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Archive for the 'Writing Fundamentals' Category

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.


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?

This blog post from Ignite Media demonstrates several strong writing techniques, including unified, coherent paragraphs and effective transitions.

Update 30 December 2013: The post on the Ignite Media blog (from February 2010) has been moved to the site's archives and reformatted; we've updated the link above in case you still want to use it for class discussion.