A Digital Magazine by American University's Kogod School of Business
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Bridging the Business-Writer Gap
    An accounting professor, a novelist, and a poet walk into a business school. What sounds like the start of a joke is an everyday reality in business schools across the country. Some professional schools continue to emphasize the importance of quantitative and analytical skills, arming students with valuable tools but not necessarily the means to communicate the output effectively.

    At Kogod, three such divergent professionals agree on a simple fact: business students need to improve
    their writing skills. A 2013 survey conducted by Hart Research Associates found that 80 percent of employers feel that universities need to dedicate more curriculum and resources to improving students’ ability to communicate orally and in writing.

    “If you’re not communicating your information well,” said Casey Evans, Executive-in-Residence in the Accounting department, “then your audience just can’t appreciate it.”

    DRAFTING A PLAN

    Kogod’s Center for Business Communications, led by Director Bonnie Auslander, was founded in 2007 in response to employers’ feedback that communication skills should be emphasized.

    Business schools have actively responded to employer demands in recent years, emphasizing writing and presentation skills. The Wharton School of Business doubled its communications requirements in 2012 and a variety of schools, including Emory University and University of Rochester, have since added business writing centers.

    “Recruiters told us our students were strong in the functional areas, but they couldn’t communicate well enough,” Auslander said. “So the administration decided, ‘Let’s do something about it. Let’s hire an expert.’”

    Rather than hire faculty with strictly business-writing experience, Kogod looked in unique places to bring in writing experts. Auslander, for example, holds a BA in history and an MFA in creative writing with a focus in poetry, and taught managerial communications to MBA students at Duke University.

    She’s built a stable of fellow writers, mixing diverse experience and expertise with a traditional business background. Enter Alex Myers, a historical fiction writer who was hired in 2013 to serve as the center’s assistant director.

    FINDING FACT IN FICTION

    The addition of Myers, a published, New York Times-reviewed novelist and a Lannan fellow in Georgetown University’s English department, strengthened the ranks.

    Myers authored Revolutionary, a historical fiction novel about his ancestor, Deborah Sampson, a woman who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War in 1782.

    Though someone with his experience would more often be found in an English department, Myers’s knowledge and perspective provides business students with access to a writer whose work also happens to complement the university’s identity of diversity and inclusion.

    “In business there are certainly particular areas where the goal and the purpose are quite different than other areas of academia,” Myers said. “But I’ve been very pleased to learn that good writing is still good writing, and good speaking is still good speaking. Those are universals.”

    Standing with Myers is Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who strongly believes that practicing writing generates effective communication. Instead of preparing PowerPoint presentations for meetings, Bezos requires his employees to write a several-page memo, which he believes “forces a deeper clarity.”

    In addition to helping them understand basic writing fundamentals, Myers’s writing background offers students practice in fleshing out ideas for an audience outside the business arena.

    “I often ask [students] to explain industry terms, and that is enlightening for them,” Myers said. “Sometimes they’ve never had to explain it to anybody.”

    The center’s student satisfaction rate over the last three years is 98 percent.

    FROM ACCOUNTING TO ENGLISH

    The influence of this emphasis on writing takes hold in a variety of analytics-heavy courses, including accounting and information technology; faculty are learning to embrace the value of writing professionals within a business school context.

    “EVEN IF YOU’RE DOING STRAIGHT DATA ANALYSIS, YOU HAVE TO BE ABLE TO COMMUNICATE THAT TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE AND AUDIENCES.”
    CASEY EVANS, EXECUTIVE-IN-RESIDENCE

    Evans partnered with Auslander to improve a written assignment in her forensic accounting course, hosting a workshop and requiring students to have their assignments reviewed. Evans feels that strong and clear communication is just as important as the content of the message, even in a field known primarily for numbers.

    “When I was practicing, I noticed that our consultants coming out of school didn’t have the writing skills and communication skills that are important in a business setting,” she said.

    Evans has worked closely with the center to arm her students with more than just the processing skills they’ll need to present to a boss, coworker, or client.

    “Even if you’re doing straight data analysis,” Evans said, “you have to be able to communicate that to different people and audiences.”

    BUILDING THE WELL-ROUNDED STUDENT

    George Saitta is a Senior Director in FTI Consulting’s Forensic and Litigation consulting practice—a firm that investigated the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and Bernard Madoff fraud, among other cases. He preaches the value of writing skills in a professional setting.

    “Writing is one of the capstone skills students need to develop,” he said. “In my job, you can do months of investigative work, but when it comes time to communicate, you need to synthesize and report on those facts in a clear way.”

    Saitta feels that students are prepared to write in a professional setting, but fear of failure prevents recent graduates from trying and succeeding.

    “For students looking for jobs, have confidence in your ability to report and summarize your work,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to write and want to be in positions to write. Writing is the hardest part of the job.” KN mark



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