Why do COM students need to learn finance? A Q&A with Prof. Van Hoosear

When thinking about important aspects of communications, finance might not be the first thing that pops into your mind — in fact, you might not even think there’s a connection between communications and finance. Yet, you always find finance courses as requirements on your COM curriculum. Why do communication major students need to learn finance? What’s important about it? Professor Todd Van Hoosear has the answers for you.

As a veteran communicator with more than 25 years of experience, Prof. Van Hoosear teaches finance communication classes including CM442 Business Fundamentals for Public Relations, CM513 Investor Relations, and CM700 Financial and Strategic Management. He believes a strategic communicator must understand finance. 

Greta Tang: How is learning finance beneficial for communications students?

Prof. Van Hoosear: It’s a two-way street. As strategic communicators, if we’re going to work our way up the ladder inside an organization, the further up we get, the more we need to speak that finance language. It’s different from the creative language that we get drilled into in the communication program.

Our students will do great at the entry-level in an agency or a company, but my job is to prepare students further up the ladder. They need to be ready for more senior positions, where they will be interacting with more executive-level people. These execs speak more in business language than in media language. 

On the flip side, what we’re learning in the world of business and finance is that an increasingly large percentage of a company’s valuations are coming from intangibles from a financial standpoint. We have more value to offer than the CEOs and executives realize. We know how to communicate the value of those intangibles. It’s important for our advancement that we speak the business language, but it’s also important for the executives to take advantage of us. We’re good at communicating the non-financial, non-pecuniary information that doesn’t sit in a number somewhere. 

Can you elaborate on why we are good at interpreting intangible assets and values to the C-suite members so they will know that communication professionals are an important component in the company?

It’s about storytelling. There’s a story to be told about a company’s intellectual property. It is a much more interesting story than the book value would indicate. The book value might be $40,000 or whatever. That, as far as the accountants are concerned, is what your patent is worth. But as a communicator, that patent is the key to not only your business but a whole new industry that people aren’t appreciating quite yet. 

We can build a story and tie together that intellectual property into a character in our story. Or the intellectual property becomes the villain or the sword scored right in our arsenal.

We like to think of ourselves as rational, but anybody who studied psychology knows that there are two paths to persuasion. There’s the direct path, which is rational and logical. Yet only when we have the ability and the time can we take that path. More of our decisions are made through the peripheral route, which uses shortcuts and is much less rational. These are emotional appeals.

We can help with both of those routes. We can especially deliver the methodology and the emotional connections. We help people feel more emotionally connected to the company. That is going to influence their decisions as much as or more than the rational arguments you’ll get from CFOs and product managers.

So are you saying that by comparing the facts and data provided by the CFOs and data scientists, we as communicators offer a more emotion-focused value to the stakeholders?

Absolutely. Data science is an incredible tool, but a very sharp one. If you give a sharp knife to people who don’t know how to use it, they’re gonna cut themselves — it’s dangerous. We’re martial arts, the discipline around using that sharp knife. We can help the data scientist shape the questions they’re asking and the inquiries they’re making. On the front and the back end, we can help interpret their findings and help them truly understand what their data are saying.

The relationship between CEOs and communicators has changed. At first, they asked the communicators, “How do I say this?” Then they asked, “What do I say?” Now they ask, “How do I do it?” We’ve gone from wordsmith to writer, to advisor, and eventually to strategic advisor. 

What skills will communication students learn from studying finance, interpreting data, and looking at balance sheets? 

There are two skill sets you will obtain from learning finance. One is the hard, analytical skills. You’ll have to learn about math and look at numbers when studying finance. Once you work with numbers enough and look at them on a financial chart, you’ll see patterns and recognize good and bad numbers. 

Numbers are scary, but once you start exposing yourself to them, maybe listening to some financial podcasts or reading financial news, you’re going to build a vocabulary. It’ll be a low-level vocabulary-building exercise, which is going to develop your hard analytical skills.

The soft skills you’re going to obtain focus more on helping out with brainstorming and informing the decision-making process creatively. If you can, position yourself as a facilitator of the decision-making process. 

What do you recommend communication students who don’t have a strong finance background start with?

As I said, listen to finance podcasts. I listen to three podcasts regularly: Freakonomics, NPR Planet Money, and Marketplace with Kai Ryssdal. YouTube is tremendous and helped me understand crypto. Also, do some investing on your own. Get a Webull or an ETrade account to trade so you can see the numbers. You don’t have to spend a lot — only a few bucks in any trading account would work fine. Invest in a couple of stocks just to see the kinds of charts they offer you.

Yige Greta Tang, Staff Writer

Yige Greta Tang is a second-year public relations graduate student. Prior to joining BU, she graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a bachelor’s degree in public relations and a minor in media studies. Born and raised in Beijing, China, Greta moved to Chicago for high school in 2012. She has always been passionate about writing and is excited to be a writer for The COMmunicator this semester. Outside of the classroom, Greta loves to explore new restaurants and spend time with her dog, Thunder.

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