The Power of Communication

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Tuesday, August 8, 2023
By Caron Martinez, Sara Weinstock
Illustration by iStock/SurfUpVector
All business students, especially those focusing on sustainability and entrepreneurship, need to be skilled at speaking and writing professionally.
  • The Center for Professionalism and Communications (ProComms Center) at American University helps Kogod School of Business students learn how to communicate ideas succinctly and persuasively.
  • Communications skills are particularly important for business leaders explaining the benefits of sustainability measures or entrepreneurs seeking investors for new ventures.
  • The ProComms Center preps students for pitch competitions, facilitates workshops on design thinking and innovation, provides student coaching, and organizes service projects.

Communicating clearly and well is an essential skill for everyone in business, but it’s particularly important for two kinds of leaders: those who are promoting sustainability initiatives and those who are launching new enterprises. The World Economic Forum found in a 2022 report that because young business leaders will need to win the support of consumers and other stakeholders, their strong verbal and written abilities are essential to combat mistrust and misinformation and create impactful levels of change.

Programs at the Kogod School of Business at American University in Washington, D.C., are founded on two pillars: sustainability, which is baked into our DNA, and entrepreneurial thinking, which is a key aspect of our curriculum. Because our leadership, faculty, and staff understand that knowledge is of limited use without the confidence to communicate it, a third basic pillar is our belief in essential communications skills. That’s why we have put these skills front and center at Kogod’s Center for Professionalism and Communications (ProComms), an in-house, peer tutoring center open to all Kogod undergraduate and graduate students.

The ProComms Center was launched in November 2022 under our new dean, David Marchick. The center explicitly links communications skills and professional behavior with the future of work. In workshops, class activities, and feedback sessions, students learn that they must demonstrate critical thinking, confidence in communications, and solution-oriented creativity if they’re going to create the new enterprises and sustainable future they want.

Persuading Others to Focus on Sustainability

Many of today’s college students are millennials or members of Generation Z, and these are two groups that want to live their values. They aren’t interested in simply generating profits; they want to make changes in their lifestyles that contribute to better global outcomes.

According to a report from predictive analytics company First Insight, “62 percent of Gen Z shoppers prefer to buy from sustainable brands, and a staggering 73 percent are willing to pay more for sustainable products. Moreover, Gen Z and Millennials are the most likely to make purchase decisions based on personal, social, and environmental values.”

Similarly, a 2022 report from consumer insights company NielsenIQ Brandbank finds that “Gen Z (74 percent) and particularly Millennial (79 percent) shoppers are more likely to say it is important that the companies they buy from are transparent and sustainable compared to Gen X (63 percent) and Boomers (70 percent).” These findings emphasize the growing importance of communicating sustainable business practices and influencing the purchasing behaviors of younger generations.

At Kogod, we appeal to these students by providing a curriculum and a series of initiatives that focus on sustainability. But we believe we must do more than nurture the values of Generation Z; we also must teach students to appeal to a range of audiences, from consumers to policymakers to wider stakeholders.

Millennials and members of Generation Z aren’t interested in simply generating profits; they want to make changes in their lifestyles that contribute to better global outcomes.

One professor who values excellent communication is David Bartlett, the director of Kogod’s MS in Sustainability Management. The program recently won the grand prize in the 15th Annual Page Prize for Sustainability Issues in Business Curricula. Bartlett asks the ProComms Center to coach his MS students in presentation skills before they make appearances in front of clients.

Delivering top-notch presentations is a critical business skill for students who go on to work in any sector, “whether they are speaking to public, private, NGO, or nonprofit audiences,” says Bartlett. He adds, “Effective communication—especially to persuade stakeholders—is particularly valuable for students conveying the value proposition of innovative technologies and business models, working to address the complex problems of environmental justice, and communicating the benefits of green products to consumers.”

Communication as an Edge for Entrepreneurship

Communications skills are equally important for aspiring entrepreneurs who need to convey their ideas to potential consumers and investors. They must be proficient at public speaking, credible research, polished writing, and critical thinking.

Because communication is so crucial for entrepreneurs, the ProComms Center is co-housed within the university’s business incubator, the AU Center for Innovation (AUCI). Last year, Tommy White, director of the AUCI, invited the ProComms Center to share tutoring and coaching space with the entrepreneurship faculty as well as with the student ventures that use the incubator’s creative and co-working facilities.

The collaboration between the ProComms Center and the AUCI allows students to see how entrepreneurship, communication, and sustainability intersect. The arrangement also prepares students to do well in competitions that promote innovative solutions to societal issues.

“Being co-located with ProComms sends a clear message to our students: that to elegantly navigate the entrepreneurial ecosystem requires refined communications skills,” says Danielle Vogel, AUCI’s assistant director. “The partnership has allowed us to provide tremendous value to our entrepreneurship students and business incubator participants, all of whom will be called on to express themselves—clearly and impactfully—in our classrooms, and well beyond. The ProComms team works closely with us to make sure students succeed when it comes to communicating their ideas with poise and confidence.”

A Series of Initiatives to Develop Emerging Skills

At the ProComms Center, we work with the incubator and with other units at Kogod to engage in several types of activities throughout the year:

Student preparation. We help students get ready for entrepreneurship competitions where they will make pitches about products or services that could solve problems such as climate change, social injustice, inequitable food systems, immigration, and more.

The ProComms Center offers student preparation, design-thinking workshops, Innovation Mindset workshops, student coaching, and service project opportunities.

As an example, incoming student Caleb Morato teamed up with other Kogod students to participate in a summer program that also taught first-year students how to concisely communicate ideas and grab the attention of investors. Morato says, “My team and I discovered the powerful effect of emphasizing the ‘why’ rather than just the profitability or scalability of our solution. This intentional focus on communication elevated the purpose of our venture to a societal level, which created the difference we needed in our pitch.”

Design-thinking workshops. These events, which are taught by entrepreneurship faculty, also cover best practices in dynamic business writing. During the workshops, students learn how valuable it is to be able to articulate and rework their visions, because the projects they design in class eventually could lead to the launch of actual businesses.

Innovation Mindset workshops. MBA students attend these sessions as part of their Business Leadership Skills course. During the workshops, students develop their skills at the intersection of creativity, critical thinking, and public speaking.

Student coaching. In the capstone course for the MS in Sustainability, students undertake an international consulting project. We coach them on best practices in delivering a presentation, which enables them to give data-rich talks that are compelling, innovative, and persuasive.

Service projects. Students can’t live in a bubble in college or in life. If they develop empathy and a heart for service while they’re in school, they will deepen their commitment to pursuing business ideas that not only will be profitable, but also will improve someone’s quality of life. Kogod students often come to college having volunteered in high school, so we build on their heart for service to provide them with opportunities to volunteer in ways that benefit communities in the Washington, D.C. area.

Last fall, the ProComms Center partnered with the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy (LAYCCA), which serves students who are taking an alternate educational path. Kogod student tutors from ProComms traveled to LAYCCA’s facility in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, where they provided guidance in résumé-writing to LAYCCA students completing their I.T. certifications. This spring, ProComms student tutors conducted remote sessions via Zoom. These interactions gave LAYCCA students the opportunity to participate in mock hiring panels to develop their interviewing skills through role-playing.

Leaders for the Future

Through such partnerships and activities, the Kogod School of Business fosters leaders who create new ventures while prioritizing sustainable impact, not just profit. By emphasizing critical thinking, creativity, communication, empathy, and service, we’re equipping our students with the skills they need to make a meaningful difference in the world. We also are empowering our graduates to become agents of change who not only will succeed in business, but also will improve the quality of life for others.

Caron Martinez
Senior Director, Center for Professionalism and Communications, Kogod School of Business, American University
Sara Weinstock
Associate Director, Center for Professionalism and Communications, Kogod School of Business, American University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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