Professor Barbara Tannenbaum on the Communication Edge

“Engineers that impact industry don’t just have good ideas. They have the ability to sell them,” says Barbara Tannenbaum, a Brown University professor in communication and EMSTL faculty member. Leading IT, pharmaceutical, and finance companies around the world share this perspective and hire Tannenbaum as a consultant to sharpen the communication skills of their high-value employees to make sure the best ideas rise to the top.

In the interview below, Tannenbaum discusses the growing demand for leadership that blends technical expertise with the capacity to powerfully communicate with diverse audiences. Tannenbaum – whose course on public speaking is one of the most oversubscribed undergraduate classes at Brown – goes on to explain how she works with EMSTL students to cultivate this sought-after skill set.

Do you think there’s been an uptick in the importance businesses place on communication skills?

Absolutely. My long career in academia and consulting reflects how critical communication has always been to the business world. However, social media and 24/7 news have changed how we as a society digest content. Because there’s so much more of it, we need it delivered faster and more succinctly. Counter-intuitively, it’s harder to prepare a shorter rather than longer persuasive position. Companies need leaders across all domains that can quickly get to the punch line to give them an edge in an increasingly competitive business environment.

I find it fascinating that today leading companies come directly to my class to recruit Brown undergraduates. These companies know that they need not just the best and the brightest but those with outstanding communication skills as well.

You’ve spent the summer crisscrossing the globe consulting for leading pharmaceutical, finance, and IT companies. Did you discover any common communication challenges and needs that spanned these different industry sectors?

Yes, I did. First of all, it reinforced my perception that professionals in technical fields struggle with public speaking in ways that are similar to excellent writers. Both functions require a high degree of precision whether it’s finding the right word or analyzing a data set.

However, when it comes to communication, both groups need to think less about the details and more about the audience that they’re addressing. They need to step out of their own shoes and into those of their audience and ask, “what is the makeup of this group and why should they care about what I have to say.”

I found this need particularly strong in the finance sector, where big data is hot. I worked with a number of people in this field to help them communicate complex analyses to audiences that might not have a high degree of quantitative acumen but need to understand the relevance of their findings.

Ok. So public speaking is really important. But isn’t it one of those skills that you’re either born with or not?

True, public speaking comes more easily to some than others but it’s most definitely a skill that nearly every professional can cultivate. Even with iconically great speakers, we don’t often have a baseline for where they started. For example, Senator Ted Kennedy once shared with me that President Kennedy wasn’t always a great speaker. I can still hear his voice in my head saying, “my brother Jack decided when he was younger that he needed to improve his speaking, so he got a coach.” He clearly became an extraordinary speaker.

Will your work with EMSTL students be similar to your consulting work with corporate clients?

Yes and no. Similar to my consulting practice, I’ll have EMSTL students individually practice public speaking in various sized groups and use video footage to critique and improve their delivery. However, unlike my consulting clients, EMSTL students will integrate their communication studies with their larger learning experience in the program. For example, as they expand their areas of knowledge, they’ll also get the opportunity to learn how to communicate these new ideas and how they relate to their particular expertise.

To learn more about Professor Tannenbaum, go here.

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