MBA Students Sharpen Communication Through Computer-Based Presentations

When the academicians in charge of Penn State University's Smeal College of Business Administration met in 1975, they mandated a focus on communication to distinguish their MBA program from those at other institutions. Although instructors had excelled in teaching statistics and other relevant subjects, "we weren't really teaching people to speak very effectively," recalls professor Robert Griffin. A few years later, when the desktop PC achieved a dominant position in the business world, Penn State officials made computer-based presentation skills part of a required course. Visual communication had originally been taught by using felt tip pens and acetate to create overheads. No Turning Back "But in 1982, we integrated computer-based presentations, and this segment of the course has taken off from there," says Griffin. And there was no turning back. Traditional techniques gradually took a back seat as more companies embraced the PC revolution. "Our mission is to teach MBA students what they're most likely to run into in the business world," explains Griffin. Toward that end, Griffin and his colleagues started using Harvard Presentation Graphics from the Software Publishing Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif. The program, now known simply as Harvard Graphics, offers a range of capabilities for creating and delivering effective presentations. Version 3.0 for Windows includes a complete Advisor System, Quick Looks preview tool and an animation player with 15 ready-made clips. The software is currently installed on about 75 IBM-compatible machines in campus computer labs. In addition, nearly half of the 130 MBA students own laptop computers, what Griffin calls the university's "hidden lab." (Students can purchase the software from the school at a discount educational price.) Ranks High Among Professionals Penn State instructors have experimented with other presentation programs, including Microsoft's PowerPoint. But Griffin says they selected Harvard Graphics because it consistently rates favorably among working professionals. Another important reason, he adds, is the "30-day software rule." "The typical executive uses presentation software only every 30 days or so," Griffin explains. "They don't have time to relearn portions of the program." The culmination of a Smeal student's first year is a case study presentation in which they must analyze a complex investment. A team is assigned its case on a Friday and must make a presentation to the entire business school the following Tuesday. The faculty then selects the top three teams to deliver a final, competitive presentation to an outside board of local business leaders later that week. Students report that they feel less nervous when working with electronic presentations.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.