(Bad) Examples to Use on the First Day of Class

So you may have two questions:

  1. Why are you writing about the first day of class when the school year just ended? Answer: It’s never too early to collect great stuff to use in the next school year!
  2. Where have you guys been?! Your last post was in January! Answer: Sadly, yes–that was our last post. Then various calamities, in the form of burdensome administrative tasks and health problems, hit. But we have emerged victorious and, like many of you, are happy to have the summer to recover, rethink, and recharge.

The first day of class is a great time to start sensitizing students to the importance of clear, successful business communication, so over the summer, watch your in-box, social-media feeds, and mailbox (and listen up during meetings and other encounters) for real examples that can make the point.

Here’s one I’m going to use. It was in an email message that I recently received from an environmental-protection organization. Though the message was, in general, well written, the first paragraph had a major problem. I’m sure you can find it (the boldface type was in the original):

“With graduation commencements happening at colleges all across the country, many of your students are probably still wondering, ‘What comes next?’ That’s why I wanted to let you know that we will be officially closing applications for the Green Corps Class of 2018 on Friday, May 26th.”

Wait . . . is this a good-news or bad-news message?! Despite the negative wording of the emphasized sentence, the intended message–that there’s still time for students to apply for a job with Green Corps–is actually good. Ask your students how they’d rewrite the problem sentence to emphasize this good news. I’ll be they can do it–and bolster their self-confidence and decision-making skill in the process.

Another problematic message I received not long ago was the “teaser” on the envelope of a fundraising letter. It read “IMPORTANT RENEWAL NOTICE” and then “IMMEDIATE RESPONSE REQUESTED,” followed by this question, in bold red type: “Have We Done Something Wrong?

The teaser did get me to open the envelope, whose contents revealed that the sender was Habitat for Humanity. Though this is an organization that I feel positively toward (and have supported), I found the envelope’s screaming (typographically speaking) announcement and its whiny, guilt-inducing question very off-putting. Thankfully, the letter itself talked about helping families, without further efforts to make the reader feel bad–but by then I’d already determined not to support whatever organization had sent me this message.

It’d be very interesting, I think, to share this story with our classes (minus my particular reaction to the message) and see what they’d have to say about the text on the envelope. I’m betting that somebody will say it was unwise not to reveal up front that the message was from Habitat, since the organization, as a popular and respected nonprofit, should have traded more on their “cred.”  I’m hoping they’ll also find fault with the shouted “RENEWAL NOTICE” message. And of course, I’m hoping that they’ll regard the emotional-blackmail ploy used by the question as dangerous. (Yes, it may get people to open the envelope . . . but would any letter be able to counteract the negative reactions generated, at least for some people, by the question? Plus, how would the reader know if the organization had “done something wrong?” Or what should he/she do if he/she believes that the answer is “yes”? It’s a negatively worded invitation for feedback that goes nowhere.)

We know many of you also collect examples of communication gaffes. Please share these, as well as good examples that catch your attention. They’re a great way, maybe the best way, to “keep it real” in the bcomm classroom.

Classroom Talking Point: Too Cold for Persuasion?

Take one look at a weather map and you know winter is at its harshest in much of the country. If you are like me and live in the upper Midwest, phrases such as “polar vortex” have become part of your vernacular, and you spend much of your day putting on layers of clothing in a sad, futile attempt to make the -40 temperatures seem not so bad. In the spirit of all things winter, this week’s blog offers a classroom talking point on one university’s message regarding its decision to hold classes on a day when the high temperature was 15 degrees below zero (30 to 40 below with the windchill).

The message was posted on the university’s “Announcements” blog and linked to on the university’s Facebook page. While some took the message in stride, others (judging by their comments) did not appear persuaded that keeping the school open was a good decision. The text of the message appears below.

My thought is that this message would make a great talking point for a class discussion on persuasive writing.

  • What rhetorical devices does the writer use to justify the university’s decision to hold classes?
  • Are they effective in persuading the reader that the decision was a good one?
  • What, if anything, could the writer do to improve this message?
  • Does the writer follow what we discuss in class regarding the organization of a persuasive message: gaining attention, building the case, minimizing any possible flaws in the argument, and ending with an action item?
  • Some readers appeared so angry about the decision to remain open that they may not have been able to objectively consider the writer’s reasoning. How might business writers account for readers’ emotional reactions to persuasive messages?

Enjoy!

The Message

SUBJECT: Classes to be held as scheduled Tuesday, Jan. 28

The university is open and classes will be held as scheduled on Tuesday, Jan. 28.

There have been a number of inquiries about why the university is open and holding classes as scheduled despite sub-zero temperatures.

The university rarely, if ever closes. A number of criteria are considered when deciding whether to hold classes, delay the start of classes, or cancel select classes.

Those criteria include, but are not limited to, excessive snowfall and/or drifting, icy conditions, temperature, wind chill, visibility and condition of sidewalks and roadways both on campus and in the community. The university makes the decision based on actual real-time weather conditions, not what the forecast is predicting the day before.

Naturally, one of the most important considerations is safety of students, faculty and staff. If the conditions are deemed obviously unsafe for travel to and from the university, and to and from facilities on campus, classes are canceled or delayed. This can be a subjective judgment—but it is based on the best information available at the time the decision is made.

The university recognizes that some individuals have specific medical or physical conditions that prevent them from being able to venture out into the cold, or may have a lengthy commute to campus that may not be safe to undertake because of weather conditions where they live. That is why students, faculty and staff are instructed to exercise their best judgment in deciding whether to attend classes or report for work.

NNTR…No…Wait…

Actually, we do want your response to this post.

I recently led a workshop on writing email messages. After the session, one attendee (we’ll call her “Sue”) asked my thoughts on the use of NNTR (no need to reply) or NRN (no reply needed) at the end of an email. Sue attended another workshop recently where the presenter advised attendees to use NNTR and NRN to reduce the number of emails in their inbox. Sue also said her boss uses NRN and NNTR frequently in emails to office staff.

Sue finds the use of these initialisms rather rude and unsettling. To Sue, their use communicates that her boss does not think Sue or other employees have the sense to know when a response is necessary. In addition, Sue says she and her colleagues see the use of NNTR and NRN as the boss’s attempt to limit and control communication and evade employees’ questions. Sue noted several times when employees had questions regarding an email but were afraid to ask because they did not want to violate their boss’s directive to not respond.

In other words, the use of a simple initialism has created a culture of fear, intimidation, and uncertainty in her office.

Further, Sue says she and her colleagues see no harm in a polite “Thank you for the information” response to acknowledge a message. Wouldn’t a writer want to know that a message was received?

For my part, I agree with Sue. I also think the use of NNTR or NRN seems a bit lazy. Business professionals should write messages so clearly that the reader knows whether a response is needed.

What do you think about the use of NNTR or NRN? Are Sue and I out of touch and overly sensitive? Do I need to rethink my position on this? Should using NNTR and NRN be a standard practice? Are they ever appropriate? What should we advise our students?

We look forward to your thoughts.

Personality Tests and BComm

Have you ever incorporated personality testing into your bcomm courses? Others have. In fact, quite a few articles on personality analysis have appeared in Business Communication Quarterly over the years—such as Valerie Priscilla Goby and Justus Helen Lewis’s “Using Experiential Learning Theory and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in Teaching Business Communication” and Nancy K. Schullery and Melissa K. Gibson’s “Working in Groups: Indentification and Treatment of Students’ Perceived Weaknesses.” But while I’ve always found personality tests intriguing, I’ve never used them in my classes.

Maybe that’s about to change.

As a board member for a nonprofit group, I was recently asked, along with the other members, to take a free online personality test at enneagraminstitute.com in preparation for working with a new director. The results were fascinating—and also seemingly on target and useful.

The questions in The Enneagram Institute’s approach test for tendencies toward nine different personality types: the reformer, the helper, the achiever, the individualist, the investigator, the loyalist, the enthusiast, the challenger, and the peacemaker. As you’d expect, each has its particular strengths and weaknesses. For example, the enthusiast is “busy, productive, . . . extroverted, optimistic, versatile, and spontaneous,” as the website says—but also easily distracted, prone to exhaustion, impatient, and impulsive. Also as you’d expect, no one falls into just one category, though each person has one predominant category.

Such tests are often used in business to identify the most promising job candidates, help with team building, coach employees on their career development, and improve organizational culture. I get the impression that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, developed during World War II, is still the most popular and highly regarded test (certainly among Business Communication Quarterly authors), but other tests and categorizing systems are also on the playing field.

 For example,

Queendom.com, a subsidiary of the high-tech psychometric company PsychTests AIM Inc., offers a Big Five Personality Test (along with a communication skills test, an emotional intelligence test, and others). The test places each taker along five continuua: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (emotional stability).

Maximumadvantage.com (whose tagline is “Psychology Applied to Business”) identifies four personality types: the “bottom line person,” the “people person,” the “’can’t we all get along’ person,” and the “detail person.” Of particular relevance to us, the site links these types to four communication styles.

–Australian communication consultant Lee Hopkins identifies “the four personality” types as “extrovert,” “amiable,” “analytical,” and “pragmatic” and bases his communication advice on these.

 –The Keirsey Temperament Sorter was developed by David Keirsey as a variant on Myers-Briggs. His test—which, like Myers-Briggs, yields 16 personality types—measures people’s tendencies in regard to four scales: abstract/concrete, cooperative/utilitarian, directive/informative, and expressive/attentive.

What uses spring to mind as you contemplate these tests and typologies in relation to bcomm? Here are the main ones I think of:

–Have students use one or more of these typologies to become more self-aware, which can make them better team members and more adaptable communicators.

–Use one or more of these typologies to make students sensitive to others’ personalities and thus enhance students’ audience analysis. (Wouldn’t it be fun and enlightening to have students analyze the personality types revealed in sample documents or speeches?)

 –Use one or more of these tests/typologies as the basis for a major assignment—for example, a report comparing several tests or a proposal recommending that a company use one of them. 

I must confess that personality typing systems scare me a bit. Maybe that’s why I’ve held off on using them. Seeing others as “types” can blind students to the uniqueness of each individual—and I’m very uneasy with those who suggest (or sometimes even say) that hiring committees should use these tests to screen out everyone except extroverted, cooperative, high-energy people.

 But I think that, if used wisely, personality types can help our students achieve the interpersonal acumen and skill that we’re hoping they’ll achieve.

 What do you think?