As mentioned previously, the College Board identified these communication skills as “frequently” or “almost always” necessary in the workplace (College Board, 2004): e-mail, presentation with visuals, technical reports, formal reports, memos, and presentations without visuals. The skill ranked highest in importance was the use of e-mails, including the ability to adapt messages to different receivers or compose persuasive messages when necessary. The ability to make presentations (with visuals) ranked second in importance. Report writing came next. Given the complexity of report writing, we will not cover this topic here. Instead, we will look at the remaining three forms of communication: e-mail, presentations with visuals, and memos.
Tips for Writing Business E-Mails
Dennis Jerz and Jessica Bauer created the following list of the top 10 tips for writing effective e-mail messages (Jerz & Bauer, 2011):
- Write a meaningful subject line. Recipients use the subject line to decide whether to open or delete a message and sometimes where to store it. Write a subject line that describes the content.
- Keep the message focused. Avoid including multiple messages or requests in one e-mail. Try to focus on only one topic. Use standard capitalization and spelling; none of this “thx 4 ur help 2day ur gr8.”
- Avoid attachments. Extract the relevant text from a large file and ask the recipient if he or she wants to see the full document.
- Identify yourself clearly. Identify yourself in the first few lines—otherwise your message might be deleted quickly.
- Be kind. Don’t flame. Avoid writing e-mails when you are upset. Always think before you hit the “send” button. Once it’s gone, you can’t get it back. If you’re mad, write the e-mail, but don’t send it. Keep it in your “save” or “draft” folder and reread it the next day.
- Proofread. Use spell check and read the memo carefully before sending it.
- Don’t assume privacy. Don’t send anything you wouldn’t want posted on the office bulletin board (with your name on it). Remember, employers can read your e-mails!
- Distinguish between formal and informal situations. When writing to a coworker with whom you are friends, you can be less formal than when you are writing to your manager or a client.
- Respond promptly. Get back quickly to the person who sent you the e-mail. If you’re too busy to answer, let the person know you got the message and will respond as soon as you can.
- Show respect and restraint. Watch out: Don’t use the “reply to all” button in error. Don’t forward an e-mail before getting permission from the sender.
Planning, Preparing, Practicing, and Presenting
For some, the thought of making a presentation is traumatic. If you’re one of those people, the best way to get over your fear is to get up and make a presentation. With time, it will get easier, and you might even start enjoying it. As you progress through college, you will have a number of opportunities to make presentations. This is good news—it gives you practice, lets you make your mistakes in a protected environment (before you hit the business world), and allows you to get fairly good at it. Your opportunities to talk in front of a group will multiply once you enter the business world. Throughout your business career, you’ll likely be called on to present reports, address groups at all levels in the organization, represent your company at various events, run committee meetings, lead teams, or make a sales pitch (Barada, 2011). In preparing and delivering your presentation, you can follow a four-step process (plan, prepare, practice, and present) designed by Dale Carnegie, a global training company named after its famed founder (Carnegie, 2011).
Plan your presentation based on your purpose and the knowledge level and interest of your audience. Use words and concepts your audience can understand, and stay focused. If your audience is knowledgeable about your topic, you can skim over the generalities and delve into the details. On the other hand, if the topic is new to them, you need to move through it slowly. As you plan your presentation, ask yourself these questions: What am I trying to accomplish? Am I trying to educate, inform, motivate, or persuade my audience? What does my audience know about the topic? What do I want them to know? How can I best convey this information to them?
Once you have planned your presentation, you’re ready to prepare. It might be easier to write your presentation if you divide it into three sections: opening, body, close. Your opening should grab your audience’s attention. You can do this by asking a question, telling a relevant story, or even announcing a surprising piece of information. About 5 to 10 percent of your time can be spent on the opening. The body covers the bulk of the material and consumes about 80 to 85 percent of your time. Cover your key points, stay focused, but do not overload your audience. It has been found that an audience can absorb only about four to six points. Your close, which uses about 5 to 10 percent of your time, should leave the audience with a positive impression of you and your presentation. You have lots of choices for your close: You can either summarize your message or relate your closing remarks to your opening remarks or do both.
This section should really be called “Practice, Practice, Practice” (and maybe another Practice for emphasis). The saying “practice makes perfect” is definitely true with presentations, especially for beginners. You might want to start off practicing your presentation by yourself, perhaps in front of a mirror. You could even videotape yourself and play it back (that should be fun). As you get the hang of it, ask a friend or a group of friends to listen to and critique your talk. When you rehearse, check your time to see whether it’s what you want. Avoid memorizing your talk, but know it well.
Now you’re ready for the big day—it’s time to present. Dress for the part—if it’s a professional talk, dress like a professional. Go early to the location where you’ll present, check out the room, and be sure any equipment you’ll need is there and works. Try to connect with your audience as soon as you start your presentation. Take your time delivering your opening. Act as natural as you can, and try to relax. Slow your speech down, as you’ll likely have a tendency to speed up if you get nervous. Pause before and after your main point for emphasis. If you put brief notes on index cards, avoid reading from the cards. Glance down at them when needed, but then look up at your audience as you speak. Involve your audience in your presentation by asking them questions. Not only will they feel included, but it will help you relax. When you’re close to finishing, let your audience know this (but don’t announce it too early in the talk or your audience might start packing up prematurely). Remember to leave some time for questions and answers.
It’s very common to use visual aids (generally PowerPoint slides) in business presentations. The use of visual aids helps your audience remember your main points and keeps you focused. If you do use PowerPoint slides, follow some simple (but important) rules (Iasted, 2011):
- Avoid wordiness: use key words and phrases only.
- Don’t crowd your slide: include at most four to five points per slide.
- Use at least an eighteen-point font (so that it can be seen from the back of the room).
- Use a color font that contrasts with the background (for example, blue font on white background).
- Use graphs rather than just words.
- Proof your slides and use spell check.
And most important: The PowerPoint slides are background, but you are the show. Avoid turning around and reading the slides. The audience wants to see you talk; they are not interested in seeing the back of your head.
How to Write an Effective Memo
Memos are effective at conveying fairly detailed information. To help you understand how to write a memo, read the following sample memorandum.
As college students, you’ll be expected to analyze real-world situations, research issues, form opinions, and provide support for the conclusions that you reach. In addition to engaging in classroom discussions of business issues, you’ll be asked to complete a number of written assignments. For these assignments, we’ll give you a business situation and ask you to analyze the issues, form conclusions, and provide support for your opinions.
In each assignment, you’ll use the memo format, which is the typical form of written communication used in business. Writing in memo format means providing a complete but concise response to the issues at hand. Good memo writing demands time and effort. Because the business world expects you to possess this skill, we want to give you an opportunity to learn it now.
Here are a few helpful hints to get you started on the right track:
- The format should follow the format of this memo. Note the guide headings—“TO,” “FROM,” “DATE,” and “RE” (which, by the way, stands for “regarding” or “reference”). We also include a line across the page to signal the beginning of the body of the memo.
- Keep paragraphs short and to the point. The trick is being concise yet complete—summarizing effectively. Paragraphs should be single-spaced, flush against the left margin, and separated by a single blank line.
- Accent or highlight major points. Use underlining, bullets, or bold type for desired effect (taking care not to overdo it).
- Use short headings to distinguish and highlight vital information. Headings keep things organized, provide structure, and make for smooth reading. Headings (and, as appropriate, subheadings) are an absolute must.
- Your title (the “Re” line) should reflect the contents of your memo: It should let the reader know why he or she should read it. Keep the title short—a phrase of a few words, not a sentence.
- Be persuasive and convincing in your narrative. You have limited space in which to get your key points across. State your positions clearly. And again, be concise (a memo is not a term paper).
- If you have any additional information in the form of exhibits—charts, tables, illustrations, and so forth—put them in an attachment. Label each item “Exhibit 1,” “Exhibit 2,” and the like. Give each one a title, and be sure to reference them in your narrative (“As shown in Exhibit 1, the annual growth rate in sales has dropped from double-digit to single-digit levels”).
- Finally, staple multiple pages for submission. Needless to say, be sure to proofread for correct spelling and punctuation. Don’t scribble in changes by hand: They’re sloppy and leave a bad impression.
Now that you’ve read our memo, we expect you to follow the simple guidelines presented in it. This form of communication is widely practiced in business, so take advantage of this opportunity to practice your memo-writing skills.
Sometimes it’s not what you say or how you say it that matters, but what your body language communicates about you and how you feel. When a good friend who’s in a bad mood walks into a room, you don’t need to hear a word from her to know she’s having an awful day. You can read her expression. In doing this, you’re picking up on her nonverbal communication—“nonword” messages communicated through facial expressions, posture, gestures, and tone of voice. People give off nonverbal cues all the time. So what effect do these cues have in the business setting? Quite a bit—these cues are often better at telling you what’s on a person’s mind than what the person actually says. If an employee is meeting with his supervisor and frowns when she makes a statement, the supervisor will conclude that he disapproved of the statement (regardless of what he claims). If two employees are discussing a work-related problem and one starts to fidget, the other will pick this up as disinterest.
Given the possible negative effect that nonverbal cues can have in business situations, how can you improve your body language? The best approach is to become aware of any nonverbal cues you give out, and then work to eliminate them. For example, if you have a habit of frowning when you disapprove of something, recognize this and stop doing it. If the tone of your voice changes when you are angry, try to maintain your voice at a lower pitch.
Here are ten tips for writing an e-mail:
- Write a meaningful subject line.
- Keep the message focused and readable.
- Avoid attachments.
- Identify yourself clearly in the first few lines.
- Be kind. Don’t flame. Always think before hitting the “send” button.
- Don’t assume privacy.
- Distinguish between formal and informal situations.
- Respond promptly.
- Show respect and restraint.
- In preparing and delivering your presentation, you can follow a four-step process: plan, prepare, practice and present.
- You should plan your presentation based on your purpose and the knowledge level and interest of your audience.
In preparing your presentation, it helps to divide it into three sections: opening, body and close.
- Your opening, which uses about 5–10 percent of your time, should grab your audience’s attention.
- The body covers your main points and uses about 80 to 85 percent of your time.
- Your close, which uses about 5 to 10 percent of your time, should leave the audience with a positive impression of you and your presentation.
- The saying “practice makes perfect” is definitely true when giving presentations (especially for beginners).
When you present, dress professionally, connect with your audience, try to relax and pause before and after your main points for emphasis.
- Visual aids, such as PowerPoint slides, can aid your presentation if they are used properly.
Memos are effective at conveying fairly detailed information. Here are some tips:
- Keep paragraphs short and to the point.
- Accent or highlight major points.
- Use short headings.
- Your title should reflect the contents of your memo.
- Be persuasive and convincing in your narrative.
- Ask a friend or a family member to tell you which nonverbal cues you frequently transmit. Identify those that would be detrimental to you in a business situation. Indicate how you could eliminate or reduce the impact of these cues. Ask the same person (or someone else) whether you are a good listener. If the answer is no, indicate how you could improve your listening skills.
- Prepare a presentation on “planning, preparing, practicing, and presenting.” Divide your presentation into three parts: opening, body, and closing. Prepare visual aids. Pretend that your audience is made up of recent college graduates hired by Nike.
Barada, P. W., “Confront Your Fears and Communicate,” http://career-advice.monster.com/in-the-office/workplace-issues/confront-your-fears-and-communicate/article.aspx (accessed October 11, 2011).
Carnegie, D., “Presentation Tips from Dale Carnegie Training,” Dale Carnegie, http://www.erinhoops.ca/LobbyingHandbook/Presentation_Tips.htm (accessed October 11, 2011).
College Board, “Writing: A Ticket to Work…or a Ticket Out: A Survey of Business Leaders,” Report of the National Commission on Writing, September 2004, http://www.writingcommission.org/prod_downloads/writingcom/writing-ticket-to-work.pdf (accessed October 11, 2011).
Iasted, “Making PowerPoint Slides—Avoiding the Pitfalls of Bad Slides,” http://www.iasted.org/conferences/formatting/Presentations-Tips.ppt (accessed October 11, 2011).
Jerz, D. G., and Jessica Bauer, “Writing Effective E-Mail: Top 10 Email Tips,” Jerz‘s Literacy Weblog, March 8. 2011, http://jerz.setonhill.edu/writing/e-text/email/ (accessed October 19, 2011).