In a 2013 survey​ of employers, commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 80 percent of CEOs said they wished colleges spent more time teaching students how to effectively communicate. Employers routinely lament the lack of “soft skills,” incoming employees have.

But the Driehaus College of Business has discovered a way to bridge this skills gap by injecting science into the art of communication, turning “soft skills” into a tactical weapon for business success.

At DePaul, effective business communication is less about writing cover letters and resumes and more about teaching students the essence of human relations, or how to develop trusting, personal relationships with their peers and co-workers through effective communications.

"Most people present communication from a purely literary or Aristotle lineage, which is designed for debate,” says D. Joel Whalen, associate professor of marketing and director of curriculum for the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business Center for Sales Leadership Program. “The way business people communicate, it’s not about debate at all; it’s about reaching a consensus and problem solving.”

Teaching Communication Science

There’s nothing soft about DePaul’s communication skills courses, which are required for undergraduate business majors and for many graduate business students.

In fact, Whalen (left), who helped create the business communications program for the Driehaus College of Business, pulls from the worlds of journalism, behavioral psychology and even human biology to teach students how to effectively communicate with others. He puts science into a realm that traditionally has been dominated by rhetoric and speech gurus.

Students learn how sense memory, persuasion psychology, communication science neurobiology and associative memory effects communication. They practice effectively communicating using a host of other research-based communication factors.

The result is that students understand that effective communication equals not just what you say, but how you say it.

“When you have a complex message, the words you say contribute only 10 percent to a person’s understanding of your message,” says Whalen, who is a nationally renowned business communication expert and author who is frequently quoted in the media and educational circles. “The other 90 percent comes from your attitude, tone and body language. We teach students attitude management and this is an area of communication that delves deeply into behavioral psychology.”

Self-Discovery Aids Communication Expertise

For example, Whalen says, whenever we’re trying to impress a person, be it an employer, colleague, even a significant other, the more important the communication the more our anxiety level rises.

It’s an unconscious reaction to the weight of our message. Our throat gets dry, our palms become sweaty and we tend to act in ways that may make our audience feel our anxiety and, thereby, distrust what we’re going to say.

But if you can learn to master your attitude and suppress nervous anxiety to produce seemingly effortless communication, you will be deemed more trust worthy than competitors, Whalen says. This is why people may vote for a charming candidate even though what she says isn’t all that profound.

“We have students go through a series of exercises that teach them what happens biochemically when they communicate with others and tricks to help them adjust their attitude so they minimize the insecurity they may feel and communicate with confidence,” Whalen says.

Real-World Applications

All this science sounds impressive, but it would not mean much if the techniques didn’t work in the real world.

Like many students, Zoljargal (Zola) Enkhbold (pictured above), a DePaul undergraduate business major, was skeptical about taking a communication class for her degree. She took Whalen's class one fall quarter. Then, in the summer, as part of an intership, she was presented with the opportunity to help a start-up company make a pitch to the Prime Minister of her ancestral home of Mongolia. The presentation was for a contract to produce clean energy products for the country. The startup’s founders, both engineers, turned to her for help. (Read more about Enkhbold's presentation​.)

“Everything I did for that presentation I learned in Dr. Whalen’s class,” Enkhbold said. “That class is amazing. It seems like just another required class, but it really is useful in everyday real life. It comes in pretty handy.”

Undergraduate students like Enkhbold , as well as MBA students and alumni, rave about DePaul’s effective communication courses. Driehaus alumni often return to the classroom to role play with students and model the effective communication techniques emphasized in class.

Executives from many Chicago-based businesses, such as Leo Burnett, are as important to the course as books and faculty lectures. A team of 15 accomplished DePaul alumni help teach DePaul's business communication courses.

“We always get comments from executives about how well our students communicate,” says Whalen. “In addition, we always get comments from students on how often they use the skills taught in our courses in their every day jobs.”

The best part, Whalen emphasizes, is not just that students become persuasive, effective communicators, but that they learn to truly communicate by listening and identifying with their audience. It is a twist on teaching communication skills that showcases the business college’s distinctive Vincentian value of putting the needs of others first.

“The key is that they learn communication is not about them,” Whalen says. “They understand it’s about what’s going on with the other person and how we can mutually communicate with each other to create a new version of reality.”


Interested in studying marketing at DePaul? Visit the Kellstadt Graduate School of Businessfor information on DePaul’s MBA and MS programs.

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