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Archive for the 'Professionalism' Category

Elements of ProfessionalismOne of the major benefits of the business communication course is that it helps students practice so many valuable skills, from research and analysis to organization and document design.

The course also creates an opportunity to incorporate these communication-focused skills into the larger context of being a business professional. We define professionalism as the quality of performing at a high level and conducting oneself with purpose and pride. It means doing more than putting in the hours and collecting a paycheck—true professionals go beyond minimum expectations and commit to making lasting and valuable contributions.

To give students a useful framework for understanding this concept of professionalism, we break it down into six distinct traits:

  1. Striving to excel. Pros are good at what they do, and they never stop improving. Remind students that communication is a set of skills that will benefit from the practice, coaching, and feedback they get in the course. And as with any skill, mindful practice leads to competence, efficiency, and personal satisfaction. Encourage students who are in the early stages of skill development to hang in there and take pride in incremental improvements, and emphasize that the ultimate goal of all this work is to help them share their great ideas with the world.
  2. Being dependable and accountable. Communication tasks offer myriad opportunities to practice the second aspect of professionalism. Students can demonstrate dependability and accountability by completing assignments on time, following instructions and guidelines, and producing quality content that audiences can count on. Planning and time management are crucial supporting skills here, of course, to avoid getting a reputation as someone who overpromises and underdelivers. Being accountable also means owning up to mistakes and learning from failures, which always provide opportunities to assess and improve.
  3. Being a team player. Professionals know they are contributors to a larger cause, that it’s not all about them. Great team players know how to make those around them more effective, whether it’s lending a hand during crunch time, sharing resources, removing obstacles, making introductions, or offering expertise. In fact, the ability to help others improve their performance is one of the key attributes executives look for when they want to promote people into management. Being a team player also means showing loyalty to your organization and protecting your employer’s reputation—a major concern in this age of social media. Pros don’t badmouth colleagues, customers, or their employers. When they have a problem, they solve it; they don’t share it.
  4. Demonstrating a sense of etiquette. Etiquette is a vital element of every form of communication, from one-on-one conversations to online messages read by millions. The general concept of following the expected norms of behavior is easy enough to grasp, but students may need some coaching and practice to identify and follow norms in specific situations. With writing assignments, encourage students to consider the impact that phrasing and wording choices can have on their readers. For messages dealing with negative situations, for instance, even subtle changes can shift the emphasis from productive problem-solving to destructive criticism. With class discussions and presentations, discuss how active listening and mutual respect can influence collaborative outcomes and working relationships.
  5. Making ethical decisions. True professionals conduct themselves with a clear sense of right and wrong. They avoid committing ethical lapses, and they carefully weigh all the options when confronted with ethical dilemmas. Assignments and class discussions that confront students with difficult ethical dilemmas are a good way to help them develop the ability to analyze situations and weigh the pros and cons of competing courses of action.
  6. Maintaining a positive outlook. Encourage students to study successful people in any field and notice how optimistic they tend to be. They believe in what they’re doing, and they believe in themselves and their ability to solve problems and overcome obstacles. Being positive doesn’t mean displaying mindless optimism 24/7, of course. It means acknowledging that things may be difficult but then buckling down and getting the job done anyway. It means no whining and no slacking off, even when the going gets tough. We live in an imperfect world, no question—jobs can be boring or difficult, customers can be unpleasant, and bosses can be unreasonable. But when you’re a pro, you find a way to power through, because one negative personality can make an entire workplace miserable and unproductive. Every person in a company has a responsibility to contribute to a positive, productive work environment.

If you have examples of how you use the course to promote professionalism with your students, please let us know in the comments.

Surviving Social Feedback

April 18, 2013

To do business in the social media era is to walk around with a giant "Kick me" sign taped to one's back. Evernote CEO Phil Libin put it perfectly in a recent Inc. article: "…the Internet is the most efficient invention in the history of the universe for concentrating dissatisfaction into its purest, darkest, and most bilious essence."

Every business from the corner coffee shop to the mightiest multinational is subject to public criticism that can be unfair, unkind, and at times deeply personal. Responding to legitimate criticism without letting the negativity corrode one's peace of mind can be a tricky balancing act. Here are some steps that anyone with an online presence can take to handle the onslaught:

  • Separate rants from legitimate complaints. Ranters have a remarkable ability to turn any situation into an opportunity to spew off about politics and a host of other unrelated topics, and it is far too easy to take the bait. Rants are emotional poison that have no place in business communication, and it's best to filter them (by moderating blog comments, for example) or removing them as quickly as possible. If they're left visible, they'll eat at team morale, even if no one responds to them.
  • Examine the complaints by first separating factual content from emotional content. A comment such as "Whoever designed this user interface doesn't know the first thing about ergonomics" offers the fact that someone is dissatisfied with the user interface. The comment might be spot on or misguided (perhaps the person is misusing the product or hasn't been trained), but the dissatisfaction is a data point that needs to be considered.
  • Analyze the emotional content for the audience needs it suggests. Remember that strong emotions usually mean the subject matter is important. Perhaps you're not performing the way every stakeholder would like, but at least you're striving toward a valued goal, which suggests that an opportunity exists. Then again, the anger in a comment may have nothing at all to do with the matter at hand; a commenter might just be having a rotten day, and it spilled onto Twitter or your blog.
  • Pay attention to team morale. Regularly remind everyone involved that negativity is an inescapable element of life online and that criticism shouldn't be taken personally. Gallows humor and a chance to blow off some steam from time to time can help people scrape off the emotional barnacles that tend to accumulate. Evernote's Libin emphasizes the importance of sharing good news, too. Doing so can soothe battered emotions and remind everyone that for every complainer, there might be dozens or hundreds or thousands of silently happy customers.

Ragers and trolls aren't going anywhere, so the ability to listen actively without sponging up all the negative emotions has become an important skill for business communicators at every level. Students who are active in social media may have experienced personal attacks, and discussing how they've reacted can be a good opportunity to advise them on how to handle public criticism on the job.

In addition to handling the emotional fallout from online criticism, of course, organizations need an overall communication strategy for responding to incoming complaints. These three articles offer good advice:


Image credit: Thoth, God of Knowledge

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times on new etiquette norms in the digital age caused a minor stir when the writer asserted that simple "thank you" messages are often rude because they waste the recipient's time. The writer's point was that there generally is no need to acknowledge receipt of information sent via email or other electronic channels—and doing so only contributes to the deluge of messages that many professionals are forced to wade through every day.

Wasting people's time by sending unnecessary messages is indeed thoughtless; we don't dispute that. However, a blanket condemnation of thank you messages betrays a misunderstanding of communication etiquette and communication in general.

First, thank you messages often serve as confirmation that information has been received, and this feedback is particularly important when the sender assumes that some follow-on action will be taken after the message is received. Between overstuffed in-boxes and overaggressive spam filters, email messages don't always reach intended recipients, and knowing information was delivered successfully removes one element of uncertainty from the process.

Second, relationship maintenance is often as important as information transfer, and even in this new age it seems safe to say that many people still appreciate being thanked for their efforts, no matter how minor. Moreover, not saying thank you would be awkward for many people as well. In other words, saying thanks can be emotionally significant for senders as well as receivers.

What do your students think? Do they tend to say thank you when they receive messages from you or each other? Do you expect them to say thanks?


Image credit: Jon Ashcroft

One of the more intriguing effects of social media is the way these tools have put organizational culture on public display. Companies that might have once been known mostly by products, headquarters architecture, and advertising campaigns are now also represented (officially and unofficially) by legions of bloggers, YouTube producers, and Twitter users. Professionals and managers who used to be invisible to the outside world are now presented in rich detail on LinkedIn. Glassdoor and other platforms give employees the chance to vent or boast about the conditions in their workplaces.

Few companies show off their internal culture with the quite the gusto of C3, a customer communications outsourcer based in Plantation, Florida. The company's Facebook page looks more like an internal employee social network than one of the official faces of a corporation with a global footprint. You'll find more photos of office birthday parties and costume-day getups than you will official company announcements or marketing messages.

This inside-out approach to communication is by design, according to C3's marketing VP Alicia Laszewski. Quoted in Workforce Management, she explains that it's part of a strategy to position the company as a great place to work, which helps attract employees (and, presumably, clients who want to outsource their customer contact work to a company populated by happy employees). "If your campaign is about people loving the work environment, you'd better create a company where people really love to come to work. If not, it's just a marketing campaign." Hence the party-hat, pajama-clad atmosphere of the Facebook page.

As the Internet-raised generation moves onto and up the corporate ladder, we can expect more companies to put themselves on public display like this. Will the gap between external image and internal reality collapse as a result? How will this affect the practice of corporate communications, which has long had control, or at least the illusion of control, over how the company was presented to the outside world?

With this and other communication matters to ponder, we'll leave you with best wishes for a relaxing summer. We'll see you again as the fall semester approaches. Have a great summer!

You know that feeling when the words don't quite capture the spirit of your intended message, but words are all you have?

Let's say your project team has just been reprimanded by the boss for missing an interim deadline. You're confident that the team will meet its final deadline, so you're ready to brush off the criticism and get back to work. Your colleagues, however, left the meeting grumbling about being criticized in public, and you fear that morale will slip.

You could craft a restorative, inspirational message to soothe the bruised egos and get the team's energy turned around in a positive direction. However, writing such a message could be risky, because world-weary teammates might just brush it off as happytalk and resent you for trying to be a cheerleader. Moreover, to minimize the chances of a negative reaction, you'll have to spend a lot of time trying to get the words just right.

Alternatively, you could also suggest that your colleagues lighten up and stay focused on the ultimate goal of the project. However, you already know that telling grumpy people to cheer up is a sure-fire way to make most of them even grumpier.

Instead, you opt for a quick bit of gentle and jovial sarcasm, designed to help release the negative emotions in a collegial way. When you get back to your desk, you write the following one-line message via IM or email:

Well, let's pick up the pieces of our shattered lives and move on ;)

The over-the-top phrasing is a subtle way to remind everyone that the criticism wasn't all that traumatic, the use of "our" reminds your colleagues that you're all in this together, and that winking emoticon tells everyone to lighten up without actually saying so. The apparent sarcasm connects with people who are marinating in their negative emotions, but it's really a pep talk disguised as sarcasm. With apologies to Julie Andrews, you're feeding them a spoonful of medicine to help the sugar go down.

But wait: you remember reading somewhere that emoticons are "unprofessional," so you replace it with a simple period:

Well, let's pick up the pieces of our shattered lives and move on.

Oops. That one minor change to make the message more professional turned it into a statement of resigned sadness. If you were delivering the message in person, you could use a real smile to replace the emoticon. Even over the phone you could use a brief chuckle. But with IM or email, all you have are soulless squiggles on the screen.

You search your keyboard for any acceptable symbol that might help:

Well, let's pick up the pieces of our shattered lives and move on!

Great, now you've managed to sound bitter and demanding at the same time.

Under these circumstances, are emoticons really all that bad? And given the trend we're seeing in many industries toward a less "corporate" voice in business communication (spurred in large part by social media), is it only a matter of time before a few basic symbols enter the mainstream for all but the most formal messages?

When you think about it, is ;) all that different from !  ? They are both symbols designed to give words a particular emotional shape. In fact, the exclamation point would probably welcome the help. As the only emphasis character at a writer's disposal, the exclamation point is asked to do too much and is often overused as a result.

What position do you take with your students regarding emoticons in their writing for the business communication course? Is it time to introduce judicious use of a few subtle and simple emoticons, at least for internal communication? (Just to be clear, we're talking here about using text emoticons only, not graphical smiley faces, those collections of yellow cartoon characters available in many IM and blogging systems.)

Let us know what you think :)


Photo credit: VersatImage

Consumer-review websites such as Yelp can be a boon or a bane to local businesses. They can help businesses with little or no advertising budget get exposure through positive word-of-mouth, but they can damage businesses when unhappy customers use the Internet to vent their frustrations.

When a bad review is justified, it can alert potential customers to consider other options and help the company improve its operations. However, an unfair negative review helps nobody. It can divert potential customers away from company that might well meet their needs, and it can inflict temporary or even lasting damage on a company that doesn't deserve it.

Unfair negative reviews can come in a variety of flavors, such as when consumers are at least partially at fault (e.g., ignoring product descriptions on an e-commerce site, ordering a product that clearly doesn't meet their needs, and then criticizing it), when a minor glitch in service is blown out of proportion, or when individuals use review websites as their personal creative-writing platforms and are more interested in being funny or snarky rather than honest and helpful.

Fortunately for unfairly maligned business owners, Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other sites give them the chance to respond. However, these scenarios do present one of the more difficult writing challenges a business owner is likely to face. Unlike an apology for poor service, for example, where the owner can express regret in a straightforward manner and perhaps offer some form of compensation, the unfair review requires a great deal of finesse. The owner's response needs to correct the misinformation without engaging the reviewer in a public argument. Moreover, maintaining a calm, professional tone can be a challenge when one's reputation and livelihood have been subjected to unfair insults.

Putting your students in the roles of maligned business owners can be great practice for writing clearly while keeping one's emotions under control. Have each student find a harsh negative review on Yelp or TripAdvisor and imagine that he or she is the owner of the business in question. The student should assume that the information in the review is factually incorrect and write a hypothetical response that corrects the misinformation without "taking the bait" of the emotional attack. Encourage students to really imagine just how upset hardworking business owners would be after seeing their names dragged through the mud. By role playing scenarios like this, students will get practice at keeping their emotions under control when they are unfairly criticized in any professional setting.

Many people find it difficult to write about themselves when preparing a resume, and the importance of having a compelling resume in today’s tough employment market isn’t making the task any easier.

Teaming up with a partner to work on each other’s resume can help, particularly on the qualifications summary or other introductory statement, which is often the most challenging part of a resume. To help students get over this hurdle, have them pair off and start by providing each other with the basic facts about qualifications, work histories, education, and career objectives. Then have them meet in person or online for an informal interview, in which they ask each other questions to flesh out the data they have on each other.

With that information in hand, each student then writes a qualifications summary for his or her partner. (The qualifications summary is usually the best type of introductory statement for student resumes. The classic career objective is falling out of fashion, and most students don’t have a long enough professional history to write a meaningful career summary.)

Students then review what their partners have written about them, asking themselves whether it feels true to what they believe about themselves and their career aspirations, whether it introduces them effectively to potential employers, and how it might be improved.

In addition to making progress toward a completed resume, this activity gives students the opportunity to practice a number of vital skills, including active listening, constructive feedback, and self-awareness (comparing one’s self image with another person’s perspective).

If you use this exercise or a similar partner-writing exercise, we invite you to share your experiences and insights.

In the entertainment industry, the road to success often starts with "the pitch," a brief presentation to a studio executive by a writer, actor, director, or producer (or a team of these people). If the executive is intrigued by the concept, it might be discussed further within the studio, and eventually a decision will be made about funding production. With so much riding on this short presentation, it’s a high-anxiety event, and making pitches is a vital communication skill. In fact, the ability to pitch effectively is so important that it has its own industry slang term: being "good in a room." Pitches can fall flat for a number of reasons, whether the concept is just not a good fit for a particular studio, the idea is so unusual that the executives are unwilling to risk investing in it, or the pitch is just poorly presented. A presenter may fail by being unable to summarize what a new show or movie idea is all about, by smothering the executives in too many details, or by trying too hard to sell the concept. Comedy super-agent Peter Principato, recently profiled in the New York Times, gives his clients presentation advice that lends itself to a wide range of business presentations in just about any profession or industry:

  • First, come up with a single compelling sentence that describes the show or movie. If presenters can’t do this, chances are they haven’t thought the idea out well enough, or the idea is so complicated that it would be too risky or too expensive to attempt. This one-line summary is essential for another reason, in that the first studio executive to hear the pitch will usually need to share it with other executives or potential financiers before a decision can be made. A catchy, succinct idea is a lot easier to repeat than a rambling, confused concept.
  • Second, expand on that one sentence with a single paragraph that builds interest by substantiating the concept and helping the listener envision what the show or movie would be like.
  • Third, for a proposed series, explain how the concept would play out, week by week, by describing several episodes.
  • Fourth, fill in the "big picture," such as by describing how the show would look on screen or by rounding out the main characters.

(You’ve probably noticed how this advice follows the classic AIDA model of getting attention, building interesting, increasing desire, and asking for a decision, which is what makes Principato’s advice valuable for just about any profession.) As a fresh take on presentation projects for your business communication class, have students "reverse engineer" a favorite TV program to craft a pitch, including the one-sentence grabber, the one-paragraph interest-builder, and the broader explanation of how the TV series would play out. Have individuals or teams pitch their program ideas to the rest of the class, who play the role of studio executives.

Generational differences abound in the workplace, but few are quite as visible as body art: tattoos, piercings (other than ear lobes), and hair dyes in unconventional colors. According to survey data from the Pew Research Center, people younger than 40 are much more inclined than those over 40 to display some form of body art. For example, people 26 to 40 years old are four times more likely to have tattoos than people who are 41 to 64 years old.

With such profound differences, it’s no surprise that body art has become a contentious issue in many workplaces, between employees wanting to express themselves and employers wanting to maintain particular standards of professional appearance. As employment law attorney Danielle S. Urban writes in Workforce Management, the issue gets even more complicated when religious symbolism is involved.

Who is likely to win this battle? Will the body art aficionados who continue to join the workforce and who are now rising up the managerial ranks force a change in what is considered acceptable appearance in the workplace? Or will they be forced to cover up in order to meet traditional standards?

Have your students expressed any opinions about their right to display body art in the workplace?

Millions of bloggers, tweeters, and forum posters appreciate the free-wheeling nature of online communication, but a growing number are learning that free speech sometimes has a steep price. As Santa Clara University’s Eric Goldman emphasizes in this helpful overview article, “Most people have no idea of the liability they face when they publish something online.”

Anonymity is no safeguard, either. Even anonymous posters have been sued for negative remarks after the websites on which they left comments were forced to reveal their identities.

These legal and ethical issues in online communication offer intriguing and sometimes troubling examples to discuss with students. To find cases to cover in class, a good place to start is the “Legal Threats Database” maintained by the Citizen Media Law Project.

We’d love to hear about your experiences teaching online ethics, etiquette, and associated legal matters as part of a business communication course.