The student skills gap – my view: presentation skills

When I attended university 10 years ago, it cost a lot of money.

£3,000 tuition fees. £3,000 accommodation per year. Three years of education.

My family had to change the way they lived to make it work.

I had to work to make sure I made the most of the opportunity I was given and not let anyone down.

Paying such a large amount of money to an internationally recognised university, I never considered that in fact, they may be the ones that let me down.

The press today writes a lot about the quality of students that our higher education system is producing, and how so often many of them are not ready for the world of work. This isn’t the fault of the students, it’s the responsibility of our universities and currently, there is a gap between what is provided and what is really required.

£9,000 is now the average tuition fee (the life of my family would have had to have been very different to afford that!), and yet still there are so many ways in which our universities could improve the service that they give to our economy as a whole, and to our young people specifically.

I could talk about them all, but instead I’ll focus on what I know the most about – group communication and presentation skills.

The criticism often levelled at higher education is that it teaches our students the knowledge required, but often leaves them short of the practical skills with which to employ their new found knowledge. Never has this been truer than with regards to communication.

Expertise without voice

How much is my world class expertise worth, if I cannot communicate my new found knowledge in the workplace?

The answer: zero, zilch, nada.

There were 120 students on my marketing course at university. When we were told that we had to present our final project to the entire lecture hall the following week, 118 of us felt sick to the stomach (the other 2 were studying drama as a minor subject and positively relished the opportunity to perform).

Not only were we paralysed by fear, we were struck dumb by the fact that we had absolutely no idea how to conduct ourselves and communicate confidently to a large group. There was no textbook, no seminar, no lecture that would prepare us for what we saw as the biggest challenge of the year. Public speaking.

The final insult was that this presentation for which we had been given no formal training formed 60% of our overall grade for the module. Our university wanted us to achieve the highest levels of attainment, and yet hid from us the tools we required to do this.

It came as no surprise on results day that the module in question delivered poor results across the board. It was no further surprise when our friends in the years above us confirmed that this was always the case.

Imagine not only the increased achievement by students if universities provided much deeper and relevant presentation skills training, but also the efficiencies that this could bring to our economy as a whole.

I can think of organisations and colleagues that are famed for having a meeting to agree to have a meeting and I am sure that you can too. If we could improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our communications in the workplace our ideas, innovation and output would be improved and the world would surely race to come and trade with us and take onboard our communications culture!

For me, the issue was highlighted once again the moment that I left university. I had three job interviews. Two required me to prepare and deliver a presentation. This was just like that dastardly module at university all over again. However this time there was an £18k salary riding on it.

I was fortunate that by this point in my life I had undertaken a hell of a lot of self study and practice to try and improve my public speaking. Combined with the arrogant confidence of youth, I muddled through and was viewed as the best of a bad bunch.

Not everyone was so lucky, and the speaking experiences (and subsequent failures) that they had at university and job interviews set them up with the well-known and openly embraced fear of public speaking that 90% of the workforce now have as standard.

With our current provisions for public speaking both in the secondary and higher education curriculum, why would we expect anything else?

Current provisions

Of course, I know that it isn’t all doom and gloom. My own recent discussions with university course leaders up and down the country help to confirm this.

‘We have a session on presentation skills, covered by an existing member of the faculty’, is the common response when I mention speaking, so someone is covering this. But therein lies the problem.

Public speaking is a skill that requires practice. If I gave you a lecture on how to swim, and then pushed you into the pool, the chances are you would probably lose your life before you really ‘got it’.

The same applies to public speaking, but instead of death, your failure results in a lifelong fear of presenting to a group. Understandable really.

Yet still a lot of universities are covering presentation skills with just a single lecture.

Add to this that presenting, like most skills in life, is best taught by an expert (a swim coach would probably get me swimming quicker than instruction from my novice mother) that can engage and inspire an audience, then the well-meaning lecturer delivering a single session on presentation skills does not appear to be anywhere near an adequate solution.

If you fancy a giggle, Google ‘university presentation skills’ and see the online resources provided by institutions for their students. The last thing I wanted to do at university was read more. Pages of information are not enough – practical, relevant training in plenty of time is what is required.

A real solution

So what’s the solution here? Firstly, it’s a recognition by our higher education system as a whole that the value of an education is nothing unless a student can communicate that education for the greater good. This realisation may come about through government review or a slower change of mindset amongst the great and the good of the higher education world.

Whichever way, it needs to happen.

The second step is then the creation and delivery of a sustained and relevant presentation skills education for students. Not a single session delivered annually with voluntary attendance, but instead a series of workshops that provide a safe and encouraging space for students to develop the skills that will initially benefit them, but will ultimately improve the efficiency and success of our economy as a whole. If budget is an issue, perhaps after an initial setup phase, these sessions could be student-run, providing an arena to practice and evaluate presentation skills, in a similar model to Toastmasters International?

Ok, so that’s my passionate presentation skills plea, I would love to hear your thoughts, experiences and ideas regarding presentation skills within our education system. Please do add them to the comments below.

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Rich Watts is the UK Business Speaker of the Year and a past JCI National Public Speaking champion. He setup and now runs Rich Public Speaking providing presentation skills and public speaking training.

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