Bovee & Thill Business Communication Blog
Insights and commentary from the authors of the world’s
leading business communication textbooks


Enter your Email:

Suggestion Box

Please send us your suggestions for improving our textbooks and supplementary materials. We’d be grateful for your feedback.


Archive for the 'Teaching Social Media Skills' Category

Holly LittlefieldIf you were fortunate enough to attend Holly Littlefield's presentation at the ABC convention in Seattle this past week, you were treated to an entertaining and highly instructive selection of social media failures. Her talk, "Audience, Brand, Channel: Using Social Media Cases to Teach Communications Concepts," offered a taste of everything from cringe-worthy image choices to clumsy non-apologies.

The examples Dr. Littlefield was able to show during her time slot are only a sample of the episodes she has collected, and she has generously agreed to let us share the full set with you. This extensive PowerPoint presentation (11 MB) offers a variety of cases that highlight the need to understand audiences and make intelligent decisions about communication channels.

Our thanks to Dr. Littlefield for sharing her insights and teaching resources.


Social learningVia newsgroups, bulletin boards, and other information-sharing platforms, learning in various forms was one of the earliest social uses of digital networking. Moving into the Internet, World Wide Web, and social media eras, the opportunities to teach and learn online expanded beyond what even an optimistic dreamer might’ve envisioned decades ago.

From informal crowdsourcing of research on Twitter to comprehensive collaboration systems that use gamification to encourage employees to help other, companies have lots of ways to enable their employees to learn on the job—and specifically, to help each other learn on the job. These social learning opportunities include real-time training (delivering information when and where an employee needs to apply it, rather than offline in a classroom), capturing expertise and market insights from wherever in the organization they might exist, helping new employees get oriented and productive, developing mentoring networks, and helping blended workforces build a new sense of community in the aftermath of mergers and acquisitions.

Given the vital role of communication in corporate training, were we intrigued to read the results of a survey of human resources executives discussed recently in Talent Management. The research measured how important social technology was to nine major HR functions, from recruiting to career and succession planning. The respondents listed employee recruiting as the most important HR application of social technology. This certainly makes sense; as the article’s author points out, recruiting is a social activity to begin with. Moreover, recruiting is a key performance metric for HR managers, so they would naturally be interested in tools to help them perform better. As we’ve highlighted here and in our textbooks, companies such as VMWare and Zappos have jumped on social recruiting in order to compete for the top talent in their industries.

The most surprising finding from the survey was the middling level of importance these HR managers attached to social learning. With the rich history of networked learning and the cost-effective opportunities for getting vital information where it needs to be in the organization—not to mention all the ways employees are already learning via social media—we might hope that the one functional area most responsible for employee development would view social learning in a more positive light.

On the other hand, given all the challenges involved in establishing new systems and processes, perhaps this lukewarm level of interest with HR shouldn’t be so surprising. The article points out that social media have been an area of concern for HR, considering the potential consequences of inappropriate use and a lingering misunderstanding about the differences between social technology in a business context and social media in a public context. Losing at least some degree of control over a core function such as training might be an issue as well.

Looking forward, we suspect that in much the same way that the “bring your own device” phenomenon forced many IT departments to figure out how to safely incorporate personal devices on company networks, a “create your own training” phenomenon led by independently minded and digitally enabled employees might push more HR departments to embrace social learning.

One of the most noticeable attributes of the millennial/Generation Y and Generation Z workforces is the demand for a digital experience in the workplace that mirrors the digital experience in their personal lives. Employees who grew up using social media as an all-purpose recommendation-engine/status-updater/question-answerer are likely to expect the same capabilities on the job—and may well create it themselves if their companies don’t have the necessary systems in place.

DeloitteOne of the more intriguing challenges/opportunities created by the array of new media choices is the concept of the multi-stage or multi-platform message, in which the delivery of a message starts on one platform and moves to additional platforms in order to give readers the complete message. For example, you can use Twitter to grab readers' attention, then link to a blog post for an in-depth narrative on the topic, then link to a database-driven webpage with reference material, then link to YouTube or SlideShare for a presentation.

The ability to transport readers across multiple platforms offers some significant benefits:

  • Casting a wider net by using multiple media to capture more target readers
  • Staging a complex message in a way that keeps readers intrigued without overwhelming them
  • Weaving in multiple media types along the way (such as embedded videos or infographics)
  • Giving readers the flexibility to navigate their own paths through the information as they discover how it applies to them

In the old days of print-heavy communication, a complex message was usually communicated via a lengthy printed report, working from the title page through the introduction, body, supporting graphics, and appendices. While such reports suffered from the usual drawbacks of printed media, they had the huge advantage of being closed systems in the sense that everything was there in one place, within a single, unified message structure. Readers didn't need to click around to get additional information, and writers didn't need to worry that readers would get distracted by a more entertaining YouTube video halfway through the document.

Crafting a successful multi-stage message requires all the skills needs for every business message, including using several of the compositional modes for electronic media, plus the ability to plot a clear path from the message's beginning to intended conclusion (or conclusions, as various readers might want to take different paths). It can be a big challenge to move readers from stage to stage without losing them to the multitude of distractions online while balancing the need to guide them while also offering the flexibility to choose their own paths if appropriate.

The accounting and consulting firm Deloitte offers some great examples of multi-stage messages to share with your students. Deloitte frequently uses Twitter ( as the first stage, such as sharing a startling statistic or a provocative forecast, then linking to one or more other platforms where readers can get the rest of the story. In some cases, the message delivery system is more or less closed, such as a tweet that links to a special landing page for a new research report or an upcoming webcast, making it easy to keep information delivery on track. In other cases, though, a tweet might link to one of the company's regional homepages, where the reader is then tempted by a dozen or more other interesting graphics and headlines, all competing for attention.

You can use this concept of multi-stage messages to demonstrate for students (a) the importance of being able to write in the various modes, from compelling teasers on Twitter to engaging narratives in a blog post or webcast, and (b) the need to plan carefully before crafting multi-stage messages so readers don't fall off the bus before the tour is over, so to speak.

You might also create a "treasure hunt" exercise for students, asking them to start with a single tweet from a company such as Deloitte, follow that message through as many links as they can find, and describe the structure of the overall message they uncover.

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

This Twitter exercise can help students students grasp the value of the communication course and practice writing tight, focused messages at the same time.

Have them write four messages of no more than 140 characters each to persuade other college students to take the business communication course. They should think of the first message as the “headline” of an advertisement that makes a bold promise regarding the value that this course offers every aspiring business professional. The next three messages should be support points that provide evidence to back up the promise made in the first message.

As they think about ways to promote the course to other students, your students will have the opportunity to think through what you've shared with them in class so far about the value of the course and to visualize themselves putting their new skills to work.

If you prefer not to use Twitter for this, students can submit their messages using any medium you choose.

Social media offer many compelling benefits, but managing business communication in this rapidly changing environment is not a simple task, for a number of reasons:

  • The communication effort is more complex, with more internal and external channels to staff and monitor. Managers need to make sure that outgoing messages are consistent, that incoming messages are addressed in a timely fashion, that problems and opportunities don’t fall through the cracks between all the various communication channels, and that all channels are used appropriately and legally. Simply keeping track of all the messages a company sends out—which is required for regulatory compliance in some industries—is such a challenge that new systems are being developed to capture and archive these vast and growing communication streams.
  • With more media information channels that require attention, the cost structure of business communication can change dramatically. For instance, companies shifting some of their marketing communication efforts from traditional advertising vehicles to social media may find themselves spending less on media but more on personnel in order to have enough employees available to monitor and respond to social media traffic. If companies are unable to add staff to handle social media work, they need to find ways to shift workloads around so that social media do not become an unsustainable burden.
  • Media tools and consumer behavior can evolve so quickly and so unpredictably that companies must be prepared to experiment continuously, adapt ideas that work, and abandon bad ideas—or good ideas that have outlived their usefulness. At the same time, companies must avoid slipping into a purely reactive mode, jumping on every hot idea and trend without integrating their efforts in an overall strategic framework.
  • Finally, companies need to have social media guidelines for their employees that strike a balance between too much control and too little. On the one hand, companies that go too far in trying to control their messages or their employees’ use of social media won’t reap the full benefits. On the other hand, not enough control can lead to chaotic inefficiency, mixed messages that confuse customers, and the risk of exposing information that needs to be kept secret for strategic or even legal reasons.


Among major corporations, IBM has been on the leading edge of social media usage since the earliest days of blogging and strongly encourages employees to use these tools. The company’s Social Computing Guidelines offer a number of insights into managing social communication and some intriguing topics for classroom discussion. For example, the company makes it clear that employees are personally responsible for any content they publish online and that they must always include a disclaimer that their opinions don’t necessarily reflect IBM’s official positions. The wide-ranging guidelines also provide helpful etiquette advice that would benefit everyone in the online arena, including "Don’t pick fights, and be the first to correct your own mistakes."

Adapted from Mark Evans, "No Social Media for Us, Thank You," Sysomos blog, 9 February 2011; Tanzina Vega, "Tools to Help Companies Manage Their Social Media," New York Times, 14 November 2010 [accessed 30 January 2011]; Paula Drum, "I Got People (Online): How H&R Block Connects by Using Social Media, presentation at BlogWell conference, 22 January 2009; Nick Wreden, "Social Media Policies for Business," Baseline, 7 June 2010 "Social Computing Guidelines," IBM [accessed 3 May 2011]

Image credit: Daniel Iverson


Twitter offers some interesting possibilities for teaching business writing skills. The 140-character limit forces writers to distill their messages to the essentials, and planning a multi-tweet message can expand this practice in clarity by encouraging writers to think through a unified sequence of points that support a primary headline tweet. Presentation expert Cliff Atkinson suggested the Rule of Four Tweets as a tool for planning presentations, based on the realization that many presentation audiences now use Twitter as a live backchannel during presentations.

By writing four short messages (one top-level summary and three major supporting points), a speaker can make sure a presentation has a single, tightly focused main idea with a sufficient number of distinct supporting points. And then by including those four message points as Twitter friendly statements during the presentation, the speaker makes it easy for audience members to spread the word by tweeting those points to their followers.

We've begun implementing variations on this idea as student exercises in our business communication texts—for a variety of document types, in addition to presentations. Conveying the main idea of a document or presentation in no more than 140 characters helps students verify that they've really thought through their purpose, beyond just a descriptive headline. Supporting that main idea with three strong supporting messages helps ensure adequate support for the main idea. For all four tweets, the character limit requires careful writing and revision in order to convey meaningful ideas clearly and concisely.

The communication tasks don't have to involve messages that would normally be delivered via Twitter, either. It's the experience of expressing a set of ideas within the limits of the medium that makes the approach so appealing. Sending actual tweets isn't required, of course, although if a class is set up with private Twitter accounts, students can send live tweets without worrying about the activity being visible to the outside world. As alternatives, students can e-mail their four messages to the instructor, post them on a class blog, or include them on slides in a presentation. If you've been experimenting with Twitter as a writing medium in your classes, we would love to hear about your experiences.

Image: renjith krishnan /

[UPDATE: A video that discusses these nine modes and shows numerous examples is now available on the Bovee-Thill YouTube channel.] As businesses continue to adopt new media choices, the writer’s task is becoming more diverse and more demanding. In the old days, few businesspeople outside an advertising agency ever faced the challenge of writing headlines and teaser copy, for example. Today, though, anyone who hopes to e-mail, blog, or tweet effectively has to be adept at catching a reader’s attention with well-crafted subject lines, post titles, or micro-messages.Looking across the media landscape, we see at least nine distinct compositional modes. These aren’t necessarily limited to electronic media, of course, but taking advantage of the full spectrum of electronic media means having at least basic skills in all nine:

  1. Conversations. IM is a great example of a written medium that closely mimics oral conversation. The ability to think, compose, and type relatively quickly is important to maintaining the flow of an electronic conversation.
  2. Comments and critiques. One of the most powerful aspects of social media is the opportunity for interested parties to express opinions and provide feedback, whether it’s leaving comments on a blog post or reviewing products on an e-commerce site. To be effective commenters, writers need to focus on short chunks of information that a broad spectrum of other site visitors will find helpful—and avoid the rants, insults, inappropriate jokes, and blatant self-promotion that are the bane of social media.
  3. Orientations. With vast amounts of information presented in so many different formats, the Internet can be an extremely confusing place, even for knowledgeable professionals. As information piles up, the ability to help readers find their way through an unfamiliar system or subject has become more valuable than ever, particularly when material of interest is spread across multiple websites that are out of the writer’s control.
  4. Summaries. Writing clear and concise summaries has always been an essential skill, of course, but the info-grazing habits of today’s online readers makes it even more vital. For example, popular bloggers are often good at summarizing masses of information for people to busy to sort through it on their own.
  5. Reference materials. With virtually unlimited capacity and the ability to provide immediate access to any location in an information structure, the Internet is obviously an ideal repository for reference materials. However, browsing, searching through, and making sense of these vast warehouses can be quite a challenge for information seekers. Even with search capabilities at hand, readers don’t always know which search terms will yield the best results, so writers can help by including orientations and organizing the material in logical ways with clear headings that promote skimming.
  6. Narratives. Compelling storytelling can be a good way to cut through the clutter of online media, whether it’s sharing a company history or demonstrating a product.
  7. Teasers. The combination of length limitations (such as on Twitter) and hyperlinking opportunities seems custom-made for writing teasers—intentionally withholding key pieces of information as a way to pull in readers or listeners in. Although they can certainly be effective, teasers obviously need to be used sparely and with respect for readers’ time and intelligence.
  8. Status updates and announcements. A lot of social media writing involve status updates and announcements, an area where some new business professionals may need a little practice to transition from personal and social updates to “business appropriate” updates.
  9. Tutorials. Given the community nature of social media, the purpose of many messages in these media is to share how-to advice. Writing tutorials is great practice for analyzing audience needs and crafting messages that are clear, concise, and logically organized.

Have you found it helpful to explore various compositional modes such as these when you teach business writing? Have you run across any other modes that writers need to be successful with in new media?

The terminology might be new, but it’s been going on for about as long as mobile digital gadgets have been around. If you’ve stood in front of a class any time in the past five years or so, it’s been happening right in front of you.

The Backchannel: A Communication Revolution

The new name for this old phenomenon is the backchannel, which presentation expert Cliff Atkinson defines as “a line of communication created by people in an audience to connect with others inside or outside the room, with or without the knowledge of the speaker.”

A backchannel appears whenever people start a parallel, digital conversation, which can be done with e-mail, IM, text messaging, live-blogging, Twitter, and whatever innovation comes along next. The backchannel is revolutionizing business presentations, so much so that systems such as BackNoise have been launched specifically to enable backchannels. Many conferences now publish a Twitter hashtag and encourage attendees to use this tag when they tweet during presentations so that interested parties can easily participate in the conversation.

The Risks and Rewards of the Backchannel

The backchannel presents both risks and rewards for business presenters. On the negative side, for example, listeners can research your claims the instant you make them and spread the word quickly if they think your information is shaky. The backchannel also gives contrary audience members more leverage, which can lead to presentations spinning out of control.

On the plus side, listeners who are excited about your message can build support for it, expandon it, and spread it to a much larger audience in a matter of seconds. You can also get valuable feedback during and after presentations. Some presenters even schedule “Twitter breaks” to catch up on comments and questions from the audience.

The Backchannel in the Classroom: What’s Your Stance?

In business settings, the secret to succeeding with the backchannel is to embrace the concept, rather than trying to ignore it or fight it. The backchannel is going to happen whether the presenter likes it or not.
In a classroom setting, however, an instructor obviously has at least some degree of control. What is your stance in the classroom? Do you encourage, tolerate, or prohibit electronic communication during lectures? Have you tried to integrate the backchannel during student presentations?

Please share your thoughts on how this phenomenon can be tamed when it might be a distraction or used to positive effect as a teaching tool.Go to http://boveeandthillbusinesscommunicationblog and write your comments.

The widespread adoption of wikis in both business and higher education is a testament to the collaborative value of wiki technology. However, wiki collaboration does require a broader set of skills than traditional business communication requires. It also requires a different approach to communication, one in which the authorial “me” is superseded by the collaborative “us.”

Evaluating, editing, and revising the work of other writers

Before getting your students started on wiki projects, it’s a good idea to offer some coaching in evaluating, editing, and revising the work of other writers. These tips are helpful in a variety of communication situations, of course, but they’re essential for wiki collaboration.
Before making substantive changes to an article, students should consider the following questions:

What is the purpose of this article? Editing or revising without knowing what the writer hoped to accomplish runs the risk of making the piece less effective, not more.
Who is the target audience?
What information does the audience need?
Does the article provide accurate, relevant, and complete information in a well-organized way?
Does the writing demonstrate the “you” attitude toward the audience?
Is the level and tone of the writing appropriate for the audience?
Can the readability be improved?
Is the writing clear? If not, how can it be improved?
Is the writing as concise as it could be?

Adapting to the wiki environment

Students can improve their wiki collaboration skills by keeping these points in mind:*

Let go of traditional expectations of authorship, including individual recognition and control.
Understand the expectations for adding new pages. For instance, is it acceptable to add pages that are still rough or incomplete, or does the community expect new pages to be close to final quality?
Find and follow the wiki’s guidelines for helping new contributors integrate their work into the group’s ongoing effort.
Encourage all team members to improve each other’s work.
Learn how to use page templates and other formatting options to make sure your content’s format matches the rest of the wiki.
Use the separate editing and discussion capabilities appropriately.
Take advantage of the sandbox, if available (this is a “safe,” nonpublished section of the wiki where team members can practice editing and writing).

Using the Bovée/Thill wiki simulator

You can give your students the opportunity to develop wiki skills in a secure, confidential environment. The unique Bovée/Thill wiki simulator lets students practice evaluating and revising wiki articles using a real, live wiki editor. Unlike a conventional wiki, however, this system saves each student’s work separately and privately so that you can evaluate his or her ability to assess an article with numerous built-in flaws and make the corrections needed to improve readability and achieve the “you” attitude.

Here are two wiki exercises that use the simulation, a simpler one-paragraph article and a more-challenging full-page article.
Exercise 1
Exercise 2

Also, you may find this report from the University of Delaware on wiki usage in higher education helpful as you plan and manage wiki projects. It offers some thoughtful advice on grading strategies, wiki etiquette, and other important considerations.

We would enjoy hearing your thoughts and experiences on wiki usage in business communication courses.

*Adapted from “Codex: Guidelines,” WordPress website [accessed 13 July 2010]; Michael Shanks, “Wiki Guidelines,” Traumwerk website [accessed 13 July 2010]; “Help,” Wikimedia Meta Wiki [accessed 13 July 2010]