How Do You Manage the Backchannel in Your Classroom?

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.

BP’s "Gulf of Mexico Response" Website Links to Parody Twitter Account

We can only assume that BP’s website has been hacked. As of October 7, 2010, the “Contacts” page in the “Gulf of Mexico Response” section of BP’s website links to a parody Twitter account, @Oil_Spill_2010. The downloadable PDF (see link above) has current captures of the BP webpage, the parody Twitter account, and BP’s real Twitter account.

This is not the first Twitter parody account associated with the spill, either. Another spoof account, @BPGlobalPR, currently has 188,000 followers—ten times more than BP’s own Twitter account.

Aside from the matter of tighter website security to prevent hacked links, this situation highlights the challenge of responding to negative information in a social media environment. Here are some related questions to discuss with your students:

  • Are parody efforts an effective form of protest communication?
  • Are such parodies ethical from the perspective of all stakeholders?
  • In general, how should a company respond to social media attacks on its reputation, particularly in the case of a Twitter account such as @BPGlobalPR, which has a much larger following than the company’s own account?
  • Should BP engage @BPGlobalPR directly (by having a company representative respond to its tweets) or indirectly (relying on its own PR efforts to counter the negative information)?
  • How should a company respond if someone is spreading demonstrably false information about its products, operations, or executives?

Hall of Fame: Ignite Media Demonstrates Strong Paragraphs and Effective Transitions

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.


Have Your Students Judge Their Promotional Skills Using Real-Life Test Results

As George Bernard Shaw famously put it, the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. One of the great promises of online business communication is the relative ease with which companies can test to see how well their communication efforts are working.

Online marketing expert Anne Holland’s website offers a great opportunity for students to test their acumen by predicting the relative performance of actual split-tested web communications. The archived tests on the site are subscription-only, but each week's new test and a commentary on the results are available for free.

Avoiding "Death by PowerPoint" with Free-Form Slide Designs

Anyone who has suffered through a barrage of bullet points in a tedious presentation is likely to welcome the more creative style of slide design advocated by presentation specialists such as Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds.

Structured versus Free-Form

The PowerPoint slides you can download from the link above show the difference between conventional, bullet point-intensive designs (which we refer to as structured slides) and the new, more visually oriented designs (which we refer to in our texts as free-form slides).

The two structured slides (Slides 1 and 2)  follow the same format throughout the presentation. In fact, they’re based directly on the templates built into PowerPoint, which tend to feature lots and lots of bullet points.

In contrast, the two free-form slides (Slides 3 and 4) don’t follow a rigid structure. Of course, free-form designs should not change randomly from one slide to the next. They should still be unified by design elements such as color and font selections.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Structured Slides

Although some commentators would like to banish structured slides to permanent oblivion in favor of free-form designs, both design strategies have advantages and disadvantages that need to be considered for each presentation opportunity.

Structured slides have the significant advantage of being easy to create; you simply choose an overall design scheme for the presentation, select a template for a new slide, and start typing. If you’re in a schedule crunch, going the structured route might save the day because at least you’ll have something ready to show.

When Self-Expression and Professional Standards Clash: Body Art in the Workplace

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?

APA, MLA, Chicago: Your Thoughts on Citation Formats

The release of the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style and the recent revisions to the APA and MLA guidelines prompted us to wonder how instructors are using citation style guides in today’s business communication courses. If you have a moment, we’d appreciate your feedback on a couple of points.

First, which citation format do you use in your class?

Second, how much importance do you place on strict adherence to the guidelines? Clear and complete attribution is always vital, of course, and helping students learn to cite correctly is an important responsibility in any writing class. However, we’re curious about how much latitude you give students who cite clearly and completely but don’t follow the guidelines exactly.

When Free Speech Isn’t Quite So Free: Legal Hazards in Online Communication

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.


Helping Students Adapt Their Writing Skills to Wiki Collaboration

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]


Hall of Shame: How Not to Tell Customers That You’ve Made Your Software Easier to Understand

We’d be willing to bet that database software generates the highest profanity-to-mouseclicks ratio of any category of personal computer software. Database concepts in general are fairly complicated, and the powerful software that lets users create and manage databases can add layers of operational complexity.

Any news about improvements in usability is good news, but Microsoft tripped when it tried to explain that ready-made templates in its Access database software help hide the complexity. The introductory screen for an online Access training course begins with this assertion: “If you think databases are hard to understand, you’re not up to date.”

In other words, “The reason you’re stupid is that you insist on wasting your time worrying about your actual job, life, family, and so on, rather than following the brilliant innovations being made by database software designers.” Or more simply, “If you’re dumb, it’s your fault.”

We exaggerate the effects here, but not by much. Blaming the customer for not understanding the product is bad enough, but Microsoft takes the extra step of implying that it is the customer’s responsibility to keep up with what the company is doing.

Rather than insulting the customer and dredging up negative associations about database software, the promotional copy could’ve said something along the lines of “New ready-made templates make it easy to harness the power of Microsoft Access.” This puts the burden of complexity on the product, where it belongs, but it also moves the conversation in a positive direction by talking about solutions to a problem. And nowhere does it criticize the customer for not being smart or up to date.

On the plus side, Microsoft does provide us with a great example of a situation in which using the word you does not equate to demonstrating the “you” attitude.