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To students and professionals alike, the rules of business etiquette can seem both complicated and fussy. Unfortunately, important issues that hurt relationships and hobble careers can get lost in worries over making sure one's cravat is properly starched or whether one is using all seven dinner forks in the proper order.

With tongue planted only slightly in cheek here, it dawns on us that a vast swath of business etiquette can be covered by one simple rule: Stop being so annoying. Establishing this rule as a foundation for workplace behavior would help curtail a host of unwelcome habits. For example, you've probably been put off by companies or colleagues who exhibit these behaviors:

  • Maintaining zombie communication channels, including email and voicemail accounts that appear to be active and alive but are in fact ignored by their supposed owners. Individual messages sometimes fall through the cracks, of course. We're talking here of the people who fail to respond to one or more messages and eventually explain that "Oh, I never check voicemail" or "I don't use that email account anymore." Owners of these zombie channels could save colleagues and customers a lot of grief if they would simply delete the accounts or at the very least indicate via outgoing message or auto-response that the account is not monitored.
  • Using weak passwords that make email and Twitter accounts easy to hack, resulting in streams of spams and scams for everyone on the contact list—and as a lovely bonus, a fresh batch of verified active email addresses for spammers to reuse and resell.
  • Publishing individual or corporate Twitter and Facebook streams that are 90 percent ads and look-at-me posts, with very little value-added content. Of course, no one is forced to subscribe to any content stream, but annoyance sets in when a person or organization promises to have a social media dialogue and then acts like an infomercial.
  • Failing to exercise enough self-containment to keep personal problems, emotional meltdowns, schedule disasters, and other issues from spewing all over everyone within physical or digital range.
  • Not making the effort to write or speak clearly. Communication skills vary widely from person to person, to be sure, but there's a big difference between being lightly skilled and being careless or thoughtless.

Not to discount the niceties of etiquette, but removing the negatives seems more critical to healthy business relationships than adding the positives—worrying more about the "don'ts" than the "dos," in other words.

Would emphasizing this angle make etiquette a more relevant and reachable topic for your students? Please let us know what you think.


Image credit: MirellaST

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

Gregg Fraley is a highly regarded expert in the field of creativity and business innovation, but because his services are intangible, potential clients can’t “test drive” those services before making a purchase decision. His website shows the care he takes to build credibility as part of his communication efforts.

Bovee and Thill blog – Hall of Fame – Gregg Fraley

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

The sluggish job market isn't going to reignite overnight, but we have recently noticed a few positive communication developments that could eventually help more qualified candidates land the jobs they want.

1. The growing realization that auto-screening applicants is not automatically a good idea

When companies complain they can't find qualified applicants for unfilled openings and qualified applicants complain they can't get any interviews, something is clearly wrong with the system. Wharton's Peter Cappelli identified the overuse and misuse of automated screening software as one of the causes of this perplexing stalemate. As this article in Workforce explains, resource-strapped HR departments too often rely on screening software that is either poorly tuned to specific jobs or mindlessly automating a process that doesn't work well in the first place. As a result, screening criteria are sometimes set absurdly high or include irrelevant checks that needlessly filter out promising candidates.

Fixing this problem will require fine-tuning processes and software, but at least more companies should be now aware of the problem and recognize the upside of using these software tools more effectively.

2. The decline of brainteaser questions

We have long been skeptical of the value of interview questions such as "How much would you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle?" or the classic "Why are manhole covers round?" Unless the job involves answering bizarre questions in a pressure-packed setting, it's hard to see how these questions lend much insight into a candidate's ability to perform. William Poundstone, author of numerous interviewing books, is quoted in this article in Time as saying "there’s very little solid evidence that tricky interview questions work." And not only are these questions of questionable value, they can turn off good candidates who don't respond positively to being put on the spot in this artificial way.

The article suggests there is conflicting evidence about how extensively these puzzle questions are still being used, but any evidence of their decline is good news.

3. The increasing scrutiny of social media profiles
The fact that more employers are reviewing the online media presence of job candidates is usually—and rightly—presented as a cautionary message. Clean up your social media profile or risk getting booted out of the selection process. Why then do we consider it a positive development for job hunters that more employers are doing these background checks? Because a person's online presence is one of the very few aspects of the job search process in which the candidate has total or near-total control. It's an opportunity to creatively present your value package outside the narrow constraints of a résumé, an applicant tracking system, or the interview structure. Every job seeker at every level can take advantage of this revolution in the hiring process.


Image credit: Newtown grafitti


Within minutes of its release as part of an operating system upgrade on Apple mobile devices, the Apple Maps feature began to generate howls of protest. Compared to the Google mapping feature it replaced, Apple Maps had numerous problems, from egregious errors to missing functionality.

Users accustomed to finding just about anything through the Google app flooded the Internet with examples of mapping blunders. A railway station in Helsinki showed up as a park in Apple Maps. A farm in Ireland appeared as an airport. The Washington Monument was misplaced by several hundred yards. Driving directions steered one user down a railroad track. A search for the huge John Lewis department store in central London yielded nothing, even when the user was standing on the sidewalk outside the store. (This Tumblr blog offers dozens of examples—some amusing, some frightening.)

Beyond the errors and omissions, the removal of real-time mass transit schedules upset people who had been relying on this feature to plan journeys.

Two responses from Apple caught our eye during the aftermath. The first merits our Hall of Shame award, but the second gets into the Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Shame Example

An article on highlighted the many problems Apple Maps was displaying soon after launch and quoted this response from Apple’s Trudy Muller:

Customers around the world are upgrading to iOS 6 with over 200 new features including Apple Maps, our first map service. We are excited to offer this service with innovative new features like Flyover and Siri integration, and free turn by turn navigation. We launched this new map service knowing that it is a major initiative and we are just getting started with it. We are continuously improving it, and as Maps is a cloud-based solution, the more people use it, the better it will get. We’re also working with developers to integrate some of the amazing transit apps in the App Store into iOS Maps. We appreciate all of the customer feedback and are working hard to make the customer experience even better.

There are five major problems with this response:

First, there is no acknowledgment of any problems, even though people all over the world were having problems and sharing them all over the Internet.

Second, there is no element of apology. Many users were furious, particularly given that they had no choice in the switch from Google to Apple Maps. (Of course, you can’t apologize if you don’t admit you even have a problem.)

Third, the upbeat tone adds insult to injury. Yes, companies need to put a positive spin on things whenever they can, but when customers are angry, they really don’t want to hear that you’re “excited to offer” the very service that is driving them nuts. Yes, Flyover and Siri are cool features to add to mapping, but if the map sends you astray, they aren’t all that helpful. And promising to make customer experience “even better” is tone deaf in this context. Something has to be perceived as “good” before it can get “better.”

Fourth, angry customers also don’t care that it’s a “major initiative” or that you’re “just getting started with it.” They care that a major feature on their expensive phones was suddenly replaced with one that was unreliable and in many instances simply unusable. Plus, this aspect of the message risks coming across as “give us a break; this is really hard and we aren’t finished yet.”

Fifth, with “the more people use it, the better it will get,” the message comes close to blaming users, or at least suggesting that they share the responsibility for fixing the problems. And what are people supposed to do the meantime, keep driving down railroad tracks or walking across lakes?

All in all, it’s a classic. But not the kind of classic any company wants to be known for.

The Hall of Fame Example

About a week later, Apple CEO Tim Cook responded with an open letter to Apple customers that acknowledged the extent of the problem, apologized for the frustration Apple created, and, most impressively, explained how to put alternative mapping capabilities—including Google—on affected Apple products. (Click here for an annotated slide.)

Cook’s letter does repeat the “the more people use it, the better it will get,” which we believe is an ill-advised message point. Mapping is an important feature on an expensive product, and it is Apple’s responsibility to fix the problem, not customers’, even if customer input can help. However, the letter has enough other helpful information conveyed in a respectful way that we still think it offers a worthy example.


 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?


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Image credit: sholeh!!

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!