Along with interpersonal and collaborative skills, communication skills figure prominently among those identified as “21st century.” Specifically, “expressing thoughts clearly, crisply articulating opinions, communicating coherent instructions, motivating others through powerful speech — these skills have always been valued in the workplace and in public life,” according to Intellectual and Policy Foundations of the 21st Century Skills Framework.
Powerful speech indeed, communication skills include not only reading, writing, and listening, but also an often and paradoxically neglected part of our language arts — speaking. Paradoxically because speaking is what most of us do most! Notwithstanding the wonders and efficiencies of technological and electronic communication — e-mailing, texting, twittering, etc. — there’s nothing more powerful and effective in the hierarchy of human communication than face-to-face verbal communication.Without a sound foundation of oral communication and presentation skills, core 21st Century Skills goals would likely go unrealized. How else could you express thoughts clearly, articulate opinions crisply, communicate instructions, or motivate others — and here come the key discriminators — anywhere, anytime, and most of all, immediately — than through powerful speech? Immediately, with nothing in the middle, no paper or electronic screen, large or small; nothing between the speaker and listener but vibrating air.
If young people can’t instantly represent themselves effectively, with what Aristotle called the right ethos; if they can’t summon the logos and the confidence to ask the necessary questions; and if they can’t grasp the appropriate tone and timbre in their pathos, they will be ill-prepared and distinctly disadvantaged as they leave high school and go to work, college, or trade school. In short, they need to know how to use their oral communications abilities to get where they want to go and to become who they want to be. Speak well, and your interlocutor will affirm that hearing is believing.
Hundreds of our students desperately need these basic communications skills. Somehow we expect them to be learned from somewhere. But where? On the playground? In the streets? At home? In school? From their engagement in a 21st century curriculum? Don’t count on it. In fact, count on it not to happen. It’s rare today to find the arts of communication and public speaking taught in school. But without them, instead of“no child left behind,” what we’ll have is “no child’s behind left.” And no adults, either.
Where Do You Start? What’s Important?
Students need to know — need to be taught — among many other things, how to introduce themselves properly, how to make meaningful eye contact, how to start and maintain conversations, how to interact with all kinds of people, how to give a successful interview, manage relationships, and eventually stand up and address a live audience with authority and confidence. Students must learn to create rapport, trust and respect. These are the basic components of nearly every affirmative human interaction, including those explicit and implicit in realizing the 21stCentury Skills.
This area of the language arts is best taught face-to-face in an informal, low-risk and highly interactive way. The instructor needs to model the manner of delivery that achieves proven, positive results; i. e., the instructor must be a teacher as well as mentor and role model. Nothing becomes second nature until it becomes first nature first. Students must not only see what effective communication looks and feels like; they must also understand the details of how it’s done so they can practice and hone their skills.
A Framework for Teaching Communication Skills
Teaching effective communication starts with very basic tools to establish a sound foundation, which is built upon and reinforced with increasingly challenging lessons. In the often scary realm of public speaking, it’s vital that we move step-by-step from talking about easy subjects, things we know about, to subjects that demand thought, introspection, and spontaneity. Here’s where we start:
Knowing how to introduce oneself with an appropriate handshake, proper eye contact, and a fitting demeanor is a foundational skill. It’s the way we begin most interactions with others and likely sets the tone for a brief conversation, a meeting, or a life-long relationship.You can’t say the first thing twice!
The Elevator Speech
The ability to make a short presentation (in the time of an elevator ride in a relatively short building) that appropriately informs a friend/client/collaborator/boss of who you are and what you do. It’s one of the very basic elements of oral communication.
Studies show a direct correlation between vocabulary and success. The point here is not just learning new words but to developing in our students a curiosity for the power, nuance, and proper application of our rich language. It’s no accident that the end of the German word for vocabulary, Wortschatz, means treasure.
Active and engaged listening is an essential, but often neglected part of the communication spectrum. It’s essential to showing, and to having, respect.
Communication Etiquette and Courtesies
Start with the basics:“Thank you,” “please,”and,“I’m sorry,”then move to rules of etiquette involving communication devices and situational needs.
The fear of public speaking ranks right up there with death as our number one fear. Students must master proven methods of dealing with and overcoming this fear from the very beginning of their public speaking careers, including relaxation exercises, visualization techniques, and most importantly knowing what they’re talking about before they speak.
How To Ask For What You Want
We ask for many things each day: “May I be excused from class today?” “Will you give me this job?”“How about a raise?”“Will you go on a date with me?” But it’snotjustasking,timing and tone figure importantly.
The skills deployed in a successful interview apply well beyond securing employment or entrance to advanced education.An interview is taking place when you ask for a loan or try to put a work team together, or when you’re choosing a contractor to paint your house. Do you know who’s in control during an interview?
Being Nice and Being Liked
What? No kidding! Studies have shown that on job interviews, all other things being equal, an employer will pick the “nice” person, the “likeable” one, over others.
Networking has always been a challenge for even the most accomplished of communicators. Knowing how to work a room, make connections, and establish and maintain relationships, are the skills that mark a successful person.
Speech Construction and Delivery
Finally, building on everything that’s come before, it’s time to get up in front of a room of people and give a speech. It’s time to knock ‘em alive!
When students practice and synthesize these elements in the right sequence over the right amount of time, the result can be a confident, well-spoken individual, not just someone ready to be a better student, but someone ready to be heard.
The basis for this article is the PowerCommunicators® curriculum, a research-based program that has been used with No Child Left Behind services in Maryland, the District of Columbia,Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania for the last six years. It is aligned with K-12 standards for teaching and learning in the Language Arts. Outcomes include better attendance, grades, and behavior, as well as improvements in literacy skills, confidence and self-esteem. Training sessions are limited to eight to 12 students per instructor to allow time for three to five speaking opportunities per student per session. Lessons are often videotaped to gauge students’ strengths, weaknesses, and progress.
Ed Wilczynski is president of Power Communicators. For information visit www.powercommunicators.org.