Let’s begin by answering the question that is probably on the mind of anyone enrolled in an introductory English Communications course. Why are you here? It’s probably not because you chose this course out of your natural enthusiasm for English classes. It’s because it is a requirement to advance in the program and graduate.
So why would the program administrators require you to take this course? Is it just a money grab? The short answer to the second question is: No. The answer to the first question is: because you need sharp communication skills to be able to apply the core skills you’re learning in your other courses in the program. This textbook’s first section expands on that answer in more detail so that you can proceed through this course in the right frame of mind. None of your course’s lessons make sense unless you realize that communications skills are not merely nice-to-have assets in your program and in life, but absolutely necessary to your survivability in this social world and tough economy.
- 1.1: Communications vs. English Courses
- 1.2: Communication Skills Desired by Employers
- 1.3: A Diverse Skill set Featuring Communications is Key to Survival
- 1.4: Communication Represents You and Your Employer
1. Distinguish between the nature of English and Communications courses
2. Explain the importance of studying Communications
Whether students enter their first-year college Communications courses right out of high school or with years of work experience behind them, they often fear being doomed to repeat their high school English class, reading Shakespeare and writing essays. Welcome relief comes when they discover that a course in Communications has nothing to do with either of those things. Why should it when no one in the modern workplace speaks in a Shakespearean dialect or writes expository essays? If not High School English 2.0, what is Communications all about, then?
For our purposes, Communications (yes, with a capital C and ending with an s) is essentially the practice of interacting with others in the workplace and other professional contexts. Absolutely every job—from A to Z, accountant to Zamboni mechanic—involves dealing with a variety of people all day long. You may deal with clients, managers, coworkers, stakeholders (people and organizations yours deals with, such as suppliers), professional organizations, a union perhaps, investors, the public, media, students, and so on depending on the nature of the job.
When dealing with each of those audiences, we adjust the way we communicate according to well-known conventions. You wouldn’t talk to a customer or client the same way you would a long-time friendly co-worker; depending on what kind of relationship you have with your manager, you probably wouldn’t speak or write to them in the same way you would either of the others. Learning those communication conventions is certainly easier and more useful than learning how to interpret a four-hundred-year-old play. If we communicate effectively—that is, clearly, concisely, coherently, correctly, and convincingly—by following those conventions, we can do a better job of applying our core technical skills, whether they be in sales, the skilled trades, the service industry, health care, office management, the government, the arts, and so on.
A course in Communications brings your existing communication skills up to a professional level by focusing on how to follow conventions for interacting with those various audiences in a variety of channels—whether they be speaking in person, by phone, email, text, or emojis, for instance. That we don’t generally communicate by emojis with clients or managers (unless they tell us that they prefer it), for instance, is a convention that doesn’t occur naturally to some. Indeed, it may come as a surprise to some that you’d risk embarrassing yourself and permanently undermining your credibility if you added emojis to a message sent to a manager or client. Because we are not born with an instinct for staying within the bounds of respectable communication, the channel conventions must be learned and practiced.
Some will approach this course with years of professional experience behind them and will appreciate that the communication aspect of any job is easy to underestimate. They will also appreciate that not abiding by those well-established communication conventions—by going rogue and freestyling the way you communicate—usually brings embarrassment and failure. To the audiences you deal with in the workplace, how well you communicate determines your level of professionalism. It’s like your style of dress: a well-written email has the same effect as a nice suit worn in an office or a clean uniform worn by a support worker—it suggests detail-oriented competence. Major writing errors are like big stains down the front of that suit or revealing rips in that uniform—they make you look sloppy, foolish, and unreliable. Just as we spent decades getting to where we are now as communicators in whatever situation we find ourselves, we need a college course to iron out the wrinkles of our communication skills for the better workplaces we aspire to—what we go to a college for—in ways that our previous work experience and high school English classes didn’t.
This isn’t to say that your high school English classes were useless, though few can claim that they prepared you adequately for the modern workplace. Arguably the movement away from English fundamentals (grammar, punctuation, spelling, style, mechanics, etc.) in Canadian high schools does a disservice to students when they get into their careers. There they soon realize that stakeholders—customers, managers, co-workers, etc.—tend to judge the quality of a person’s general competence by the quality of their writing (if that’s all they have to go on) and speaking. The topic of Communications, then, includes aspects of the traditional English class curriculum, at least in terms of the basics of English writing. But the emphasis always returns to what is practical and necessary for succeeding in the modern workplace—wherever that is—not simply what is “good for you” in the abstract just because someone says it is.
If you feel that you are a weak writer but an excellent speaker or vice versa, rest assured that weaknesses and strengths in different areas of the communication spectrum don’t necessarily mean that you will always be good or bad at communication in general. Weaknesses can and should be improved upon, strengths built upon. It’s important to recognize that we have more communication channels available to us than ever before, which means that the communication spectrum—from oral to written to nonverbal channels—is broader than ever. Competence across that spectrum is no longer just a “nice to have” asset sought by employers, but essential to career success.
By teaching you the communications conventions for dealing with a variety of stakeholders, a course in Communications has different goals from your high school English course and is a vitally important step towards professionalizing you for entry or re-entry into the workforce.
List your communication strengths and weaknesses. Next, explain what you hope to get out of this Communications course now that you know a little more about what it involves. Before you answer, however, read ahead through the rest of this chapter to get a further sense of why this course is so vital to your career success.
3. Identify communication-related skills and personal qualities favoured by employers
If there’s a shorthand reason for why you need communication skills to complement your technical skills, it’s that you don’t get paid without them. You need communication and “soft” skills to get work and keep working so that people continue to want to employ you to apply your core technical skills. A diverse skill set that includes communication is really the key to survival in the modern workforce, and hiring trends bear this out.
In its Employability Skills 2000+, the Conference Board of Canada lists “the skills you need to enter, stay in, and progress” in the 21st century workplace. The first category listed is communication skills, specifically how to:
- Read and understand information presented in a variety of forms (e.g., words, graphs, charts, diagrams)
- Write and speak so others pay attention and understand
- Listen and ask questions to understand and appreciate the points of view of others
- Share information using a range of information and communications technologies (e.g., voice, e-mail, computers)
- Use relevant scientific, technological, and mathematical knowledge and skills to explain or clarify ideas (Conference Board, n.d.a)
Likewise, the non-profit National Association of Colleges and Employers in the US surveys hundreds of employers annually and has found that, in the last several years, they consistently rank the following four skills as most desirable ahead of fifth-ranked technical skills:
- Critical thinking and problem solving
- Professionalism and work ethic
- Oral and written communication (NACE, 2016)
When employers include these interrelated soft skills in job postings, it’s not because they copied everyone else’s job posting, but because they really want to hire people with those skills. From experience, they know that such skills directly contribute to the success of any operation no matter whether you’re in the public or private sector because they help attract and retain customers and client organizations.
Traditional hiring practices filter out applicants who have poor communication skills, starting with a “written exam”—the résumé and cover letter. As documents that represent you in your physical absence, these indicate whether you are detail oriented in how you organize information and whether you can compose proper, grammatically correct sentences and paragraphs. If you pass that test, you are invited to the “oral exam,” where your face-to-face conversational skills are assessed. If you prove that you have strong soft skills in this two-stage filter, especially if you come off as friendly, happy, and easy to work with in the interview, an employer will be more likely to hire you, keep you, and trust you with co-workers and clients.
The latest thinking in human resources (HR), however, is that both of those traditional filters are unreliable. Applicants can fake them. Expensive as it might be, you could get someone else to write your résumé and cover letter for you, or you can just follow a template and replace someone else’s details with your own. Though most job competitions for well-paying jobs will yield exceptionally good and bad résumés and cover letters amidst a tall stack of applications, most tend to look the same because most applicants follow fairly consistent advice about how to put them together. Likewise, you can train for an interview and “fake it to make it” (Cuddy, 2012), then go back to being your less hireable self in the workplace, only to be the first one “let go” when the next office “reorganization” comes down.
Recruiters at the most successful companies such as tech giant Google have looked at the big data on hiring and found that traditional criteria, including GPA and technical-skills test scores in the interview process, are poor predictors of how well a hire will perform and advance. New hires with only core technical skills, even if exceptionally advanced, don’t necessarily become successful employees; in fact, they are the most replaceable in any organization, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) industries (Sena & Zimm, 2017). According to Business Insider, Google’s recruiters took an analytics approach like that portrayed in the 2011 film Moneyball and found that key predictors of success are instead personal traits, especially:
- Adaptability: the curiosity-driven agility to solve problems through independent, on-the-job learning
- Resilience: the “emotional courage” to persevere through challenges
- Diverse background: well-roundedness coming from exposure to multicultural influences and engagement in diverse extracurricular activities including sports
- Friendliness: being a “people person,” happy around others and eager to serve
- Conscientiousness: an inner drive to strive for detail-oriented excellence in completing tasks to a high standard without supervision (Patel, 2017)
- Professional presence: evidence of engaging in professional activities online
- Social and emotional intelligence: according to the CEO of Knack, a Silicon Valley start-up that uses big data and gamification in the hiring process to identify the traits of successful employees, “everything we do, and try to achieve inside organizations, requires interactions with others”; no matter what your profession or “social abilities, being able to intelligently manage the social landscape, intelligently respond to other people, read the social situation and reason with social savviness—this turns out to differentiate between people who do better and people who don’t do as well” (Nisen, 2013).
In other words, the quality of your communication skills in dealing with the various audiences that surround you in your workplace are the best predictors of professional success.
Employers value employees who excel in communication skills rather than just technical skills because, by ensuring better workplace and client relations, they contribute directly to the viability of the organization.
1. Go to the Government of Canada’s Job Bank site and find your chosen profession (i.e., the job your program will lead to) via the Explore Careers by Essential Skills page. Type “support services assistant – medical” in the search box. List the particular document types you will be responsible for communicating with in a professional capacity by reading closely through the Reading, Document Use, and Writing drop-downs. List the in-person responsibilities and communication technologies featured under the Oral Communication drop-down.
Conference Board of Canada. (n.d.a). Employability skills 2000+. Retrieved from http://www.conferenceboard.ca/Libraries/EDUC_PUBLIC/esp2000.sflb
Conference Board of Canada. (n.d.b). Employability skills toolkit for the self-managing learner (preview). Retrieved from http://www.conferenceboard.ca/Libraries/PUBLIC_PDFS/es_toolkit_preview.sflb
Cuddy, A. (2012). Your body language may shape who you are. TED Talks. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are
Government of Canada. (2017). Explore careers by essential skills. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.jobbank.gc.ca/es_all-eng.do
National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2016, April 20). Employers identify four “must have” career readiness competencies for college graduates. Retrieved from https://www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/employers-identify-four-must-have-career-readiness-competencies-for-college-graduates/
Nisen, M. (2013, May 6). Moneyball at work: They’ve discovered what really makes a great employee. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/big-data-in-the-workplace-2013-5
Patel, V. (2017, August 7). Soft skills are the key to finding the most valuable employees. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/theyec/2017/08/07/soft-skills-are-the-key-to-finding-the-most-valuable-employees/2/#5604d5c616e7
Sena, P., & Zimm, M. (2017, September 30). Dear tech world, STEMism is hurting us. VentureBeat. Retrieved from https://venturebeat.com/2017/09/30/dear-tech-world-stemism-is-hurting-us/
4. Consider how communication skills will ensure your future professional success
The picture painted by this insight into what employers are looking for tells us plenty about what we must do about our skill set to have a fighting chance in the fierce competition for jobs: diversify it and keep our communication skills at a high level. Gone are the days when someone would do one or two jobs throughout their entire career. Rather, if the current job-hopping trend continues, “Canadians can expect to hold roughly 15 jobs in their careers” (Harris, 2014) and the future for many will involve gigging for several employers at once rather than for one (Mahdawi, 2017).
Futurists tell us that the “gig economy” will evolve alongside advances in AI (artificial intelligence) and automation that will phase out jobs of a routine and mechanical nature with machines. On the bright side, jobs that require advanced communication skills will still be safe for humans because AI and robotics can’t so easily imitate them in a way that meets human needs. Taxi drivers, for instance, are a threatened species now with Uber encroaching on their territory and will certainly go extinct when the promised driverless car revolution arrives in the next 10-15 years, along with truckers, bus drivers, and dozens of other auto- and transport-industry roles (Frey, 2016). They can resist, but the market will ultimately force them into retraining and finding work that is hopefully more future-proof—work that prioritizes the human element.
Indeed, current predictions from the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship at Ryerson University in Toronto are that 42% of Canadian jobs—especially low-paying ones—are at high risk of being affected by automation by the mid-2020s to 2030s. Some of those will be eliminated outright, but most will be redefined by requiring new skill sets that cannot be automated so easily. The 36% of jobs at low risk are those that require either advanced soft skills and emotional intelligence featured in roles such as managers, nurses, and teachers (Lamb, 2016), creativity, or advanced STEM skills in developing and servicing those technologies (Mahdawi, 2017; Riddell, 2017).
Since the future of work is a series of careers and juggling several gigs at once, communication skills are key to transitioning between them all. The gears of every career switch and new job added are greased by the soft skills that help convince your new employers and clients to hire you, or, if you strike out on your own, convince your new partners and employees to work with or for you. Career changes certainly aren’t the signs of catastrophe that they perhaps used to be; usually they mark moves up the pay scale so that you end your working life where you should: far beyond where you started in terms of both your role and pay bracket.
You simply cannot make those career and gig transitions without communication skills. In other words, you will be stuck on the first floor of entry-level gigging unless you have the soft skills to lift you up and shop you around. A nurse who graduates with a diploma and enters the workforce quilting together a patchwork of part-time gigs in hospitals, care homes, clinics, and schools, for instance, won’t still be exhausted by this juggling act if they have the soft skills to rise to decision-making positions in any one of those places. Though the job will be technologically assisted in ways that it never had been before, the fundamental human need for human interaction and decision-making will keep that nurse employed and upwardly mobile. The more advanced your communication skills develop as you find your way through the gig economy, the further up the pay scale you’ll climb.
1. Again using the Government of Canada’s Job Bank site, go to the Explore Careers by Outlook page and search for your chosen profession (i.e., the job your program will lead to). Using the sources listed below as well as other internet research, explain whether near- and long-term projections predict that your job will survive the automation and AI revolution or disruption in the workforce. If the role you’re training for will be redefined rather than eliminated, describe what new skill sets will “future proof” it.
Frey, T. (2016, April 5). 128 Things that will disappear in the driverless car era. Retrieved from http://www.futuristspeaker.com/job-opportunities/128-things-that-will-disappear-in-the-driverless-car-era/
Government of Canada. (2017). Explore careers by outlook. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.jobbank.gc.ca/wage-outlook_search-eng.do?reportOption=outlook
Harris, P. (2014, December 4). How many jobs do Canadians hold in a lifetime? Workopolis. Retrieved from https://careers.workopolis.com/advice/how-many-jobs-do-canadians-hold-in-a-lifetime/
Lamb, C. (2016, June). The talented Mr. Robot: The impact of automation on Canada’s workforce. The Brook¬field Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship. Retrieved from http://brookfieldinstitute.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/TalentedMrRobot_BIIE.pdf
Mahdawi, A. (2017, June 26). What jobs will still be around in 20 years? Read this to prepare your future. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/26/jobs-future-automation-robots-skills-creative-health
Riddell, C. (2017, February 10). 10 high-paying jobs that will survive the robot invasion. Retrieved from https://careers.workopolis.com/advice/10-high-paying-jobs-will-survive-robot-invasion/
5. Recognize that the quality of your communication represents the quality of your company
Imagine a situation where you are looking for a contractor for a custom job you need done on your car and you email several companies for a quote breaking down how much the job will cost. You narrow it down to two companies who have about the same price, and one gets back to you within 24 hours with a clear price breakdown in a PDF attached in an email that is friendly in tone and perfectly written. But the other took four days to respond with an email that looked like it was written by a sixth-grader with multiple grammar errors in each sentence and an attached quote that was just a scan of some nearly illegible chicken-scratch writing. Comparing the communication styles of the two companies, choosing who you’re going to go with for your custom job is a no-brainer.
Of course, the connection between the quality of their communication and the quality of the job they’ll do for you isn’t water-tight, but it’s a fairly good conclusion to jump to, one that customers and clients will always make. The company representative who took the time to ensure their writing was clear and professional, even proofreading it to confirm that it was error-free, will probably take the time to ensure the job they do for you will be the same high-calibre work that you’re paying for. By the same token, we can assume that the one who didn’t bother to proofread their email at all will likewise do a quick, sloppy, and disappointing job that will require you to hound them to come back and do it right—a hassle you have no time for. We are all picky, judgmental consumers for obvious reasons: we are careful with our money and expect only the best work value for our dollar. In healthcare, this is even more important! We don’t want someone to care for us or our loved ones that will do a sloppy or half-job.
Good managers know that about their customers, so they hire and retain employees with the same scruples, which means they appreciate more than anyone that your writing represents you and your company. As tech CEO Kyle Wiens (2012) says, “Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet” where your writing is “a projection of you in your physical absence.” Just as people judge flaws in your personal appearance such as a stain on your shirt or broccoli between your teeth, suggesting a sloppy lack of self-awareness and personal care, so they will judge you as a person if it’s obvious from your writing that “you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re” (¶6).
As the marketing slogan goes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. If potential employers or clients (who are, essentially, your employers) see that you care enough about details to write a flawless email, they will jump to the conclusion that you will be as conscientious in your job and are thus a safe bet for hire. Again, it’s no guarantee of future success, but it increases your chances immeasurably. As Wiens says of the job of coding in the business of software programming, “details are everything. I hire people who care about those details” (¶12-13), but you could substitute “programmer” with any job title and it would be just as true.
The quality of your communication represents the quality of your work and the organization you work for, especially online when others have only your words to judge.
Describe an incident when you were disappointed with the professionalism of a business you dealt with, either because of shoddy work, poor customer service, shabby online or in-person appearance, etc. Explain how the quality of their communication impacted that experience and what you would have done differently if you were in their position.
Wiens, K. (2012, July 20). I won’t hire people who use poor grammar. Here’s why. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2012/07/i-wont-hire-people-who-use-poo/