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Archive for the 'Writing Fundamentals' Category

Red Ants PantsSarah Calhoun founded Red Ants Pants because she was frustrated by the lack of hard-wearing pants for hard-working women. Her passion for meeting the needs of her customers shines through in the company's communication efforts—along with her zeal for making work fun and meaningful. Not many firms could tell their founding story in goofy rhyming couplets, but Red Ants Pants pulls it off perfectly.

Bovee and Thill blog – Hall of Fame – Red Ants Pants



CDBabyCD Baby, the world’s largest retailer of independent music, uses clear, positive language to help musicians understand the process of selling their music through the company and its affiliates. By making the effort to
communicate clearly and succinctly, the company encourages a positive response from its target readers.

We've annotated two slides that point out some of the reader-friendly features of the company's website.

Bovee and Thill blog – Hall of Fame – CDBaby

 



GamesRadarOne of the most effective business uses of Twitter is as a "headline-announcement service," alerting readers to new blog posts, new pieces in online magazines, and other fresh content. However, writing effective Twitter teasers for any given target audience is a bit of an artform. The videogame review site GamesRadar.com does a good job of this, enticing game fans with cheeky and provocative prompts.

Here's an annotated snapshot of the company's Twitter account with several examples: Bovee and Thill blog – Hall of Fame – GamesRadar on Twitter

This post offers an overview of teasers and the other compositional modes that students should be comfortable with when writing for electronic media. The post also includes a link to a new video on the Bovée-Thill YouTube Channel that explores these modes.



Infographic resumeInfographic résumés are getting a lot of buzz these days. We cover them in all three of our business communication textbooks and provide a variety of examples via our Real-Time Updates and Business Communication Headline News services. In certain situations, a well-designed infographic résumé used at the right point in the job application process can be a great tool. On the other hand, an infographic résumé that is poorly designed, poorly produced, or used inappropriately can torpedo an applicant's chances. Understanding why infographic résumés can help or hurt can be a great lesson in effective business communication—for any type of document or message.

Here are some helpful teaching points for using infographic résumés as examples of effective or ineffective communication:

  • Understanding audience needs. The single biggest problem with infographic résumés is incompatibility with established résumé-handling processes, particularly automated applicant tracking systems and the manual methods recruiters are accustomed to using. Computerized systems are likely to just reject them, and with only a few seconds to spend on each résumé during the screening stage, human recruiters are ill-inclined to spend the time it can take to decode an infographic résumé. With dozens or hundreds of applicants pouring in for every opening in many cases, recruiters need to make rapid-fire decisions about whether each candidate is a potential fit for the job and therefore worth spending more time on. If a résumé doesn't communicate that within a matter of seconds, it has failed at its primary purpose.
  • Focusing on the receiver, not the sender. Some infographic résumés suffer from "Look at me! Aren't I fabulous?" syndrome. Yes, you need to stand out from the crowd, but you need to do so in a way that meets the audience's needs, not yours. A résumé needs to say, "Here's how I can help you," not "Here's how great I am."
  • Playing against expectations. The knock on conventional résumé formats is that they are boring and predictable. Yes, but so are stop signs. However, they also communicate well because all audience members know what to expect and where to find the information they need. That said, in the right circumstances, an infographic résumé can be effective way to catch a reader's attention by delivering information in an unexpected way. (Having said that, however, it's likely that infographic résumés are becoming so common in some professions that they won't jump out the way they used to.)
  • Demonstrating creativity—in the right way. Certain jobs have high expectations for visual creativity and creative thinking in general, and infographic résumés can be a great job-application tool for these opportunities. Someone applying for a graphic designer in an ad agency, for example, would be expected to have some visual promotion in the mix. This points back to knowing your audience, of course. The accounting manager in a construction firm is less likely to be impressed by an infographic résumé than the creative director in an ad agency would be.
  • The legal side of communication. Photos are a common element in infographic résumés, but including a photo on any document too early in the job search process can be a mistake. Some employment-law experts advise companies against reviewing any photos or videos of candidates during the screening phase to minimize the risk of discrimination lawsuits.
  • Readability and design considerations. As with infographics in general, infographic résumés run the gamut from effective to awful. Designing and producing successful infographics are two skills that many business professionals simply don't have. Even when an infographic is the right tool at the right time, nobody wants to waste time following a convoluted treasure map in search of essential information. 

For most job seekers, the best use of an infographic résumé is as a support document to use in selected circumstances or as part of an online presence (social media résumé, e-portfolio, etc.). As with everything else in communication, it all starts with knowing your audience.



The ability to explain complex topics in clear terms is one of the most important skills a business communicator can have. This example from the Creative Commons website, explaining three levels of content licensing, demonstrates the power of plain language.

Bovee and Thill blog – Hall of Fame – Creative Commons website



 When those who spend their lives writing and evaluating the writing of others don’t always agree on the rules of grammar, it’s easy to empathize with students who want to get it right but aren’t always sure what “right” is.

It’s one thing to not know or not follow a rule. It’s quite another when Expert A asserts “You must follow this rule,” but Expert B says “Not only do you not have to follow that rule, it’s not really a rule.”

Consider three classic examples of this conundrum: Never begin a sentence with a conjunction, never end a sentence with a preposition, and never split an infinitive.

One can occasionally argue style when it comes to these “rules,” but none of the three has a logical leg to stand on. (Yes, we know what we just did there!) Not splitting infinitives in order to make English look like Latin—a language in which infinitives cannot be split, of course—is the silliest of the bunch. (English grammar differs from Latin in numerous ways; why did the Victorian grammarians jump on this particular point?)

Uncritically following these “rules” can produce clumsy or stilted writing, and following them just to avoid the derision of people who are convinced these rules exist is a waste of creative energy. Worst of all, these distracting tempests-in-teapots make writing seem more difficult than it is and trivialize the real rules that really do need to be followed.

Having said that, it’s impossible to ignore the potential consequences of not following these “rules” in academia or the business world. Perhaps we can only hope that one day the misguided ghosts of grammarians past who created these problems will finally fall silent.

How do you advise your students to resolve these dilemmas in their writing?

 

Image credit

 


One of the more intriguing aspects of age diversity in the workplace is the degree to which technology has shaped the communication habits and preferences of each generation. For instance, Generation Y (roughly speaking, those born between 1981 and 1995) has a well-documented preference for electronic media, from texting to IM to social networking. Coupled with a generally more casual approach to information privacy, this reliance on electronic media can clash with the habits and expectations of older workers and managers.

As Generation Y continues to move into workplace and up the managerial ladder, these cultural mismatches are only going to get more common. Moreover, as a recent article in Workforce Management ("Gen Y Execs Shake Up Office Culture") points out, this generation's embrace of entrepreneurship is creating new organizational cultures built around electronic media.

The differences in technology preferences can be significant on their own, but the changes run much deeper than just the tools themselves, of course. Here are some of the issues to consider:

  • Lean versus rich media. Lean media, those with the fewest informational cues and least potential for feedback or personalization, are at the core of this culture clash. For example, Baby Boomers accustomed to walking down the hall to a colleague's office or using their phones for actual voice communication are sometimes dismayed at the tendency of younger workers to fire off a terse text message in situations where they believe a more nuanced live conversation would be more effective. Gen Yers, for their part, can sometimes wonder what all the fuss is about, having grown up texting and IMing.
  • Synchronous communication with real-time feedback. Richer media, including phone and face-to-face conversations, can make it much easier to resolve misunderstandings and negotiate shared meanings. We've probably all had the experience of getting stuck in time-consuming email loops where neither side seems to be getting the message, only to resolve the confusion with a quick phone call.
  • A comfort level with distributed, virtual team communication. As networked and even unstructured organizations become more common and traditional employment gives way to independent contracting for many workers, the ability to communicate without a fixed organizational framework is becoming increasingly important. For all their perceived shortcomings in other areas, Gen Y communicators have a big head start here—and could be developing information encoding and decoding methods that work well in this environment but are perhaps underappreciated by older communicators because they don't fit established patterns and process models.
  • Illusions of communication efficiency and effectiveness. Every mode is vulnerable to the illusion that communication efforts are successful, of course, but email and other asynchronous modes are particularly prone to this because it is so easy to fall into the trap of believing that hitting the "send" or "publish" button is the same thing as communicating.
  • Attitudes about privacy and sharing. These concerns range from publishing sensitive company information (or inappropriate personal information) to treating information as a resource to be shared, rather than as a "power lever" to be hoarded and used selectively.

Given the range of important differences involved in media choices, how far should the business communication course move toward reflecting these emerging preferences? There is never enough time to cover everything we'd like to cover, naturally, so how do we find the optimum balance? For instance, many instructors like to devote time to telephone skills, and understandably so, but should some of that time be shifted over to skill development with instant messaging (as one example), given the shifts in workplace habits? On the other hand, one can argue that the very lack of practice and finesse with phone conversations makes this mode even more important to cover in the business communication course.

We'd love to hear your thoughts, particularly if you've already made changes in your topic coverage or teaching style to accommodate these evolving habits and preferences.

 

Image credit: woodleywonderworks



When Google wanted to alert users to significant changes in its online privacy policy, it didn't couch the news in the formal language that corporations normally use for major policy announcements. Instead, it used phrases such as "This stuff is important" and "This stuff matters."

Whether or not one believes "stuff" is stylistically appropriate language for serious, high-visibility business communication, it strikes us as effective in this case. At the very least, it stood out from the thousands of other words that wander across our computer screens on any given day.

We haven't measured it, but we suspect this sort of studied informality is definitely on the rise. Language that businesses would not have dreamed of using for formal communication 20, 10, or even 5 years ago is becoming more common. Just this morning, for instance, Copyblogger Media sent out an email message in response to apparently widespread complaints about the pricing of its blog hosting services. The subject line? "How We Screwed Up Our WordPress Hosting."

Two forces seem to be driving this shift toward informality. The first and most obvious is the rise of social media. Just as conversations are less formal than public speeches, communication in a social media environment is more casual than communication in the old "we talk, you listen" model of corporate communication. Writing that comes across as stilted corporate-speak is rejected as inauthentic.

The second possibility is that formal business language is simply being worn out and trivialized in some instances by overuse and misuse. How many times a week do you see a print or online message that proclaims to contain "Important Information About Your Account," for example? If it's from your bank, credit card issuer, or cable TV company, it's probably not "important information" about "your account" at all but rather a sales pitch that may or not have any relevance to your account or your needs.

How do you see this trend affecting your business communication teaching? Have students raised questions about any disconnects between what they learn in class and what they see businesses actually doing? Let us know what you think.

 



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



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.