Staff Q&A with Lisa Warshaw


Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once joked about a study that found that speaking in front of a crowd is considered the No. 1 fear of the average person.

“I found that amazing,” he said. “No. 2 was death. Death is No. 2? Which means to the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Such is the case with public speaking. Universally despised, it can strike fear on par with death. But for business leaders, communicating with the public is an unavoidable and essential part of the job.

Since the 1970s, the Wharton Communication Program has been teaching students how to be better oral and written communicators, and prepare them for the communication challenges they will face as managers.

Required for MBA and executive MBA students—and Wharton sophomores starting next academic year—the program’s courses focus on the fundamentals of persuasion in speaking and writing, in contexts such as entrepreneurs attracting investors and managers facing business crises.

“We start with Aristotle and move to modern theorists,” says Lisa Warshaw, director of the program. “His elements of persuasion apply today. If you look at persuasion in business through Aristotle’s lens of ethos, logos, and pathos, and then study great speeches or great writing, they all have the elements of persuasion that he described more than 2,000 years ago. It’s fascinating to see these concepts applied now.”

At Penn since 1989, Warshaw was a part-time lecturer in the program before she became its director in 2000. She has a background in finance and statistics, and previously worked in international trade finance in Australia and as a member of the Bureau of Statistics at the International Monetary Fund.

The Current sat down with Warshaw in the Wharton Communication Program offices in Huntsman Hall to discuss her interest in business communication, the courses she teaches, crisis communication and dealing with the media, and her work in more than 20 countries.


You received your bachelor’s degree in economics from Duke and your MBA from Harvard. How did you become interested in the communication aspect of business?

While working in business, I noticed something interesting—that good speakers were often more successful, particularly in banking. I ended up at Wharton and realized if my work helps Wharton students be more effective speakers, this might help them to be more successful. The program started off with speaking in the core/required course, and writing was added in the core six years ago.

The Communication Program offers several different courses, including foundational management communication, communication challenges for entrepreneurs, and crisis communication. Among MBA students, is there a communication course that is more popular than the others?

Crisis communication is attracting more interest. We’re pleased about this because the content offers us a great opportunity to integrate speaking and writing instruction. On the speaking side, it builds on the fundamentals of persuasion, and includes speaking under pressure and looking for communication signals to help avert crises. On the writing side, there are opportunities for students to explain complex issues clearly and concisely.

Why do you think crisis communication is such a popular course?

The saying ‘Preparation is everything’ applies here. We emphasize the need to prepare for times when you have to think on your feet and be articulate, which is very hard to do. For example, have you thought about the sorts of questions you’re likely to be asked? Too often, people are caught off guard and make mistakes. As I say to my students, ‘I don’t want future communication teachers using you as a bad example.’

The crisis communication course discusses social media monitoring. What does social media monitoring involve?

We pick companies and we track them throughout the academic year, primarily from tweets, but also using traditional media coverage. We look at tweets, hashtags, URLs, and the influence of certain Twitter users—and particularly trends in each. Through this analysis, you can learn a lot about business trends, and what’s going on with companies and often their competitors. Nothing illustrates this better than what’s happened with Uber, a company we’ve monitored for two years. Monitoring social media can often help students learn about companies before issues are picked up by the traditional media. It’s clear that social media monitoring helps managers evaluate their response to a crisis, but we also want students to consider how these insights can help avert crises.

What courses do you teach?

My teaching focuses on the speaking side of our program. I’m the course head and teacher for the undergrad course, which we’re currently piloting. For MBA students, I focus on the foundational ‘Management Communication’ and ‘Advanced Persuasion: Crisis Communication.’ I love teaching and find it very rewarding to see people grow as speakers. Video recording students when they speak and having them watch the video can help them tremendously. I think that’s what we all appreciate—that we can make a difference. It’s very rewarding to help a student become a more effective and confident speaker and writer.

The Communication Program also instructs students on dealing with the media. What aspects of dealing with the media do you discuss?

Be prepared and don’t be clickbait. What I mean about click-bait is that sometimes people say things that are used as interesting soundbites, and those can become the story.

The program’s class size is set at eight students per course. Why does the program have such small class sizes?

We teach skills, and students need to practice those skills to improve. Speaking is a small class so that students can speak almost every class. Although our writing instruction is online, the model is the same: students practice, receive feedback, and practice again. Our class size started with 12 students. Over the years, with the school’s support and the help of our dedicated team members, we were able to reduce the class size.

Why did Wharton decide to expand the program to include undergrads?

Wharton faculty decided that communication skills are important enough to expand our core MBA course, and starting next year, be added to the undergraduate core as well. They turned to our Communication Program to make that happen.

Are some students more experienced or better speakers and writers than others?

Yes, certainly students have varying backgrounds and experiences. That’s the beauty of our tiny section size of eight students: we focus on individuals. I’m new to teaching undergrads, but in my limited experience, some students said, ‘I’m only at this level and I should be speaking or writing like so-and-so in class.’ This is why speaking and writing teachers meet with every student individually, early in the course. We have the opportunity to say, ‘No, you need to be true to your personality. This is not about being like anyone else.’ By the end of the course, they get that. It’s wonderful to watch them grow and appreciate their own styles.

Who else is a part of the Wharton Communication Program team?

We have an incredible team. We have nine full-time staff members and 55 part-time lecturers. Many of our full-time staff members have business backgrounds. Some are engineers, some have Ph.Ds. in English and neuroscience. Our part-time lecturers generally have business backgrounds. We want our teachers to have experience as a skeptical audience member since that’s a quality shared by the audiences our students will face.

You have worked in more than 20 countries. Where are some of the places you have been?

I lived in Australia for several years, where I worked in international trade finance. One of my favorite assignments during business school was in the Caribbean, where our team advised the governments on promoting trade. I’ve worked in Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan. I’ve been fortunate to include travel in many of my jobs.