Start talking

Is the gift of the gab more valuable in business than a good degree?

Talk may be cheap, as the old saying goes, but underestimating the importance of speaking well can cost job applicants dear. It's not so much a question of whether or not to tone down a regional accent, more a matter of effective communication. And many employers and recruitment personnel report a worrying decline in literacy.

"Employers are finding a growing number of graduates lacking in oral skills," says Roly Cockman, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. He puts it down to the emphasis colleges place on lecture- based teaching, and a failure to develop project-based team skills.

According to Christina Stuart, managing director of SpeakEasy Training, graduates all too often assume that paper qualifications alone will secure them a job. But, she says, "That simply gets them an interview. It's performance that swings it."

Many fall down as a result of social and cultural factors, she believes. "There's the break-up of the family, more TV, and less communal play as children spend more time with computer games." The National Curriculum now includes speaking and listening skills, but the beneficiaries have yet to hit the job market.

British business, she believes, has a serious communications problem that is affecting performance. A tentative statement can weaken the message. Understanding how to use language and having the confidence to stand up for your ideas are essential.

"In business, interpersonal skills and communications are more important than ever before," Ms Stuart adds. "More decisions are made in the workplace as a result of people putting forward an idea. With less hierarchy, people are working more in small, project-based teams. Effective communication is critical."

Josy Brown, a 26-year-old marketing assistant, found interviews particularly daunting after leaving college. "I'd studied history, which had less emphasis on the practicalities of presentation and debate than more practical courses. Under pressure I just clam up - I hesitate, and don't express myself as best I can."

A London-based recruitment specialist, handling a number of blue chip companies, adds: "The problem is, too many graduates appear unprepared. There's the lack of basic verbal grammar skills. I talk to many and come away thinking: `I couldn't recommend this person - even for a first interview. Their presentational style would put the client off.' "

Research published in the last few weeks points to a decline in literacy (Office of National Statistics) and negative effects associated with strong regional accents (the Institute of Personnel and Development). Meanwhile, media attention has focused on John Major's alleged effort to find a more macho voice and Tony Blair's attempts to improve his appearance - notably, some reports say, by flattening his bouffant hairstyle.

However, blunders are all too often less subtle and, in many cases, easier to rectify. Much of it comes down to common sense, Ms Stuart says. "The danger is thinking being articulate is a natural talent. In fact, few of us can be articulate without practice." The key is to adopt a pragmatic approach. "You behave in a certain way at home and in a different way in the pub. In and out of work, there is an appropriate way to speak and an appropriate form of dress," she advises.

Preparation - even if it's only a few seconds spent thinking before speaking, pays dividends. Direct eye contact, a firm handshake, a smile - these are tiny things people often do not bother about. "It comes down to confidence. But consider the first three letters of that word: con. You don't have to feel it, just to appear so."

In an attempt to boost skills, the AGR is one of several organisations lobbying further and higher education colleges to reconsider ways of teaching. "There's a remedy to all of this," Mr Cockman believes. "Colleges should place a greater emphasis on project-based team work."

Meanwhile, Tom Lovell, manager of Reed Graduate Recruitment, urges employers to be less quick to condemn. "Graduate recruiters may complain about poor communication skills, but many are demanding more from graduates. They are expected to hit the ground running; in the past they would have got more time, training and support."

But until employers feel confident enough to invest time and money on personnel development, the onus to change rests with the prospective employee rather than the employern

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