Mr. Scott Richardson paused his preparation for his lecture about the Classics to respond to the questions of another college student, who needed his input and wisdom about the world of business communication inside his profession. When interviewing Mr. Richardson, the feedback received could be useful and interesting for anyone pursuing literature to have a glimpse into the professional writing that it includes. The profession chosen incorporates writing often into the work, although they might not use it to communicate as much. Since business communication is not usually associated with literature, this process was thought to be a challenge. The interview conducted was with Dr. Scott Richardson, who has a B.A. in Classics from Harvard University, a M.A. and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Stanford, and is a professor of Classics currently. Richardson’s answers were informative and interesting, giving much input on communication in writing, groups, and everyday life.
What is your professional history (include your timeline and roles)?
I graduated from college in 1978 (classics) and got my Ph.D. in 1984 (comparative literature). I began teaching in 1984 as an assistant professor in the foreign language department of St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict (two colleges that operate as one) in Minnesota. I gained tenure and a promotion to associate professor in 1990; I was promoted to full professor in 1996. My primary role is teacher of a variety of college courses to undergraduates: language courses (ancient Greek and Latin), advanced-level reading courses in Greek and Latin texts, honors literature courses (many time periods, many nationalities), freshman writing and discussion, and ethics seminars. I sometimes have graduate students of theology (the only graduate program we have here). I have on five occasions directed a study abroad semester for our students in London, where I was administer as well as teacher. Part of my activity is research and writing, mostly literary criticism—articles and books on authors I am very interested in. I am an academic advisor to many students. On occasion I have been chair of my department (administrative work in addition to my classes).
What writing advice do you have for professional communicators?
I regularly give a lot of advice to undergraduates on their writing—that’s a big part of my job. They are not professional communicators, not yet anyway, but I treat them as though their essays are meant to be effective and thoughtful expressions of their ideas.
My principal advice is clarity: not only make each sentence clear but also make the whole point of the essay clear.
To do so, you need to get across the point, the thesis, early on (first or second paragraph), then give an idea of how you will go about organizing the essay to demonstrate this point, and then go about it in a logical fashion. Associated with that advice is my encouragement to have the end in mind as they begin; that is, even if you don’t have everything completely worked out in your head, be clear about the general way that the essay will end—then you always have a clear direction in mind as you go along. Proofread. If you can, find someone you trust to read over your piece after you think you are done—there are usually some spots that don’t come across as clearly as you had intended. Makes sure each paragraph and each section follows logically and naturally from the previous one.
What is your one pet peeve when it comes to professional writing?
I am most irritated by an opening that still leaves me wondering what the heck the piece is about. What are you trying to demonstrate? What is your plan of attack? Why should I be reading this? I also get annoyed by a piece that ends abruptly—I need to see a final paragraph or two that neatly states what the major contribution of the piece is. Bad spelling and bad grammar—that means sloppiness that reflects a sloppiness of thought, so there’s no compelling reason to take seriously what the person is saying.
What kind of business reports do you read and/or compose regularly?
Again, not business reports. I have written articles and even a couple of books of literary criticism, and my reading consists largely of literary works and articles/books that help me understand the literary works. For my students I often write pages that give background to a book I’m having them read that requires specific knowledge of cultural or historical facts they might not know. And I write letters of recommendation a lot. I do write reports of a sort that come from academic committees I serve on or from my time as chair of the department to administrators or faculty colleagues.
What are your writing suggestions to make that type of report successful?
I have nothing more to say here than I said in #2—clarity of expression, clarity of purpose, accuracy.
What speaking advice do you have for professional communicators?
I do have students give speeches and formal presentations in class and for special occasions. My principal advice is to prepare and to practice. If the speech is written out, practice first by glibbing it repeatedly—that is, reading it very swiftly without expression and getting through it in a third of the time it will take to deliver it, over and over again. Then practice it with the proper speed and expression at least twice. In writing the speech, again pay attention to clarity and logical progression—maybe even with some repetition of chief points. If the talk is not written out, have a very clear outline in front of you (on paper or note cards), which you need to read over repeatedly before delivery. Then practice from the cards as though in front of an audience, at least once—maybe in front of a real person if you can manage. Practice is the key.
Name one thing you wish you had known about business communication prior to your professional career?
If we leave out “business,” the one thing I would have done well to know early on is that I’m not as good at off-the-cuff talks as I thought I was. I’ve gotten better and can now deliver long lectures smoothly without a lot of notes, sometimes without notes, but that’s only because I’ve delivered them or something like them an awful lot over the years. But I had to stumble a lot in the early days before I fully recognized that I need to write out an outline or even full sentences and paragraphs and not simply depend on inspiration hitting me as I stood up in front of a crowd.
After assessing the Burning Glass list of Baseline Skills (2016), which skills not in the top 5 would you move into the top 5… and why?
In my world, critical thinking is of great importance. You can write or speak with all the clarity in the world, but if you can’t reason and have not put much thought into what you’re talking about, you’re left with a vacuous set of sentences. I’d say that a whole lot of foolishness has taken place in the world because most people do not think critically. I’d also add research and creativity. Even if people are not involved in the sort of research that academics do, all speakers and writers need to know accurately and in some detail what they’re talking about, and deficient research into the details, facts, history of the issue, and big questions raised by others on the topic will very likely lead to a talk or piece of writing that does not help the situation, persuade the audience, or inspire confidence. Creativity isn’t a must for all professions, but some attention to a novel way of attacking a problem or presenting one’s point of view can go a long way toward grabbing people’s attention and getting them into your way of thinking. I’d also put listening way up there—see #9.
What team skills do you feel young professionals need the most?
Definitely listening, which is quite often very unsatisfactory.
We’re so concerned with coming up with something good to say and with making sure that others are paying attention to us that we so often neglect what other people are saying.
And by listening, I mean giving the talker/writer the respect of really taking in his or her words and ideas without dismissing them immediately because they don’t fit your own. Working with a team means breaking through the huge problem of conversation being a series of monologues that go in one ear and out the other. Besides the huge matter of respect (which is what you really must maintain for each other in a team), there is the practical matter of progressing on a project, which you can’t do if you’re dwelling largely or solely on your own ideas and proposals and certainly not if you think everyone else’s ideas are not nearly as good as yours. With listening come questions and responses that propel the conversation and decision-making forward. An ego is hard thing for others to cope with in a team, and your own insecurity (do I belong here? do I have something to contribute? will I be seen as a valuable member of the team) so easily pushes you toward asserting your own words and forgetting to pay attention to others.
Overall, Scott Richardson was informative about the professional communication of a classics/literature profession. Taken from his advice, listening in a team or group is a necessary concept and shows that one person should not create every idea. Being available to hear the information other people bring forward will generate many possibilities, which were not brought up before. The Burning Glass List of Baseline Skills (2016) shows “listener” as being a key quality that businesses desire. Being completely receptive to other’s ideas, accepting them, and considering each possibility that is brought up can assist the entire team and might make the project simpler. One does not know other people’s ideas; let others have a chance to give their opinions and ideas too.
Being clear and concise when writing can make a significant difference for the reader. Although it may not seem like changing a few words or deleting a few redundant sentences would assist on clarity, it does. Being clear with sentences and expressions may not only make it easier to understand, but it also feels much more lightweight on the reader. Not being able to understand a piece because of its over-professional language turns readers away. Sometimes, simplicity is the best way to work. Correct grammar and spelling is critical to a writer’s work. If the piece doesn’t have correct grammar/spelling, it can turn a great work into a piece that is not worth a person’s time. Being clear and understandable when writing, especially for businesses, can save a person’s reputation. The Baseline Skills Gap chart below shows how writing and organizational skills are not as prevalent as they should be in necessary areas. These skills are imperative to understand, and even in the future will be put to use.
Scott Richardson, as already stated, is an expert and a professional in his work. He holds a B.A., M.A., and a Ph.D. in many different areas. He has research interests in Greek and Latin language and literature, and European, American, Scandinavian, and British literature; this information can be found at www.csbsju.edu. He teaches at College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, which is known as a merged private college in Saint Joseph and Collegeville, Minnesota.
Meredith Hellmer is a sophomore at the University of Southern Indiana (USI). She is pursuing an English degree with an emphasis of creative writing. She plans to begin working on writing when she graduates in 2022, and eventually become an author with published books.