(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.

Get Inspiration and Ideas for 2014 by Attending an ABC Conference

Greetings in the new year, bcomm teachers! May it be a good one for all of us and our students.

As you plan to face the challenge of teaching bcomm effectively this year, don’t forget to include a trip to one of the Association for Business Communication’s conferences. It will be well worth the effort (ask anybody who’s ever attended one)—and compared to other organizations, ABC has very reasonable conference registration fees.

But first, a note about registering: Non-ABC members are enthusiastically encouraged to attend any of these meetings, but for the domestic ones, all registrants need to have created an account on the ABC website. (Just choose “non-member” from the list of dropdown options in the “Create an account” area; no fee is required.) But consider joining! Members not only get a break on conference registration fees but also have free access to the International Journal of Business Communication, Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, and other benefits. Best of all, they belong to a stimulating community of professionals who understand and support each other’s work

So here’s what coming up in the U.S. in 2014:

Combined ABC-Southwest/FBD Conference, March 12-14, Sheraton Downtown, Dallas. This annual regional ABC conference is a “twofer”: It’s held in conjunction with the annual meeting of Federated Business Disciplines. In addition to offering presentations on all facets of business communication, the conference has sessions and workshops in nine other business areas, as well as on topics related to “health care administration, strategic management, environmental management, public administration, legal studies, human resource management, information systems, administration and management, political science, and public and private management” (FBD website).

Technology Trends in Teaching & Communication Conference, March 27-29, Embassy Suites, Orlando-Lake Buena Vista South. Hosted by ABC-Southeast, this conference will enable you to share “ideas and best practices related to technology trends, such as (but not limited to) instructional technology, digital communication, social media, global communication technologies, legal and ethical issues related to technology, and technology’s impact on crisis communication” (registration will open soon on the ABC website).

ABC-Midwest Conference, April 3-4, University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis (attendees receive a price break at nearby hotels).With the theme “Into the Wilds of Business: Understanding Organizational Voices and Practices,” this conference will offer presentations on all facets of business communication but have a special emphasis on “niches that are not formally part of the organization’s communication, the adoption of social media for corporate intranets, media to speak with internal and external audiences, and cultures that evolve around formal and informal channels of communication” (registration will open soon on the ABC website).

The 79th Annual  International Conference, October 22-25, Hyatt Regency at Penn’s Landing, PhiladelphiaThe major meeting of the Association, this conference will feature seven concurrent sessions, poster sessions, workshops, and roundtables on all topics related to bcomm. It also includes extensive publisher exhibits, complimentary breakfasts and receptions, plenary addresses, and such yearly favorites as the “My Favorite Assignment” session. The annual conference is also the most international of ABC’s meetings; over 20 countries were represented at the 2013 conference. Registration will open soon.

And internationally, . . .

ABC International Symposium on the Ins and Outs of Professional Discourse Research, March 6 – 7, Modena, Italy. This conference, hosted by ABC Europe, is a two-day symposium focusing on business discourse research. Day 1 will focus on the “ins”: gaining access to research sites and collecting data; day 2 will focus on “outs”: turning data into publications and other media for sharing results. Registration is open on the conference’s website.

The 13th ABC Asia-Pacific Conference, March 27 – 29, Shanghai, China. Hosted by the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics, this conference will bring together bcomm teachers and scholars from all over Asia and beyond. Topics include the art of business communication and Daoism, changing concepts of business communication in the 21st Century, intercultural issues in multinational companies, and many more relating to international business communication (registration will open soon).

Do You Deserve to Go?

Absolutely. Business communication is at least as complex and dynamic as any other field in business—or English or communication, for that matter.  It requires ongoing professional development. Make a good argument to your chair or dean, get some travel money, and get yourself to an ABC meeting this year!

Internship Site Visits: Connecting BCOMM to the Workplace

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a couple of internship sites with the chair of the Information Systems Department. The goal of the visits was for the chair to talk with the site employers and IS interns regarding the goals for the internships and the interns’ progress toward meeting them.

I’ve been looking for ways to help students better connect what they’ve learned in the classroom to what they do in the workplace, specifically those skills related to business writing, so I was thrilled when the IS chair asked if I wanted to accompany him. During my portion of the discussion during the site visit, I asked the employer to (1) assess his or her level of satisfaction with the student’s writing skills and (2) provide suggestions for improvement. While employers gave students helpful feedback, they also shared some general comments:

  • Email remains the primary means of written communication in organizations, and employees really must understand both when an email message is appropriate (as opposed to a face-to-face or phone contact) and how to write clear and concise messages.
  • Many employees struggle to write clearly. That is, they need to do a better job of logically presenting their information in a manner that is easy to follow, presents a clear point and the details relevant for action, and makes clear what type of response (if any) is needed.
  • Interns and new employees, especially, need to find a better balance between confidence and humility. They need to know it is all right not to know an answer and that rather than make something up, be able to ask the right questions. They need to learn how to say “Can you help me understand…?” or “”If I understand you correctly…” or “I don’t know, but I can find out.”
  • Interns need to come to the workplace knowing how to read and respond to the various personalities and audiences they encounter.

I’m guessing all of these employer comments sound familiar because they address topics we already teach in our business communication classes. Yet if students in our classes have no sense that they will be accountable in the workplace for what they are learning in the classroom, they have little reason to make sure they retain, further develop, and use their knowledge and skills. And, of course, in many of our programs, a lot of course work happens between the time a student takes business communication classes and the time the student completes an internship, but that is a matter for a blog post later this fall on business writing across the curriculum and in the disciplines.

For now, however, the internship site visits have been just one way to integrate business communication in a student’s educational experience in a meaningful way. Plus, the internship site employers were very receptive to my being there and had a lot to say.

What do you do to integrate business communication throughout your curriculum? Let us know. We’d like to hear from you.

Creating a Business Communication Industry Advisory Board

In our College of Business, all of the functional areas (e.g., accounting and finance, management, international business, health care administration, marketing, information systems) have business advisory boards. This year, our Business Communication Department joined the fun and formed its board as well.

Unlike the boards in the other functional areas, where the members are from that professional field, the BCOM board comprises members from the fields of health care, information systems, communications, banking, accounting, finance, government, marketing, management, entrepreneurship, and K-12 education.

Our Goals

Our goal in having the board is to help us better connect what we do in the classroom to the needs of employers. Our hope is that by meeting twice per year (early fall, late spring) we can be a resource for professionals who may need projects completed that our students can do and learn from and that professionals can be a resource for us as we develop our curriculum.

Of course, another goal is to enhance the BCOM Department’s visibility in our College, university, and community and assert ourselves as a business discipline.

The Board’s Input

As you might imagine, putting a group of professionals in a room and asking them to talk about entry-level employees’ communication skills yielded a lot of interesting information:

  • Tuning in: Several commented on how interns and entry-level employees tend to come to work, insert the ear buds, tune in to their music, and tune out the rest of the world. While the music may help them focus, employees miss the conversations around them that help them learn the culture, develop socialization skills to fit with the culture, and gather useful information from those informal workplace conversations.
  • Communicating data: Another common remark was that many interns are weak in their ability to communicate quantitative and qualitative data meaningfully.
  • Analyzing an audience and corporate culture: Board members talked a lot about how interns and entry-level employees would communicate better if they were to invest the time analyzing audience and culture.
  • Having a command of the English language: Grammar, mechanics, and punctuation were also mentioned as areas students need improvement on—both written and oral.

Our three-hour discussion covered many more topics, but you can see the value in the professional community’s input as we teach our students and promote our value to the university community

In forming our board, we determined the fields we wanted to be represented on the board. Once we did that, it was a matter of making phone calls and organizing the meeting. If you have questions on how we formed our board, let me know. It’s been a fun and exciting venture, and we’re already looking forward to setting the agenda for our fall meeting.

The Evidence Is Mounting: What You Can Do Is More Important than What You Know

The shift from a manufacturing-based to an information-based economy has created an unprecedented need for employees who are multi-skilled and adaptable. It has taken a while for higher education to catch up to this reality, but a 2013 study commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) can help us keep moving in the right direction.

The researchers surveyed business and nonprofit leaders to ask what they look for in job applicants and how colleges and universities can better prepare graduates for the current demands of the workplace. Of particular relevance to us in bcomm is the finding that the applicant’s “cross-cutting capacities” are more important to employers than his or her choice of major.

Specifically (quoting from the report),

  • Nearly all those surveyed (93%) agree, “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.”
  • More than nine in ten of those surveyed say it is important that those they hire demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning.
  • More than three in four employers say they want colleges to place more emphasis on helping students develop five key learning outcomes, including critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.

The respondents recommend that schools help develop the needed competencies by requiring more coursework in the liberal arts and sciences and by giving students multiple types of opportunities for hands-on learning (e.g., collaborative projects and problem-solving assignments).

If you’re like me, you nodded your head when you read each point above, thinking “Yep—that’s what we do in bcomm!”

So carry on with the real-world assignments, the collaborative projects, the focus on adapting to audience and context, the study of other cultures’ values, and everything else we do that requires students to think and apply. The need for the skills we teach has never been greater.

Communication Tops the List of Valued Skills–Again

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), which tracks trends in the hiring of college graduates, recently announced the results of its 2011 Job Outlook survey. Like their counterparts in previous years, employers who participated in the survey rated “verbal communication” the most desirable skill that a college graduate on the job market can possess.

While I’m not sure exactly what the label “verbal communication” was intended to mean (as opposed to what—body language?), the response definitely validates what we do.  You can share this fact, along with similar results of many other surveys, with skeptical bosses or students as the need arises.

You might find it interesting that the additional top five “soft skills” valued by employers were

2) a strong work ethic

3) teamwork skills

4) analytical skills

5) initiative

According to the NACE press release, employers were “very satisfied” with the teamwork and analytical skills of new college graduates but less satisfied with their communication skills, initiative, and work ethic.

Needing too much guidance and not working hard enough are traits that pop up in virtually every book and article that describes today’s young employees (a.k.a. Generation Y, or the Millennials). I believe that, as bcomm teachers, we can and should not only strengthen our students’ communication skills but also address these other two weaknesses as well.

For example, we can give assignments that require our students to take initiative—to find information, to make decisions, to be creative problem-solvers—and then reward that initiative. And we can also stand firmly by our quality standards, helping students understand that we represent their future employers, who will expect them to do what it takes to get the job done well—even if that means an extra revision or another hour or two of research or teamwork.

Because communication is so central to business and so integral to one’s professional behavior, our job has always been, to some extent, to teach students not only about how to communicate at work but also about who to be. The more we can connect communication with the related skills that will make them valued, successful employees, the better.

Happy Birthday, Email!

As email celebrates its 40th anniversary, I am thinking about how I frame the discussion of email in my classroom. Email is really no longer a cutting-edge technology. Though not as old as the letter or memo, at 40 email has likely assumed its place among the more traditional forms of business communication given other available and even more immediate communication technologies.

At the same time, though, it is frequently used as a business communication tool. The trick is getting students to realize that in a world of texing, IM-ing, and social networking, email communication is still prevalent and desirable—and at least for now, a primary means of communicating in my classroom.

One of my students commented that “Email is soooo 20th century.” The comment was made as a joke; however, there is a ring of truth to it. When I post course announcements, I post them in D2L and send them via email. Occasionally, students will say, “I don’t even check my email anymore” or “I only check my email once a week.” Really? I still check mine several times a day, even though I am on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and once in a great while am known text or IM.

Am I against using Facebook or Twitter in the classroom? No. I know some teachers use these technologies successfully for classroom communication, but I have yet to find a way to do this without having it seem like an intrusion of my professional life into my personal life or in a way that is as efficient (or more so) than using D2L and email.

Do you use Facebook, Twitter, or other social networking tools to communicate in your classroom? Please share your experiences.  We’d really like to know how you make this work.

Meanwhile, check out this article from Mashable: “The History of Email.” The infographic is cool and would be a great talking point in the classroom. You may also want to check out the link in this article to an article on email acronyms. Who knew that “OMG” has been around since 1917 or that LOL translated to “little old lady” in the 1960s?

Many thanks to Marie Flatley for sending this article our way.