Academic Leader as Communicator-in-Chief
Those of us who have served our institutions as deans or provosts know that leadership requires many skills—some of which we bring to the job and some of which we develop in office. I think that the ability to communicate effectively is one that is always a work in progress—partly because it is so challenging and partly because it demands abilities that are not inherent in the leader’s personality. Yes, we have budgets to manage, decisions to make, and innovations to pursue, but if we do not take seriously our roles as “communicators-in-chief,” we will likely not fare well in the many tasks that accompany our administrative responsibilities.
Sometimes our duties include making formal speeches to various groups: students, faculty, boards of trustees, conferences—to mention but a few. In these cases, the task requires having something worth saying and presenting our remarks in a coherent and concise fashion. Too many times, we may find ourselves off topic, meandering, and even rambling. Some sage—no doubt a dean somewhere—once noted that any speech, on any topic, to any audience, on any occasion can be made better simply by making it shorter: words to live by when we construct a formal presentation. In an earlier AL article, titled “My Last Commencement Speech,” I presented my own formula for this kind of formal presentation; of course, the formal speech itself requires effective delivery techniques if it is to serve its intended purpose. And those techniques include avoiding common speech errors of the kind we hear in virtually every news commentary we tune in to on television these days.
Common speech flaws
Here are some of the things you will hear from the expert pundits as they respond to a question from the moderator: “Well . . . you know . . . I mean . . . so . . . and . . . that said, I believe my answer would be . . .” By that point, the listener may be reaching for the remote! The dean or other academic leader may well fall into similar diversionary tactics while thinking of something substantive to say. This is a flaw less common in a formal talk than in less formal settings—such as a panel session, conference with department chairs, or interview with a reporter—but effective speakers know how to focus quickly on a response or point of argument. Other flaws include mumbling (poor articulation), word choice (poor diction), and using a volume level that is too soft or too loud for the occasion (tone). In any event, the verbal part of the communication process offers many areas where we academic leaders can find something to improve in our own formal and informal speeches.
Speech teachers tell us that effective communication relies more on nonverbal techniques than verbal ones. Perhaps the one area here that most of us could work on is listening. Listening is often the key to a productive conversation—even with a large audience where questions are sought and answered by the speaker. How well do you hear the actual point of a question or comment from a student or faculty member? Do you hear the unspoken message embedded in the verbal message? Can you read the body language so well that you know what the speaker is really trying to communicate? Is your eye contact just right—not piercing but still direct and receptive? In one-on-one conversations, have you developed active listening techniques advocated by such educator specialists as Thomas Gordon and William Glasser? These include simple things like a receptive posture and head nodding, “empathic grunting” (“hmmm . . . uh-huh . . . ah”), “door openers” (“tell me more about that”), and (most importantly) paraphrasing responses before you respond to make sure you have heard exactly what has been the speaker’s intended message. These listening techniques require practice to master and can be overused to the point where they seem phony—but that is where developed skill becomes critical.
I hope my communication has been clear and concise—no need to belabor points that are common knowledge for any academic leader. Even so, I suspect all of us can find some aspect of our communication talents to work on as we engage our many audiences in both formal and informal venues. Let me be so bold as to suggest that you find one or two in the discussion above to perfect. The challenge is to meld given techniques into one’s own personal style and value system. Your academic world has plenty of opportunities to practice any of these skills in your role as communicator-in-chief.
Thomas R. McDaniel is professor of education emeritus and former dean and provost at Converse College; he is the author of School Law for South Carolina Educators.