Um, Like, Whatever: College Grads Lack Verbal Skills

For college graduates navigating the job market, a well-prepared resume may be a good starting point, but they’re going to have to improve their verbal skills if they want to get hired.

According to a Job Outlook 2011 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employment (NACE), employers listed verbal communication as a key skill they seek in job candidates, but graduates’ expertise in this area is falling short.

When asked about teamwork and analytical skills, employers were “very satisfied” with recent graduates' skill level. However, when it came to verbal communication skills, ratings scored between “somewhat satisfied” and “very satisfied.”

“Your resume is your invisible first impression, but the ability to verbalize clear, concise answers is paramount to sealing the deal,” says J.P. Hansen, career expert and author of The Bliss List: The Ultimate Guide To Living The Dream At Work And Beyond. “Most jobs require the ability to communicate and the one who prepares, practices, and persuades, lands the offer.”

Presenting yourself well in person can make a world of difference in how someone perceives you, both in personal and professional relationships.

“The ability to verbalize a clear, concise thought is critical,” Hansen says. “It’s not always the best person on paper who lands the job--it’s the one who verbalizes with genuine enthusiasm.”

The experts point to the increase in e-mail and texting to dampening interpersonal skills.

“One of the biggest issues in the last five years is employees e-mailing instead of going to talk to or at the very least picking up the phone to call the person they need to communicate with,” says Patti Wood, professional speaker and trainer. “People don’t know how to make a request face to face and they avoid difficult or emotional conversations.”

It’s not all about strong communication in person, it's also a good idea to fine tune your phone skills as well.

“I will have college audience members say, 'how do I start [and end] a phone call?'” Wood says. “They don't know the dynamics of that. It's that turn taking and initiating conversation, [which] is a skill set that you learn over time.”

Lack of workplace experience is a main culprit to college students’ lack of verbal skills, according to Lindsey Pollak, career expert and author of Getting from College to Career: 90 Things to Do Before You Join the Real World.

“You’ve been talking your whole life, but not in this way,” she says. “There's so much focus on e-mail and instant messaging and texting and written communication that I think we've lost a little bit of that ability to talk in a professional way.”

Even for those with more technical degrees, such as engineering or accounting, the ability to communicate with clients or co-workers is an important part of any job.

“It's so rare to find somebody who has that combination of really good technical skills and really good verbal communication skills,” says Pollak. “You will be head and shoulders above your colleagues if you can combine those two.”

Improving Verbal Communication: Practice Makes Perfect

The experts say that the only way to hone verbal communication skills is to use them, especially if it involves taking you out of your comfort zone. Wood suggests taking a public speaking class to get over your anxiety.

"Fear of public speaking kept them  from advancing in their careers,  as many high level jobs require speaking skills," she says. "Don't let your fear of speaking or lack of training impede your job success. Take public speaking and other communication courses."

If you’re out of school and want to improve, you can join public speaking organizations such as Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie Training as an individual or as a group.

Pollak also suggests observing how others communicate in formal and informal settings.

“I would observe people who are really good communicators and try to emulate how they act in these situations,” she says.

When interviewing with a potential employer, Hansen says that the best way to overcome your nerves is to practice common interview topics with a friend or family member to familiarize yourself with the process.

“Interviewing is like riding a bike, the first time you tried, you likely fell; the more you practiced, the better you became,” he says.

While the capability of speaking and communicating well is invaluable to your career path, Pollak explains that although it may not come naturally to everyone, it is a skill that can be improved upon.

“If you can nip this in the bud early, you're just so far ahead,” she says.