met face-to-face, I’m a lot less likely to yell at you on the phone!’”

Building strong working relationships depends upon being able to communicate clearly and professionally. Hiring personnel at CPA firms and other organizations seek well-rounded employees with the writing and presentation skills necessary to move between spreadsheets and conference rooms.

“One of the things employers want — that’s at the top of their list but that they find lacking in many new hires — is great communication skills,” Hall said.

Accounting faculty recognize how vital communication skills are in preparing students for the professional world. However, faculty have such an abundance of technical information and skills to impart that they may find it difficult to focus on communication as much as they’d like.

Fortunately, there are ways to weave teaching soft skills into your lessons on technical topics. Here are tips from educators for integrating reading, writing, and public speaking skills into your classroom:

Have students practice presentation skills in class. The primary focus of accounting education will always be the “technical stuff,” said Ji Li, Ph.D., associate professor of accounting at California State University, Bakersfield.

However, as she observed, “accounting is not just sitting alone and working on the numbers.”

Li uses role-playing and case studies in her classes to integrate the presentation and public speaking skills required in professional environments. Her students form groups and complete reading and writing exercises. They produce formal business reports, hold Q&A sessions with their peers, and finally present their projects wearing full business attire.

She said students seem to enjoy the opportunity to get real-world experience alongside their accounting coursework. “They get very excited,” Li said.

Insist students practice good communication habits. Expecting great communication from the beginning is key to producing solid communicators, according to Hall. Beginning with the first class of his university’s Accounting Core program, students are required to practice good communication habits when speaking in class, such as standing up to speak, making eye contact, and answering questions in the form of statements.

“When they start [speaking], they have to start with something clear,” Hall said. If students fail to follow these strict communication guidelines, they are expected to sit down, stand back up, and start over.

Hall said these habits take root so strongly that these students often catch themselves standing up to speak in their other courses, as well. And those strict requirements pay off for the students as they enter the professional world.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Hall said. “The recruiters tell us, ‘Your students aren’t just great accountants, they are great accounting professionals.’”

Encourage students to take part in the right extracurricular activities. Social events outside the classroom are great opportunities to prepare students for the world of mingling and networking. Participation in campus groups, as well as honor organizations such as Beta Alpha Psi, can help bring students out of their comfort zones, off their phones, and into professional, social environments.

The Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver holds an annual etiquette dinner, built around practicing small-talk skills as well as table manners, and Hall makes attendance at the dinner mandatory for his students. Though students may not find it a comfortable setting, the dinner is good practice for the situations they will be required to navigate as professionals, he noted.

At social events, Hall pointed out, professionals get to know clients and colleagues outside of work, and they build connections that can be critical to their careers. “Face-to-face [conversation] cannot be a lost art,” he said.

Internships also help students get a taste of the real world. Daniel Shallcross, CPA, assistant clinical professor of accounting and business law at Baylor University, said nearly 98% of students in the university’s five-year program go through the internship program to gain course credit and experience.

“They come back saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, communications is huge,’” Shallcross said of the internship program. “It opens people’s eyes.”

Along with formal internships, Shallcross said, students take a career and professional trip to Washington, D.C., where they visit companies and institutions to gain perspective on professional environments that would be impossible to receive in the classroom.

Bring in the business community. Inviting recruiters and other working professionals into your learning environment helps students hone their personal interactions and provides networking opportunities. For example, you can have professionals present communications workshops, conduct mock interviews, or participate in student-development events focused on one-on-one or group networking.

Shallcross said his department holds communications workshops, bringing in business professionals from local and global companies. This past semester, companies focused on Microsoft Excel skills alongside verbal, written, and even non-verbal communications skills. Companies also devoted time to developing strong communications skills across generations.

Shallcross said feedback from corporate partners points to their desire for high-level communication skills and a willingness to be hands-on during student development.

“They are the ones telling us, ‘Hey, this is a need.’ So let’s use them. They want to be in the classroom helping and teaching our students.”

Matthew Philpott is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact lead editor Courtney Vien.

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