An Assignment Idea: Advising the Safe Use of–or Forbidding–Ear Buds

ipod-dark-photo-files-9-1242761I’ve been struck this fall, more than ever, by how pervasive ear buds are on campus and how oblivious many students are when wearing them. I’ve seen students step out into oncoming emergency vehicles, fail to see cars that are turning into them, and otherwise jeopardize themselves and others because of their inability to hear (and, sometimes, see—since, often, they’re looking at their phones as well).

I figure we can turn this situation into a teaching moment! Here are a couple of ideas for assignments built around the issue.

  • Have students, perhaps in groups, research the dangers of earbuds (and ear buds + cell phones) to find compelling data they could use in a safety message to students at their school. Then have them write that message. Have them discuss and choose whom the message should come from: head of safety and security, president of the student body, head of student affairs, the university president? The challenge of this assignment is that your students are probably not inclined to read or heed a message like this themselves. But that’s the beauty of it, too: They’re in a perfect position to figure out what it would take to overcome their readers’ likely objections. Tell them that when they’ve found data/arguments that would persuade them to change their own behavior, they’re onto something.
  • I found, with a little bit of Internet searching, that some workplaces forbid the use of earbuds on the job. Have your students, perhaps in groups, research this issue to find out why. Then create, or have them create, a scenario in which, playing some role in the company, they need to write the employees to state and defend the company’s ear-bud policy.

Either of these assignments will involve conducting research, evaluating evidence, persuading a reluctant audience, and writing clear guidelines. You can have great discussions around all these facets of the task. Let’s hope it also results in safer behavior on the part of our students! (How cool would it be to send the message to the director of campus safety and figure out a way to have it actually sent out? It could happen!)

If you’ve got an idea for a good informative or persuasive message assignment to use this fall, please share it!

Can Your Students Interpret Numbers?

A popular saying in business is that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” While more businesses these days are relying on intuition and core values as well, it’s true that businesses have to have reliable numbers to be able to stay in business.

This makes it a good idea to give our students at least one assignment in which they need to present and interpret numerical data. I’ve been surprise lately, though, by how poorly my business writing students do this. Perhaps I’m getting a bit of a false read because most of the students in our Writing for Business classes are marketing, IT, and management majors (the students in the more numbers-based majors aren’t required to take this course). If my sample is skewed, I hope you’ll still find the following tips useful.

But first, here’s the situation that prompted me to write this post. The class had been assigned a report-writing task that involved interpreting data from a customer-satisfaction survey for a health clinic. One of the questions on the survey asked the respondents to rate the accuracy the bills they received from the billing office. The answers are shown in this graph:

UN 11.6 billing graph

To my consternation, all but about three of the students interpreted these results as positive! They looked at the columns, saw that the biggest ones were to the left, and thus deduced that the results were pretty good. So we had a discussion about context. Sixty people said their bills were never right? And another 140 said almost never? And another 319 said sometimes? I asked the class how many times they’d need to get an erroneous bill before seriously considering changing healthcare providers. Or how many phone calls to the billing office were probably being generated by this problem. Then they began to get it.

I see what happened as part of a larger issue: Our students are hesitant to think. They’re terrified of making mistakes, and they don’t realize that, to do well on their jobs, they have to problem solve, use their judgment, and put their ideas out there. This is especially the case when they’re asked to interpret information.

For the benefit of future classes, I drew up this list of tips for interpreting and commenting on numbers:

  • Consider the context. Findings that are positive in some situations could be alarmingly bad in others. Figure out what the numbers mean in terms of the problem you’re investigating.
  • Calculate percentages. Often it’s easier for readers to wrap their minds around percentages rather than raw numbers. So, instead of saying “245 strongly agreed” (out of 400), say “61.2% (245) strongly agreed.” (Formula: Divide the number of responses by the total number of participants.)
  • Combine categories of responses when that will be helpful. For example, if you’ve asked respondents to choose an answer on a five-point scale, with the two positive answers at one end of the scale and the negative ones at the other end, it may be more helpful to compare the total number of positive responses to the total number of negative ones than to call attention to just the most positive and most negative answers.
  • Use “majority” correctly. It means “more than half.” It doesn’t mean “those who chose the most popular response” (unless those who voted for the most popular response account for more than half of the respondents). Better yet, try to use more specific wording, such as “just over half” or “the large majority.”
  • Use “average” accurately. “Average” means the median response. (Formula: Add all the responses or ratings and then divide them by the total number.) You cannot say “the average response was ‘sometimes'” when what you really mean is that it was the most common response (the mode).
  • Use the word “most” with care. “Most” doesn’t really have a uniform meaning, but it needs to refer to quite a high percentage of the responses. You would not be justified in saying that “most” respondents chose an answer if only 61% of the respondents chose it. If 85% or more chose it, your use of this word would probably be acceptable.

I realize that this isn’t a very ambitious list. But I hope its overall effect will be to make my students more thoughtful and accurate when reporting numerical data, and I hope it will be of some use to your students as well. If you have tips to add to this list, or have a different way altogether of helping students interpret numbers, please share them.

 

Developing Students’ Team Skills

Everywhere I turn this week, I seem to encounter the topic of team skills in the classroom and in the workplace.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’s Job Outlook 2015 survey, teamwork and leadership tied as the skills most employers surveyed look for on a résumé. (Written communication and problem solving are second and third.)

I also recently met with our college’s career liaison, who just returned from visits at several internship sites. Employers consistently cited teamwork as the area in which interns need the most practice and development—using a calendar to coordinate a meeting, coordinating and participating in virtual meetings, speaking up during a meeting, being accountable to the team, and listening and taking notes.

As with learning any skill, students must learn team skills and practice them again…and again…and again in many contexts.  Students cannot learn all the skills they will ever need in one business communication or organizational behavior class, and expecting them to intentionally transfer the skills from these classes to other classes without our help may be expecting too much.

Instructors may say they do not have time to teach team skills students should have learned in earlier courses. But helping students practice and transfer their skills does not have to be so time consuming that it takes away from other course content. Further, promoting the transfer and development of team skills may eventually save the instructor and other students time as assignments and processes become more efficient.

Here are some strategies I use for building students’ team skills in my Advanced Business Writing class. If you have others to add to the list, be sure to let us know.

  1. Flip your classroom so that students work in teams during class time. Working in a flipped class lets instructors observe teams and provides instructors several teachable moments for developing team skills. If you’re interested in flipping, you may find our Flipping Your Classroom post helpful.
  2. If students are doing group work in class, visit the groups and ask questions related to both the students’ assignment and their team processes. What is working well? What needs to improve? If students have a conflict, what can you do to help them resolve it? Students may not know what is working or not until an instructor presses them for information, or they may know that a conflict exists but not know how to resolve it.
  3. If students are working in teams in class, require that they spend the last five minutes of class setting an agenda and goals for the next meeting and assigning individual responsibilities to be completed before the next class period. Have students spend the first few minutes of the next class reviewing the agenda and making sure everyone knows the goals for the day.
  4. If students are doing their teamwork outside of class, require that they establish agendas and goals for their meetings, as well as individual assignments for team members when the team is not meeting. Require students to submit the agendas, goals, and individual assignments as part of their project grade. If grading all of them becomes too cumbersome, tell students you won’t grade all of them but that you will randomly select dates on which you will grade them.
  5. Incorporate accountability checks throughout the team project. Many of us have students complete team member evaluations at the end of a project, but if the project is long, students don’t think about the accountability portion until the end or may not be aware that they are not doing their part until it’s too late to change. If you have your team evaluations in Qualtrics or other online survey method, distributing and scoring the evaluations is fairly quick.
  6. Encourage students to meet virtually via Skype, Dropbox, Google DriveGoogle+ Hangout, Google Docs (and Google Sheets, Google Slides, and Google Forms), or other technology.
  7. Provide students with resources they can read quickly to help with team issues. Here are links to some of the articles that have arrived recently in my various social media feeds:
    1. What to Do if Your Team Is Letting You Down
    2. 15 Characteristics of Extraordinary Teams
    3. Encouraging a Team-Working Environment
    4. 27 Ways to Refocus a Team
    5. How to Survive Virtual Group Work

So tell us…What are your best strategies?

 

(Arguably) The Fastest-Growing Genre in Business Communication: Content Marketing

If you flip through the journals and books in our field, you’ll find hardly a mention of it. But suddenly (it seems), it’s all over the place. It’s content marketing.

What is content marketing? The label doesn’t seem to indicate anything new. Don’t we always sell by using content?

The answer is yes—but content marketing differs from sales writing in that it gives potential customers free useful content to drive them to the actual site of the sale. In the words of the Content Marketing Institute, “Content marketing is the marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”

An article in Forbes clarifies the concept with these examples:

  • Preparing an infographic on a hot industry topic and sharing it via blog post or Pinterest.
  • Posting a Web article on how to do something that your company is very good at (e.g., getting customers to subscribe to a company’s e-newsletter).
  • Uploading a podcast to iTunes that reflects on a topic your target audience cares about (and your company’s product/service can help them with).
  • Uploading a video to YouTube that does the same.
  • Selling a book that establishes your expertise in an area and drives readers to your company.

A content-marketing message resembles a white paper in that, typically using research, it explores a common problem for which the authoring company’s product is the solution. The difference lies largely in the format/channel. A white paper is a report in document format, whereas content marketing exploits all forms of media.

When preparing your fall syllabus, consider incorporating content marketing into your unit on persuasion. You could have your students, or groups of students, . . .

  • Prepare a report for a boss or client on how companies are using content marketing (or prepare a proposal for a company to get into content marketing).
  • Write a content-marketing blog post for a real or hypothetical company.
  • Summarize the key points of selected sources on content marketing, such as one of these five TED talks or articles on Copyblogger.com, the granddaddy of the content-marketing sites.
  • Create a social-media strategy for a company that includes one or more content-marketing channels.
  • Analyze the ways content marketers build interest and authority (students could choose a content-marketing expert to follow here).

If you add a content-marketing assignment to your syllabus, let us know how it turns out!

How Long Should Your Social-Media Post Be?

My colleague Lisa Meloncon, who teaches an infographics course in our professional writing program, recently sent me the link to an awesome blog post. It was published by the social-media scheduling and analytics firm Buffer, and it contains a cool infographic designed by SumAll, another social-media analytics firm. The post tells you not only how long the parts of different electronic messages should be but also why, in terms of user data.

Did you know, for example, that . . .

  • The ideal length for a tweet is 71-100 characters?
  • The average time that podcast listeners stay connected is 22 minutes? And that this time is shorter for students?
  • The optimal length for the title of a blog post is 6 words?
  • A LinkedIn post should be about 25 words?

Click  here to check out this post and share it with your students. And then discuss with them when it might be appropriate to stray from these guidelines, depending on audience and purpose.

You can also use Buffer’s post as the basis of an assignment–for example, having students boil down the data for a short email/memo report, or create their own infographics based on these or other data.

 

 

Should We Keep Teaching the Sales Letter? Absolutely!

Somehow I got on the email distribution list for TMR Direct, a company that specializes in direct-mail services. I’m glad I did, because they keep track of direct-mail trends and have a ton of research to back up their stats and recommendations.

With so much emphasis placed on e-marketing media—email, twitter, Facebook—you might think that direct mail is all but dead.

Au contraire! According to TMR, direct mail has a greater response rate than email, and people are far more likely to donate to nonprofits in response to a mailed rather than an emailed solicitation. Plus, in a sea of electronic messages, direct mail messages stand out, especially for the younger crowd (in fact, according to statistics gathered by ProfitFuzion.com, young people were the most likely demographic to respond to a direct mail piece in 2012).

So sales letters are still a worthwhile assignment for bcomm classes, and you can find good coaching tips on the TMR website. For example, . . .

–The latest TMR email I received was titled “Should Your Direct Mail Scream?” The article had good advice to share with your students when they’re trying to craft an appropriate attention-getter.

–“A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Customers” talks about the importance of giving your direct mail visual appeal—while also pointing out that the most important factor for success is the right distribution list, not words or pictures.

–One article gives “6 reasons Your Direct Marketing Strategy Should Include Coupons.” Until now, it never occurred to me to suggest that my students make coupons part of their sales messages. But in many cases, they should.

You can also download free whitepapers from TMR, such as Best Direct Mail Practices in an Evolving Marketplace, to learn about the role that direct mail can play in today’s multimedia marketing campaigns.

The sales letter has always been a popular assignment with my students, and I’m glad to have solid evidence that this is still an important genre in business writing. A well-designed sales-letter assignment can help students think through not only their verbal and visual choices but also how the message will function in relation to other media in an integrated sales effort.

So as you’re planning your fall courses, don’t feel shy about including the time-honored sales letter. Just be sure you have your students think about its new role and purpose in the e-media marketplace.

A Quick Number Use Review & Worksheet

Finally…It’s summer…For many of us, it’s time to slow down, take stock, and perhaps think ahead to the courses we will teach in the fall. If you teach standards for using numbers and are looking for a quick review for your next course, here you go.

The standards for number use in the table below are summarized from Rentz, K., and Lentz, P. (2014). Lesikar’s Business Communication: Connecting in a Digital World, New York: McGraw-Hill. If you use the table in your course materials, we’d be grateful if you’d cite our book accordingly. We hope you find this Number Use Worksheet helpful as well. If you have any creative activities or methods for teaching number use, please share them with us.

Spell Out Use a Numeral
The Rule of Nine: Numbers nine and below (except as noted in the “Use a Numeral Column”): I ordered six boxes of pens. Numbers 10 and above: I ordered 12 boxes of pens.
A number at the beginning of a sentence: Twelve employees were promoted. Numbers in a series that refer to related items, where one of the items is ten or greater: Last week 12 employees were promoted, 8 retired, and 3 left the company.
A day of the month that appears alone or precedes the month and is nine or less: I can meet on the eighth. Days of the month when the month precedes the day or when the date precedes both the month and year: June 12, 2014, or 12 June 2014. (NOTE: You don’t need the “th” in these cases.)

A day of the month that appears alone or precedes the month and is ten or greater: I can meet on the 12th.

Amounts of money when the unit of currency is also spelled out: I spent twenty dollars on my dinner. Amounts of money when the unity of currency is represented by a symbol: I spent $20 on my dinner. (NOTE: When the dollar amount is a round number, you don’t need the “.00” after the amount.)
Indefinite numbers and amounts: About three thousand people live in this suburb; over a million people live in the entire metropolitan area. Percentages: Sales increased 3 percent last quarter.
Units of measure: (1) My new desk is 5 feet long and 3 feet wide. (2) The package I shipped weighed 3 pounds.
Fractions that stand alone: Nearly one-half of our employees participate in the wellness program. Mixed numbers: Our new office building is 5½ miles from our old building.
Legal documents use both the numeral and the word: The contract will expire in 60 (sixty) days.
Time can be expressed in either numerals or words as follows according to the rule of nine: 2:00, 2:30, 10 p.m., 10 o’clock, two o’clock. NOT: 2:00 o’clock