Recent college graduates hoping to land a job may want to sharpen their verbal skills. A new survey shows employers identify strong verbal skills more than written, visual, or electronic communication skills as essential for new hires.

“We talk a lot more than we write, and we talk almost subconsciously; it’s just something we have to do to get work done,” says Tina Coffelt, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of communication studies and English at Iowa State University.

“The other forms of communication are more focused, more strategic. Certainly, some of oral communication is strategic as well, but the day-to-day work of talking on the telephone, with a coworker down the hall or a customer who walks into a store—there’s just more oral communication,” she says.

Verbal skills included interpersonal communication, presenting and listening skills, as well as team or group work.

Electronic skills, while growing in importance, ranked second in the study. Visual communication skills were rarely mentioned. Coffelt says there are several possible explanations as to why.

Some employers may view visual skills as a support to other forms of communication, or as less of a priority in some occupations. Electronic skills—primarily email and phone—may be less important to some employers than human interaction, Coffelt adds.

The data are based on responses from 52 employers in engineering, business, health sciences, and social work. Each employer was asked about the type, frequency, and manner of communication an intern or new, entry-level hire would use through the course of the workday. The employers identified 165 different communication skills. The result appear in Business and Professional Communication Quarterly.

How can colleges prepare grads?

Shifting to a multimodal teaching approach that blends all forms of communication—written, verbal, visual, and electronic—into one course would reflect how we simultaneously use these skills at work, Coffelt says.

“Previously, students would take an English class to write, a speech class for public speaking, or an interpersonal class and that’s all you focus on,” Coffelt says. “As we develop curricular assignments and focus on teaching, we need to recognize that teaching a separate class for each mode does not help students synthesize how different modes of communication weave together.”

Coffelt says there also needs to be a stronger emphasis on communication curriculum before students step foot on campus to make sure they’re prepared for their courses. Technology is one way college instructors can help those students struggling with grammar rules or sentence structure. For example, offering online quizzes or additional assignments to complete outside of class will help students enhance their skills. It also gives instructors the ability to focus on more advanced skills and critical thinking in class, Coffelt says.

There are some limitations to research that Coffelt wants to examine in the future. This study looked only at prevalence of skills mentioned, based on employer recall. Coffelt says it would be beneficial to have data on the importance of these skills for employers. Still, employer responses indicate they value effective communication.

“When an employee is hired, that person is expected to have a blend of communication skills. Some positions are going to be more technical and may require a greater emphasis on writing skills, but there are hundreds of jobs in which students are going to be expected to have a combination of all skills,” Coffelt says.