Dr. Bjorn Mercer


By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University

This is the second article in a three-part series on the collegiate discipline of communication and its potential career fields.

In Part I of the series, we reviewed what the communication field is and some of the skills that students need to learn. Now, we will look at the importance of communication for career success and how some business writers view communication.

Start a communication degree at American Public University.

In a Forbes article on why communication is the most important skill today, Greg Satell goes over different ideas about communication. To start, he talks about the teaching of communication and job specialization:

“And so it is curious that we give communication such a short shrift. Schools don’t teach communication…When we enter professional life, we immerse ourselves in the jargon and principles of our chosen field and obediently follow precepts laid out by our respective priesthoods. Yet we rarely put serious effort toward expressing ourselves in a language that can be understood by those outside our tribe. Then we wonder why our efforts and achievements fail to resonate.”

Satell says schools do not teach communication. That is incorrect; they do teach communication, but poorly. In high school, students typically have to give a few oral presentations and in college, most students take one required public speaking class.

Besides that, they do not practice their communication skills. Or if they do, they do it on their own or they join an organization like Toastmasters.

Ideally, in high school and college students would be required to take a public speaking course to get the basics of oral communication. Those basics would be reinforced in many other courses where they would have to give oral reports that would be partially graded using communication standards.

Most Jobs Today Are Highly Specialized and Filled with Job- and Field-Specific Terminology

Satell also notes that most jobs today are highly specialized, so daily conversations are filled with job- and field-specific terminology. This does not pose a problem when talking to peers, but it becomes a problem when talking to anyone outside the profession.

The ability to communicate with others and explain highly complex ideas and issues in an easily understood manner is a skill and differentiator unto itself. As Satell says, “in order to innovate, it’s not enough to just come up with big ideas, you also need to work hard to communicate them clearly.”

Communication, especially oral communication, is one of those skills that people just expect to improve without really studying or practicing. On the flipside, some people accept that they are bad at oral communication, are fearful of it, and try to avoid it at all cost. In an informative article that helps students find graduate programs, S.M. Audsley has some keen observations about communication. “What most people often take for granted is how important communication skills are — ‘soft skills’ are generally overlooked, but they are essential to performing well in all types of environments.”

So what are soft skills? Generally, soft skills “include interpersonal (people) skills, communication skills, listening skills, time management, and empathy, among others…Hiring managers typically look for job candidates with soft skills because they make someone more successful in the workplace.”

Soft Skills Are Extremely Important, but They Are Not Actively Taught Compared to Hard Skills

Soft skills are extremely important and in many ways are one of the keys to long-term career success. But they are not actively taught in comparison to hard skills, which “include the specific knowledge and abilities required for success in a job. These types of skills are learned and can be defined, evaluated, and measured.”

Intercultural Communication Is Another Important Skill

Moving beyond oral communication, another skill that is important today is intercultural communication. In the contemporary workplace there is interaction among a variety of people from various cultures which requires a great deal of understanding, knowledge, and patience. As stated in a Forbes article by Carol Kinsey Goman, “Culture is, basically, a set of shared values that a group of people holds. Such values affect how you think and act and, more importantly, the kind of criteria by which you judge others. Cultural meanings render some behaviors as normal and right and others strange or wrong.”

Dorie Clark poses a few questions in a different Forbes article about intercultural communication and having to navigate its challenges: “What does silence mean?”

This is a great question because in American culture, silence is typically to be avoided. But in other cultures, silence is something common in normal and business conversation and is not always avoided. If you know whom you are talking to you can use silence as a tool to strategically communicate and be talkative or when needed use silence and pauses if expected.

An Important Part of Interpersonal Communication Is Knowing How to Disagree

An important part of interpersonal communication is knowing how to disagree. This is especially crucial in the business world. If arguing is thought to facilitate problem solving, that might work in some workplaces.

However, when someone is among new people, the stranger has to learn how others view and approach disagreement. For some, disagreement is not a public activity and disagreements are only expressed in private or through carefully worded emails or writing.

Another excellent question is how much do you focus on relationships versus just getting the job done. For typical American culture, a lot of business can be conducted via email and the communication can be casual (no formal titles or formal signatures).

Other people who are used to different cultures might be taken aback by this type of communication; they might feel that proper etiquette or decorum has been broken or ignored. When working with people from other countries, it’s critical to always figure out if they are high-context or low-context, as Carol Kinsey Goman suggests.

Communication, especially oral and intercultural communication, are important skills that everyone needs in their personal lives and especially in their careers. In the final article, we will go over possible jobs in the communication field.

About the Author

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an MBA from the University of Phoenix. He writes about culture, leadership, and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.