I find it helpful as a business communication instructor to take a step back every so often to look at the current trends in workplace communication. This helps me to keep my teaching relevant for my students. One thing that I consider when I look at workplace trends is how employers see communication skills. This blog post will go over a bit of what I found when I read the article Employer’s Perspectives on Workplace Communication Skills: The Meaning of Communication Skills, by Tina A. Coffelt and Dale Grauman of Iowa State University, and Frances L. M. Smith of Murray State University.
In their study, Coffelt and her coauthors looked at four modes of communication: written, oral, verbal, and electronic (WOVE). They held interviews with 22 participants who hire or supervise recent graduates. In interviews, they asked questions to assess what the phrase “communication skills” means to these employers. As you can imagine, a question like that yielded many different answers, but the researchers found themes despite the variation in answers.
One particularly interesting take away from the article was about electronic communication. For instructors and researchers, electronic communication can mean many things. However, in the study, “employers considered electronic communication to be email.” Further, “email was overwhelmingly described as pervasive and the modus operandi.” The employers’ narrow focus on email as electronic communication was an eye opener for me.
As instructors of both Millenials and Gen Z students, we know that email skills are still one of the most important areas we can help our students develop. I am often more excited about teaching my students about newer technology, but the article helped me remember that the fundamental way employees communicate at work (email) is not going away. For me, that does not mean new technology topics will go away but just that the fundamentals should come first.
You can read their entire article here. And feel free to share your own thoughts and insights in the comments. How do you teach email? What email-related resources do you share with your students?
To learn more about teaching students about email correspondence, check out Chapter 3 in our textbook on composing business messages as well as this post on using the PAST acronym to avoid email remorse.
Source: Business and Professional Communication Quarterly
Image by Rawpixel
Staying current on the ever-changing features of social networking sites (SNS) can be daunting for anyone who teaches business or professional communication. Shifting focus from site features to student skills can help.
In a study led by Alexander J.A.M. van Duersen of the University of Twente, the researchers propose three groups of SNS skill for professional communicators:
Communicating: The researchers assert that SNS communication skills involve both communicating so others can understand you, and listening so you can understand others. Specific communication skills include effectively using SNS for external and internal correspondence, writing understandable narratives, understanding others’ emotions over chat, and participating in forum discussions.
Creating: Creation skills involve knowing how to create and publish professional SNS content for your organization. The researchers highlight skills of creating online media that communicate and align with your organization’s brand and values, and creating and publishing content in a way that enables and receives positive engagement from other users.
Strategizing: Strategy skills focus on making decisions, which includes gathering and analyzing SNS information and then using that information to achieve organizational goals. Specific strategic skills include using SNS for gaining customers, increasing profitability, getting ahead of competition, and enhancing relationships with stakeholders.
By focusing on the skills of communicating, creating, and strategizing, business and professional communication instructors can stay focused on what really matters: helping students gain skills that will transfer beyond the next site update.
Read the entire article “Social Network Site Skills for Communication Professionals: Conceptualization, operationalization, and an Empirical Investigation” by Alexander J.A.M. van Deursen, Carla Verlage, and Ester van Laar to learn more about essential SNS skills you can teach your students.
To learn other tips for teaching students about social media communication, take a look at Chapter 6 in our textbook Writing and Speaking for Business.
Source: IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication
Image by Gerd Altmann
—Matias, a retail store manager, must tell his employees that store hours will be extended one additional hour into the evening.
—James, a customer service manager, has to deny a customer’s request for a refund.
—Heidi, a personnel manager, needs to document in an email why a subordinate is being put on probation.
Each of these situations involves giving bad news, while still attempting to retain goodwill with the person receiving the news. Sooner or later, everyone in positions of responsibility has to give bad news, which is rarely a pleasant task. There’s no one right way that works in every situation, but here are a few tips that can help.
Start by completing a CAPS planning process, ultimately selecting appropriate communication strategies.
Context analysis: Identify the factors that make this bad-news message necessary. What is your current relationship with the person? Is it a positive, neutral, or negative relationship? What would you like your future relationship to be like? What is needed to move your relationship to the desired level? Is the message recipient inside or outside your organization? If inside, remember that you’ll have to work with this person in the future.
Audience analysis: Look at the situation through their eyes. Try to comprehend how the bad news will affect them. Then sincerely try to minimize the negative effect of the bad news.
Purpose: Clarify the purposes of your message—to inform, to persuade, and to strive to build, maintain, or strengthen trust. Decide on what you think would be the ideal outcome of your message.
Strategy: Take steps to achieve the ideal outcome. Consider using the following four strategies—provide good reasoning, use an appropriate psychological approach, provide options as appropriate, and use appropriate wording
1. Provide good reasoning. Ideally, you want the readers of your negative messages to agree that you are justified in your reasoning. Therefore, be sure to have good reasons, whether financial, legal, ethical, or otherwise. Then clearly explain your reasoning in the most persuasive way possible.
Example: “With more daylight during the summer evenings, more customers are shopping later, so we need to keep our stores open longer to meet their needs.”
Regardless of your reasoning, people are still receiving bad news, which they won’t be happy about. But if you can convince them that you used solid reasoning in arriving at your decision, that will usually help soften the blow.
You might not feel a need to cite all the reasons for your decisions, but make sure to include the reasons that are most persuasive. For instance, your main motive for terminating someone might be their negative attitude, but because negative attitude is so difficult to measure or quantify, you might just cite discuss their substandard customer service ratings as the reason for your decision.
In your reasoning, include any benefits coming from your decision.
Example: “This policy enables us to maintain our low prices, which provide benefits for you and all of our customers.”
2. Use an appropriate approach. If the impact on the audience is going to be minor, you can take a more direct approach. But if the impact will be major, an indirect approach will usually be best. With a direct approach, give the negative news at or near the beginning, followed by the reasons for the bad news.
Example: “I’m sorry to have to deny your request for a replacement of your Columbia hiking shoes. These shoes come with a full-refund policy if the shoes are returned in like-new condition within 30 days. As we analyzed your purchase of these shoes, we found that the shoes were returned three months after purchase, not within the 30-day required refund period.”
With an indirect approach, give the reasons for the bad news, followed by the bad news.
Example: “Thanks for your request for a refund on your Columbia hiking shoes. These shoes come with a full-refund policy if the shoes are returned in like-new condition within 30 days. As we analyzed your purchase of these shoes, we found that the shoes were returned three months after purchase, not within the 30-day required refund period. Therefore, we are unable to give a refund.”
To de-emphasize the bad news, you can also embed it in the middle of a paragraph. For example, begin the paragraph with the reasons for the bad news, followed by the bad news, followed by other information that softens the blow.
Example: “These shoes come with a full-refund policy if the shoes are returned in like-new condition within 30 days. Because the shoes were returned after the 30-day required refund period, a full refund can’t be given. However, we are sending you a 30 percent coupon that you can use toward the purchase of another pair of shoes.”
3. Provide options. When giving bad news, try to find something positive to offer the person.
Example: “I’ll be happy to give you time off to attend our monthly two-day customer-service training.”
Also explain other actions the readers might take to minimize or reverse the negative situation, such as, “You can find additional online customer-service training to help improve your ratings.”
4. Choose appropriate words. As you give bad news, minimize the use of negative words, such as won’t, can’t, and didn’t. Instead, use more neutral or positive words. For example, instead of saying, “We can’t give you a refund,” you might say, “If the shoes had been returned within the 30-day period, we would have been able to grant your refund request.”
Also, you can use passive-voice sentence construction, instead of active voice, in conveying the bad news. Don’t say, “Because of your 2.6 customer service rating, I can’t give you a ‘Satisfactory” review.” But rather say, “Because of your 2.6 customer service rating, a ‘Satisfactory’ review can’t be given.”
The foregoing tips are proven methods for dealing with delivering bad news, whether in face-to-face situations or in writing. As you apply these methods, you’ll find that both your confidence and your effectiveness will increase.
Consider using “pyramid quizzes” for high-involvement learning. Pyramid quizzes progress from small to large—beginning with individual thinking, moving to small-group sharing, and concluding with entire-class discussion.
Pyramid quizzes are especially useful in learning grammar and sentence basics. For example, students complete a punctuation reading assignment (for an example, see pages 260–65). Then in the subsequent class, you administer the pyramid quiz as follows:
Round 1. Each student completes a closed-book punctuation quiz (for an example, see pages 279–81).
Round 2. In teams of three or four, students compare quiz answers. Then counseling together, and consulting the textbook as needed, they come to a consensus on the correct quiz answers.
Round 3. Instructor gives the correct quiz answers, facilitates appropriate class discussion, and gives appropriate explanations to ensure learning.
Try pyramid quizzes this semester. Both you and your students will enjoy this active-learning process.
If you’re having trouble writing a cover letter for employment, there are good reasons. Because a future job is on the line, cover letters are high-stakes communication. Usually, they’re written under a deadline (the closing date for a job opening), which makes the writing even more stressful. They also need to be personalized to each employer, and since most job seekers apply to multiple jobs, this translates into a lot of time.
To overcome some of the stress and time of writing cover letters, I’ve created a template that enables me to write cover letters quickly and effectively. Following an OABC organizational structure, the template includes four parts.
Opening: Connect with the hiring manager or company in some way. For example, mention a shared acquaintance, talk about how you’ve researched the company online and appreciate the values or mission of the company, detail what you’ve learned through an information interview with a current or past employee, or share a positive experience you’ve had with the company’s products. The goal is to show enthusiasm and to signal your sincere interest in the job.
Agenda: Identify the skills or characteristics the employer seeks and that you possess. For help in this process, review our previous blog on preparing to communicate for jobs. Select two or three skills and use them for the agenda that forecasts your body paragraphs.
Body: Relate a PAR story that illustrates each skill or characteristics you selected for your agenda. For help in this process, review our previous blog on PAR stories.
Closing: Summarize your characteristics, and then invite the employer to consider you carefully for the position you’re applying for.
To see all of these pieces put together, take a look at this example:
I invite you to try out this template the next time you apply for a job. I think you’ll find that you can write cover letters more quickly and effectively as a result.
It’s a format that has been used time and time again for centuries—for movies, for novels, and for fairy tales. A person is placed in a difficult context with formidable challenges. The person takes action, and, against all odds, comes out as the hero. Think of the plot in fairy tales, such as Cinderella and Snow White, in movies like Moana, and even in the great stories of the Bible—Moses confronts Pharaoh and frees the children of Israel, Joshua wins the battle at Jericho, and Esther risks her life to save her people.
This three-part story structure is also a powerful model for persuasion in business presentations, employment interviews, public relations campaigns, and more. As humans, we love to see the underdog come out on top (except when we are the dog on top), and we can appeal to this human characteristic in multiple situations.
One of the beautiful things about this three-part story structure is its simplicity. Remember it with the easy-to-remember acronym PAR—representing Problem, Action, Result.
Here is how a PAR story was used by one college student in an employment interview (used by permission):
Problem. Growing up, my dream was to play quarterback for my high school football team. My dream was almost crushed in eighth grade when my football coach told me I would never play quarterback because I was too small and too slow.
Action. I spent the next four years of high school trying to prove my eighth-grade coach wrong. During summers, I spent four hours every night running, throwing the football, and lifting weights. The summer before my junior and senior year I took part in an intense 14-week sprinting program. I would also throw over 200 passes a night and lift weights for over an hour.
Result. My senior year I was named our region’s Most Valuable Player. I was also named to the All-State team, was chosen as the top quarterback for the 1A-3A All Star Game, and was one of the Arizona Wendy’s All-American Heisman finalists.
In addition to using PAR stories for telling things of the past, they can be used in describing future scenarios.
Problem: We are having serious problems recruiting new employees for our fast-food restaurants.
Action: We could offer recruiting incentives to current employees.
Result: This action would reduce the amount of time and money that we now spend in recruiting efforts, and we would see an increase in the job satisfaction of our current employees.
Take a moment to think of three situations in which you might use PAR stories in your current workplace. Then write a rough PAR outline of a story you could use in each situation. Finally, put the stories into action. We think you’ll like the results you get.
Recently I went to dinner with a former student who graduated 12 years ago. This student is now a successful attorney who writes numerous legal briefs and other documents that are read by judges and others in the legal profession. During the evening he described how he still uses writing and design principles I developed for my business communication classes: “I use OABC and HATS all the time in my writing, and they give me such a great advantage in writing for judges.” He also said, “I learned more in your writing class than in all the writing classes in law school.”
Obviously, I was happy to receive the compliment for my course, but his comments caused me to think about learning retention—what is it that enables students to remember and use writing principles learned in business communication courses?
Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014) have written a landmark book on this topic: Make it Stick—The Science of Successful Learning. Roediger and McDaniel are cognitive scientists whose careers have focused on learning and memory, and Make it Stick captures the results of years of their own learning. In this intriguing work, the authors conclude that people generally go about learning in the wrong way.
For example, the idea that people learn better when they receive instruction in a manner consistent with their preferred learning style (e.g., auditory or visual) is not supported by research. Further, the idea is false that if we can make learning easier and faster, the learning will be better. In fact, learning that requires more mental work lasts longer.
In addition to identifying what doesn’t work in learning, the authors also identify what does work. Three of their proven strategies likely helped my former student retain and use his classroom learning years after graduation.
Mnemonics. First, use mnemonic devices. Mnemonics link a memorable name to a larger mass of information.
In this case, OABC stands for opening, agenda, body, and closing. This acronym provides a proven pattern that can be used for many business writing situations. HATS refers to headings, art/graphics, typography, and spacing. After a basic message is crafted, students can add headings, appropriate graphics, typographic enhancements, and white space to make the message more visually appealing to the reader. The OABC and HATS acronyms provide easy ways for students to create clear, organized, and visually powerful messages.
Integration. Second, integrate all the knowledge learned. All new learning has to connect with previously known information.
OABC and HATS are taught early in the semester, and then they are integrated into subsequent assignments throughout the rest of semester. Thus, by the end of the semester, students have had experience applying OABC and HATS in a variety of contexts.
Repetition. Third, all new learning requires a rewiring of the brain. Therefore, provide repeated application of new learning to create and reinforce the new wiring. Don’t assume that students have learned new material just because you have covered it once. Rather, continue to re-emphasize important material throughout the course.
OABC and HATS are taught fairly early in the course, and students are required to apply the principles contained in these acronyms in all subsequent assignments. This repetition reinforces the learning, which improves the likelihood that students will continue to apply the learning later in their careers.
The result is that my student now has these principles so deeply ingrained in his mind that they spontaneously come into his mind whenever he faces a writing project. Further, he not only knows how to use these principles but has a strong conviction of their value in his work.
Today’s professional organizations spend millions of dollars each year on training, yet much of this training has little impact on participants’ subsequent business practices. In most cases, it is because real learning never takes place. Consider your own situation. Is there an opportunity for you to implement mnemonics, integration, repetition, and other Make It Stick learning tactics in your organization?
If you are a trainer or teacher, I strongly recommend the reading of Make it Stick. Further, I suggest that you visit with a few of your former students (or current students at the end of a semester) and ask them to recall what they remember most from your instruction. If you’re not satisfied with their answers, take time to clearly identify what you want students to learn, and then reinforce that learning with principles of mnemonics, integration, and repetition.
I welcome your comments.
It's the first of the semester, and universities are hosting that exciting, but scary, annual event—the career fair. Students see career fairs as great opportunities to meet potential employers, but the event also strikes fear into the hearts of many students because they feel woefully unprepared. One such graduating senior recently stopped by my office the day before my university’s career fair. He didn’t think his skills and experience qualified him for current jobs. To give him some help, I guided him through a three-step process.
List All Accomplishments
To reorient his thinking, I asked, “What have you accomplished over the past four years?” He couldn’t think of much until I began asking additional questions. “What was your greatest accomplishment at your summer job last year?” He then told me how he and his team had doubled his employer’s output. I then asked him, “What projects have you worked on in school?” He then remembered ten projects he had completed in his chemical engineering major.
Brainstorm Transferrable Skills
With many accomplishments to now draw from, I chose one and wrote it on my whiteboard. I asked him to tell me ten characteristics or skills needed to achieve the accomplishment. We came up with this list: team work, attention to detail, diligence, focus, searching and finding, judgment, troubleshooting, technical skills, results focus, setting goals, and meeting deadlines. We then repeated the process with another accomplishment.
Connect Skills to Employers’ Needs
Finally, I asked him, “Do you agree that chemical engineering firms need someone who can work in teams, who pays attention to detail, and who is diligent and focused?” He agreed and began to realize he did indeed have skills and experience that could transfer to his field.
When this student first came into my office, I had drawn a glass of water on my whiteboard. I asked him, “Is this glass half full or half empty?” He responded, “Half empty.” After we completed the foregoing steps, I posed the same question. His response this time was “half full.”
In your next job search or preparation for a career fair, take time to prepare before you jump into writing a resume or practicing for an interview: list your accomplishments from work, school, service, and other activities; brainstorm skills and characteristics underlying each accomplishment; and connect your skills and characteristics to your potential employers’ needs. You’ll be much better prepared, and I think you’ll find your job search much more encouraging and successful.
The recent solar eclipse prompted me to do a bit of symbolic thinking about smaller, less important things getting in the way of larger, more important things.
In the early days of my teaching business presentations, my mentors stressed the importance of watching out for little presentation details, such as using the hands for precise gesturing or counting the number of times each presenter said “um” or “ya know.” Therefore, I emphasized these matters in my classes, and my students would then concentrate on using more gestures and controlling their normal speech patterns as they gave their presentations. Unfortunately, the students’ gestures were often awkward and unnatural—suggesting that even more emphasis was needed. It was a vicious cycle.
Finally, after a few years, I realized that I may have been doing more harm than good in giving feedback of this type. I concluded that if my students were concentrating on these secondary matters while giving their presentations, they were thinking about the wrong things. The hand gestures and filler words were eclipsing the more important message and audience issues that should have been their primary focus.
So what should we be thinking about as we present? First, we should constantly think about the purpose of our presentation—what we are trying to achieve by giving the presentation. This can be brought into sharp focus with an action statement like, “As a result of my presentation, I want the audience to . . .” This might include what we want them to understand, or feel, or do. Every informative and persuasive element should align with the central purpose of the message. Each element should move the audience from where they were when we started the presentation to where we want them to be when the presentation ends. Further, nothing should either distract or detract from that purpose.
Second, we should think about connecting with the audience. If we have performed a careful audience and context analysis during the planning phase, we’ll understand the audience demographics and psychographics. We’ll know of their challenges and concerns. We’ll know what parts of our presentation will be readily accepted and which ones might not. And we’ll continuously focus on building and strengthening the audience members’ connection with us and with the content we are presenting.
Third, we should constantly analyze the audience feedback as we present. Because most of this feedback comes in nonverbal form, we should assess the audience energy level, receptivity level, eye contact, facial expressions, and general responsiveness. We should then take impromptu corrective action when audience feedback tells us that the message isn’t getting across as well as it should.
Finally, we should remain aware of the element of time, making sure we pace our presentation so we don’t speak too long. As appropriate, we should omit some of the less important planned information, without negatively affecting overall message clarity, impact, or coherence. Less-important content should never push aside more important content.
So what about the “ums,” the “ya knows,” and the awkward gestures that I once thought were so important to teach? My experience has taught me that as students prepare content they are excited about, rehearse thoroughly so they are comfortable with the subject matter, and focus on connecting with the audience, these language and gesture issues mostly take care of themselves. The appropriate voice energy and gestures occur automatically. Better yet, they are normal and natural, not forced and awkward.
With this change of focus, the less-important secondary elements of presenting no longer eclipse that which is most important—the message and the audience!
If you’re wanting to improve your business writing skills, you should know that three levels of learning are required to be most effective. Learning that is focused on just one of the three levels will be helpful, of course, but a comprehensive learning plan will be most effective. Think of it in terms of improving your game of golf. Studying the rules of the game will certainly help, but that alone won’t do anything for your long drives. (See this link for a PowerPoint presentation I gave at a recent conference about the ideas I presented in this blog.)
Learning Level 1—Rules
The first level focuses on the rules of writing, including basic sentence structure, punctuation, spelling, grammar rules, and so forth. While writing rules may shift slowly over time and vary slightly from situation to situation, rules are generally quite “black and white,” where something is either right or wrong (e.g., the correct spelling is “receive,” not “recieve”). If you want a good review of sentence basics, visit https://goo.gl/34xyTn. There, in Appendix A, you’ll find many of most frequently used and abused rules of business writing. For example, do you know when to use a semicolon? Many people don’t know; however, you can learn a few basic rules to confidently use semicolons in your writing.
Learning Level 2—Principles, Patterns, and Procedures
At the second level, learn important principles, patterns, and procedures pertaining to writing. Unlike level-1 rules that tell whether something is right or wrong, level-2 principles are more like guidelines. For example, the principle of conciseness pertains to word economy—messages should be conveyed without an excess of words. There’s obviously no right and wrong here, because a message may be mostly concise, but not as concise as it could be. Several patterns and procedures are explained in some of our other blogs. We’ve given some of them names to help you remember, such as CLOUD for writing effective paragraphs, OABC for document organization, HATS for document design, and DOCS for document revision. Learning and applying these patterns and principles can greatly strengthen your ability to write well.
Learning Level 3—Application and Adaptation
The highest level of learning comes at the application level. At first you might think that learning stops when application starts. Not true. You also need to learn how to apply everything you learned in levels 1 and 2. Level 3 is where creativity, judgment, and wisdom are learned. Obviously, application and adaptation skills are difficult to learn in a classroom setting, which is one reason why teachers often use case studies, client projects, and service learning to supplement classroom instruction. In fact, level-3 learning continues well into our careers and usually involves years of trial and error. It draws on everything we learned about rules, principles, procedures, and patterns, but it also requires that we learn how to analyze the unique characteristics of each situation and then design a creative solution to fit each situation.
If you’re feeling so confident in your writing that you think you don’t need a refresher, think again! Despite our years of professional experience, we can all improve at all three levels. Even Vince Lombardi, the great football coach, went back to the fundamentals with his experienced football players on the first day of practice. “Gentlemen,” he would say, “this is a football.” He wanted to make sure his players were prepared at all three levels, from the fundamentals to the intricacies of complicated plays. Likewise, by knowing all three levels of business writing, you can be prepared for all kinds of situations on the field of your professional work.
 David Maraniss, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), 274.
We're Bill Baker and Matt Baker, and we believe that communication is the lifeblood of management. We hope these posts will help you more effectively communicate and manage in your organization.