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!

A BComm Consciousness-Raising Activity

I received an email message yesterday that I forwarded to a new graduate teaching assistant as a good message to discuss with her students as they begin their Writing for Business course. What makes it especially promising discussion material, I think, is that the message is neither good nor bad, or it’s both, or, depending on the reader, it could be one or the other. So it provides a wide open space for students to weigh in with their judgments and the reasons behind them.

The message was a no-reply message from Jack@anyandalltextbooks.com (a fictitious version of the real name), and its subject line was “Can I swing by Wednesday, Professor?” The first words of the message were the line “I’ll be on campus!,” centered and in big, bold, italic letters.

Then came the following:

Hi Professor,
My name is Jack and I’m part of a start-up whose entire purpose is to help students afford to get a college education. You probably recognize me, as I work with many faculty at the University of Cincinnati who have that as a priority. I’m a local!

I DO work with textbooks, but this is totally different from the other book buyers you’ve had drop by your office. I have a huge database that allows me to buy books from as far back as the 1950’s. Faculty members appreciate that I can help them de-clutter their offices while putting textbooks back in the hands of students that could use them.

Types of books I can send to a student:
–  Old editions
–  New editions
–  Instructor (and annotated) copies

Let me know if you’d like to see if you have any books a student could use! I’ll be on campus this Wednesday.

Feel free to respond or even call/text if you would like me to come by quickly. My cell number is 555-523-5523 [not the real number].

Kind regards,
Jack

I know some faculty choose to hang on to all of their books and never sell—if that’s you, I’m so sorry for reaching out! I’m just trying as hard as I can to help students. Click the Unsubscribe button below and I’ll make sure I don’t email you again.

Below that were a large graphic I couldn’t interpret (something like a pink lopsided donut), Jack’s (still with no last name given) address, and an unsubscribe link.

Here are just a few of the many questions you could ask about this message:

–What do you think of the writer’s using just his first name? What might be good about it? What might be bad?

–What do you think about the inclusion of the tagline at the top and the graphic at the bottom? Does this enhance or detract from the message’s persuasive appeal?

–What kind of persona/ethos is the writer trying to project here? Is it effective, in your view?

–What kind of relationship is he trying to establish with the reader? Does he succeed? Is it appropriate?

–What features of this message might tempt a professor to sell his/her textbooks to this person? What might lead a professor to reject the request in the message?

–If you were revising the message, what parts would you leave the same? What parts would you revise and why?

This activity can help sensitize students to the importance of adapting to the audience, creating an effective ethos, and building credibility. If used during the persuasive-message unit of the course, it can help students think about what makes appeals persuasive. But however you use it, it will get students analyzing, thinking, and using their judgment, and realizing that they need well-thought-out reasons for the decisions they’ll make as communicators. Helping them create this habit of mind is probably the most valuable legacy we can leave them with.

We hope your term is off to a great start!

Submitting Résumés and Cover Letters by Email

A couple of weeks ago, our Business Communication Advisory Board met to discuss various workplace communication topics. We enjoy hearing from these professionals, who represent a variety of business fields—accounting, human resource management, education, local government, health care administration, and many more.

One of the main topics we discussed is what employers really want when they tell applicants to send their materials electronically. Does this mean they want the cover letter and résumé in the body of an email? Should applicants attach Word documents (a cover letter and a résumé) to an email? Should applicants attach PDF files or Word files? Is the email the cover letter, or should a separate cover letter be attached to the email?

Essentially, our board members said that how applicants submit their documents is not as important as the stories they tell within those documents. However, they shared the following thoughts regarding their experiences.

  • PDF files work better as attachments than Word documents, as the PDF file will likely always open and preserve a document’s format.
  • Fewer attachments are better. If both the cover letter and résumé are attached to an email, they should be in one PDF document.
  • Generally, a concise, well-written email will work for a cover letter.
  • Whether a cover letter is sent as an email or as an attachment, it needs to be short and concise and must tell the applicant’s story well—and honestly.
  • Applicants who send a cover letter as an email must be sure to keep the same level of formality that they would in an attached cover letter or printed cover letter. One board member says that applicants who send cover letters via email tend to use a tone and style that are too informal.
  • Applicants should keep in mind that employers use the quality of the writing in application materials—regardless of how they are submitted—as a measure an applicant’s communication skills and overall competence.
  • Applicants should send thank-you notes immediately after the interview and follow up if they have not heard from an employer within two weeks. Interestingly, while board members say email thank-you messages are fine, they prefer a handwritten note. After emails are read, they are likely deleted or lost in the volume of inbox messages. A handwritten thank-you note will likely sit on the interviewer’s desk and continually remind him or her of the applicant. Email messages, they say, work well if the employer has indicated that a hiring decision will be made within a day or two.
  • Board members say it is also fine with them if they receive both the handwritten and email thank-you note. Regardless, the message should thank the interviewer, address a high point or major qualification that was discussed in an interview (not recap the entire interview), and end with a confident expression of interest in the position.

Does all of this advice sound familiar? Sure. We have been sharing a lot of this advice with our students for years. However, it’s nice to tell our students that we know the advice will work because professionals in their (the students’) anticipated careers have told us this is what they look for.

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.

Chief Marketer and MailChimp: Two Good Resources for Learning about Email Marketing

I recently received an email article from Chief Marketer entitled “Crafting an Irresistible Email Subject Line.” The advice is helpful, so I thought I’d pass it on to you here.

 But the more I clicked on the links in the article, the more I realized that there’s much more to Chief Marketer than an occasional interesting email. In addition to offering advice about writing compelling email messages, they offer great information about the use of technology to conduct effective email, Web, social, and mobile campaigns. Through extensive research, they’ve gathered statistics about consumer behavior regarding each medium and developed marketing strategies based on that behavior. If you or your students have been wanting to go behind the scenes and see how the pros design electronic messages to sell through different channels, this site is for you.

As I was exploring this resource, one thing led to another, as Web clicking always does, and I came across a second site that is just as good: the Resources page of MailChimp, an email-campaign platform/service. Once you sign in for free, you can access some excellent material, such as their guide to conducting mobile-friendly campaigns, their mobile-friendly templates, their “Email Marketing Benchmarks by Industry” report, and their “Subject Line Comparison,” which examined the open rates of 40 million emails and compared the subject lines of the best and worst performers.

Did you know that most smartphone users check their mail first thing in the morning, even before getting out of bed? Many uses their phones as an alarm clock, so when they turn off the alarm, they also go take a look at their messages. The lesson: No garish colors in your mobile messages! This is the kind of interesting factoid you can find on these sites.

Not many of our students are likely to become email promotions specialists. But it can’t be a bad thing to understand how such professionals work, and some of their findings have implications for email that ordinary businesspeople write. And wouldn’t it be cool to have students prepare an informational report on current trends in email marketing, or a recommendation report on whether to contract the services of a provider like MailChimp, or two different email messages, one optimized for PC viewing and one for viewing on a mobile device? I don’t quite know enough yet to design such an assignment, but I’m working on it  . . . .