Career Coach: Yes, you still need strong communication skills

Arne Sorenson, president and chief executive of Marriott International, recently shared his views on leadership, his company, and what employers are looking for in their new hires at an event at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. In the discussion, he mentioned that one of the most important things employers look for in job applicants is something that has always been core: strong communication skills, both oral and writing.

"If you're a master at running a spreadsheet or a financial model, but really don't have the ability to understand the assumptions that are in it, or debate the assumptions in it," Sorenson said, "then you're not going to go as far as you could go otherwise."

He said communication skills are fundamental in reaching an audience, influencing them, and sharing your message. Having analytical skills are important, too, but you still have to be able to articulate in a clear and concise manner. These skills have remained important over time for all workers, and he doesn't think that will change any time soon.

One of the most critical communication skills is listening. You have to focus (eye contact, head nodding, asking questions) to really understand what they have to say. Some people don't know how to actually look at another person and give them their undivided attention, yet eye contact and demonstrating that you are truly paying attention to another person is pivotal to helping them feel heard. If you are fiddling with your phone, communication will break down.

When speaking, you have to have a good strong voice and moderate your voice tone to keep their attention. Sorenson emphasized that his experience as a trial lawyer probably helped him develop his strong speaking skills. You have to be clear and concise and get to the point quickly or you will lose them in the conversation. Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "Be sincere, be brief, be seated." Practice with a friend and listen to their feedback if they tell you that your oral communication skills need work. Have them also listen to you on the phone or Skype to let you know how clearly you come across since these are often tools used for hiring.

Writing skills are also important. Too often, students lack writing skills or are not given help to improve. They get feedback on the content of their papers, but not on the actual writing itself. Very few people get training on how to compose and respond to emails, and it's clear the messages are teeming with problems (from using all caps, to ignoring proper grammar and spelling, to lack of professionalism).

If you find out you need to enhance your communication skills, get the help you need right away. Take a course to correct your writing skills and join Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie clubs to improve your speaking. Or try taking an improv class. If you are already employed, see if your company offers some training in these areas. Ask someone who has strong communication skills to mentor you. Take a sales or negotiations course - those often will provide great opportunities to practice your persuasion and influence skills. Watch TED talks to get tips for how to present. All of us can keep practicing and improving our communication skills - whether it's writing, presenting, listening, or simply conversing with another person.

• Joyce E. A. Russell is the senior associate dean at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, career management, and negotiations. She can be reached at

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