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
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—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.
Almost any good book on writing will include a section on composing paragraphs, telling the importance of five factors: topic sentences, coherence, unity, appropriate length, and proper development. Most students can understand these five aspects of good paragraphs, but remembering the list is more challenging—until now.
Introducing . . . CLOUD.
The letters in CLOUD stand for Coherence, Length, Organization, Unity, and Development. Using the CLOUD framework, you can easily remember the five critical attributes of good paragraphs. Let’s review each of these below.
C is for Coherence
Make sure sentences flow logically from one sentence to the next. Coherence is achieved through systematic progression from one related idea to the next.
In addition to logical coherence, be sure your sentences have appropriate cohesion. Whereas coherence refers to the logical and rational interconnection of ideas, cohesion focuses on specific words that clarify the relationships among the ideas. Cohesion words can occur both within and between ideas. The following samples show different types of cohesion words.
L is for Length
Especially regarding paragraphs in the body of a document, avoid writing paragraphs that are so long that they look difficult to read. Many people suggest line counting as a way to determine maximum paragraph length, such as five or six lines for short messages or eight or nine lines for long reports. Perhaps a more reliable method is to just trust your eyes—if a paragraph looks long and uninviting to read, it is too long! When you encounter a paragraph that is too long, find the most logical breaking point (where the topic changes) and divide the paragraph in two, or perhaps even three.
And remember—sometimes a one-sentence paragraph is best!
O is for Organization
Generally use a direct approach in paragraphs, with a topic sentence leading the way. The topic sentence serves as a mini-agenda, or forecasting statement, for the paragraph. Feel free to also add a summarizing sentence at the end of the paragraph as appropriate. To check your document for direct-paragraph organization, skim through the document and read only the first sentence of each paragraph. As you do this, see if you obtain enough of the critical information to understand generally what the document is about. If you don’t understand, go back and write more descriptive topic sentences for each paragraph. Because many people read in detail only the first few lines of a document and then just skim the rest of the message, good topic sentences are critical.
U is for Unity
Once you have a topic sentence in place, ensure that all subsequent sentences in the paragraph have unity; i.e., each sentence should refer to the content introduced in the topic sentence. For example, if the topic sentence is about vacation days, the paragraph content should be about vacation days. However, if the topic sentence includes vacation days and sick days, the subsequent sentences should discuss both vacation days and sick days.
D is for Development
Be sure to give adequate information to support, or develop, the topic sentence. You can develop the main point of a paragraph in many ways, as shown in the following examples.
Now that you have a basic understanding of CLOUD, test your ability to use CLOUD as you read the two following paragraphs. Identify the specific CLOUD strengths and weaknesses in each.
You probably noticed that the first paragraph fails three of the five paragraph tests. To its credit, it is not too long and it does have unity, but it has problems with organization, coherence, and development. For example, it does not begin with a good topic sentence (the idea that Kerry is being fired). It also bounces from one idea to the next and reflects a lack of coherence and cohesion. Further, it fails to develop the case for Kerry being fired.
The second paragraph reflects good strength in all five paragraph standards. It begins with the main point, achieves unity by sticking with the topic of discussion, moves logically through the reasoning behind the decision, gives sufficient detail to understand the reasoning behind the decision to terminate, and avoids excessive length.
In addition to using CLOUD to help with composition, you can use it to guide your review of completed paragraphs. For instance, a colleague once said to me, “I can sense poor writing when I see it, but I don’t know how to give feedback for fixing the problems.” Using CLOUD as a feedback framework could be a tremendous help to this colleague.
CLOUD is a great tool both for writing and for giving feedback on the writing of others. For example, if you are creating a blog, you can use CLOUD during the composition process. If you’re reviewing an important email written by a colleague or subordinate, you can use CLOUD as a framework for giving feedback.
Memorize the CLOUD framework—Coherence, Length, Organization, Unity, Development—and try it on a few paragraphs. As you gain confidence in its use, I think you’ll like it.
If I were to come to your front door and invite you to go for a ride, what would you say? Probably something like, “Where are we going?” If I were then to say, “I’m not going to tell you,” you would likely respond, “Uh, I’m pretty busy right now. Sorry.”
The idea that I would invite you to go for a ride and not tell you our destination seems completely unreasonable. Yet that is what many of us do when we sit down to compose a message to someone else. We simply start writing and don’t tell our readers where we’re going. An example follows:
“Hi Tom. Yesterday I met with Jenny about the deadlines we’re facing on our product-improvement launch scheduled for March 10. I expressed concern that her developers are falling behind on their product-improvement deadlines and that missing this launch date would be a huge problem for our company. Marketing has been preparing a major event for the launch, and to miss the deadline would be disastrous. Our clients have been asking for these improvements for many months, and we simply have to respond to their requests. Jenny said her developers have been sidetracked from their work several times to work on bug fixes for the last release and that the fixes had to take priority. I tried to emphasize the critical importance of the new improvements. Jenny said she understood our situation and would try to do the best she could to meet our needs. I suggested that we have a meeting with her and her developers each Monday to review progress. That way we can know what’s going on with the developers, and we can continue to stress the need to meet deadlines, even if it means working overtime or hiring some temporary help. She agreed to that and the first meeting is scheduled for next Monday at 9 a.m. in Creekside Conference Room. I hope you can attend.”
The preceding message seems to have the appropriate content, but the organization needs work. The unfortunate reader of the message has to blindly follow all the twists and turns in the road until finally arriving at the destination. In a sense, the writer said, “Let’s go for a ride, but I’m not going to tell you where I’m taking you.”
If you think this might be a problem in your writing, consider using an OABC pattern. Whereas the first example has an opening, a body, and a closing, OABC writing has an opening, an agenda, a body, and a closing. See what a difference an agenda can make:
“Hi Tom. Yesterday I met with Jenny about the deadlines we’re facing on our product-improvement launch scheduled for next month. The following paragraphs include my concerns, Jenny’s response, and our plan to address the problem.
Regarding my concerns, I told Jenny that her developers don’t seem to be current with their product-improvement deadlines and that missing this launch date would be a huge problem for our company. Because our clients have been asking for these improvements for months, and marketing has been preparing a major event for the launch, missing the deadline would be disastrous.
Jenny said her developers have been sidetracked several times to work on bug fixes for the last release and that the fixes had to take priority. However, Jenny said she understood our situation and would try to do the best she could to meet our needs.
To resolve the problem, I suggested that we have a meeting with Jenny and her developers each Monday to review progress. That way we can keep current on the developers’ progress, and we can continue to stress the need to meet deadlines—even if it means working overtime or hiring some temporary help. Jenny agreed to this meeting idea, and our first meeting is scheduled for next Monday at 9 a.m. in Creekside Conference Room. I hope you can attend.”
Why Use OABC?
Including an agenda after opening a message can work wonders, both for the writer and for the readers. For the writer, an agenda serves as an outline that guides the structure and development of the subsequent content. The agenda also serves as a contract with the reader, and the writer’s content and structure are thereby made clear, as demonstrated in the second message example.
For readers, an agenda provides a roadmap for the textual trip they are taking with the writer. In the second message, the agenda tells the readers they’re going to encounter three segments on the trip—the writer’s concerns, Jenny’s response, and a solution to the problem. In a sense, an agenda creates mental storage buckets for placing the subsequent material. An agenda also makes messages more skimmable, so readers who don’t care about some parts of the message can skip directly to the parts they are most concerned about—in this case, the solution.
Agendas can be written in one or more of the following four forms. (Did you notice that I just used an agenda to introduce the list?)
Next time you have to create an oral or written message at work, try organizing it into an OABC pattern. I think you and your audience will quickly see the benefits.
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.