Barr Preps Students to Communicate on Wall Street
By Bruce Gerson
Be interested, not interesting.
That’s among the top tips for students from Ed Barr, business communications coach in Carnegie Mellon’s Master of Science in Computational Finance (MSCF) program.
“Be interested in what the other person is talking about and don’t worry about yourself as much,” Barr tells his students who will be heading to work for world-leading financial institutions on Wall Street. “Have a preference, focus on your audience and ask questions. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people and what always troubled me was when they never asked me anything. They could never develop a conversation out of the interview.”
Barr knows a thing or two, or make that 101 things, about business communications.
The affable and humble master communicator has been a teacher, grant writer and global marketing and communications executive in the health care and education industries for decades. He has 26 years of teaching experience at CMU, including 10 years at Heinz College and the last five years in the MSCF program.”
He recently authored “101 Tips for Improving Your Business Communication” and “Ask the Right Questions; Get the Right Job.” A third book, “How to Use Marketing Techniques to Get a Great Job,” is in the works.
“I’ve been industrious during the pandemic, writing about the tips I’ve been sharing with students for years,” he said.
Barr joined the MSCF program in 2016 to help develop a first-of-its-kind business communications curriculum for a financial engineering program. The need, expressed to program administrators by alumni, recruiters and employers, was to teach students how to communicate better.
“We all know financial organizations hire students for their technical skills, but they’ll fire them if they can’t communicate,” Barr said. “On Wall Street, the boss wants to know the bottom line up front. They want to know the answer first and then they want the supporting material. That’s backward for some students.”
Barr teaches a business communications survey course, focusing on negotiation, networking, conflict management, emotional intelligence and presentation. He teaches students how to write a good email, an elevator pitch and how to engage in small talk, among other skills.
“I’ve been industrious during the pandemic, writing about the tips I’ve been sharing with students for years.”
“When making a presentation, try to answer every question the audience has before they can ask it,” he says. “No one will ever feel as good as when you get called into the boss’ office and you’re able to answer all their questions before they can ask it.”
A first-generation college graduate, Barr earned his bachelor’s degree from Clarion University and his master’s degree in education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He began his career as a middle-school English teacher and football and wrestling coach in his hometown of Altoona, Pennsylvania.
"There’s no question that if you have enthusiasm people hear it in your voice and see it in your eyes," says Ed Barr. (photo taken pre-pandemic)
“I never wrestled, but I know how to motivate, plan, execute, choose talent and put it in the right position,” he said.
Barr put his coaching skills to use when he became director of public relations and development at Altoona Hospital. He later moved to Pittsburgh, where he became director of corporate communications at Mercy Hospital and vice president of marketing for the Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation.
“We all know financial organizations hire students for their technical skills, but they’ll fire them if they can’t communicate.”
While working, he began teaching writing and communications as an adjunct professor at several Pittsburgh universities, where he brought his valuable corporate experience into the classroom. He joined CMU as an adjunct professor in the 1990s.
“I got my start at CMU from [English Professor] David Kaufer, who heard about a guest lecture I gave to a design class on how public relations, writing and communications mixed with design. I guess I did a good job because he asked me to teach a marketing and writing course,” Barr recalled.
A short time later he joined Heinz College to teach its writing classes and signed on as marketing director with iCarnegie, a nonprofit that provided CMU curricula to developing countries. While at iCarnegie, he traveled and taught executive education classes in Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Brazil, India and Kazakhstan. In China, he lectured at the Nan Jing University of Science and Technology. He taught classes at Tech de Monterrey in Mexico and Heinz Australia in Adelaide.
Barr also was a consultant for Cognizant, a global technology company, where he taught communications to Cognizant employees in India, London and Amsterdam.
Teaching remotely is nothing new to Barr.
“I taught a group of people in India technical writing by telephone — holding the receiver!” he said. “Before the pandemic MSCF had half of its students in New York City full-time. I would teach them remotely from the classrooms in Pittsburgh. Now it’s totally Zoom. I’m very comfortable teaching remotely.”
And the students are comfortable with him.
“When students evaluate faculty, they have a question about a teacher’s enthusiasm. There’s no question that if you have enthusiasm people hear it in your voice and see it in your eyes. If you’re interested, they’re more likely to be interested,” Barr said.
This summer, as students work their internships and graduates begin their jobs, Barr will be ready to counsel, if needed.
“I’m a communications coach and my role is to be available to the interns, students and alumni in their jobs. They can call or email,” Barr said, “but I don’t expect to hear from many. I know they’re prepared.”
And they’re interested.