Stanford Prof: Why You Need a Communications Strategy

Last Updated Aug 25, 2009 6:21 PM EDT

J.D. Schramm of Stanford's Graduate School of Business (GSB) helps students develop their verbal and written communications skills in several very hands-on course offerings. In an era of texts and Tweets, he believes that strong communications skills can give individuals a leg up in their careers and that great communications should be used for strategic advantage by more companies. He also delivered the most organized answers this reporter has had the pleasure of transcribing.

BNET: What do you try to emphasize in the communications courses at the Stanford GSB?

Schramm: Our flagship course is Strategic Communications, which is a full quarter-long class. About 80 percent is presentation skills and 20 percent is business writing. We look at how we use communications as a strategy in the same way a firm might have a financial strategy or a marketing strategy. That's how leaders need to start looking at communications; it's one of the major strategic tools in your toolkit. We have a handful of other electives, including one on the presidential election and what you could learn about communications excellence by watching the debates and the town hall meetings. We have a course on cross-cultural communication, particularly useful for students who will lead global teams or operate with dispersed international teams in virtual environments.

BNET: What are the key skills in communications that people need when they are leading teams? What do people need to master? What are they getting wrong?

Schramm: For people early in their career, I think they underestimate the power of the written word. Because our culture is so focused on text messaging and Twitter and very short forms of communications, I think that many people coming out of business school today need to be reminded of the value of a well-written document, e-mail or report. Quite often I have had business leaders tell me that there is a much higher likelihood for an employee's written work to make it to the chief suite than for that individual to physically get there and have an opportunity to present something. Quite often a report or a speech that is written for my manager will make it further through the organization than I personally ever do -- if it is well written.

When we look at people who are mid-career and are aspiring for more senior roles within organizations -- and certainly when we look at the roles of entrepreneurs or consultants -- the ability to hold your own in an oral presentation or a meeting setting is crucial. At the heart of strong oral communication skills is being able to understand who your audience is and what your intent is with that audience. Whom am I speaking to? And as a result of this conversation, what do I want them to go do? That level of strategy in our communication is something people need to look at long before they consider traditional presentation skills of voice and gesture and movement and eye contact.

BNET: How up-to-date to you try to make the course in terms of integrating texts, social networking and other tools and technologies as business communications tools?

Schramm: I try to use the tools that they are most likely going to see in the business world they are going into. At a fundamental level, a memo is a memo, a presentation is a presentation. Once the fundamentals are covered, I try to get as creative as possible and find settings and media that are appropriate for where that students is headed in his career, and then have him work within that exact media. For example, last spring I taught a course for students who were headed into global careers and knew they would be managing virtual teams in many locations. The final project for students in that class was to work with two other GSB students to create and deliver a presentation to an audience on another continent. Some students delivered a presentation via Skype to a group of prospective GSB students in Korea. Another group used much more sophisticated distance meeting technology and delivered a presentation to a group of Google employees in the United Kingdom. A final group did a telephone conference call where there was no video component and they simply walked their listeners through a PowerPoint presentation they had sent over in advance. Every team went in a very different direction, and it was really fascinating coaching them.

We'll continue our conversation with Professor Schramm next week and learn more about cross-cultural communications and the importance of seeking out constant communications coaching throughout one's career.


  • Jeremy Dann

    Jeremy Dann is a Lecturer in Marketing at UCLA's Anderson School of Management and an innovation consultant and writer. He has been a contributor to several business and technology publications and is the founding editor of "Strategy & Innovation."