Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Five Tips for Better Listening

Much of the business communication course focuses on improving one’s skills as a sender of messages, but successful communication requires the mindful and skillful participation of both the sender and the receiver. When we are engaged in a conversation, attending a presentation, or listening to a podcast or video, the success of the communication effort hinges on our performance as listeners.

Listening more effectively will help your students in every aspect of their personal and professional lives. To help you summarize your course coverage of listening, here are five handy tips your students can put to work right now to improve their listening habits.

1. Minimize the Barriers to Physical Reception

Before you can listen to someone, you obviously need to be able to hear the other party speak. Missing even a single word can lead to confusion and misunderstanding. Poor hearing can originate on the speaker’s side (such as when someone mumbles), on the receiver’s side (such as when someone is listening to music during a conversation), or in the surrounding environment (such as when other people in an open-plan office are talking). You might not be able to control all the barriers that get in the way of effective listening, but the more you can reduce them, the more satisfying the experience will be for everyone involved.

2. Manage Your Emotions

Communication suffers if listeners fail to monitor and manage their emotions during a conversation. During hectic periods or when emotions are running high, listening calmly and mindfully can be a challenge. However, these are the times when it is most important to exhibit emotional intelligence, including the ability to recognize when your emotions might be getting in the way.

As part of this challenge, selective attention and perceptual biases can lead listeners to mold messages to fit their own beliefs and conceptual frameworks. Listeners sometimes make up their minds before hearing the speaker’s full message, or they engage in defensive listening—protecting their egos by tuning out anything that doesn’t confirm their beliefs or their view of themselves. Feeling angry or annoyed during a conversation limits your effectiveness because you’ll be more likely to judge or reject what you hear.

3. Focus Your Attention

Your brain can process language three or four times faster than people typically speak, which means your brain has a lot of idle processing capacity while you are listening. If you don’t take active steps to stay focused, or if you divide your attention by multitasking, you might miss vital information and nonverbal signals that can help you interpret what you're hearing. Moreover, not paying attention is disrespectful and sends a message to the other person that what he or she has to say isn’t important to you.

4. Adapt Your Listening Style to the Situation

Effective listeners adapt their listening styles to different situations, including switching approaches during the course of a conversation or presentation if necessary. You can use three distinct styles:

  • Content listening focuses on understanding and retaining the information in the speaker’s message. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree, approve or disapprove—only that you understand. Filter out anything other than the information itself, including the speaker’s appearance, vocabulary, level of experience, or position in the relationship. If appropriate, ask questions to clarify any points you don’t understand or to get more details. However, don’t challenge or correct the speaker. Remember that your goal with content listening is to get the information that another person has to share. If the exchange starts to feel confrontational, he or she might “shut down” and hesitate to disclose valuable information.
  • Critical listening goes beyond information gathering to evaluating the meaning of the speaker’s message on several levels: the logic of the argument, the strength of the evidence, the validity of the conclusions, the implications of the message, the speaker’s intentions and motives, and the omission of any important or relevant points. If you’re skeptical, ask questions to explore the speaker’s point of view and credibility. Be on the lookout for bias that might influence how the information is presented, separate opinions from facts, and watch for logical fallacies that could undermine the speaker’s arguments or conclusions. (Note that “critical listening” does not mean you are listening with the intent to criticize but rather to understand the full meaning and implications of the speaker’s message.)
  • The goal of empathic listening is to understand the speaker’s feelings, needs, and wants so that you can appreciate his or her point of view, regardless of whether you share that perspective. Importantly, this style of listening gives the other person the freedom to share without fear of being judged or evaluated. In this sense, empathic listening is a complementary skill to critical listening because you need to silence your critical faculties and focus your attention on the other person. In fact, the information exchanged in an empathic conversion is sometimes less important than simply giving someone the opportunity to be heard. Be aware that empathic listening can be a difficult habit to get into, particularly for people who are used to solving problems and taking charge of situations.

Note that all three of these styles are forms of active listening—and taking action is a crucial point. Don’t sit back passively and place the entire burden of communication on the speaker. Put yourself in an open and positive frame of mind where you are ready to accept new information, manage your emotions and attention, and keep yourself engaged throughout the conversation.

If appropriate, help the speaker formulate and express ideas by asking insightful questions. However, don’t automatically jump in at the first moment of silence. Sometimes silence is an important part of the conversation. The other person might be collecting his or her thoughts or looking for a clearer way to express something. Also, if someone pauses in the middle of a sentence, don’t rush in to complete it—particularly if your real motivation is to demonstrate superior knowledge or intelligence.

5. Don’t Rely on Your Memory

Remembering information during a conversation is challenging because you need to store information you have just received while continuing to process new incoming information. This problem gets even more pronounced when the speaker is rambling or fails to periodically summarize what he or she has said.

If the information you are likely to receive is important, write it down. If you rely on memory, chances are you will forget or confuse important details. Naturally, the decision whether to take notes depends on the situation. If someone is sharing personal or confidential information or is asking for your advice, it might not be appropriate or necessary to take notes. If you are using a mobile device to take notes, make sure you can do so quickly enough to keep up with the conversation and in a way that doesn’t disturb others.

If you are unable to take notes and have no choice but to memorize, you can hold information in short-term memory by repeating it silently or creating lists in your head. To store information in long-term memory, four techniques can help: (1) associate new information with something closely related (such as the restaurant in which you had the conversation), (2) categorize the new information into logical groups (such as alphabetizing a list of names), (3) visualize words and ideas as pictures, and (4) create mnemonics such as acronyms or rhymes.

Self-Coaching Ideas for Your Students

  1. What steps can you take during a conversation if you feel your attention begin to wander or if you start to feel resentful or critical of the other party?
  2. Do you sometimes judge a speaker based on appearance, vocal characteristics, or other attributes unrelated to the content of a presentation, podcast, or converation? What can you do to overcome this tendency and keep your attention focused on the information and meaning the person is trying to convey?

Previous Posts in the Apply Your Skills Now Series

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Making Difficult Requests

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Writing Professional-Grade Email

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Make QA a Routine Part of the Writing Process

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Think Now, Write Later

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Preparing for Difficult Conversations

Encourage Your Students to Put Their New Skills to Work Right Away

 

Adapted from Courtland L. Bovée and John V. Thill, Business Communication Today, 15th Edition, 2021, pp. 52–57.

Photo credit: drain on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

 

Intelligent Communication Technology: Social Listening Tools

Every day on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms, millions of consumers and business customers rant, rave, brainstorm, offer help, and ask for help. Smart companies recognize that this global chatter is a gold mine of valuable insights, and they use social listening tools to figure out what people are saying about them and their competitors.

Companies listen to social media traffic in various ways, including following hashtags and monitoring keywords, such as the company’s name, the names of its products, competitors’ names, and any terms that might suggest relevant conversations. These tools can often detect when a social media user is talking about the company, even if the company and brand names aren’t used or the company isn’t tagged directly.

Today’s smart listening tools take this mass of data and use artificial intelligence to analyze the conversations in which these terms appear. By using text analytics, the systems judge whether conversations are trending strongly negative, strongly positive, or somewhere in between.

Companies can then use these sentiment readings in a variety of ways, including responding to individual requests for help, gathering ideas for new products or new product features, and generating ideas for social media content. For example, if a company detects a surge of complaints that one of its products is difficult to use, it can reach out to individual users with advice, begin improving the design of the product based on this feedback, or perhaps create a video or other media elements with advice to help people use the product more successfully. By jumping on the situation quickly, the company might be able to contain the dissatisfaction and avoid a public relations headache.

Firms can capitalize on positive sentiments, too. For instance, a food company could monitor for discussions of where and when people enjoy particular snacks, such as while camping or on road trips. It might then launch its own hashtag campaign with #CampSnacks or something similar to tap into these positive vibes.

With consumers increasingly relying on social media for purchasing advice and customer support, social listening tools are becoming vital for any company that wants to protect its reputation and jump on emerging opportunities.

Class activity ideas

  1. Ask students if they ever complained about a company’s products or services on social media. If so, did they get a response from the company or from anyone else? How would they characterize social media’s usefulness in resolving customer satisfaction problems?
  2. Do your students think is it ethical for a company to “eavesdrop” on social media conversations? Why or why not?

 

Sources: Christina Newberry, “What Is Social Listening, Why It Matters, and 10 Tools to Make It Easier,” Hootsuite blog, 27 November 2018, blog.hootsuite.com; Dominique Jackson, “What Is Social Listening & Why Is It Important?” Sprout Social, 20 September 2017, sproutsocial.com; Patrick Whatman, “A Beginner’s Guide to Social Listening,” Mention blog, accessed 5 December 2019, mention.com.

Image credit: ky_olsen on Visual Hunt / CC BY

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Making Difficult Requests

Just as they will be on the job, most of the requests students need to make in their academic and personal lives are fairly routine and can be accomplished using the techniques for routine requests they learn in this course. However, we all face situations from time to time where we need to make a more difficult request, such as asking an instructor for leniency, asking a landlord or a retailer for special consideration, or asking parents or a partner for help. In these situations, a more persuasive approach might be useful. Encourage students to apply the strategies they are learning for persuasive business messages and to follow these tips as well:

  • Step outside of yourself and your immediate concerns and put yourself in the other person’s position. What is this person’s current emotional state likely to be? What about his or her mental workload? Imagine you’re on the other side of the table and you get the request that you’re about to make. How would you react?
  • Is there any way the other party might benefit from responding positively to your request?
  • Emotions may be an important and legitimate part of your request, but for this step, put them aside and focus on objective facts, logic, and ethical principles. How much of your case can you make on these elements alone, without bringing emotion into the mix?
  • Now carefully bring emotion into your request, but only to the extent that it supports your request. Strong emotions—even if they are appropriate—can sometimes backfire when you’re making a request. You may feel compelled to express these emotions, but keep your eye on the goal, which is your request.
  • With the right balance of logical and emotional appeals in mind, choose the direct or indirect approach, based on your relationship with the person and your best judgment. In a close, personal relationship, there are times when it might be better to go direct and open with a simple plea: “Could I ask for your help?” In academic or work relationships, the indirect approach might be better, as long as you can build up to your request quickly. Don’t make the recipient wade through a long list of reasons.

They may not get a positive response to every request, and the other party may have legitimate reasons for denying it, but by following these tips students will know they did their best.

Self-Coaching Ideas for Your Students

  1. When you have a difficult request to make, do you find yourself putting it off? This is entirely natural, but remind yourself that the sooner you make the request, the sooner you will get an answer and thereby be able to move on, no matter what sort of answer you get.
  2. How do you tend to respond when someone else has a difficult request for you? Do you find it difficult to step out of your own needs and pressures long enough to listen openly and actively? If so, try to mindfully practice this next time someone asks you for help or special consideration. It’s a valuable skill that will benefit all your personal and professional relationships.

Previous Posts in the Apply Your Skills Now Series

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Writing Professional-Grade Email

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Make QA a Routine Part of the Writing Process

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Think Now, Write Later

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Preparing for Difficult Conversations

Encourage Your Students to Put Their New Skills to Work Right Away

 

Photo credit: VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

The Emoji Question: Overcoming the Limitations of Lean Media

You know this situation well: You’re about to send a message via email or some form of text-based communication, but you’re worried that the right tone won’t come across. What if you’re trying to be humorously sarcastic, but the recipient thinks you’re being serious? Or what if you are trying to be friendly and sympathetic, but the words come across as cold and uncaring?

If you were communicating in person or on the phone, you could modulate the emotional tone of your message with various nonverbal cues, such as smiling, accenting certain words or syllables, shrugging your shoulders, and so on. However, when you are communicating in writing via email, text messaging, or any other lean medium, you don’t have the luxury of these nonverbal cues—the words on screen must convey everything.

The Rise of Emojis

The limitations of lean text-based communication gave rise to the use of emoticons and emojis to convey emotional tone in a way that can be difficult to do with words. (Opinions vary on the exact difference between the two, but for simplicity’s sake, we can think of emoticons as symbols made up of text characters and emojis as graphical icons) Using emoticons and emojis can be an effective way to minimize the limitations of a lean medium, which is why so many people now use them for personal and business communication. A smiley face can inject a touch of levity into a tense situation, a frowny face can convey sympathy for someone who has suffered a setback, and clapping hands can say “job well done!”

Emoji or Not: Two Dilemmas

As useful as these visual elements can be, they present two dilemmas for business communicators. First, even though more businesspeople are comfortable with emoticons and emojis for workplace communication, and they are built into many business communication systems, some professionals view them as inappropriate for all but the most casual communication between close colleagues.

Second, emoticons and emojis can cause problems of their own when people don’t agree on what they mean. If you get a message that says, “Why don’t you and I get away from this stress-fest and brainstorm some solutions over coffee” and ends with a “winkie” emoticon or emoji, what does that digital wink mean? Is the person flirting with you or just innocently suggesting that the two of you could think more clearly if you got out of the hectic office for a while? The meanings of emoticons and emojis are so problematic that they are becoming important factors in legal trials regarding workplace harassment and other issues, and serious criminal cases can hinge on their interpretation.

Using Emoticons and Emojis Effectively: Advice for Students

Given the fluid state of emoticon and emoji acceptance in business communication, there are few hard-and-fast rules. However, students moving into the workplace can follow these tips to make the best use of them while avoiding trouble:

  • As in every aspect of business communication, know your audience and the situation. Study the tone of communication in your organization before deciding when and how to use emojis.
  • Don’t overuse emoticons or emojis. A message cluttered with symbols will look unprofessional, even in an organization that uses emojis regularly.
  • Follow the lead of the person with greater positional power. For example, if an upper manager doesn’t use emojis, don’t use them when communicating back.
  • Bear in mind that the use of emojis itself sends a message. If you are a new manager and your staff seems unsure how to behave around you, or you’ve been leading people through a tense experience, using emojis can send a signal that it’s okay to relax and be themselves.
  • Avoid emoticons or emojis in communication with external audiences unless you have an established working relationship with a customer or other party.
  • Never use emoticons or emojis in the most formal communication, including business plans, sales proposals, and contracts.
  • To avoid misunderstandings about what emojis mean, stick to symbols that are in common use in your organization.
  • Avoid crude or animated emojis.

 

Adapted from Courtland L. Bovée and John V. Thill, Business Communication Today, 15th ed (Pearson, 2021), 194–195.

Image: Timothy Valentine on VisualHunt.com CC BY-NC-SA

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Writing Professional-Grade Email

Even as the universe of digital possibilities continues to expand, email remains a primary communication tool for employees in most organizations. Chances are your students aren't accustomed to using email in a manner that meets the expecations of the workplace, but they have multiple opportunities right now to hone their email skills. 

Encourage them to consider these tips whenever they write email messages to any of their instructors:

  • Choosing when to use email. First, make sure email is the best channel for each message. In some situations, a phone call, an office visit, or a message sent through their course management systems could be a better choice. Second, consider the timing of their messages. Writing for help on an assignment at eleven o’clock the night before it is due is not optimal timing.
  • Writing clear and compelling subject lines. Emphasize that the subject line is a critical part of the message. In a world where people can receive dozens or hundreds of messages a day, the subject line often determines when the message will be opened—or even if it will be opened at all. Subject lines should work a little like headlines in an advertisement: capture the reader’s attention and start a conversation in an emotionally appealing way. Also, for people who don’t empty their email inbox but rather use it essentially as a filing cabinet, the subject line helps them find messages they have already read and need to find again. Accordingly, subject lines that are clear and specific show respect for the recipient’s time. “Help!!” doesn’t give readers much of a memory jog. In contrast, “A question on the service assignment for BCOM301” gives the reader a specific reminder of what the message is about.
  • Greeting the recipient appropriately. Students should address their instructors using the title and name format each has requested, starting with “Hi,” “Hello,” or “Dear.” If an instructor hasn’t given them guidance, remind them to use their best judgment. When in doubt, they should start out formally, with the appropriate title (Ms., Mr., Dr., or Professor) and his or her last name, and then let the instructor adjust the formality of the exchange in any future communication.
  • Creating the right tone. Students need to be mindful of the tone they create through their writing choices. Messages can come across as whiny or demanding even though the writer did not intend to strike that tone, so it’s important to review wording choices.
  • Ensuring an acceptable level of writing quality. Remind students to write in complete sentences, use standard capitalization, and follow the accepted rules of grammar. Depending on the relationship with each recipient, they should use texting acronyms, emojis, and exclamation points sparingly (if at all).

Students might feel self-conscious writing in this style at first, but remind them they are practicing a professional skill and showing respect for their instructors, so it’s a win-win.

Self-Coaching Ideas for Your Students

  1. Review several email or text messages you’ve sent recently (any type of messages on any system). How does their tone feel to you now? Would you change anything about the messages? Why or why not?
  2. If you believe you have received an unfair grade on an assignment or a test, what steps could you take in an email message to request an adjustment without sounding demanding or unpleasant?

Previous Posts in the Apply Your Skills Now Series

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Make QA a Routine Part of the Writing Process

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Think Now, Write Later

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Preparing for Difficult Conversations

Encourage Your Students to Put Their New Skills to Work Right Away

 

Photo credit: Javier Domínguez Ferreiro on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

27 Ways the Business Communication Course Can Help Your Students

This list has been one of the most popular posts we have ever published, and with the beginning of the fall term upon us we thought this would be a great time to repost it.

As you get rolling with a new term, you’ll probably be emphasizing the long-term value of the business communication course to your students. Here’s our list of 27 ways communication skills can help students in their personal and professional lives.

  1. Succeeding in other college courses. From writing research papers to making presentations, the skills developed in the business communication course can help with virtually every other course students take.
  2. Landing the best available job. The job-search process is essentially an interconnected set of business communication projects using a variety of media and interpersonal communication skills. It’s a great opportunity for students to put their finely tuned skills to work.
  3. Positioning oneself for promotional opportunities. The managers who make promotional decisions like to keep an eye on up-and-coming talent, and communication skills play a critical role in how those employees perform and how they are perceived by colleagues, customers, and influential executives.
  4. Becoming a more-effective online and offline networker. Networking is a vital skill for everyone from entrepreneurs to top-level corporate managers, and business communication equips people with the audience insights and communication skills they need to become valued and successful network participants.
  5. Interacting with people up and down the corporate hierarchy. College-aged students aren’t always comfortable communicating with older, more-experienced colleagues, managers, and executives. Learning how to analyze an audience’s needs and expectations can help anyone handle these challenges with grace and confidence.
  6. Solving problems. Every professional runs into problems in the workplace, and some jobs are all about problem solving. Communication is central to many business problems and challenges, whether it’s part of the problem or part of the solution.
  7. Selling ideas, proposals, and products. The business world is littered with great ideas and well-designed products that never caught on because the people behind them didn’t know how to promote themselves or their marvelous creations. Even professionals who never come close to working in marketing or sales need to know how to persuade—a valuable skill students will learn in this course.
  8. Understanding audiences. Whether it’s the other person in a one-on-one conversation or a global audience on digital media, knowing how to assess someone else’s information needs and emotional state improves every form of communication.
  9. Developing digital information fluency. Finding, evaluating, and using digital information in an age of data overload is a make-or-break skill in many careers.
  10. Developing visual literacy. From infographics to online video, visual media have become a fundamental part of business communication, not to mention the charts, graphs, diagrams, and other tools that have been in use for decades. A well-rounded business communication course can help students understand the power of visual communication, interpret business visuals, and make intelligent design choices in their own documents and presentations.
  11. Developing a compelling personal brand. Even people turned off by the idea of branding themselves can benefit from knowing the behaviors and skills that combine to create the “social being” they present to the rest of the world.
  12. Detecting and avoiding ethical lapses. Ethical dilemmas and ethical lapses should be core topics in business communication, of course. In addition to general guidelines for ensuring ethical communication, our texts offer such examples as overselling, obscuring negative information, and manipulating charts and graphs.
  13. Avoid and resolving disputes. Understanding how communication works—or fails to work—helps people minimize confusion, avoid inadvertent insults, and keep tensions from escalating.
  14. Diagnosing communication breakdowns. Sometimes even with good intentions and careful effort, communication efforts can fail. Professionals who understand a basic model of the communication process can use it to diagnose breakdowns and take corrective active.
  15. Using communication technology professionally. It’s a rare student who isn’t equipped with some advanced communication and computing technologies these days, particularly one or more mobile devices, but using those tools in a professional context takes the sort of awareness and practice they’ll get in the business communication course.
  16. Enhancing personal and social relationships. The value of communication skills certainly isn’t limited to the workplace. Knowing how to listen actively, speak persuasively, write carefully, and read critically can help just about any relationship.
  17. Crafting life’s toughest messages with sensitivity. Rejection letters, condolences, and other messages on unwelcome issues are among a communicator’s toughest challenges. The principles taught in business communication can help writers address these situations with understanding and tact.
  18. Improving communication confidence. By taking the mystery out of effective communication, this course helps students develop confidence in their ability to tackle any communication challenge.
  19. Evaluating, editing, and revising the work of other writers. Professionals are often asked to review the writing of other people, and knowing how to help—without throwing a wrench into the works—requires a specific set of skills that students can learn in this course.
  20. Leading and participating in more-effective meetings. The principles of interpersonal communication, group dynamics, and conflict resolution taught in business communication can go a long way toward making meetings more effective.
  21. Listening actively for information, intent, and nuance. Among the many skills that make up communication competence, few outrank listening. The business communication course can teach the vital skill of active listening and the specific modes of critical, content, and empathic listening.
  22. Communicating in a crisis. With the growth of social and mobile media, companies are under more pressure than ever to communicate quickly, clearly, and sensitively in the aftermath of accidents, tragedies, and other calamities. Anticipating likely events and responding with audience-focused messages are important managerial skills.
  23. Recognizing the powers and pitfalls of nonverbal communication. All communication efforts are influenced by the presence or absence of nonverbal signals, and this course can help students recognize the signals they receive and manage the signals they send.
  24. Communicating efficiently. Knowing how to craft messages and documents at a rapid clip is an essential survival skill for many professionals. By practicing with a proven method such as the three-step writing process, students can learn how to write not only effectively but efficiently, too.
  25. Ensuring positive team outcomes. Team dynamics are a complicated subject, but one simple truth is that dysfunctional teams tend to communicate poorly while highly effective teams communicate well. The business communication course gives students the opportunity to grow their teamwork skills in a safe, supportive environment.
  26. Enriching intercultural interactions. Reaching across international boundaries is a necessary skill for many professionals, and every business needs to connect with diverse groups of customers and employees. The business communication course teaches students how to communicate with people from other backgrounds and cultures—a necessary business skill and a lifelong source of pleasure.
  27. Improving etiquette in all forms of contemporary media. For all their benefits, today’s tech tools create a host of potential etiquette problems. Students can use the course to identify and avoid the missteps that can hurt careers.

Best wishes for a successful term!

Image by Mark Greaves from Pixabay 

 

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Make QA a Routine Part of the Writing Process

When manufacturers produce something, an essential step in the process is quality assurance (QA), a methodical evaluation of the product’s quality relative to its design goals. This is the last chance before the product ships out to customers to make sure it is something the company can be proud of.

Encourage students to make QA an essential part of their communication efforts, whether they’re writing reports, crafting presentations, or completing any other type of assignment. By practicing now on assignments in all their classes, QA will be second nature when they’re writing and presenting on the job.

Just as in manufacturing, QA in writing is more effective if it follows an explicit, step-by-step process, rather than randomly looking for mistakes. If you haven’t already given your students a proofreading checklist, they can use the following tools:

  • In Business Communication Essentials, 8th ed: Table 5.4: Proofreading Tips, page 126
  • In Excellence in Business Communication, 13th ed: Checklist: Proofing Business Messages, page 206, and Five-Minute Guide to Revising and Proofreading, page 215
  • In Business Communication Today, 14th ed: Checklist: Proofing Business Messages, page 170

With each assignment, remind students to give themselves enough time to evaluate their first drafts, revise to improve readability, edit for clarity and conciseness, and then produce professional-quality output. Once they get in the habit, producing high-quality documents and presentations won’t take much more time and energy than producing mediocre work.

Self-Coaching Ideas for Your Students

  1. Do you ever feel the temptation to say, “Eh, that’s good enough” on an assignment when you know you could do better? What can you do to reset your priorities so that quality work is a matter of habit?
  2. Do you need to examine your work methods to make sure you leave enough time to do an effective QA check on every assignment?

 

Image credit: Stuart Whitmore

Intelligent Communication Technology: The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence

As one of the most powerful technologies ever developed, artificial intelligence (AI) is already influencing human life in multiple ways and promises to do so even more in the future. AI is now used in a variety of business communication applications, from message testing to employee recruiting and evaluation.

Although many of these developments are positive, AI shares the two-sided nature of every major technology: The power that enables it to be a positive force can also gives it the potential to become a negative force. Moreover, even with good intentions, it is impossible to foresee and control all the consequences that AI could unleash.

Two issues of particular concern from an ethical perspective are embedded biases and a lack of transparency and accountability.

Human Biases Embedded in AI Systems

Like all human creations, AI reflects the intentions and beliefs of its creators—sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously. Simplifying greatly, AI systems incorporate algorithms, or instructions, and data that those instructions operate upon. If either the algorithms or the data reflect human biases, the AI system will likely exhibit those same biases.

For instance, facial recognition systems, which are increasingly being used for security and identification purposes, are “trained” using large collections of photographs. What they learn depends to a large degree on the photos in those collections. When African American AI researcher Joy Buolamwini (see photo) discovered that some of the most widely used facial recognition systems had much higher error rates on female and nonwhite faces, she traced the problem to the photo sets they were trained on, which were composed of mostly white, male faces. The only way she could get some of the systems to recognize her face as a face at all was to wear a white mask.

The developers of these systems are making improvements, but the fact that the problems existed in the first place could reflect a lack of diversity in AI research. As Buolamwini put it, “You can’t have ethical AI that’s not inclusive. And whoever is creating the technology is setting the standards.”

Another area in which AI systems can exhibit bias is language processing, because they learn from human language usage, which can have patterns of bias that range from overt to deeply buried. For instance, in a test where otherwise identical résumés were presented to some employers displaying a European American name and to other employers displaying an African American name, the résumé with the European American name drew 50 percent more interview invitations. If AI systems take on biased behaviors from language usage, their ability to automate decision-making at lightning speed can propagate biases throughout business and society as a whole.

Other areas where AI systems can potentially exhibit bias include risk-assessment systems that purport to predict an individual’s likelihood of committing a crime and automated applicant-evaluation systems used to make lending and hiring decisions. However, these automated approaches have the potential to be less biased than human decision makers if they are programmed to focus on objective factors. In an important sense, we don’t want AI that can think like humans; we want AI that can think better than humans do.

Lack of Transparency and Accountability

One of the most unnerving aspects of some advanced decision-making systems is the inability of even their creators—much less the general public—to understand why the systems make some of the decisions they do. For example, an AI system called Deep Patient is uncannily effective at predicting diseases by studying patients’ medical data. In some instances, doctors don’t know how it reached its decisions, and the system can’t tell them, either.

This lack of insight has troubling implications for law enforcement, medicine, hiring, and just about any other field where AI might be used. For instance, if a risk-assessment system says that a prisoner is likely to reoffend and therefore shouldn’t be paroled, should the prisoner’s lawyers be able to cross-examine the AI? What if even the AI system can’t explain how it reached that decision?

The Efforts to Make AI a Force for Good

AI unquestionably has the potential to benefit humankind in many ways, but only if it is directed toward beneficial applications and applied in ethical ways. How can society make sure that the decisions made and the actions taken by AI systems reflect the values and priorities of the people who are affected? How can we ensure that people retain individual dignity and autonomy even as intelligent systems take over many tasks and decisions? And how can we make sure that the benefits of AI aren’t limited to those who have access to the science and technology behind it? For example, a high percentage of the available AI talent is currently concentrated in a handful of huge tech companies that have the money necessary to buy up promising AI start-ups. While this benefits Google, Amazon, and Facebook in their business pursuits, potential applications in other industries, agriculture, medicine, and other fields might be lagging behind for want of talent.

Recognizing how important it is to get out in front of these questions before the technology outpaces our ability to control it, a number of organizations are wrestling with these issues. One of the largest is the Partnership on AI, whose membership includes many of the major corporate players in AI and dozens of smaller companies, research centers, and advocacy organizations. Its areas of focus include ensuring the integrity of safety-critical AI in transportation and health care; making AI fair, transparent, and accountable; minimizing the disruptive effect of AI on the workforce; and collaborating with a wide range of organizations to maximize the social benefits of AI.

Individual companies are also helping in significant ways. Microsoft, for instance, is directing millions of dollars and some of its considerable AI talent to AI for Earth, a program that uses AI to improve outcomes in agriculture, water resources, education, and other important areas.

The spread of AI throughout business highlights the importance of ethical awareness and ethical decision-making. Only by building ethical principles into these systems can we expect them to generate ethically acceptable outputs.

 

Adapted from Courtland L. Bovée and John V. Thill, Business in Action, 9th ed (Pearson: 2020), 110–112.

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Think Now, Write Later

When students get a new assignment, they can be tempted to either dive in immediately so they don’t get into a schedule crunch later or put it off until the last minute—when they will definitely be in a schedule crunch.

Not surprisingly, the do-it-later approach isn’t always a successful way to work. Writing under a tight deadline can sometimes be invigorating, and time limits can help the mind stay focused, but mostly it’s just stressful and exhausting. Plus, there’s the potential problem of getting bogged down in complex issues at the last minute and not having enough time left to think through them or do additional research.

Somewhat more surprisingly, the do-it-right-now approach isn’t always the most productive way to write, either. When you sit down and command yourself to write something now, the mind has a funny way of rebelling and giving you nothing but a blank stare. Instead of figuring out what you need to say, you’ll start worrying about how to say it, and your inner editor will get in the way with criticism and self-doubt.

Encourage your students to try this modified approach instead. As soon as they get an assignment, dig into it but tell themselves they don’t need to do any writing right now. Just explore the topic, do some research, and start to fill their minds with nuggets of information—without worrying about how they’re going to say anything yet. Let these thoughts rumble around while they go off and do other things. Their minds will keep busy in the background, searching for connections between the bits of information they have collected, trying out ideas for organizing the piece, and generating useful phrases and other bits of text. The piece will gradually take shape somewhere between their conscious and subconscious mind before they begin to write, and when they do sit down to write, the words should flow faster and easier than trying to force them on command.

Self-Coaching Ideas for Your Students

  1. Do you ever find yourself in a panic when you try to start a writing project? If so, don’t get down on yourself; this can happen to everybody, including professional writers who have been honing their craft for decades. Try this trick: Tell yourself you need to write just one sentence. As you fine-tune that sentence, you’ll probably feel yourself settling into a groove, and the rest of the work will go easier from there.
  2. If you’re in the habit of putting writing projects off to the last minute, what are some changes you could make to get yourself into a more-controlled and less-stressful mode of work?

 

Photo: Yudis Asnar

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Intelligent Communication Technology: The Conundrum of Disruptive Innovation

Preparing students for contemporary workplace practices has been a hallmark of Bovée and Thill textbooks from the beginning, and this emphasis often involves technology. Thirty years ago, our tech coverage involved reminding students to use the high-resolution setting when faxing a résumé. Today, it involves helping them get ready for résumé-reading bots and automated video interviews that are evaluated with artificial intelligence—and these are just two of the many communication technologies that graduates can expect to encounter.

Teaching communication technology presents some intriguing challenges, such as deciding when a particular technology has gone mainstream enough to warrant coverage in the course. As we’ve been researching the latest wave of smart communication tools, we realized that this presents a great opportunity to discuss the conundrum of business innovation with your students.

Change in Business—From Gradual to Disruptive

Some changes in the business environment happen gradually and often predictably, such as when an aging consumer population increases or decreases demand for particular goods and services. Companies need to anticipate and respond to such changes, but they don’t fundamentally alter the way businesses operate. Similarly, individual brands and products move in and out of fashion, but the overall market sector often remains more or less the same.

Other types of changes, however, can be downright traumatic—or exciting, depending on whether you’re benefiting from a change or getting steamrolled by it. Online retailing, digital music, mobile communication, and social media are examples of changes that permanently shifted the way many consumers behave and many businesses operate. Each of these is a disruptive innovation, a development so fundamentally different and far reaching that it can create new professions, companies, or even entire industries while damaging or destroying others.

Disruptive innovation is an important phenomenon that all business students should understand, and it presents some intriguing questions that you might want to discuss with your students, particularly as they relate to business communication.

Three Questions to Discuss with Students

First, predicting whether a new technology will be truly disruptive is difficult. In many cases, multiple other forces from the technological, economic, social, and legal regulatory environments need to converge before an innovation has a major impact. For instance, without broadband wireless networks, a digital communication infrastructure, data encryption methods, a vast array of free and low-cost apps, mobile-friendly web services, and more computing power than actual computers used to have, a smartphone would just be an expensive way to make phone calls. With the combined impact of all these innovations, mobile phones have changed the way many people live and the way many businesses operate. Encourage students to keep this in mind if they’re considering joining a company with a promising new product that hasn’t caught on yet—what other changes need to occur before the product and the company will succeed?

Second, predicting when the disruption will happen is just as difficult. Many promising technologies can take years to have an impact. Mobile phones and handheld computers had been around for two or three decades before all the pieces fell into place and the smartphone era took off. Intriguing new inventions can generate a lot of interest, press coverage, and “hype” long before they have any real impact on business, and expectations sometimes outpace what the technology can deliver. This pattern repeats so often that the management consulting firm Gartner famously modeled it as a five-stage roller-coaster curve that it calls the Hype Cycle.

Third, predicting the eventual impact of a disruption is also challenging. Artificial intelligence (AI) is finally going mainstream as a business—and business communication—tool after many decades of hopes and hype, but its long-term impact is difficult to gauge at this point. Millions of jobs involve tasks and decisions that AI could conceivably do (and is now doing in many cases), but it’s impossible to pin down how disruptive it will be to the job market. AI will redefine many jobs, eliminate some, and create some—and people in most professions should be prepared to learn new skills and adapt as opportunities and expectations change.

The best advice for students as they move forward in their careers is to keep their eyes and ears open to innovations that could affect their professions and their companies. Encourage them to carefully consider the predictions they hear, but before they make any major career decisions, ask themselves what will have to happen for those predictions to come true. Predicting the future is always a dicey proposition, but with a skeptical approach, they have a better chance of separating reasonable projections from pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking.

 

Adapted from Courtland L. Bovée and John V. Thill, Business in Action, 9th ed. (New York: Pearson 2020), 22.

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