A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

‘Say it with Shakespeare’: Developing Communication Skills in Professional Courses

Jayashree Mohanraj

The primary goal of language teaching is communication – written as well as spoken. Communication strategy is one of the components of communicative competence. Canale and Swain (1980) discuss four different components that make up the construct of communicative competence. The first two components reflect the use of linguistic system itself and the other two define the functional aspect of communication. They refer to communication strategies as ‘strategic competence’.

The four components are:

  1. Grammatical competence refers to the knowledge of language code (this includes lexical items, rules of morphology, syntax, semantics etc.)
  2. Discourse competence pertains to the ability to combine sentences in discourse to form different types of cohesive texts (political speech, poetry etc.)
  3. Sociolinguistic competence means mastery of the sociocultural code of language use (including appropriate use of vocabulary, register, politeness and style in a given situation)
  4. Strategic competence refers to the knowledge and understanding of the social context in which language is used. It is the ability to use verbal and non-verbal communication strategies. This knowledge enhances the efficiency of communication to overcome thedifficulties of communication breakdown (use of mime, circumlocution, pproximation, avoidance, self-monitoring and interaction etc.). It helps to develop the ability to manipulate language to meet the communicative goals. It is said that an efficient and eloquent speaker possesses strategic competence.

With globalization and technical innovations, there is an increased awareness of the importance of English in the professional fields. Until the beginning of this century, English had been viewed as a language to gain knowledge in science and technology in higher education. In the present day it is not enough to acquire knowledge but it is essential to be able to use it efficiently in professional fields. Hence the skills in communication through English have assumed greater importance. Teaching of communicative strategies has become an integral part of a professional programme.

The objectives of teaching language skills in professional colleges certainly address the need for developing communication skills. The most pertinent question is, does teaching correlate with the objectives with which the language course is introduced in the professional colleges? A look at the various textbooks in use and the methodology used by the teachers of English in different colleges in various states speaks contrary to this.

A study conducted in this context a decade ago does not reveal very encouraging results. ‘The English course books prescribed mainly focus on developing reading and writing skills. Speaking skills receives least priority in the course books. The activities given in the form of oral fluency, discussion and role plays do not yield the required language competency among the students.’ (Indira, 2003, p 137). Again, the same study finds a tremendous responsibility placed on the language teachers in these institutions: ‘The course books pre-empt the resourcefulness of the teachers. The responsibility placed on the teachers seems to be very heavy. They are expected to supplement and complement the exercises presented in the course books’ (p.139). A recent study of ‘Employability Skill Index’ was undertaken by Purple Leap, a talent management institute with a sample of 9,000 students across 95 colleges in the country(The Hindu). The study reveals that students need focussed intervention across communication skills, technical skills and problem solving.

Whether we talk about theories of communication or language teaching for communication, and developing ‘life skills’, these disciplines are centuries younger than Shakespeare who wrote:

Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.’
 (As You Like It: Act II, sc.i: 16-17)

I wish to argue that Shakespeare is very much relevant today not only to students of English literature but even to the modern day business audience in the offices and boardrooms. We can use his plays innovatively in training programmes for professionals in communication strategies and soft skills.Shakespearean texts are being ‘rediscovered’ in developing soft skills at various levels, especially in Management and Engineering Programmes. Developing soft skills at higher levels of learning and in professional programmes presupposes the basic communicative competence in the learner which includes the four strategies mentioned earlier. For example, an effective salesperson utilizes these strategies of communication to make a product irresistible for a consumer.

Shakespeare’s kings, queens, dukes and generals are being summoned outside the confines of literary studies to provide a spectrum of good, efficient, indifferent as well as brilliant leadership in management. Corrigan (1999) discusses the Shakespearean protagonists to draw lessons in management and leadership qualities.

A typical Course in Management Communication includes the following topics:

  1. Communicating as a professional includes skills like preparing and delivering presentations and responding to audience questions; interpersonal communication including facilitating productive discussion; coaching and motivating employees; mediating interpersonal workplace conflicts; executive   communication skills like getting one’s message across to an audience.
  2. Leadership qualities includes building a positive attitude, inspiring commitment in the team, developing speaking skills, conflict resolution, analyzing audience pulse, reducing potential antagonism and winning confidence,and defining rhetorical goals.

  3. Written Communication includes writing a report, and conveying progress of projects.

We can take some of these components and seek illustrations from Shakespeare. The first among the management strategies is building a positive attitude. What better instance can we find than the Duke Senior in As You Like It? Duke Senior is banished from the court by his younger brother Duke Frederick and is exiled into the forest. His exile in the forest does not make him depressed and angry as these words suggest:

 ... Are not these woods

More free from peril than the envious court?

Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,

The seasons’ difference; as the icy fang

And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,

Which, when it bites and blows upon my body

Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say

‘This is not flattery; these are counselors

That feelingly persuade me what I am.’

Sweet are the uses of adversity,

Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,

Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;

(As You Like It: Act II. Sc.i, 3-14)

The words of Duke Senior reflect the essence of the small story often used in management courses as a problem solving exercise. The story refers to two young marketing management trainees of a shoe company who are sent to a part of Australia where only the aborigines live. The first comes back and dashes off a report, which says ‘No chance! The blokes don’t appreciate shoes’. The second one sends a report – ‘Great opportunity! We can introduce shoes to the entire population!’

Another factor that should be developed in a manager is the persuasive communication strategies that facilitate effective management. The business manager has to have forceful language that can motivate the employees and spur them on to action. Look at the language of Lady Macbeth:

Was the hope drunk,

Wherein you dress’d yourself? hath it slept since,

And wakes it now, to look so green and pale

At what it did so freely? …

…And live a coward in thine own esteem,

Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would,’

Like the poor cat i’the adage?

(Macbeth: Act I, Sc.vii; 35-44)

Planning and execution of the plan are integral parts of professional management. Excuses for non-performance are discouraged. The strong words/imagery of Lady Macbeth could motivate any man into action.             

 What beast was ‘t then

That made you break this enterprise to me?

When you durst do it, then you were a man;

And to be more than what you were, you would

Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place

Did then adhere, and yet would make both:

(Macbeth: Act I. Sc.vii; 47-52)

Interpersonal skills are of paramount importance in Business Communication and in any professional’s career. An effective manager would always confront unacceptable behaviour in a tactful way that does not damage underlying personal relationship. In As You Like It, the exchange between Duke Senior and Orlando who rudely interrupts the Duke’s meal can be cited as an appropriate example here. Orlando’s rude words ‘Forbear, and eat no more!’ are met with the Duke’s gentle words:     

Art thou thus boldened, man, by thy distress?

Or else a rude despiser of good manners,

That in incivility thou seem’st so empty?

(As You Like It : Act II. Sc.vii. 91-93)

At the end of a long exchange between them, Orlando exits as a changed man saying ‘Thank ye; and blest for your good comfort!’

Conflicts are common in the workplace. Conflict resolution and problem-solving are skills imparted in management programmes. An effective manager does not get flustered but resolves conflicts effectively with sound reasoning to produce high quality win-win solutions. Portia’s cool demeanour is a case in point:

Therefore prepare thee to cut off the flesh;

Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more

But just a pound of flesh. If thou tak’st more

Or less than a just pound, be it but so much

As makes it light or heavy in the substance

Or the division of the twentieth part

Of one poor scruple – nay, if the scale do turn

But in the estimation of a hair,

Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate.

                  (The Merchant of Venice: Act IV. Sc.i.;324 -332)

Presentation skills and effective speaking comprise an important component of a professional programme. An effective manager should be able to get the message s/he wants to convey about the organization across to an audience. The credibility of the manager increases with the manner in which s/he responds to audience questions. All these factors find an excellent example in Antony’s funeral speech in Julius Caesar. The very beginning of his speech has a careful choice of words, which arrest the attention of the audience:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

 (Julius Ceasar, Act.III. Sc.ii. 70-71)

Anthony’s words display his knowledge of the pulse of the audience, his ability to present his argument in a gentle, but firm and persuasive manner, and his ability to motivate them into action, which was his hidden agenda. He wins the crowd’s favour using his persuasive rhetoric to whip the masses into frenzy so great that they don’t even realize the fickleness of their favour. His carefully crafted speech can be used as a model of presentation skills by any teacher.

As we read Shakespeare’s observations we can see how readily they apply to many forms of  communication involved. This paper has taken a few examples from only 4 plays. We can find examples galore in all the 37 plays which can be material for an entire book on the relevance of Shakespeare in developing communication strategies in professional courses.

The art of teaching through the use of illustrations is a well-respected pedagogical tradition. Machiavelli used stories of kings in ancient Greece to instruct his Florentine princes in strategic statesmanship. Vishnusharman in India has done the same. Management students look at case studies of real business houses to understand the principles of Organizational Management. William Shakespeare gives the teachers enough opportunities to seek new explorations in professional thinking by providing ample opportunities to develop problem-solving exercises. Shakespearean lines can be used profitably to meet the new challenges in professional education.


Canale, M. & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics, 1, 1-47.
Corrigan, P. (1999). Shakespeare on management. London, Kogan Page.

Indira,M. (2003). The suitability of course books in engineering colleges for developing communication skills: A study. (Unpublished M.Phil thesis). Hyderabad,CIEFL.

Shakespeare, W. (1967). As you like it. Ed. J.W. Lever.London: Longman.

---. (1987). Julius Caesar. Ed. H.M. Hulme. London:Longman.

---. (1960). Macbeth. Ed. B. Lott. London: Longman.

---. (1964). The merchant of Venice. Ed. B. Lott. London: Longman.

Many engineering students lack employability skills. (2009, February 11). The Hindu, p.3.

Jayashree Mohanraj

Jayashree Mohanraj teaches at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, has also taught in Universities in Africa and Arab countries. She specializes in English Language Teaching, Teacher Education and Communication skills.