A Communication Breakthrough

dv1221057Critical to getting the best return on your grad school investment is making a concerted effort to identify and remediate your biggest weaknesses. And if you can leverage one of your strengths in the process—even better.

For me, one of my most obvious weaknesses coming into Penn was my communications skills.  I knew I needed to seek out opportunities to improve my ability to communicate before re-entering the workforce.

Two opportunities at Penn have given me the chance to make significant progress in this area. At Wharton, the Wharton Communication Program coursework in the core curriculum forces me, on a weekly basis, to get up and make a persuasive speech to my classmates, often on a controversial topic. For me, this used to be the stuff of nightmares. However, I now look forward to these speeches as I know the discomfort is a sign that I’m pushing myself and growing in the process. Another opportunity, Penn Law’s Edwin R. Keedy Cup Competition moot court competition, has similarly afforded me a chance to go outside of my comfort zone. In this competition I argued, before two separate panels of alumni judges, a position on an actual case that was pending before the Supreme Court.

My first message to any prospective JD/MBA would be to hone your speaking skills regardless of your career aspirations.

My second message would be find a way to leverage a strength when remediating a weakness. I knew coming in to Penn that I was relatively more effective at thinking analytically than communicating my ideas verbally, and I searched for some kind of analytical framework to guide my development.

I slogged through a lot of books on persuasive speaking before finding a very robust and workable framework in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. This book isn’t actually about public speaking, but its theory of morality has played a critical role in guiding my efforts to improve the effectiveness of my communications. (Editor’s note: Haidt recently spoke on campus; read more at “Getting to Know Your Unrighteous Mind.”)

Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt

In this book, Haidt develops the theory that in making moral judgments (such as in the context of listening to a persuasive argument to adopt a certain law or policy) human beings respond to certain moral intuitions first and reason second. The six fundamental moral intuitions Haidt identifies are care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation.  Every human being responds to all of these fundamental moral drivers, which are grounded in our evolutionary history. However, each individual’s relative weighting of these moral dimensions varies and can be highly predictive of outcomes such as career path and political affiliation.

This book has enabled me to construct each one of my persuasive speeches, whether at Wharton or Penn Law, within a flexible yet rigorous framework. For example, as part of a recent assignment requiring that I advocate a junk food tax to my classmates, I anticipated a possible hostile reaction from any Republicans in the audience. Certainly, they might object on the grounds that such taxation would be an unnecessary restriction on liberty by a nanny state and would lead to government bloat.

I also anticipated that any rebuttal requiring an appeal to the care/harm moral dimension—such as that obese, poorly educated and children are hurting and need help and guidance in making dietary decisions—would not find much traction with Republican audience members. This is not to say that Republicans are uncaring; rather, policymaking requires evaluating difficult tradeoffs and when the moral intuition of caring comes into conflict with other intuitions regarding individual liberty and responsibility, sometimes one simply has to trump another if the decision is yea or nea on a specific law.

The cause was not lost however. After looking across the other moral dimensions, I prepared a rebuttal argument based on the concept of fairness—that not taxing junk food is unfair because of the substantial health care costs and economic externalities that those with poor diets impose on the rest of us. I knew that Republicans intuitively respond to accusations that certain groups are taking out of the system (via Medicare and Medicaid) more than they are paying in. And I certainly knew it would go a lot further than appealing to care/harm—the preferred moral dimension of the enemy tribe, the Democrats.

Now, whenever I’m speaking in front of a group, I try to anticipate which moral intuitions drive my audience members’ judgments. Maybe a year from now I’ll be using an entirely different framework, but for the time being I’m having success with this method.

Regardless, my message is to identify your weaknesses during grad school and go after them! If you can bring a tool along to help you, such as some kind of analytical framework, then all the better.

 Editor’s note: This post first appeared on the Wharton MBA Program’s Student Diarist blog on March 24, 2013.

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