Introduction to Professional Communications

Introduction to Professional Communications

Melissa Ashman



Adaptation statement

Introduction to Professional Communications was adapted and remixed by Melissa Ashman from several open textbooks as indicated at the end of each chapter. Unless otherwise noted, Introduction to Professional Communications is (c) 2018 by Melissa Ashman and is licensed under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

In Introduction to Professional Communications, examples have been changed to Canadian references, and information throughout the book, as applicable, has been revised to reflect Canadian content and language. Gender neutral language (they/their) has been used intentionally. In addition, while general ideas and content may remain unchanged from the sources from which this adapted version is based, word choice, phrasing, and organization of content within each chapter may have changed to reflect this author’s stylistic preferences.

The following additions or changes have been made to these chapters:

Chapter 1.1

Chapter 2.1

Chapter 2.2

Chapter 2.4

Chapter 2.7

Chapter 3.1

Chapter 3.2

Chapter 4.1

Chapter 4.2

Chapter 4.3

Chapter 4.4

Chapter 4.5

Chapter 4.6

Chapter 4.7

Chapter 4.8

Chapter 4.9

Chapter 4.11

Chapter 5.5

Chapter 5.6

Chapter 6.1

Chapter 6.2

Chapter 7.1

Chapter 7.2

Chapter 7.3

You are free to use or modify (adapt) any of this material providing the terms of the Creative Commons licenses are adhered to.


Part 1: Communication Foundations


1.1 Learning to write

You may think that some people are simply born as better writers than others, but in fact writing is a reflection of experience and effort. If you think about your successes as a writer, you may come up with a couple of favourite books, authors, or teachers that inspired you to express yourself. You may also recall a sense of frustration with your earlier writing experiences. It is normal and natural to experience a sense of frustration at the perceived inability to express oneself. The emphasis here is on your perception of yourself as a writer as one aspect of how you communicate. 

You are your own best ally when it comes to your writing. Keeping a positive frame of mind about your journey as a writer is not a cliché or simple, hollow advice. Your attitude toward writing can and does influence your written products. Even if writing has been a challenge for you, the fact that you are reading this sentence means you perceive the importance of this essential skill. This text and discussions to follow will help you improve your writing, and your positive attitude is part of your success strategy.

Reading is one step many writers point to as an integral step in learning to write effectively. You may like Harry Potter books or be a Twilight fan, but if you want to write effectively in business, you need to read business-related documents. These can include letters, reports, business proposals, and business plans. You may find these where you work or in your school’s writing centre, business department, or library; there are also many websites that provide sample business documents of all kinds. Your reading should also include publications in the industry where you work or plan to work. You can also gain an advantage by reading publications in fields other than your chosen one; often reading outside your niche can enhance your versatility and help you learn how other people express similar concepts. Finally, don’t neglect popular or general media like newspapers and magazines. Reading is one of the most useful lifelong habits you can practice to boost your business communication skills.

In the “real world” when you are under a deadline and production is paramount, you’ll be rushed and may lack the time to do adequate background reading for a particular assignment. For now, take advantage of your business communications course by exploring common business documents you may be called on to write, contribute to, or play a role in drafting in your future career. Some documents have a degree of formula to them, and your familiarity with them will reduce your preparation and production time while increasing your effectiveness.

When given a writing assignment, it is important to make sure you understand what you are being asked to do. You may read the directions and try to put them in your own words to make sense of the assignment. Be careful, however, to differentiate between what the directions say and what you think they say. Just as an audience’s expectations should be part of your consideration of how, what, and why to write, the instructions given by your instructor, or in a work situation by your supervisor, establish expectations. Just as you might ask a mentor more about a business writing assignment at work, you need to use the resources available to you to maximize your learning opportunity. Ask the professor to clarify any points you find confusing, or perceive more than one way to interpret, in order to better meet the expectations.

Learning to write effectively involves reading, writing, critical thinking, and self-reflection. At times, it may seem like it’s an incredibly messy process. Other times, it may feel tedious. Ultimately, writing is a process that takes time, effort, and practice. In the long-term, your skillful ability to craft messages will make a significant difference in your career.


This chapter contains material taken from Chapter 4.2 “How is writing learned” in Business Communication for Success and is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license.


1.2 Elements in communication

Think about communication in your daily life. When you make a phone call, send a text message, or like a post on Facebook, what is the purpose of that activity? Have you ever felt confused by what someone is telling you or argued over a misunderstood email? The underlying issue may very well be a communication deficiency.

There are many current models and theories that explain, plan, and predict communication processes and their successes or failures. In the workplace, we might be more concerned about practical knowledge and skills than theory. However, good practice is built on a solid foundation of understanding and skill.

Defining communication

The word communication is derived from a Latin word meaning “to share.” Communication can be defined as “purposefully and actively exchanging information between two or more people to convey or receive the intended meanings through a shared system of signs and (symbols)” (“Communication,” 2015, para. 1).

Let us break this definition down by way of example. Imagine you are in a coffee shop with a friend, and they are telling you a story about the first goal they scored in hockey as a child. What images come to mind as you hear their story? Is your friend using words you understand to describe the situation? Are they speaking in long, complicated sentences or short, descriptive sentences? Are they leaning back in their chair and speaking calmly, or can you tell they are excited? Are they using words to describe the events leading up to their big goal, or did they draw a diagram of the rink and positions of the players on a napkin? Did your friend pause and wait for you to to comment throughout their story or just blast right through? Did you have trouble hearing your friend at any point in the story because other people were talking or because the milk steamer in the coffee shop was whistling?

All of these questions directly relate to the considerations for communication in this course, including analyzing the audience, choosing a communications channel, using plain language, and using visual aids.

Before we examine each of these considerations in more detail, we should consider the elements of the communication process.

The Communication Process

The communication process includes the steps we take in order to ensure we have succeeded in communicating. The communication process comprises essential and interconnected elements detailed in Fig. 1.2.1. We will continue to reflect on the story of your friend in the coffee shop to explore each element in detail.

The communication process includes the source, encoding the message, a channel, the message, decoding the message, the receiver, and feedback from receiver to source. This all takes place in the surrounding environment and context.

Fig. 1.2.1 The communication process by Laura Underwood

Source: The source comes up with an idea and sends a message in order to share information with others. The source could be one other person or a group of people. In our example above, your friend is trying to share the events leading up to their first hockey goal and, likely, the feelings they had at the time as well.

Message: The message is the information or subject matter the source is intending to share. The information may be an opinion, feelings, instructions, requests, or suggestions. In our example above, your friend identified information worth sharing, maybe the size of one of the defence players on the other team, in order to help you visualize the situation.

Channels: The source may encode information in the form of words, images, sounds, body language, and more. There are many definitions and categories of communication channels to describe their role in the communication process, including verbal, non-verbal, written, and digital. In our example above, your friends might make sounds or use body language in addition to their words to emphasize specific bits of information. For example, when describing a large defense player on the other team, they may extend their arms to explain the height of the other team’s defense player.

Receiver: The receiver is the person for whom the message is intended. This person is charged with decoding the message in an attempt to understand the intentions of the source. In our example above, you as the receiver may understand the overall concept of your friend scoring a goal in hockey and can envision the techniques your friend used. However, there may also be some information you do not understand—such as a certain term—or perhaps your friend describes some events in a confusing order. One thing the receiver might try is to provide some kind of feedback to communicate back to the source that the communication did not achieve full understanding and that the source should try again.

Environment: The environment is the physical and psychological space in which the communication is happening (Mclean, 2005). It might also describe if the space is formal or informal. In our example above, it is the coffee shop you and your friend are visiting in.

Context: The context is the setting, scene, and psychological and psychosocial expectations of the source and the receiver(s) (McLean, 2005). This is strongly linked to expectations of those who are sending the message and those who are receiving the message. In our example above, you might expect natural pauses in your friend’s storytelling that will allow you to confirm your understanding or ask a question.

Interference: There are many kinds of interference (also called “noise”) that inhibit effective communication. Interference may include poor audio quality or too much sound, poor image quality, too much or too little light, attention, etc. In our working example, the coffee shop might be quite busy and thus very loud. You would have trouble hearing your friend clearly, which in turn might cause you to miss a critical word or phrase important to the story.

Those involved in the communication process move fluidly between each of these eight elements until the process ends.


Communication. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from

McLean, S. (2005). The basics of interpersonal communication. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.


This chapter is an adaptation of Part 1 (Foundations) in the Professional Communications OER by the Olds College OER Development Team and is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license. You can download this book for free at


1.3 Critical thinking

Although understanding is the foundation of all reading experiences, it is not the goal of most post-secondary reading assignments. Your professors want you to read critically, which means moving beyond what the text says to asking questions about the how and why of the text’s meaning.

Reading critically

Reading critically means reading skeptically, not accepting everything a text says at face value, and wondering why a particular author made a particular argument in a particular way.

When you read critically, you read not only to understand the meaning of the text, but also to question and analyze the text. You want to know not just what the text says, but also how and why it says what it says.  Asking questions is one key strategy to help you read more critically.  As you read a text critically, you are also reading skeptically.

A critical reader aims to answer two basic questions:

  1. What is the author doing?
  2. How well is the author doing it?

What is the author doing?

To answer “what is the author doing?” begin by carefully examining the following:

It may be helpful to try to see the argument from different angles:

How well is the author doing it?

To answer “how well is the author doing it?” consider the following questions:

Asking questions

Asking questions of a text helps readers:

The easiest way to develop questions about a text is to be aware of your thinking process before, during, and after reading.

Thinking critically

As you approach your writing project, it is important to practice the habit of thinking critically. Critical thinking can be defined as “self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking” (Paul & Elder, 2007). It is the difference between watching television in a daze versus analyzing a movie with attention to its use of lighting, camera angles, and music to influence the audience. One activity requires very little mental effort, while the other requires attention to detail, the ability to compare and contrast, and sharp senses to receive all the stimuli.

As a habit of mind, critical thinking requires established standards and attention to their use, effective communication, problem solving, and a willingness to acknowledge and address our own tendency for confirmation bias. We’ll use the phrase “habit of mind” because clear, critical thinking is a habit that requires effort and persistence. People do not start an exercise program, a food and nutrition program, or a stop-smoking program with 100 percent success the first time. In the same way, it is easy to fall back into lazy mental short cuts, such as “If it costs a lot, it must be good,” when in fact the statement may very well be false. You won’t know until you gather information that supports (or contradicts) the assertion.

As we discuss getting into the right frame of mind for writing, keep in mind that the same recommendations apply to reading and research. If you only pay attention to information that reinforces your existing beliefs and ignore or discredit information that contradicts your beliefs, you are guilty of confirmation bias (Gilovich, 1993). As you read, research, and prepare for writing, make an effort to gather information from a range of reliable sources, whether or not this information leads to conclusions you didn’t expect. Remember that those who read your writing will be aware of, or have access to, this universe of data as well and will have their own confirmation bias. Reading and writing from an audience-centered view means acknowledging your confirmation bias and moving beyond it to consider multiple frames of references, points of view, and perspectives as you read, research, and write. False thinking strategies can lead to poor conclusions, so be sure to watch out for your tendency to read, write, and believe that which reflects only what you think you know without solid research and clear, critical thinking.


Gilovich, T. (1993). How we know what isn’t so: The fallibility of human reason in everyday life. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2007). The miniature guide to critical thinking: Concepts and tools. Dillon Beach, CA: The Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.


This chapter contains material taken from “Critical thinking”; “Overview 3”; and “Reading critically” in Developmental Writing by Lumen Learning (used under a CC-BY 3.0  license) and Chapter 5.1 “Think, then write: Writing preparation” in Business Communication for Success (used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license).


Part 2: Planning messages


2.1 Pre-writing


2.2 Communication models

Communication is a complex process, and it is difficult to determine where or with whom a communication encounter starts and ends. Models of communication simplify the process by providing a visual representation of the various aspects of a communication encounter. Some models explain communication in more detail than others, but even the most complex model still doesn’t recreate what we experience in even a moment of a communication encounter. Models still serve a valuable purpose for students of communication because they allow us to see specific concepts and steps within the process of communication, define communication, and apply communication concepts. When you become aware of how communication functions, you can think more deliberately through your communication encounters, which can help you better prepare for future communication and learn from your previous communication. The three models of communication we will discuss are the transmission, interaction, and transaction models.

Although these models of communication differ, they contain some common elements. The first two models we will discuss, the transmission model and the interaction model, include the following parts: participants, messages, encoding, decoding, and channels. In communication models, the participants are the senders and/or receivers of messages in a communication encounter. The message is the verbal or nonverbal content being conveyed from sender to receiver. For example, when you say “Hello!” to your friend, you are sending a message of greeting that will be received by your friend.

The internal cognitive process that allows participants to send, receive, and understand messages is the encoding and decoding process. Encoding is the process of turning thoughts into communication. As we will learn later, the level of conscious thought that goes into encoding messages varies. Decoding is the process of turning communication into thoughts. For example, you may realize you’re hungry and encode the following message to send to your roommate: “I’m hungry. Do you want to get pizza tonight?” As your roommate receives the message, they decode your communication and turn it back into thoughts in order to make meaning out of it. Of course, we don’t just communicate verbally—we have various options, or channels for communication. Encoded messages are sent through a channel, or a sensory route on which a message travels, to the receiver for decoding. While communication can be sent and received using any sensory route (sight, smell, touch, taste, or sound), most communication occurs through visual (sight) and/or auditory (sound) channels. If your roommate has headphones on and is engrossed in a video game, you may need to get their attention by waving your hands before you can ask them about dinner.

Linear model of communication

The linear or transmission model of communication, as shown in Figure 2.2.1, describes communication as a linear, one-way process in which a sender intentionally transmits a message to a receiver (Ellis & McClintock, 1990). This model focuses on the sender and message within a communication encounter. Although the receiver is included in the model, this role is viewed as more of a target or end point rather than part of an ongoing process. We are left to presume that the receiver either successfully receives and understands the message or does not. The scholars who designed this model extended on a linear model proposed by Aristotle centuries before that included a speaker, message, and hearer. They were also influenced by the advent and spread of new communication technologies of the time such as telegraphy and radio, and you can probably see these technical influences within the model (Shannon & Weaver, 1949). Think of how a radio message is sent from a person in the radio studio to you listening in your car. The sender is the radio announcer who encodes a verbal message that is transmitted by a radio tower through electromagnetic waves (the channel) and eventually reaches your (the receiver’s) ears via an antenna and speakers in order to be decoded. The radio announcer doesn’t really know if you receive their message or not, but if the equipment is working and the channel is free of static, then there is a good chance that the message was successfully received.

The sender sends a message to the receiver in a one-way format

Figure 2.2.1 The linear model of communication

Although the transmission model may seem simple or even underdeveloped to us today, the creation of this model allowed scholars to examine the communication process in new ways, which eventually led to more complex models and theories of communication.

Interactive model of communication

The interactive or interaction model of communication, as shown in Figure 2.2.2, describes communication as a process in which participants alternate positions as sender and receiver and generate meaning by sending messages and receiving feedback within physical and psychological contexts (Schramm, 1997). Rather than illustrating communication as a linear, one-way process, the interactive model incorporates feedback, which makes communication a more interactive, two-way process. Feedback includes messages sent in response to other messages. For example, your instructor may respond to a point you raise during class discussion or you may point to the sofa when your roommate asks you where the remote control is. The inclusion of a feedback loop also leads to a more complex understanding of the roles of participants in a communication encounter. Rather than having one sender, one message, and one receiver, this model has two sender-receivers who exchange messages. Each participant alternates roles as sender and receiver in order to keep a communication encounter going. Although this seems like a perceptible and deliberate process, we alternate between the roles of sender and receiver very quickly and often without conscious thought.

The interactive model is also less message focused and more interaction focused. While the linear model focused on how a message was transmitted and whether or not it was received, the interactive model is more concerned with the communication process itself. In fact, this model acknowledges that there are so many messages being sent at one time that many of them may not even be received. Some messages are also unintentionally sent. Therefore, communication isn’t judged effective or ineffective in this model based on whether or not a single message was successfully transmitted and received.

The sender and receiver alternate roles and feedback and context are included in this model.

Figure 2.2.2 The interactive model of communication

The interactive model takes physical and psychological context into account. Physical context includes the environmental factors in a communication encounter. The size, layout, temperature, and lighting of a space influence our communication. Imagine the different physical contexts in which job interviews take place and how that may affect your communication. I have had job interviews over the phone, crowded around a table with eight interviewers, and sitting with few people around an extra large conference table. I’ve also been walked around an office to unexpectedly interview one-on-one, in succession, with multiple members of a search committee over a period of three hours. Whether it’s the size of the room or other environmental factors, it’s important to consider the role that physical context plays in our communication. Psychological context includes the mental and emotional factors in a communication encounter. Stress, anxiety, and emotions are just some examples of psychological influences that can affect our communication. Seemingly positive psychological states, like experiencing the emotion of love, can also affect communication. Feedback and context help make the interaction model a more useful illustration of the communication process, but the transaction model views communication as a powerful tool that shapes our realities beyond individual communication encounters.

Transaction model of communication

As the study of communication progressed, models expanded to account for more of the communication process. Many scholars view communication as more than a process that is used to carry on conversations and convey meaning. We don’t send messages like computers, and we don’t neatly alternate between the roles of sender and receiver as an interaction unfolds. We also can’t consciously decide to stop communicating because communication is more than sending and receiving messages. The transaction model differs from the transmission and interaction models in significant ways, including the conceptualization of communication, the role of sender and receiver, and the role of context (Barnlund, 1970).

The transaction model of communication describes communication as a process in which communicators generate social realities within social, relational, and cultural contexts. In this model, which is shown in Figure 2.2.3, we don’t just communicate to exchange messages; we communicate to create relationships, form intercultural alliances, shape our self-concepts, and engage with others in dialogue to create communities.

The roles of sender and receiver in the transaction model of communication differ significantly from the other models. Instead of labeling participants as senders and receivers, the people in a communication encounter are referred to as communicators. Unlike the interactive model, which suggests that participants alternate positions as sender and receiver, the transaction model suggests that we are simultaneously senders and receivers. This is an important addition to the model because it allows us to understand how we are able to adapt our communication—for example, a verbal message—in the middle of sending it based on the communication we are simultaneously receiving from our communication partner.

The senders and receivers are labelled as communicators who are co-creating meaning simultaneously within a broader relational, social, physical/psychological, and cultural context

Figure 2.2.3 The transaction model of communication

The transaction model also includes a more complex understanding of context. The interaction model portrays context as physical and psychological influences that enhance or impede communication. While these contexts are important, they focus on message transmission and reception. Since the transaction model of communication views communication as a force that shapes our realities before and after specific interactions occur, it must account for contextual influences outside of a single interaction. To do this, the transaction model considers how social, relational, and cultural contexts frame and influence our communication encounters.

Social context refers to the stated rules or unstated norms that guide communication. Norms are social conventions that we pick up on through observation, practice, and trial and error. We may not even know we are breaking a social norm until we notice people looking at us strangely or someone corrects or teases us. Relational context includes the previous interpersonal history and type of relationship we have with a person. We communicate differently with someone we just met versus someone we’ve known for a long time. Initial interactions with people tend to be more highly scripted and governed by established norms and rules, but when we have an established relational context, we may be able to bend or break social norms and rules more easily. Cultural context includes various aspects of identities such as race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and ability. We all have multiple cultural identities that influence our communication. Some people, especially those with identities that have been historically marginalized, are regularly aware of how their cultural identities influence their communication and influence how others communicate with them. Conversely, people with identities that are dominant or in the majority may rarely, if ever, think about the role their cultural identities play in their communication. Cultural context is influenced by numerous aspects of our identities and is not limited to race or ethnicity.


Barnlund, D. C. (1970). A transactional model of communication in  K.K. Sereno and C.D. Mortenson (Eds.), Foundations of communication theory (pp. 83-92). New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Ellis, R. and McClintock, A. (1990). You take my meaning: Theory into practice in human communication. London: Edward Arnold.

Schramm, W. (1997). The beginnings of communication study in America. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Shannon, C. and Weaver, W. (1949). The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.


This chapter contains material taken from Chapter 1.2 “The communication process” in Communication in the real world: An introduction to communication studies and is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license.


2.3 Audience analysis

John Thill and Courtland Bovee (Thill & Bovee, 2004), two leading authors in the field of business communication, have created a checklist for planning business messages. The following twelve-item checklist, adapted here, serves as a useful reminder of the importance of preparation in the writing process:
  1. Determine your general purpose: are you trying to inform, persuade, entertain, facilitate interaction, or motivate a reader?
  2. Determine your specific purpose (the desired outcome).
  3. Make sure your purpose is realistic.
  4. Make sure your timing is appropriate.
  5. Make sure your sources are credible.
  6. Make sure the message reflects positively on your business.
  7. Determine audience size.
  8. Determine audience composition.
  9. Determine audience knowledge and awareness of topic.
  10. Anticipate probable responses.
  11. Select the correct channel.
  12. Make sure the information provided is accurate, ethical, and pertinent.

Throughout the next few chapters, we will examine these various steps in greater detail.

The audience any piece of writing is the intended or potential reader or readers. This should be the most important consideration in planning, writing, and reviewing a document. You “adapt” your writing to meet the needs, interests, and background of the readers who will be reading your writing.

The principle seems absurdly simple and obvious. It’s much the same as telling someone, “Talk so the person in front of you can understand what you’re saying.” It’s like saying, “Don’t talk rocket science to your six-year-old.” Do we need a course in that? Doesn’t seem like it. But, in fact, lack of audience analysis and adaptation is one of the root causes of most of the problems you find in business documents.

Audiences, regardless of category, must also be analyzed in terms of characteristics such as the following:

  • Background—knowledge, experience, training: One of your most important concerns is just how much knowledge, experience, or training you can expect in your readers. If you expect some of your readers to lack certain background, do you automatically supply it in your document? Consider an example: imagine you’re writing a guide to using a software product that runs under Microsoft Windows. How much can you expect your readers to know about Windows? If some are likely to know little about Windows, should you provide that information? If you say no, then you run the risk of customers’ getting frustrated with your product. If you say yes to adding background information on Windows, you increase your work effort and add to the page count of the document (and thus to the cost). Obviously, there’s no easy answer to this question—part of the answer may involve just how small a segment of the audience needs that background information.
  • Needs and interests: To plan your document, you need to know what your audience is going to expect from that document. Imagine how readers will want to use your document and what will they demand from it. For example, imagine you are writing a manual on how to use a new smart phone—what are your readers going to expect to find in it? Imagine you’re under contract to write a background report on climate change for a national real estate association—what do they want to read about and, equally important, what do they not want to read about?
  • Different cultures: If you write for an international audience, be aware that formats for indicating time and dates, monetary amounts, and numerical amounts vary across the globe. Also be aware that humour and figurative language (as in “hit a home run”) are not likely to be understood outside of your own culture.
  • Other demographic characteristics: There are many other characteristics about your readers that might have an influence on how you should design and write your document—for example, age groups, type of residence, area of residence, gender, political preferences, and so on.

Audience analysis can get complicated by other factors, such as mixed audience types for one document and wide variability within the audience.

  • More than one audience. You may often find that your business message is for more than one audience. For example, it may be seen by technical people (experts and technicians) and administrative people (executives). What to do? You can either write all the sections so that all the audiences of your document can understand them (good luck!), or you can write each section strictly for the audience that would be interested in it, then use headings and section introductions to alert your audience about where to go and what to avoid in your report.
  • Wide variability in an audience. You may realize that, although you have an audience that fits into only one category, there is a wide variability in its background. This is a tough one—if you write to the lowest common denominator of reader, you’re likely to end up with a cumbersome, tedious book-like thing that will turn off the majority of readers. But if you don’t write to that lowest level, you lose that segment of your readers. What to do? Most writers go for the majority of readers and sacrifice that minority that needs more help. Others put the supplemental information in appendices or insert cross-references to beginners’ books.


Thill, J. V., & Bovee, C. L. (2004). Business communication today (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.


This chapter contains material taken from Chapter 5.2 “A planning checklist for business messages” in Business Communication for Success (used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license) and “Audience analysis” in the Online Technical Writing Textbook by D. McMurray (used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license).


2.4 Purpose

Preparation for the writing process involves purpose, research and investigation, reading and analyzing, and adaptation. In this chapter, we consider how to determine the purpose of a document and how that awareness guides the writer to effective product.

While you may be free to create documents that represent yourself or your organization, your employer will often have direct input into their purpose. All acts of communication have general and specific purposes, and the degree to which you can identify these purposes will influence how effective your writing is. General purposes involve the overall goal of the communication interaction, which have been mentioned previously: to inform, persuade, entertain, facilitate interaction, or motivate a reader. The general purpose influences the presentation and expectation for feedback. In an informative message—the most common type of writing in business—you will need to cover several predictable elements:

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • How
  • Why (optional)

Some elements may receive more attention than others, and they do not necessarily have to be addressed in the order you see here. Depending on the nature of your project, as a writer you will have a degree of input over how you organize them.

Note that the last item, Why, is designated as optional. This is because business writing sometimes needs to report facts and data objectively, without making any interpretation or pointing to any cause-effect relationship. In other business situations, of course, identifying why something happened or why a certain decision is advantageous will be the essence of the communication.

In addition to its general purpose (e.g., to inform, persuade, entertain, or motivate), every piece of writing also has at least one specific purpose, which is the intended outcome–the result that will happen once your written communication has been read.

For example, imagine that you are an employee in a small city’s housing authority and have been asked to draft a letter to city residents about radon. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that has been classified by Health Canada as a health hazard. In the course of a routine test, radon was detected in minimal levels in an apartment building operated by the housing authority. It presents a relatively low level of risk, but because the incident was reported in the local newspaper, the mayor has asked the housing authority director to be proactive in informing all the city residents of the situation.

The general purpose of your letter is to inform, and the specific purpose is to have a written record of informing all city residents about how much radon was found, when, and where; where they can get more information on radon; and the date, time, and place of the meeting. Residents may read the information and attend or they may not even read the letter. But once the letter has been written, signed, and distributed, your general and specific purposes have been accomplished.

Now imagine that you begin to plan your letter by applying the above list of elements. Recall that the letter informs residents on three counts: (1) the radon finding, (2) where to get information about radon, and (3) the upcoming meeting. For each of these pieces of information, the elements may look like the following:

  1. Radon Finding

    • Who: The manager of the apartment building (give name)
    • What: Discovered a radon concentration of 250 becquerels per cubic metre (Bq/m³) and reported it to the housing authority director, who informed the city health inspector and mayor
    • When: During the week of December 15
    • Where: In the basement of the apartment building located at (give address)
    • How: In the course of performing a routine annual test with a commercially available do-it-yourself radon test kit
  2. Information about radon

    • Who: According to the city health inspector and Health Canada
    • What: Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that results from the breakdown of uranium in soil; a radon test level above 200 Bq/m³ may be cause for concern
    • When: Radon levels fluctuate from time to time, so further testing will be done; in past years, test results were below 200 Bq/m³
    • Where: More information is available from Health Canada
    • How: By phone, mail, or on the internet (provide full contact information for both sources)
    • Why: To become better informed and avoid misunderstandings about radon, its health risks, and the meaning of radon test results
  3. City meeting about radon

    • Who: All city residents are welcome
    • What: Attend an informational meeting where the mayor, director of the housing authority, city health inspector, and representative from Health Canada will speak and answer questions
    • When: Monday, January 7, at 7 p.m.
    • Where: City hall community room
    • Why: To become better informed and avoid misunderstandings about radon, its health risks, and the meaning of radon test results

Once you have laid out these elements of your informative letter, you have an outline from which it will be easy to write the actual letter.

Your effort serves as a written record of correspondence informing them that radon was detected, which may be one of the specific or primary purposes. A secondary purpose may be to increase attendance at the town hall meeting, but you will need feedback from that event to determine the effectiveness of your effort.

Now imagine that instead of being a housing authority employee, you are a city resident who receives that informative letter, and you happen to operate a business as a certified radon mitigation contractor. You may decide to build on this information and develop a persuasive message. You may draft a letter to the homeowners and landlords in the neighborhood near the building in question. To make your message persuasive, you may focus on the perception that radiation is inherently dangerous and that no amount of radon has been declared safe. You may cite external authorities that indicate radon is a contributing factor to several health ailments, and even appeal to emotions with phrases like “protect your children” and “peace of mind.” Your letter will probably encourage readers to check with Health Canada to verify that you are a certified contractor, describe the services you provide, and indicate that friendly payment terms can be arranged.

Credibility, timing, and audience

At this point in the discussion, we need to visit the concept of credibility. Credibility, or the perception of integrity of the message based on an association with the source, is central to any communication act. If the audience perceives the letter as having presented the information in an impartial and objective way, perceives the health inspector’s expertise in the field as relevant to the topic, and generally regards the housing authority in a positive light, they will be likely to accept your information as accurate. If, however, the audience does not associate trust and reliability with your message in particular and the city government in general, you may anticipate a lively discussion at the city hall meeting.

In the same way, if the reading audience perceives the radon mitigation contractor’s letter as a poor sales pitch without their best interest or safety in mind, they may not respond positively to its message and be unlikely to contact him about any possible radon problems in their homes. If, however, the sales letter squarely addresses the needs of the audience and effectively persuades them, the contractor may look forward to a busy season.

Returning to the original housing authority scenario, did you consider how your letter might be received or the fear it may have generated in the audience? In real life you don’t get a second chance, but in our academic setting, we can go back and take more time on our assignment, using the twelve-item checklist presented in chapter 2.3. Imagine that you are the mayor or the housing authority director. Before you assign an employee to send a letter to inform residents about the radon finding, take a moment to consider how realistic your purpose is. As a city official, you may want the letter to serve as a record that residents were informed of the radon finding, but will that be the only outcome? Will people be even more concerned in response to the letter than they were when the item was published in the newspaper? Would a persuasive letter serve the city’s purposes better than an informative one?

Another consideration is the timing. On the one hand, it may be important to get the letter sent as quickly as possible, as the newspaper report may have already aroused concerns that the letter will help calm. On the other hand, given that the radon was discovered in mid-December, many people may be caught up in holiday celebrations and will not pay attention to the letter. In early January, everyone will be paying more attention to their mail as they anticipate the arrival of tax-related documents or even the dreaded credit card statement. If the mayor has scheduled the city hall meeting for January 7, people may be unhappy if they only learn about the meeting at the last minute. Also consider your staff; if many of them will be taking vacation during this period, there may not be enough staff in place to respond to phone calls that will likely come in response to the letter, even though the letter advises residents to contact Health Canada.

Next, how credible are the sources cited in the letter? If you as a housing authority employee have been asked to draft it, to whom should it go once you have it written? The city health inspector is mentioned as a source; will they read and approve the letter before it is sent? Is there someone at the region, provincial, or federal level who can, or should, check the information before it is sent?

The next item on the checklist is to make sure the message reflects positively on your business. In our hypothetical case, the “business” is city government. The letter should acknowledge that city officials and employees are servants of the taxpayers. “We are here to serve you” should be expressed, if not in so many words, in the tone of the letter.

The next three items on the checklist are associated with the audience profile: audience size, composition, knowledge, and awareness of the topic. Since your letter is being sent to all city residents, you likely have a database from which you can easily tell how many readers constitute your audience. What about audience composition? What else do you know about the city’s residents? What percentage of households includes children? What is the education level of most of the residents? Are there many residents whose first language is not English; if so, should your letter be translated into any other languages? What is the range of income levels in the city? How well informed are city residents about radon? Has radon been an issue in any other buildings in the city in recent years? The answers to these questions will help determine how detailed the information in your letter should be.

Finally, anticipate probable responses. Although the letter is intended to inform, could it be misinterpreted as an attempt to “cover up” an unacceptable condition in city housing? If the local newspaper were to reprint the letter, would the mayor be upset? Is there someone in public relations who will be doing media interviews at the same time the letter goes out? Will the release of information be coordinated, and if so by whom?

One additional point that deserves mention is the notion of decision makers. Even if your overall goal is to inform or persuade, the basic mission is to simply communicate. Establishing a connection is a fundamental aspect of the communication audience, and if you can correctly target key decision makers you increase your odds for making the connection with those you intend to inform or persuade. Who will open the mail or email? Who will act upon it? The better you can answer those questions, the more precise you can be in your writing efforts.


Government of Canada. (2017). Radon: What you need to know. Retrieved from


This chapter contains material taken from Chapter 5.2 “Think, then write: Writing preparation” in Business Communication for Success and is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license.


2.5 Channels

Purpose is closely associated with channel. We need to consider the purpose when choosing a channel. From source to receiver, message to channel, feedback to context, environment, and interference, all eight components play a role in the dynamic process. While writing often focuses on an understanding of the receiver (as we’ve discussed) and defining the purpose of the message, the channel—or the “how” in the communication process—deserves special mention.

So far, we have discussed a simple and traditional channel of written communication: the hard-copy letter mailed in a standard business envelope and sent by postal mail. But in today’s business environment, this channel is becoming increasingly rare as electronic channels become more widely available and accepted.

When is it appropriate to send an instant message or text message versus a conventional e-mail or fax? What is the difference between a letter and a memo? Between a report and a proposal? Writing itself is the communication medium, but each of these specific channels has its own strengths, weaknesses, and understood expectations that are summarized in Table 2.5.1.

Table 2.5.1 Written communication channels
Channel Strengths Weaknesses Expectations When to choose
Instant message or text message Very fastGood for rapid exchanges of small amounts of information


InformalNot suitable for large amounts of information

Abbreviations lead to misunderstandings

Quick response Informal use among peers at similar levels within an organizationYou need a fast, inexpensive connection with a colleague over a small issue and limited amount of information
Channel Strengths Weaknesses Expectations When to choose
Email FastGood for relatively fast exchanges of information

“Subject” line allows compilation of many messages on one subject or project

Easy to distribute to multiple recipients


May hit “send” prematurelyMay be overlooked or deleted without being read

“Reply to all” error

“Forward” error

Large attachments may cause the e-mail to be caught in recipient’s spam filter

Normally a response is expected within 24 hours, although norms vary by situation and organizational culture You need to communicate but time is not the most important considerationYou need to send attachments (provided their file size is not too big)
Channel Strengths Weaknesses Expectations When to choose
Fax FastProvides documentation Receiving issues (e.g., the receiving machine may be out of paper or toner)Long distance telephone charges apply

Transitional telephone-based technology losing popularity to online information exchange

Normally, a long (multiple page) fax is not expected You want to send a document whose format must remain intact as presented, such as a medical prescription or a signed work orderAllows use of letterhead to represent your company
Channel Strengths Weaknesses Expectations When to choose
Memo Official but less formal than a letterClearly shows who sent it, when, and to whom Memos sent through e-mails can get deleted without reviewAttachments can get removed by spam filters Normally used internally in an organization to communicate directives from management on policy and procedure, or documentation You need to communicate a general message within your organization
Channel Strengths Weaknesses Expectations When to choose
Letter FormalLetterhead represents your company and adds credibility May get filed or thrown away unreadCost and time involved in printing, stuffing, sealing, affixing postage, and travel through the postal system Specific formats associated with specific purposes You need to inform, persuade, deliver bad news or negative message, and document the communication
Channel Strengths Weaknesses Expectations When to choose
Report Can require significant time for preparation and production Requires extensive research and documentation Specific formats for specific purposes You need to document the relationship(s) between large amounts of data to inform an internal or external audience
Channel Strengths Weaknesses Expectations When to choose
Proposal Can require significant time for preparation and production Requires extensive research and documentation Specific formats for specific purposes You need to persuade an audience with complex arguments and data

By choosing the correct channel for a message, you can save yourself many headaches and increase the likelihood that your writing will be read, understood, and acted upon in the manner you intended.

In terms of writing preparation, you should review any electronic communication before you send it. Spelling and grammatical errors will negatively impact your credibility. With written documents, we often take time and care to get it right the first time, but the speed of instant messaging, text messaging, or emailing often deletes this important review cycle of written works. Just because the document you prepare in a text message is only one sentence long doesn’t mean it can’t be misunderstood or expose you to liability. Take time when preparing your written messages, regardless of their intended presentation, and review your work before you click “send.”


This chapter is an adaptation of Chapter 5.2 “Think, then write: Writing preparation” in Business Communication for Success and is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license.


2.6 Audience types

Identifying your primary, secondary, and hidden audiences

Your audience is the person or people you want to communicate with. By knowing more about them (their wants, needs, values, etc.), you are able to better craft your message so that they will receive it the way you intended.

Your success as a communicator partly depends on how well you can tailor your message to your audience.

Your primary audience is your intended audience; it is the person or people you have in mind when you decide to communicate something. However, when analyzing your audience you must also beware of your secondary audience. These are other people you could reasonably expect to come in contact with your message. For example, you might send an email to a customer, who, in this case, is your primary audience, and copy (cc:) your boss, who would be your secondary audience. Beyond these two audiences, you also have to consider your hidden audience, which are people who you may not have intended to come in contact with your audience (or message) at all, such as a colleague who gets a forwarded copy of your email.


This chapter is an adaptation of Part 1: Foundations in the Professional Communications OER by the Olds College OER Development Team and is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license. You can download this book for free at


2.7 Audience demographics

There are social and economic characteristics that can influence how someone behaves as an individual. Standard demographic variables include a person’s age, gender, family status, education, occupation, income, and ethnicity. Each of these variables or characteristics can provide clues about how a person might respond to a message.

For example, people of different ages consume (use) media and social media differently. According to the Pew Research Center (2018), 81% of people aged 18-29 use Facebook, 64% use Instagram, and 40% use Twitter. In contrast, 65% of people aged 50-64 use Facebook, 21% use Instagram, and 19% use Twitter (Pew Research Center, 2018). If I were trying to market my product to those aged 50-64, I would likely reach a larger audience (and potentially make more sales) if I used targeted ads on Facebook rather than recruiting brand ambassadors on Instagram. Knowing the age (or ages) of your audience(s) can help inform what channels you use to send your message. It can also help you determine the best way to structure and tailor your message to meet specific audience characteristics.


Pew Research Center. (2018). Social media fact sheet. Retrieved from


This chapter contains material taken from Chapter 4.5 “Audience segments: Demographics” in Information Strategies for Communicators by K. Hansen and N. Paul and is used under CC-BY 4.0 International license.


2.8 Audience geographics

We all understand geographically defined political jurisdictions such as cities, provinces, and territories. You can also geographically segment audiences into rural, urban, suburban, and edge communities (the office parks that have sprung up on the outskirts of many urban communities). These geographic categories help define rifts between regions on issues such as transportation, education, taxes, housing, land use, and more. These are important geographic audience categories for politicians, marketers, and businesses. For example, local retail advertisers want to reach audiences who are in the reading or listening range of the local newspaper or radio station and within traveling distance of their stores. Therefore, it’s important to consider the geographic characteristics of your audience when crafting business messages.


This chapter is an adaptation of Chapter 4.6 “Audience segments: Geographics” in Information Strategies for Communicators by K. Hansen and N. Paul and is used under CC-BY 4.0 International license.


2.9 Audience psychographics

Psychographics refer to all the psychological variables that combine to form a person’s inner self. Even if two people share the same demographic or geographic characteristics, they may still hold entirely different ideas and values that define them personally and socially. Some of these differences are explained by looking at the psychographic characteristics that define them.  Psychographic variables include:

Motives – an internal force that stimulates someone to behave in a particular manner. A person has media consumption motives and buying motives. A motive for watching television may be to escape; a motive for choosing to watch a situation comedy rather than a police drama may be the audience member’s need to laugh rather than feel suspense and anxiety.

Attitudes – a learned predisposition, a feeling held toward an object, person, or idea that leads to a particular behaviour. Attitudes are enduring; they are positive or negative, affecting likes and dislikes. A strong positive attitude can make someone very loyal to a brand (one person is committed to the Mazda brand so they will only consider Mazda models when it is time to buy a new car). A strong negative attitude can turn an audience member away from a message or product (someone disagrees with the political slant of Fox News and decides to watch MSNBC instead).

Personalities – a collection of traits that make a person distinctive. Personalities influence how people look at the world, how they perceive and interpret what is happening around them, how they respond intellectually and emotionally, and how they form opinions and attitudes.

Lifestyles – these factors form the mainstay of psychographic research. Lifestyle research studies the way people allocate time, energy and money.


This chapter is an adaptation of Chapter 4.7 “Audience segments: Psychographics” in Information Strategies for Communicators by K. Hansen and N. Paul and is used under CC-BY 4.0 International license.


2.10 Adapting messages

Let’s say you’ve analyzed your audience until you know them better than you know yourself. What good is it? How do you use this information? How do you keep from writing something that will still be incomprehensible or useless to your readers?

The business of writing to your audience may have a lot to do with in-born talent, intuition, and even mystery. But there are some controls you can use to have a better chance to connect with your readers. The following “controls” mostly have to do with making information more understandable for your specific audience:

These are the kinds of “controls” that you can use to fine-tune your messages and make them as readily understandable as possible. In contrast, it’s the accumulation of lots of problems in these areas—even seemingly trivial ones—that add up to a document being difficult to read and understand.


This chapter is an adaptation of “Audience analysis” in the Online Technical Writing Textbook by D. McMurray and is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license.


Part 3: Writing


3.1 Writing style

Writing style is the manner in which a writer addresses the reader. It involves qualities of writing such as vocabulary and figures of speech, phrasing, rhythm, sentence structure, and paragraph length. Developing an appropriate business writing style will reflect well on you and increase your success in any career. Misspellings of individual words or grammatical errors involving misplacement or incorrect word choices in a sentence can create confusion, lose meaning, and have a negative impact on the reception of your document. Errors themselves are not inherently bad, but failure to recognize and fix them will reflect on you, your company, and limit your success. Self-correction is part of the writing process.

Informal and formal are two common styles that carry their own particular sets of expectations. Which style you use will depend on your audience and the purpose of the document.


Informal style is a casual style of writing. It differs from standard business English in that it often makes use of colourful expressions, slang, and regional phrases. As a result, it can be difficult to understand for an English learner or a person from a different region of the country. Sometimes colloquialism takes the form of a word difference; for example, the difference between a “Coke,” a “tonic,” a “pop,” and a “soda pop” primarily depends on where you live.

This type of writing uses colloquial language, such as the style of writing that is often used in texting:

ok fwiw i did my part n put it in where you asked but my ? is if the group does not participate do i still get credit for my part of what i did n also how much do we all have to do i mean i put in my opinion of the items in order do i also have to reply to the other team members or what? Thxs

While we may be able to grasp the meaning of the message and understand some of the abbreviations, this informal style is generally not appropriate in business communications. That said, colloquial writing may be permissible, and even preferable, in some limited business contexts. For example, a marketing letter describing a folksy product such as a wood stove or an old-fashioned popcorn popper might use a colloquial style to create a feeling of relaxing at home with loved ones. Still, it is important to consider how colloquial language will appear to the audience. Will the meaning of your chosen words be clear to a reader who is from a different part of the country? Will a folksy tone sound like you are “talking down” to your audience, assuming that they are not intelligent or educated enough to appreciate standard English? A final point to remember is that colloquial style is not an excuse for using expressions that are sexist, racist, profane, or otherwise offensive.


In business writing, often the appropriate style will have a degree of formality. Writers using a formal style tend to use a more sophisticated vocabulary—a greater variety of words, and more words with multiple syllables—not for the purpose of throwing big words around, but to enhance the formal mood of the document. They also tend to use more complex syntax, resulting in sentences that are longer and contain more subordinate clauses. That said, it’s still critically important to ensure the words you use are precise, relevant, and convey the appropriate and accurate meaning! This writing style may use the third person and may also avoid using contractions. However, this isn’t always the case.

So what is professional writing anyways?

If you answered “it depends,” you are correct.

Audiences have expectations and your job is to meet them. Some business audiences prefer a fairly formal tone. If you include contractions or use a style that is too casual, you may lose their interest and attention; you may also give them a negative impression of your level of expertise. However, if you are writing for an audience that expects informal language, you may lose their interest and attention by writing too formally; your writing may also come across as arrogant or pompous. It is not that one style is better than the other, but simply that styles of writing vary across a range of options. The skilled business writer will know their audience and will adapt the message to best facilitate communication. Choosing the right style can make a significant impact on how your writing is received.

If you use expressions that imply a relationship or a special awareness of information such as “you know,” or “as we discussed,” without explaining the necessary background, your writing may be seen as overly familiar, intimate, or even secretive. Trust is the foundation for all communication interactions and a careless word or phrase can impair trust.

If you want to use humour, think carefully about how your audience will interpret it. Humour is a fragile form of communication that requires an awareness of irony, of juxtaposition, or a shared sense of attitudes, beliefs, and values. Different people find humour in different situations, and what is funny to one person may be dull, or even hurtful, to someone else.


This chapter contains material taken from Chapter 4.4 “Style in written communication” and Chapter 6.2 “Writing style” in Business Communication for Success and is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license.


3.2 Plain language

While there was a time when many business documents were written in the third person to give them the impression of objectivity, this formal style was often passive and wordy. Today, it has given way to active, clear, concise writing, sometimes known as “plain English” (Bailey, 2008). Plain language style involves everyday words and expressions in a familiar group context and may include contractions. Why use a $100 word when a 25 cent one will do?

As business and industry increasingly trade across borders and languages, writing techniques that obscure meaning or impede understanding can cause serious problems. Efficient writing styles have become the norm.

No matter who your audience is, they will appreciate your ability to write using plain language. Here are five principles for writing in plain language:

Principle 1: Use active voice

To communicate professionally, you need to know when and how to use either active or passive voice. Although most contexts prefer the active voice, the passive voice may be the best choice in certain situations. Generally, though, passive voice tends to be awkward, vague, wordy, and a grammatical construct you should avoid in most cases.

Recognizing the active and passive voice

To use active voice, make the noun that performs the action the subject of the sentence and pair it directly with an action verb.

Read these two sentences:

Matt Damon left Harvard in the late 1980s to start his acting career.

Matt Damon’s acting career was started in the late 1980s when he left Harvard.

In the first sentence, left is an action verb that is paired with the subject, Matt Damon. If you ask yourself, “Who or what left?” the answer is Matt Damon. Neither of the other two nouns in the sentence—Harvard and career—“left” anything.

Now look at the second sentence. The action verb is started. If you ask yourself, “Who or what started something?” the answer, again, is Matt Damon. But in this sentence, the writer placed career—not Matt Damon—in the subject position. When the doer of the action is not the subject, the sentence is in passive voice. In passive voice constructions, the doer of the action usually follows the word by as the indirect object of a prepositional phrase, and the action verb is typically partnered with a version of the verb to be.

Writing in the active voice

Writing in active voice is easy once you understand the difference between active and passive voice. Make sure you always define who or what did what.

Using the passive voice

While using the active voice is preferred, sometimes passive voice is the best option. Consider the following acceptable uses of passive voice.

  • When you do not know who or what is responsible for the action:

Example: Our front-door lock was picked.

Rationale: If you do not know who picked the lock on your front door, you cannot say who did it. You could say a thief broke in, but that would be an assumption; you could, theoretically, find out that the lock was picked by a family member who had forgotten to take a key.

  • When you want to hide the person or thing responsible for the action, such as in a story:

Example: The basement was filled with a mysterious scraping sound.

Rationale: If you are writing a dramatic story, you might introduce a phenomenon without revealing the person or thing that caused it.

  • When the person or thing that performed the action is not important:

Example: The park was flooded all week.

Rationale: Although you would obviously know that the rainwater flooded the park, saying so would not be important.

  • When you do not want to place credit, responsibility, or blame:

Example: A mistake was made in the investigation that resulted in the wrong person being on trial.

Rationale: Even if you think you know who is responsible for a problem, you might not want to expose the person.

  • When you want to maintain the impression of objectivity:

Example: It was noted that only first-graders chose to eat the fruit.

Rationale: Research reports in certain academic disciplines attempt to remove the researcher from the results, to avoid saying, for example, “I noted that only first graders….”

  • When you want to avoid using a gendered construction, and pluralizing is not an option:

Example: If the password is forgotten by the user, a security question will be asked.

Rationale: This construction avoids the need for the cumbersome “his or her” (as in “the user forgets his or her password”).

Principle 2: Use common words instead of complex words

Inappropriate word choices will get in the way of your message. For this reason, use language that is accurate and appropriate for the writing situation. Omit jargon (technical words and phrases common to a specific profession or discipline) and slang (invented words and phrases specific to a certain group of people), unless your audience and purpose call for such language. Avoid using outdated words and phrases, such as “Dial the number.” Be straightforward in your writing rather than using euphemisms (gentler, but sometimes inaccurate, ways of saying something). Be clear about the level of formality each piece of writing needs, and adhere to that level.

Writing without jargon or slang

Jargon and slang both have their places. Using jargon is fine as long as you can safely assume your readers also know the jargon. For example, if you are a lawyer writing to others in the legal profession, using legal jargon is perfectly fine. On the other hand, if you are writing for people outside the legal profession, using legal jargon would most likely be confusing, and you should avoid it. Of course, lawyers must use legal jargon in papers they prepare for customers. However, those papers are designed to navigate within the legal system and may not be clear to readers outside of this demographic.

Principle 3: Use a positive tone when possible

Unless there is a specific reason not to, use positive language wherever you can. Positive language benefits your writing in two ways. First, it creates a positive tone, and your writing is more likely to be well-received. Second, it clarifies your meaning, as positive statements are more concise. Take a look at the following negatively worded sentences and then their positive counterparts, below.


Negative: Your car will not be ready for collection until Friday.
Positive: Your car will be ready for collection on Friday.

Negative: You did not complete the exam.
Positive: You will need to complete the exam.

Negative: Your holiday time is not approved until your manager clears it.
Positive: Your holiday time will be approved when your manager clears it.

Avoid using multiple negatives in one sentence, as this will make your sentence difficult to understand. When readers encounter more than one negative construct in a sentence, their brains have to do more cognitive work to decipher the meaning; multiple negatives can create convoluted sentences that bog the reader down.


Negative: A decision will not be made unless all board members agree.
Positive: A decision will be made when all board members agree.

Negative: The event cannot be scheduled without a venue.
Positive: The event can be scheduled when a venue has been booked.

Principle 4: Write for your reader

When you write for your readers and speak to an audience, you have to consider who they are and what they need to know. When readers know that you are concerned with their needs, they are more likely to be receptive to your message, and will be more likely to take the action you are asking them to and focus on important details.

Your message will mean more to your reader if they get the impression that it was written directly to them.

Organize your document to meet your readers’ needs

When you write, ask yourself, “Why would someone read this message?” Often, it is because the reader needs a question answered. What do they need to know to prepare for the upcoming meeting, for example, or what new company policies do they need to abide by? Think about the questions your readers will ask and then organize your document to answer them.

Principle 5: Keep words and sentences short (conciseness)

It is easy to let your sentences become cluttered with words that do not add value to your message. Improve cluttered sentences by eliminating repetitive ideas, removing repeated words, and editing to eliminate unnecessary words.

Eliminating repetitive ideas

Unless you are providing definitions on purpose, stating one idea twice in a single sentence is redundant.

Removing repeated words

As a general rule, you should try not to repeat a word within a sentence. Sometimes you simply need to choose a different word, but often you can actually remove repeated words.


Original: The student who won the cooking contest is a very talented and ambitious student.

Revision: The student who won the cooking contest is very talented and ambitious.

Rewording to eliminate unnecessary words

If a sentence has words that are not necessary to carry the meaning, those words are unneeded and can be removed.


Original: Andy has the ability to make the most fabulous twice-baked potatoes.

Revision: Andy makes the most fabulous twice-baked potatoes.

Original: For his part in the cooking class group project, Malik was responsible for making the mustard reduction sauce.

Revision: Malik made the mustard reduction sauce for his cooking class group project.

Avoid expletive pronouns (most of the time)

Many people create needlessly wordy sentences using expletive pronouns, which often take the form of “There is …” or “There are ….”

Pronouns (e.g., I, you, he, she, they, this, that, who, etc.) are words that we use to replace nouns (i.e., people, places, things), and there are many types of pronouns (e.g., personal, relative, demonstrative, etc.). However, expletive pronouns are different from other pronouns because unlike most pronouns, they do not stand for a person, thing, or place; they are called expletives because they have no “value.” Sometimes you will see expletive pronouns at the beginning of a sentence, sometimes at the end.


There are a lot of reading assignments in this class.

I can’t believe how many reading assignments there are!

Note: These two examples are not necessarily bad examples of using expletive pronouns. They are included to help you first understand what expletive pronouns are so you can recognize them.

The main reason you should generally avoid writing with expletive pronouns is that they often cause us to use more words in the rest of the sentence than we have to. Also, the empty words at the beginning tend to shift the more important subject matter toward the end of the sentence. The above sentences are not that bad, but at least they are simple enough to help you understand what expletive pronouns are. Here are some more examples of expletive pronouns, along with better alternatives.


Original: There are some people who love to cause trouble.

Revision: Some people love to cause trouble.

Original: There are some things that are just not worth waiting for.

Revision: Some things are just not worth waiting for.

Original: There is a person I know who can help you fix your computer.

Revision: I know a person who can help you fix your computer.

While not all instances of expletive pronouns are bad, writing sentences with expletives seems to be habit forming. It can lead to trouble when you are explaining more complex ideas, because you end up having to use additional strings of phrases to explain what you want your reader to understand. Wordy sentences, such as those with expletive pronouns, can tax the reader’s mind.


Original: There is a button you need to press that is red and says STOP.

Revision: You need to press the red STOP button. Or: Press the red STOP button.

When you find yourself using expletives, always ask yourself if omitting and rewriting would give your reader a clearer, more direct, less wordy sentence. Can I communicate the same message using fewer words without taking away from the meaning I want to convey or the tone I want to create?

Choose specific wording

You will give clearer information if you write with specific rather than general words. Evoke senses of taste, smell, hearing, sight, and touch with your word choices. For example, you could say, “My shoe feels odd.” But this statement does not give a sense of why your shoe feels odd, since “odd” is an abstract word that does not suggest any physical characteristics. Or you could say, “My shoe feels wet.” This statement gives you a sense of how your shoe feels to the touch. It also gives a sense of how your shoe might look as well as how it might smell, painting a picture for your readers. See the table below to compare general and specific words.


Bailey, E. P. (2008). Plain English at work: A guide to business writing and speaking. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.


This chapter contains material taken from Part 1 “Foundations” in the Professional Communications OER by the Olds College OER Development Team (used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license) and Chapter 6.2 “Writing style” in Business Communication for Success (used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license). You can download Professional Communications OER for free at


Part 4: Message types


4.1 Memos

A memo (or memorandum, meaning “reminder”) is normally used for communicating policies, procedures, or related official business within an organization. It is often written from a one-to-all perspective (like mass communication), broadcasting a message to an audience, rather than a one-on-one, interpersonal communication. It may also be used to update a team on activities for a given project or to inform a specific group within a company of an event, action, or observance.

Memo purpose

A memo’s purpose is often to inform and represent the business or organization’s interests, but it occasionally includes an element of persuasion or a call to action. All organizations have informal and formal communication networks. The unofficial, informal communication network within an organization is often called the grapevine, and it is often characterized by rumour, gossip, and innuendo. On the grapevine, one person may hear that someone else is going to be laid off and start passing the news around. Rumours change and transform as they are passed from person to person, and before you know it, the word is that they are shutting down your entire department.

One effective way to address informal, unofficial speculation is to spell out clearly for all employees what is going on with a particular issue. If budget cuts are a concern, then it may be wise to send a memo explaining the changes that are imminent. If a company wants employees to take action, they may also issue a memorandum.

Memo format

A memo has a header with guide words that clearly indicate who sent the memo, who the intended recipients are, the date of the memo, and a descriptive subject line. The content of each guide word field aligns. The message then follows the header, and it typically includes a declaration (introduction), a discussion, and a summary.

Figure 4.1.1 shows a sample memo.

To: All employees From: Larry Ogawa, IT Manager, The Widget Research Company Date: June 15, 2018 Subject: New photocopier installations – July 5 On July 5, new photocopiers will be installed in the photocopier room on each floor. The installation will take place from 8:30 – 11:30 a.m. During this time, printing, scanning, and photocopying will not be available. The old photocopiers will be disconnected from the network on the morning of July 5. Technicians will be on-site to simultaneously install the new machines on every floor in order to minimize printing downtime. The new photocopiers have all of the same functionality as the ones they are replacing but will be faster and quieter. Training sessions will be organized so all employees can learn how to use the new machines. More details about these training sessions will be shared by the end of this month. Please direct any questions or concerns to me.

Figure 4.1.1. A sample memo (Melissa Ashman, 2018, CC-BY-NC 4.0 international license)

Five tips for effective business memos

1. Audience orientation

Always consider the audience and their needs when preparing a memo (or any message for that matter). An acronym or abbreviation that is known to management may not be known by all the employees of the organization, and if the memo is to be posted and distributed within the organization, the goal is to be clear and concise communication at all levels with no ambiguity.

2. Professional tone

Memos are often announcements, and the person sending the memo speaks for a part or all of the organization. Use a professional tone at all times.

3. Subject emphasis

The topic of the memo is normally declared in the subject line, and it should be clear, concise, and descriptive. If the memo is announcing the observance of a holiday, for example, the specific holiday should be named in the subject line—for example, use “Thanksgiving weekend schedule” rather than “holiday observance.”

4. Direct format

Some written business communication allows for a choice between direct and indirect formats, but memorandums are almost always direct. The purpose is clearly announced immediately and up-front, and the explanation or supporting information then follows.

5. Maintain objectivity

Memos should have an objective tone without personal bias, preference, or interest on display. Avoid subjectivity.


This chapter contains material taken from Chapter 9.2 “Memorandums and letters” in Business Communication for Success and is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license.


4.2 Letters

Letters are brief messages sent to recipients that are often outside the organization (Bovee & Thill, 2010). They are often printed on letterhead paper and represent the business or organization in one or two pages. Shorter messages may include e-mails or memos, either hard copy or electronic, while reports tend to be three or more pages in length.

While e-mail and text messages may be used more frequently today, the business letter remains a common form of written communication. It can serve to introduce you to a potential employer, announce a product or service, or even serve to communicate feelings and emotions. We’ll examine the basic outline of a letter and then focus on specific products or writing assignments.

All business messages have expectations in terms of language and format. The audience or reader also may have their own idea of what constitutes a specific type of letter, and your organization may have its own format and requirements. There are many types of letters, and many adaptations in terms of form and content. In this chapter, we discuss the fifteen elements of a traditional block-style letter.

Letters may serve to introduce your skills and qualifications to prospective employers, deliver important or specific information, or serve as documentation of an event or decision. Regardless of the type of letter you need to write, it can contain up to fifteen elements in five areas. While you may not use all the elements in every case or context, they are listed in Table 4.2.1.

Table 4.2.1 Elements of a business letter

Content Guidelines
1. Return address This is your address where someone could send a reply. If your letter includes a letterhead with this information, either in the header (across the top of the page) or the footer (along the bottom of the page), you do not need to include it before the date.
2. Date The date should be placed at the top, right or left justified, five lines from the top of the page or letterhead logo.
3. Reference (Re:)  *optional Like a subject line in an e-mail, this is where you indicate what the letter is in reference to, the subject or purpose of the document.
4. Delivery
Sometimes you want to indicate on the letter itself how it was delivered. This can make it clear to a third party that the letter was delivered via a specific method, such as certified mail (a legal requirement for some types of documents).
5. Recipient note *optional This is where you can indicate if the letter is personal or confidential.
6. Salutation A common salutation may be “Dear Mr. (full name).” If you are unsure about titles (i.e., Mrs., Ms., Mr., Mx., Dr.), you may simply write the recipient’s name (e.g., “Dear Cameron Rai”) followed by a colon.A comma after the salutation is correct for personal letters, but a colon should be used in business.

The salutation “To whom it may concern” is appropriate for letters of recommendation or other letters that are intended to be read by any and all individuals. If this is not the case with your letter, but you are unsure of how to address your recipient, make every effort to find out to whom the letter should be specifically addressed. For many, there is no sweeter sound than that of their name, and to spell it incorrectly runs the risk of alienating the reader before your letter has even been read. Avoid the use of impersonal salutations like “Dear Prospective Customer,” as the lack of personalization can alienate a future client.

7. Introduction This is your opening paragraph, and may include an attention statement, a reference to the purpose of the document, or an introduction of the person or topic depending on the type of letter. An emphatic opening involves using the most significant or important element of the letter in the introduction. Readers tend to pay attention to openings, and it makes sense to outline the expectations for the reader up front. Just as you would preview your topic in a speech, the clear opening in your introductions establishes context and facilitates comprehension.
8. Body If you have a list of points, a series of facts, or a number of questions, they belong in the body of your letter. You may choose organizational devices to draw attention, such as a bullet list, or simply number them. Readers may skip over information in the body of your letter, so make sure you emphasize the key points clearly. This is your core content, where you can outline and support several key points. Brevity is important, but so is clear support for main point(s). Specific, meaningful information needs to be clear, concise, and accurate.
9. Conclusion An emphatic closing mirrors your introduction with the added element of tying the main points together, clearly demonstrating their relationship. The conclusion can serve to remind the reader, but should not introduce new information. A clear summary sentence will strengthen your writing and enhance your effectiveness. If your letter requests or implies action, the conclusion needs to make clear what you expect to happen. This paragraph reiterates the main points and their relationship to each other, reinforcing the main point or purpose.
10. Close “Sincerely” or “Cordially” are standard business closing statements. Closing statements are normally placed one or two lines under the conclusion and include a hanging comma, as in Sincerely,
11. Signature Five lines after the close, you should type your name (required) and, on the line below it, your title (optional).
12. Preparation line If the letter was prepared or typed by someone other than the signatory (you), then inclusion of initials is common, as in MJD or abc.
13. Enclosures (attachments) Just like an e-mail with an attachment, the letter sometimes has additional documents that are delivered with it. This line indicates what the reader can look for in terms of documents included with the letter, such as brochures, reports, or related business documents. Only include this line if you are in fact including additional documentation.
14. Courtesy copies or “CC” The abbreviation “CC” once stood for carbon copies but now refers to courtesy copies. Just like a “CC” option in an e-mail, it indicates the relevant parties that will also receive a copy of the document.
15. Logo and contact information A formal business letter normally includes a logo or contact information for the organization in the header (top of page) or footer (bottom of page).

A sample letter, illustrating the parts of the letter, is shown in Figure 4.2.1.

A sample business letter

Figure 4.2.1. A sample letter.


Bovee, C., & Thill, J. (2010). Business communication essentials: A skills-based approach to vital business English (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.


This chapter contains material taken from Chapter 9.2 “Memorandums and letters” in Business Communication for Success and is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license.


4.3 Emails

Email is typically quite familiar to most students and workers. While it may be used like text messaging, or synchronous chatting, and it can be delivered to a cell phone, email remains an asynchronous communication tool. In business, email has largely replaced print hard copy letters for external (outside the company) correspondence, as well as taking the place of memos for internal (within the company) communication (Guffey, 2008). Email can be very useful for messages that have slightly more content than a text message, but it is still best used for fairly brief messages.

Many businesses use automated e-mails to acknowledge communications from the public or to remind associates that periodic reports or payments are due. You may also be assigned to “populate” a form email in which standard paragraphs are used, but you choose from a menu of sentences to make the wording suitable for a particular transaction.

Emails may be informal in personal contexts, but business communication requires attention to detail, awareness that your email reflects you and your company, and a professional tone so that it may be forwarded to any third party if needed. Email often serves to exchange information within organizations. Although email may have an informal feel, remember that when used for business, it needs to convey professionalism and respect. Never write or send anything that you wouldn’t want read in public or in front of your company president or CEO.

Tips for effective business emails

  • Proper salutations should demonstrate respect and avoid mix-ups in case a message is accidentally sent to the wrong recipient. For example, use a salutation like “Dear Ms. X” (external) or “Hi Barry” (internal).
  • Subject lines should be clear, brief, and specific. This helps the recipient understand the essence of the message. For example, “Proposal attached” or “Your question of 10/25.”
  • Close with a signature. Identify yourself by creating a signature block that automatically contains your name and business contact information.
  • Avoid abbreviations. An email is not a text message, and the audience may not find your wit cause to them to ROTFLOL (roll on the floor laughing out loud).
  • Be brief. Omit unnecessary words.
  • Use a good format. Include line breaks between sentences or divide your message into brief paragraphs for ease of reading. A good email should get to the point and conclude in three small paragraphs or less.
  • Reread, revise, and review. Catch and correct spelling and grammar mistakes before you press “send.” It will take more time and effort to undo the problems caused by a hasty, poorly written email than to get it right the first time.
  • Reply promptly. Watch out for an emotional response—never reply in anger—but make a habit of replying to all emails within 24 hours, even if only to say that you will provide the requested information in 48 or 72 hours.
  • Use “Reply All” sparingly. Do not send your reply to everyone who received the initial email unless your message absolutely needs to be read by the entire group.
  • Avoid using all caps. Capital letters are used on the internet to communicate emphatic emotion or yelling and are considered rude.
  • Test links. If you include a link, test it to make sure it is complete.
  • Announce email attachments in your message.
  • Give feedback or follow up. If you don’t get a response in 24 hours, e-mail or call. Spam filters may have intercepted your message, so your recipient may never have received it.

Figure 4.3.1 provides an example of a business email.

A politely worded letter asking a company to keep its employees out of undesignated areas

Figure 4.3.1 Sample business email.


We create personal pages, post messages, and interact via mediated technologies as a normal part of our lives, but how we conduct ourselves can leave a lasting image, literally. The photograph you posted on your Instagram page may have been seen by your potential employer or that nasty remark in a Facebook post may come back to haunt you later. Several years ago, when the internet was a new phenomenon, Virginia Shea laid out a series of ground rules for communication online that continue to serve us today.

Virginia Shea’s rules of netiquette

  • Remember the human on the other side of the electronic communication.
  • Adhere to the same standards of behaviour online that you follow in real life.
  • Know where you are in cyberspace.
  • Respect other people’s time and bandwidth.
  • Share expert knowledge.
  • Keep flame wars under control.
  • Respect other people’s privacy.
  • Don’t abuse your power.
  • Be forgiving of other people’s mistakes (Shea, 1994).

Her rules speak for themselves and remind us that the golden rule (treat others as you would like to be treated) is relevant wherever there is human interaction. It is also important to remember to keep your public persona online as professional as possible and to familiarize yourself with the privacy settings of the social media platforms you use.


Guffey, M. (2008). Essentials of business communication (7th ed.). Mason, OH: Thomson/Wadsworth.

Shea, V. (1994). Netiquette. San Francisco, CA: Albion Books.


This chapter contains material taken from Chapter 9.1 “Text, email, and netiquette” in Business Communication for Success and is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license.


4.4 Proposals

An effective business proposal informs and persuades efficiently. It features many of the common elements of a report, but its emphasis on persuasion guides the overall presentation.

Let’s say you work in a health care setting. What types of products or services might be put out to bid? If your organization is going to expand and needs to construct a new wing, it will probably be put out to bid. Everything from office furniture to bedpans could potentially be put out to bid, specifying a quantity, quality, and time of delivery required. Janitorial services may also be bid on each year, as well as food services, and even maintenance. Using the power of bidding to lower contract costs for goods and services is common practice.

In order to be successful in business and industry, you should be familiar with the business proposal. Much like a report, with several common elements and persuasive speech, a business proposal makes the case for your product or service. Business proposals are documents designed to make a persuasive appeal to the audience to achieve a defined outcome, often proposing a solution to a problem.

Common proposal elements


Effective business proposals are built around a great idea or solution. While you may be able to present your normal product, service, or solution in an interesting way, you want your document and its solution to stand out against the background of competing proposals. What makes your idea different or unique? How can you better meet the needs of the company that other vendors? What makes you so special? If the purchase decision is made solely on price, it may leave you little room to underscore the value of service, but the sale follow-through has value. For example, don’t consider just the cost of the unit but also its maintenance. How can maintenance be a part of your solution, distinct from the rest? In addition, your proposal may focus on a common product where you can anticipate several vendors at similar prices. How can you differentiate yourself from the rest by underscoring long-term relationships, demonstrated ability to deliver, or the ability to anticipate the company’s needs? Business proposals need to have an attractive idea or solution in order to be effective.

Traditional categories

You can be creative in many aspects of the business proposal, but it can be advantageous to follow the traditional sections (using descriptive or functional headings appropriate to your proposal). Businesses expect to see information in a specific order, much like a resume or even a letter. Each aspect of your proposal has its place, so be sure to use sections effectively to highlight your product or service. Every section is an opportunity to sell, and should reinforce your credibility, your passion, and the reason why your solution is simply the best. These sections are described in Table 4.4.1.

Table 4.4.1 Typical sections in a proposal

Section Description
Cover page Title page with name, title, date, and specific reference to request for proposal if applicable.
Executive summary Like an abstract in a report, this is a comprehensive summary of the product or service and how it meets the requirements and exceeds expectations.
Background Discuss the history of your product, service, and/or company and consider focusing on the relationship between you and the reader and/or similar companies. What is the business need or problem that you and/or your company can solve? What makes you and/or your company the best choice to solve this problem or provide the product or service?
Proposal The idea. Who, what, where, when, why, and how. Make it clear and concise. Don’t waste words, and don’t exaggerate. Use clear, well-supported reasoning to demonstrate your product or service.
Benefits How will the reader benefit from the product or service? Be clear, concise, specific, and provide a comprehensive list of immediate, short, and long-term benefits to the company. What currently exists in the marketplace, including competing products or services, and how does your solution compare?
Timeline A clear presentation, often with visual aids, of the process, from start to finish, with specific, dated benchmarks noted.
Finance What are the initial costs, when can revenue be anticipated, when will there be a return on investment (if applicable)? What are the monetary costs, staffing costs, and other costs? The proposal may involve a one-time fixed cost, but the product or service could be delivered more than once so an extended financial plan noting costs across time is required. What are potential revenues (if applicable)?
Conclusion Restate your main points clearly. Tie them together with a common theme and make your proposal memorable and professional.

Professional tone and format

A professional document is a base requirement. If it is less than professional, you can count on its prompt dismissal. There should be no errors in spelling or grammar, and all information should be concise, accurate, and clearly referenced when appropriate. Information that pertains to credibility should be easy to find and clearly relevant, including contact information. If the document exists in a hard copy form, it should be printed on a letterhead. If the document is submitted in an electronic form, it should be in a file format that presents your document as you intended. Word processing files may have their formatting changed or adjusted based on factors you cannot control—like screen size—and information can shift out of place, making it difficult to understand. In this case, a portable document format (PDF)—a format for electronic documents—may be used to preserve content location and avoid any inadvertent format changes when it is displayed.

Effective, persuasive proposals are often brief. Clear and concise proposals serve the audience well and limit the range of information to prevent confusion.

Two types of business proposals


If you have been asked to submit a proposal, it is considered solicited. The solicitation may come in the form of a direct verbal or written request, but normally solicitations are indirect, open-bid to the public, and formally published for everyone to see. A request for proposal (RFP), request for quotation (RFQ), and invitation for bid (IFB) are common ways to solicit business proposals for business, industry, and the government.

RFPs typically specify the product or service, guidelines for submission, and evaluation criteria. RFQs emphasize cost, though service and maintenance may be part of the solicitation. IFBs are often job-specific in that they encompass a project that requires a timeline, labour, and materials. For example, if a local school district announces the construction of a new elementary school, they normally have the architect and engineering plans on file, but need a licensed contractor to build it.


Unsolicited proposals are the “cold calls” of business writing. They require a thorough understanding of the market, product, and/or service, and their presentation is typically general rather than customer-specific. They can, however, be tailored to specific businesses with time and effort, and the demonstrated knowledge of specific needs or requirement can transform an otherwise generic, brochure-like proposal into an effective sales message. Getting your tailored message to your target audience, however, is often a significant challenge if it has not been directly or indirectly solicited. Unsolicited proposals are often regarded as marketing materials, intended more to stimulate interest for a follow-up contact than make direct sales. A targeted proposal is typically your most effective approach.


This chapter contains material taken from Chapter 9.2 “Business proposal” in Business Communication for Success and is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license.


4.5 Reports

Reports are designed to record and convey information to the reader and can be used both internally and externally. Reports serve to document new information for specific audiences, goals, or functions. The type of report is often identified by its primary purpose, as in an accident report, a laboratory report, or a sales report. Reports are often analytical or involve the rational analysis of information. Sometimes they report the facts with no analysis at all. Other reports summarize past events, present current data, and forecast future trends. This section will introduce you to the basics of report writing.

Types of reports

Reports come in all sizes but are typically longer than a page and are somewhat shorter than a book. In this chapter, we’re focusing on short reports. The type of report depends on its function, and different industries have reports specific to them. For example, science researchers write lab reports, while incident reports are common in health-and-safety environments.

Reports vary by function, style, and tradition. Within your organization, you may need to address specific expectations. This section discusses reports in general terms, focusing on common elements and points of distinction. Reference to similar documents at your workplace may serve you well as you prepare your own report. As shown in Table 4.5.1, there are many types of reports.

Table 4.5.1 Types of reports

Report type


Progress report

Monitor and control production, sales, shipping, service, or related business process.

Recommendation report

Make recommendations to management and provide tools to solve problems or make decisions.

Summary report

Present summaries of the information available on a given subject.

Progress report

A progress report is used to give management an update on the status of a project. It is generated at timed intervals (for example, once a month) or on completion of key stages. It records accomplishments to date and identifies any challenges or concerns. It is usually written by the project lead and is one to two pages long.

When you write a progress report, begin by stating why you are writing the report:

Recommendation report

A recommendation report is used to help management make decisions. The goal of this report is to identify a solution to a problem or suggest a course of action. In it, the writer might suggest that a procedure be adopted or rejected, assess an unsatisfactory situation, or persuade decision makers to make a change that will benefit the organization. For example, the report might suggest ways to enhance the quality of a product, increase profit, reduce cost, or improve workplace conditions. The intention of a recommendation report is not to assign blame or be overly critical, but to suggest improvements in a positive manner.

Summary report

A summary report is used to give management information. For example, if you work in the marketing department, your boss might ask you to find out about your competitors’ online activities so that your company can effectively compete with them. To do this, you would research your competitors’ websites, social media profiles, digital advertising campaigns, and so on. You would then distill what you find down to the key points so that your boss can get the essential information in a short time, and then decide how to act on it. Unlike the recommendation report, the summary report focuses on the facts, leaving it to management to decide on a course of action.

Report organization

Reports vary by size, format, and function. You need to be flexible and adjust your report to the needs of the audience. Reports are typically organized around six key elements:

Pay attention to these essential elements when you consider your stakeholders. That may include the person(s) the report is about, whom it is for, and the larger audience of the organization. Ask yourself who the key decision makers are, who the experts will be, and how your words and images may be interpreted. While there is no universal format for a report, there is a common order to the information. Each element supports the main purpose or function, playing an important role in the transmission of information. Some common elements in a report are shown in Table 4.5.2.

Table 4.5.2 Parts of a report



Title page

Report title; date of submission; name, title, and organization of the person who prepared the report; name, title, and organization of the person receiving the report.

No page number.

Table of contents

A list of the sections in the report and their respective page numbers.

All headings/sub-headings in the report should be listed on this page.

This page is not labelled with a page number.

Executive summary

Summarize the topic, methods, data/evidence, results, and conclusions/recommendations.

On its own page.

Labelled as page iii.


Introduces the topic of the report, states the purpose of the report, and previews the structure of the report.

Begins on a new page.

Labelled as page 1.


Key elements of the report body may include the background, methods, results, and analysis or discussion.

Uses descriptive or functional headings and sub-headings (is not labelled “Body”).

Pagination continues from the introduction.

Conclusion and/or recommendations

Concise presentation of findings and/or recommendations. Indicate the main results and their relation to the recommended action(s) or outcome(s).

Pagination continues from the body of the report.


A list of all references used in the report.

All in-text citations included in the report should have an accompanying entry in the reference list.

Begins on a new page.

Pagination continues from the conclusions and/or recommendations.

Appendix or appendices

Related supporting materials.

All materials in the appendix (or appendices) must be referred to in the body of the report.

Only one item per appendix.

Each appendix begins on a new page, is labelled as Appendix A, B, C, etc, and is given a title.

Pagination continues from the reference list.

Here is a checklist for ensuring that a report fulfills its goals:

Formatting a report

Make it easier for your reader to understand the information in your report by formatting your document cleanly. Here are a few guidelines:


This chapter contains material taken from Part 2 “Writing” in Professional Communications OER by the Olds College OER Development Team and is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license. You can download this book for free at


4.6 Persuasive appeals

Once you know who your intended audience is and what your purpose is for writing, you can make specific decisions about how to shape your message. No matter what, you want your audience to stick around long enough to read your whole piece. How do you manage this magic trick? Easy. You appeal to them. You get to know what sparks their interest, what makes them curious, and what makes them feel understood. The one and only Aristotle provided us with three ways to appeal to an audience, and they’re called logos, pathos, and ethos. You’ll learn more about each appeal in the discussion below, but the relationship between these three appeals is also often called the rhetorical triangle as shown in Figure 4.6.1.

Ethos, which is ethics and credibility; pathos, which is emotion; and logos, which is logic and reason, are the three points in the rhetorical triangle.
Figure 4.6.1. The rhetorical triangle


Latin for emotion, pathos is the fastest way to get your audience’s attention. People tend to have emotional responses before their brains kick in and tell them to knock it off. Be careful though. Too much pathos can make your audience feel emotionally manipulated or angry because they’re also looking for the facts to support whatever emotional claims you might be making so they know they can trust you.


Latin for logic, logos is where those facts come in. Your audience will question the validity of your claims; the opinions you share in your writing need to be supported using science, statistics, expert perspective, and other types of logic. However, if you only rely on logos, your writing might become dry and boring, so even this should be balanced with other appeals.


Latin for ethics, ethos is what you do to prove to your audience that you can be trusted, that you are a credible source of information. (See logos.) It’s also what you do to assure them that they are good people who want to do the right thing. This is especially important when writing an argument to an audience who disagrees with you. It’s much easier to encourage a disagreeable audience to listen to your point of view if you have convinced them that you respect their opinion and that you have established credibility through the use of logos and pathos, which show that you know the topic on an intellectual and personal level.


Regardless of what appeals you use in your writing, it is important to be aware of fallacies (errors in reasoning) because they can reduce the impact of your message on your reader. For more information on common fallacies, refer to these resources available from the Writing Commons:


This chapter contains material taken from “Appealing to your audience” in The Word on College Reading and Writing by M. Babin, C. Burnell, S. Pesznecker, N. Rosevear, and J. Wood and is used under a CC-BY-NC 4.0 International license.


4.7 Persuasive messages

In general, appeals to emotion pique curiosity and get our attention, but some attention to reason and facts should also be included. That doesn’t mean we need to spell out the technical manual on the product on the opening sale message, but basic information about design or features, in specific, concrete ways can help an audience make sense of your message and the product or service. Avoid using too many abstract terms or references, as not everyone will understand these. You want your persuasive message to do the work, not the audience.

Typical format of a persuasive message

The four parts of a persuasive message are shown in Table 4.7.1.

Table 4.7.1. Four parts of a persuasive message

Part Description
Attention statement (or hook) Use humour, novelty, surprise, an unusual fact, or a question to get the attention of your audience.
Introduction Build interest by appealing to your audience’s needs and wants and include a purpose statement to set up expectations.
Explanation Establish credibility and build your relationship with your audience, discuss attractive features, and compare with competitors addressing concerns or potential questions before they are even considered.
Call to action Sum it up and offer solution steps or calls to action, motivating your audience to take the next step. The smaller the step, the more likely your audience will comply. Set up your audience for an effective closing. It should be clear what your audience should do, by when, and how.

Your persuasive message will compete with hundreds of other messages your audience receives and you want it to stand out (Price, 2005). One effective way to do that is to make sure your attention statement (or hook) and introduction clearly state how your audience will benefit. For example:

  • Will the product or service save time or money?
  • Will it make them look good?
  • Will it entertain them?
  • Will it satisfy them?

Regardless of the product or service, the audience is going to consider first what is in it for them. A benefit is what the audience gains by doing what you’re asking them to do and this is central to your persuasive message. They may gain social status, popularity, or even reduce or eliminate something they don’t want. Your persuasive message should clearly communicate the benefits of your product or service (Winston & Granat, 1997).

Strategies for persuasive messages

Your product or service may sell itself, but you may want to consider using some strategies to help ensure your success:

  1. Start with your greatest benefit. Use it in the headline, subject line, caption, or attention statement. Audiences tend to remember the information from the beginning and end of a message, but have less recall about the middle points. Make your first step count by highlighting the best feature first.
  2. Take baby steps. Promote, inform, and persuade on one product or service at a time. You want to hear “yes,” and if you confuse the audience with too much information, too many options, steps to consider, or related products or service, you are more likely to hear “no” as a defensive response as the audience tries not to make a mistake. Avoid confusion and keep it simple.
  3. Know your audience. The more background research you can do on your audience, the better you can anticipate their specific wants and needs and tailor your persuasive message to meet them.
  4. Lead with emotion, and follow with reason. Gain the audience’s attention with drama, humour, or novelty and follow with specific facts that establish your credibility, provide more information about the product or service, and lead to your call to action.

These four steps can help improve your persuasive messages. Invest your time in planning and preparation, and consider the audience’s needs as you prepare your messages. Figure 4.7.1 provides an example of a persuasive email message.

An image of a politely typed persuasive message

Figure 4.7.1 Sample persuasive email

In this message, the writer has combined emotion and reason and reinforced their credibility in order to create interest in their service, hopefully leading to a sale.



4.9 Resumes

A resume is a document that summarizes your education, skills, talents, employment history, and experiences in a clear and concise format for potential employers. The resume serves three distinct purposes that define its format, design, and presentation:

  1. To represent your relevant professional information in writing
  2. To demonstrate the relationship between your professional information and the problem or challenge the potential employer hopes to solve or address, often represented in the form of a job description or duties
  3. To get you an interview by clearly demonstrating you meet the minimum qualifications and have the professional background help the organization meet its goals

Regardless of the format, employers have expectations for your resume. They expect it to be clear, accurate, and up to date (Bennett, 2005). This document represents you in your absence, and you want it to do the best job possible. You don’t want to be represented by spelling or grammatical errors, as they may raise questions about your education and attention to detail. Someone reading your resume with errors will only wonder what kind of work you might produce that will poorly reflect on their company. There is going to be enough competition that you don’t want to provide an easy excuse to toss your resume at the start of the process. Do your best work the first time. Table 4.9.1 highlights some common types of resumes.

Table 4.9.1 Common types of resumes

Type Function Advantage Disadvantage
Chronological Chronological resumes (which list items in reverse time order) focus on work history. Demonstrates a consistent work history It may be difficult to highlight skills and experience.
Functional Functional resumes (also called competency-based resumes) focus on skills. Demonstrates skills that can clearly link to job functions or duties It is often associated with people who have gaps in their employment history.
Combination A combination resume lists your skills and experience first, then employment history and education. Highlights the skills you have that are relevant to the job and provides a reverse chronological work history Some employers prefer a reverse chronological order.
Scannable A scannable resume is specifically formatted to be read by a scanner and converted to digital information. Increasingly used to facilitate search and retrieval, and to reduce physical storage costs Scanners may not read the resume correctly.

Main parts of a resume

Resumes have several basic elements that employers look for, including your contact information, objective or goal, education and work experience, and so on. Each resume format may organize the information in distinct ways based on the overall design strategy, but all information should be clear, concise, and accurate (Simons & Curtis, 2004). The content in your resume should be carefully selected to present the best, most applicable qualifications for a particular employer (the company and position for which you are applying) or purpose (attending a career fair).

Contact information

This section is often located at the top of the document. The first element of the contact information is your name. You should use your full, legal name even if you go by your middle name or use a nickname. There will plenty of time later to clarify what you prefer to be called, but all your application documents, including those that relate to payroll, your social insurance number, background checks, transcripts, certificates, or degrees, should feature your legal name. Other necessary information includes your phone number and email address. For business purposes, do not use an unprofessional email address like ilovedogssooooomuch@….com or teddybears@….com. Create a new e-mail account if needed with an address suitable for professional use. If you have more than one phone number at which you can be reached, list the one you’re most likely or most easily able to answer. (Don’t make it confusing for an employer to guess which number at which to call you.)


This is one part of your resume that is relatively simple to customize for an individual application. Your objective should reflect the audience’s need to quickly understand how you will help the organization achieve its goals. An example of an objective is shown in Figure 4.9.1.

Figure 4.9.1 Sample objective statement on a resume


You should list your education in reverse chronological order, with your most recent education first. List the school, credential type (e.g., diploma, certificate, degree), and the full credential name. Don’t use abbreviations for your university/college or program. For example, if you’re completing a BBA-Accounting, spell it out in full (Bachelor of Business Administration in Accounting). If you went to a college or university that may not be known in the area where the organization is that you’re applying for a job, include the city and country alongside the name of the school. If you have some post-secondary education, you can include by this indicating you are in progress. In most circumstances, it is preferable to omit your high school education.

Work experience

List in reverse chronological order your employment history, including the positions, companies, locations, dates, duties, and skills demonstrated or acquired. You may choose to use active, descriptive sentences or bullet lists, but be consistent. Emphasize responsibilities that are relevant to the specific job for which you’re applying, but don’t let emphasis become exaggeration. This document represents you in your absence, and if information is false, at a minimum you could lose your job. Be specific, be precise, and quantify details whenever possible. For example, instead of saying “managed employees during the night shift,” you could quantify that statement by saying “supervised 8 employees during 9-hour overnight shifts.” Use the present tense to describe positions you currently hold and the past tense to describe positions you no longer hold.

Other relevant qualifications

If you have received awards or honours; given presentations; published papers or other materials; or have other qualifications of note and relevance to the position for which you’re applying, you can list these in an appropriately named section on your resume. Don’t include a list of your personal interests or hobbies. If you are wondering whether or not to include a piece of information, focus on the audience’s needs. Will they find this information valuable in making a decision about you as a candidate? Does it reveal something important about your skills, interests, and qualifications? Does it reveal something new about you that is not already revealed in your resume?


You may choose to include references at the end of your resume, though simply writing “references available upon request” is more common (and often more appropriate).

Additional resume strategies


You may also be tempted to extend your resume to more than one page, but don’t exceed that limit unless the additional page(s) will feature specific, relevant information that represents several years of work that directly relates to the position. The person reading your resume may be sifting through many applicants and will not spend time reading several extra pages if the content is not directly relevant.

Use key words

Just as there are common search terms and common words in relation to each position, job description, or description of duties, your resume should mirror these common terms when and where appropriate.

Follow directions

If a job description uses specific terms, refers to computer programs, skills, or previous experience, make sure you incorporate that language in your resume (assuming you have those skills or experience!). You know that when given a class assignment, you are expected to follow directions; similarly, the employer is looking for specific skills and experience. By mirroring the employer’s language and submitting your application documents in accord with their instructions, you convey a spirit of cooperation and an understanding of how to follow instructions.

Make it easy to read

You need to make sure your resume is easy to read. Use white space between sections. Use emphasis (such as bolding, italicizing, underlining, or all caps) consistently to draw attention to headings or things of note, but avoid using multiple types of emphasis at one. For example, don’t bold, underline, and italicize the heading for your work experience section. Choose an easy-to-read font that is typically used in business documents, such as Times New Roman, Arial, or Calibri. Avoid using less common font types, which may be difficult to read. A font size of 11 or 12 is easier to read for most people. Be consistent and purposeful in the visual design of your resume. Align bullet points consistently. Use the same types of bullet points in your resume. Align your resume content consistently. Remember that whomever will be reviewing resumes will likely be looking at many documents in a row and may be working quickly!

Sample resumes

A sample of a chronological resume is shown in Figure 4.9.2.
Sample Format for Chronological Resume

Figure 4.9.2 A sample of a chronological resume

Whereas the chronological resume focuses on employment history, a functional resume, as shown in Figure 4.9.3, highlights skills.

Sample Format for Functional Resume

Figure 4.9.3 A sample of a functional resume


Bennett, S. A. (2005). The elements of résumé style: Essential rules and eye-opening advice for writing résumés and cover letters that work. New York, NY: Amacon.

Simons, W., & Curtis, R. (2004). The Résumé.com guide to writing unbeatable résumés. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.


This chapter contains material taken from Chapter 9.5 “Resume” in Business Communication for Success (used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license) and “Preparing job application materials” in A Guide to Technical Communications: Strategies & Applications by L. Hall and L. Wahlin (used under a CC-BY-NC 4.0 International license).


4.10 Cover letters

Traditionally, the application letter or cover letter is a formal letter that accompanies your resume when you apply for a position. Its purpose is to support your resume, providing more specific details, and to explain in writing why you are a strong candidate for the specific position to which you are applying. It should not simply reiterate your resume; it’s an opportunity for you to make a case for your candidacy in complete sentences and phrases, which gives the reader a better sense of your “voice.”

It can be helpful to start by first thinking about the audience and purpose for the application letter. What information does your reader need to glean from your letter? At what point in the hiring process will they be reading it?

As you draft the letter, consider what you would want to say if you were sitting across the desk from your reader. It should be written in a formal, professional tone, but you still want it to flow like natural speech—this will make it easier for your reader to absorb the information quickly.

What to include

It can be helpful to think about writing your application letter in sections or “blocks.” This provides a basic structure for the letter; once you have an understanding of this foundation, you can customize, update, and personalize the letter for different applications and employers.

Introductory paragraph

Open your letter with a concise, functional, and personable introduction to you as a job candidate. This is your chance to establish the essential basics of your qualifications and to set the themes and tone for the rest of the letter.

Optionally, you might also take the opportunity at the beginning of the letter to express your interest in working for this particular company and/or your passion for and interest in the field—I am particularly interested in this position because… This sets a nice tone and shows that you are engaged and enthusiastic. It is also an opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge about the employer and what they do (developed through your research).

Education & academics paragraph(s)

The purpose of this paragraph is to paint a detailed picture of your training and credentials and how this is relevant to the position. Your opportunity in this paragraph is to explain the activities and knowledge you have gained and/or are developing that most matter for this position and employer. Carefully consider what the employer will value most about your educational experiences. If you have a lot of project experience or several key experiences that you want to highlight, this information may be written in multiple paragraphs.

This content should NOT be a laundry list of course titles. Instead, describe how your academics/training have shaped your understanding of the field you are entering and significant skills you are developing, but always tie it back to what the employer is looking for—stay focused on the information your audience needs and what they will care about.

Employment paragraph (if applicable)

It is important for employers to feel that they are hiring responsible, reliable people who know how to hold down a job. If you do have work experience in this field such as a previous internship, this is a perfect time to discuss that. If you have previous work experience, even if it’s not related to your field, this is your opportunity to describe the value of that experience—the value for you, but, more importantly, to your reader. Describe your previous work experience that shows your a good employee and explain how this is relevant to the position. Be specific about the company, the time frame, your responsibilities, and the outcomes/results. Focus on your relevant and transferable skills.

Other qualifications (if applicable)

Awards you’ve received; publications you’ve achieved; and your activities and involvement in things outside of your coursework and work experiences, such as student organizations, clubs, and volunteer work, are great pieces of information to include that show you are a well-rounded, motivated person with good time management skills. Personal, human connections are an important part of the job application process, and describing some of these activities and interests can help your reader start to feel a more personal connection. Describe your specific actions and involvement honestly, while still trying to connect to transferable skills and the keywords in the job posting.

Concluding Paragraph

As you conclude the letter, tie everything together, politely express interest in an interview, and end on a positive note. Don’t ask for the job here; you’re requesting–and not demanding–an interview.

Letter formatting

Your application letter should use formal letter formatting.

In today’s job market, where many applications are online, the letter might be delivered in a variety of different formats. For example, it might be a PDF file uploaded to an online application system or if might be simply sent in the body of an email. Make sure you submit your cover letter in the file format and way the job advertisement specifies.


This chapter is an adaptation of “Preparing job application materials” in A Guide to Technical Communications: Strategies & Applications L. Hall and L. Wahlin and is used under a CC-BY-NC 4.0 International license.


4.11 Bad news messages

A bad news message (or negative news message) delivers news that the audience does not want to hear, read, or receive. Delivering negative news is never easy. Whether you are informing someone they are being laid off or providing constructive criticism on their job performance, how you choose to deliver the message can influence its response (Bovee & Thill, 2010). Some people prefer their bad news to be direct and concise. Others may prefer a less direct approach. Regardless whether you determine a direct or indirect approach is warranted, your job is to deliver news that you anticipate will be unwelcome, unwanted, and possibly dismissed.

In this section we will examine several scenarios that can be communicated internally (within the organization) and externally (outside the organization), but recognize that the lines can be blurred as communication flows outside and through an organization or business. Internal and external communication environments often have a degree of overlap. The rumour of anticipated layoffs may surface in the local media, and you may be called upon to address the concern within the organization. In a similar way, a product that has failed internal quality control tests will require several more tests and improvements before it is ready for market, but if that information leaves the organization, it can hurt the business reputation, prospects for future contracts, and the company’s ability to secure financing.

Goals of bad news messages

Your ability to manage, clarify, and guide understanding is key to addressing challenges while maintaining trust and integrity with your employees, stakeholders, and the public.

There are seven goals to keep in mind when delivering negative news, in person or in written form:

  1. Be clear and concise to minimize the chances of confusion or back-and-forth communication.
  2. Help the receiver understand and accept the news.
  3. Maintain trust and respect for the business or organization and for the receiver.
  4. Avoid legal liability or erroneous admission of guilt or culpability.
  5. Maintain the relationship, even if a formal association is being terminated.
  6. Reduce the anxiety associated with the negative news to increase comprehension.
  7. Achieve the designated business outcome.


Let’s go through some scenarios. Let’s say you’re a supervisor and have been given the task of discussing repeated lateness with an employee called Brian. Brian has frequently been late for work, and the problem has grown worse over the last two weeks. The lateness is impairing not only Brian’s performance, but also that of the entire work team. Your manager has instructed you to put an end to it. The desired result is for Brian to stop being late and to improve his performance.

You can

  1. stop by Brian’s cubicle and simply say, “Get to work on time or you are out”
  2. invite Brian out to a nice lunch and let him have it
  3. write Brian a stern e-mail
  4. ask Brian to come to your office and discuss the behaviour with him in private

While there are many other ways you could choose to address the situation, let’s examine each of these four alternatives in light of the goals to keep in mind when presenting negative news.

Scenario 1

First, you could approach Brian in his work space and speak to him directly. Advantages to this approach include the ability to get right to the point right away. However, this approach could strain your supervisor-employee relationship as a result of the public display of criticism, Brian may not understand you, there is a lack of a formal discussion you can document, and there is a risk that your actions may not bring about the desired results.

The goals of delivering a negative message include the desire to be clear and concise in order to avoid having a back-and-forth conversation where you’re continually providing clarification. The approach described above does not provide the opportunity for discussion, feedback, or confirmation that Brian has clearly understood your concern. It fails to address the performance concern and it limits the correction to the lateness. Overall, it fails to demonstrate respect for all parties. The lack of tact apparent in the approach may reflect negatively on you as the supervisor and your supervisors or managers.

When you need to speak to an employee about a personnel concern, it is always best to do it in private. Give thought and concern to the conversation before it occurs, and make a list of points to cover with specific information, including grievances. Like any other speech, you may need to rehearse, particularly if this type of meeting is new to you. When it comes time to have the discussion, issue the warning, back it up in writing with documentation, and don’t give the impression that you might change your decision. Whether the issue at hand is a simple caution about tardiness or a more serious conversation, you need to be fair and respectful, even if the other person has been less than professional. Let’s examine the next alternative.

Scenario 2

Let’s say you invite Brian to lunch at a nice restaurant. There is linen on the table, silverware is present for more than the main course, and the water glasses have stems. The environment says “good job” in its uniqueness, presentation, and luxury. Your words will contradict this nonverbal message. The juxtaposition between the environment and the verbal message will cause tension and confusion, which will probably be an obstacle to the receiver’s ability to listen. If Brian doesn’t understand the message, and the message requires clarification, your approach has failed. The contrast between the restaurant setting and the negative message does not promote understanding and acceptance of the bad news or correction. Furthermore, it does not build trust in the relationship, as the restaurant invitation might be interpreted as a “trap” or a betrayal. Let’s examine yet another approach.

Scenario 3

You’ve written Brian a stern e-mail. You’ve included a list of all the recent dates when he was late and made several statements about the quality of his work. You’ve indicated he needs to improve, and stop being late, or else. But was your email harassment? Could it be considered beyond the scope of supervision and interpreted as mean or cruel? And do you even know if Brian has received it? If there was no reply, do you know whether it achieved its desired business outcome? A written message may certainly be part of the desired approach, but how it is presented and delivered is as important as what it says. Let’s examine our fourth approach to this scenario.

Scenario 4

You ask Brian to join you in a private conversation. You start the conversation with an expression of concern and an open-ended question: “Brian, I’ve been concerned about your work lately. Is everything all right?” As Brian answers, you may demonstrate that you are listening by nodding your head and possibly taking notes. You may learn that Brian has been having problems sleeping or that his living situation has changed. Or Brian may decline to share any issues, deny that anything is wrong, and ask why you are concerned. You may then state that you’ve observed the chronic lateness, name one or more specific mistakes you have found in his work, and end with a reiteration that you are concerned. This statement of concern may elicit more responses and open the conversation up into a dialogue where you come to understand the situation, Brian sees your concern, and the relationship is preserved. Alternatively, in case the conversation does not go well, you will still keep a positive attitude even as you document the meeting and give Brian a verbal warning.

Regardless of how well or poorly the conversation goes, if Brian tells other employees about it, they may take note of how you handled the situation, and it will contribute to their perception of you. It guides their expectations of how you operate and how to communicate with you, as this interaction is not only about you and Brian. You represent the company and its reputation, and your professional display of concern as you try to learn more sends a positive message. While the private, respectful meeting may not be the perfect solution, it is preferable to the other approaches we have considered.

One additional point to consider as you document this interaction is the need to present the warning in writing. You may elect to prepare a memo that outlines the information concerning Brian’s performance and lateness and have it ready should you want to present it. If the session goes well, and you have the discretion to make a judgment call, you may elect to give him another week to resolve the issue. Even if it goes well, you may want to present the memo, as it documents the interaction and serves as evidence of due process should Brian’s behaviour fail to change, eventually resulting in the need for termination.

This combined approach of a verbal and written message is increasingly the norm in business communication.

Delivering a bad news message

There are two approaches you can use to deliver a negative news message–the direct approach and the indirect approach. We’ll go through each of these in turn.

Direct approach

The direct approach is often used when the audience values brevity, the message needs to be concise, the message is very complex and might not be understood easily, the message is related to a known issue or problem (and bad news won’t be a surprise), or you’re terminating a business relationship.

As shown in Figure 4.11.1, the bad news is announced in the opening or introduction of the message.

Your request for vacation time from August 1-30 was not approved because it is over your vacation days entitlement of 10 days.

Please re-submit your request for vacation days (up to a maximum of 10) to HR as soon as possible.

Figure 4.11.1 An example of a bad news message delivered using the direct approach

Indirect approach

When the bad news may have a significant impact on the recipient or you don’t know them very well, you may prefer to use the indirect approach. Figure 4.11.2 shows an example of a bad news message delivered using this approach.

Thank you for submitting your request for 10 days of vacation (your maximum entitlement) in August.

Summer is traditionally a time when many employees are out of the office and demands on the servers are reduced. In order to minimize the disruption to staff throughout the company, the IT department will be rolling out a server replacement project during July and August. Because this project will need to be completed in a more compressed timeframe, no vacation requests in July and August are possible for staff in the IT department. As a result, your request for vacation during August has not been approved. However, you are welcome to take vacation before and/or after the project rolls out. In compensation, HR is providing IT staff with three extra days of paid vacation.


We look forward to receiving your revised vacation request soon.

Figure 4.11.2 An example of a bad news message delivered using the indirect approach

The indirect approach for delivering bad news has five main parts:

  1. Open with a buffer statement
  2. Explain the situation
  3. Break the bad news
  4. Redirect or provide alternatives
  5. End politely and forward-looking

We’ll go through each of these parts in detail.

Buffer statement

The first part of a negative news message, verbal or written, is a buffer statement. It provides neutral or positive information. It sets the tone and often serves as a cushion for the information to come. It is important that the buffer not be overly positive because this can be misleading or set up the reader to expect a positive news message instead.


Next, an explanation discusses why there is an issue. This may be relatively simple, quite complex, or uncomfortable. While an explanation is important, never admit or imply responsibility without written authorization from your company cleared by legal counsel. Try to avoid labeling the bad news, such as calling it inconvenient or disappointing, because this can assume the feelings of your reader and create a negative impression. The person receiving the message may not have felt badly about receiving the news until you pointed out that it was indeed inconvenient or disappointing.

Break the bad news

The third part of the negative news message involves the bad news itself, and the emphasis here is on clarity and accuracy. While you want to break the bad news clearly, try not to spotlight it.

Redirect or provide alternatives

The fourth part of a bad news message is the redirect, where you refocus attention on a solution strategy, possible alternatives, or the subsequent actions that will take place.

End politely and forward-looking

Last, you want to end your message politely and looking to the future. Don’t mention the bad news again!


Bovee, C., & Thill, J. (2010). Business communication essentials: A skills-based approach to vital business English (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.


This chapter contains material taken from Chapter 17.1 “Delivering a negative news message” in Business Communication for Success and is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license.


Part 5: Visual communication


5.1 Graphics

A picture is worth a thousand words, as the old saying goes. Sometimes, despite writing clearly and concisely, it can be helpful to your audience if you use supporting graphics–whether that be tables, illustrations, maps, photos, charts, or some other type of other visual aid.

Before getting into details on creating, formatting, and incorporating graphics, consider the types and their functions. You can use graphics to represent the following elements in your writing:

Documenting graphics

Just as you would cite and reference a paraphrase or a direct quote, so too must you cite and reference any graphics that you use that were created by someone else or that were based on someone else’s data. Indicate the source of any graphic or data you have borrowed. Whenever you borrow a graphic or data from some other source, document that fact in the figure title using an in-text citation. You should also include the reference information in the reference list.

Guidelines for using graphics

Use graphics whenever they would normally be necessary—don’t be scared because it seems like too much trouble!

Make sure your graphics are appropriate to your audience, subject matter, and purpose — don’t zap beginners with advanced, highly technical graphics they can’t understand.

Intersperse graphics and text on the same page. Place graphics as near to the point in the text where they are relevant as is reasonable, and don’t put them on pages by themselves or attach them to the end of documents. However, if a graphic does not fit properly on one page, put it at the top of the next, and continue with regular text on the preceding page. Don’t leave half a page blank just to keep a graphic near the text with which it is associated.

Always discuss graphics in nearby text preceding the graphic. Don’t just throw a graphic out there unexplained. Orient readers to the graphic and explain its basic meaning. Graphics are not there for decoration! They need to have a purpose and be introduced before the reader encounters them on the page. The first mention of a graphic is called a lead-in statement, and your graphics must always be introduced by a lead-in. Similarly, it is typically recommended to also use a lead-out statement after the graphic. This is a statement that connects the figure to the material that follows.

Use titles and labels for graphics.

Include identifying detail such as illustration labels, axis labels, keys, and so on.

Make sure graphics fit within normal margins—if they don’t, enlarge or reduce the copies. Leave at least 2 blank lines above and below graphics.


5.2 Drawings, diagrams, and photos

To depict objects, place, people, and relationships between them, you can use photos, drawings, diagrams, and schematics.

In the realm of illustrations and photographs, the types run from minimal detail to maximal. A simple line drawing of how to graft a fruit tree reduces the detail to simple lines representing the hands, the tools, the graft stock, and graft. Diagrams are a more abstract, schematic view of things, such as a wiring diagram of a clock radio (which hardly resembles the actual physical thing at all). And of course photographs provide the most detail of all. These graphics, supplying gradations of detail as they do, have their varying uses.

Formatting requirements

When you use an illustration in a report, there are several requirements to keep in mind.

Just about any illustration should contain labels words and phrases with pointers to the parts of the things being depicted.

If the illustration has certain shadings, colors, line styles, or other such details that have a special meaning in the illustration, these should be indicated in a key or legend in an unused corner of the illustration.

Ideally, you should place illustrations, diagrams, and photos just after the point where they are needed. However, sometimes because of the pagination (the way the text falls on the pages) and the size of the illustrations, diagrams, or photos, this close placement is not possible. In these instances, you can put the graphic at the top of the next page.

Again, ideally, you want illustrations, diagrams, and photos to be between one-half to one-quarter of the vertical size of the page. You should fit them on the page with other text. What you do not want is to append the graphic to the back of the report!

Make sure that your illustrations, diagrams, and photos fit neatly and comfortably within standard margins. You don’t want them spilling over into the right or left margins. You want to allow the equivalent of at least two blank lines above and below the graphic.

Illustrations, diagrams, and photos should have titles, and these titles should be numbered (Figure 1, Figure 2, and so on). The titles and figure labels should be placed below the graphic.

Illustrations, diagrams, and photos should be referred to from the relevant point in the discussion, and you should do more than just tossing in a “See Figure 2.”  Discuss the illustration to focus the reader’s attention on the key details of the graphic.

Just as you would cite and reference a paraphrase or a direct quote, so too must you cite and reference any illustrations, diagrams, and photos that you use that were created by someone else or that were based on someone else’s data. Indicate the source of any graphic or data you have borrowed. Whenever you borrow a graphic or data from some other source, document that fact in the figure title using an in-text citation. You should also include the reference information in the reference list.


This chapter is an adaptation of “Graphics” in the Online Technical Writing Textbook by D. McMurray and is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license.


5.3 Tables, charts, and graphs


Uses for tables

Tables are rows and columns of numbers and words (though mostly numbers). They permit rapid access to and relatively easy comparison of information. If the data is arranged chronologically (for example, sales figures over a ten-year period), the table can show trends—patterns of rising or falling activity. However, tables are not necessarily the most vivid or dramatic means of showing such trends or relationships between data—for that, you’d want to use a line graph, which is discussed in the next section.

The biggest use of tables is for numerical data. Imagine that you are comparing different models of laser printers in terms of physical characteristics such as height, depth, length, weight, and so on. This type of data is perfect for a table.

A special type of table is called a matrix. This is where instead of comparing numerical values in the rows and columns, you are comparing qualitative data (words). For example, imagine that you were comparing several models of a laser printer and you want to represent various information, such as cost, print speed, supply costs, and warranty terms, for each printer being considered. This is ideal information for a matrix, and it would be mostly words rather than numbers.

Formatting requirements

In its simplest form, a table is a group of rows and columns of data. At the top of each column is a column heading, which defines or identifies the contents of that column (and often it indicates the unit of measurement). On the left edge of the table are row headings, which define or identify the contents of that row. Things can get tricky when rows or columns must be grouped or subdivided. In such cases, you have to create row or column subheadings, as shown in Figure 5.3.1.

A sample table showing the placement of the title above the table.
Figure 5.3.1 Format for tables with grouped or subdivided rows and columns.

As you can see, the title and number for the table goes above the table. This is in contrast to other types of graphics where the title and number go below the graphic.

Guidelines for using tables

As with other types of graphics, you should refer to the table in the text just preceding the table. You should also explain the general significance of the data in the table; don’t expect readers to figure it out entirely for themselves.

Don’t overwhelm readers with monster 11-column, 30-row tables! Simplify the table data down to just that amount of data that illustrates your point—without of course distorting that data.

Don’t put the word or abbreviation for the unit of measurement in every cell of a column. For example, in a column of measurements all in millimeters, don’t put “mm” after every number. Put the abbreviation in parentheses in the column or row heading.

Right- or decimal-align numbers in the columns. If the 123 and 4 were in a column, the 4 would be right below the 3, not the 1.

Normally, words in columns are left-justified (although you will occasionally see columns of words all centered).

Column headings are centered over the columns of numerical data (forming a T-shape). When the table contains text rather than numbers, the column headings are left-aligned.

Just as you would cite and reference a paraphrase or a direct quote, so too must you cite and reference any tables that you use that were created by someone else or that were based on someone else’s data. Indicate the source of any graphic or data you have borrowed. Whenever you borrow a graphic or data from some other source, document that fact in the figure title using an in-text citation. You should also include the reference information in the reference list.

Charts and graphs

Uses of charts and graphs

Charts and graphs are just another way of presenting the same data that is presented in tables. At the same time, however, you get less detail or less precision in a chart or graph than you do in the table. Imagine the difference between a table of sales figures for a ten-year period and a line graph for that same data. You get a better sense of the overall trend in the graph but not the precise dollar amount. Other types of charts and graphs are horizontal bar charts, vertical bar charts, and pie charts.

Formatting requirements

In bar charts and line graphs, don’t forget to indicate what the x and y axes represent. One axis might indicate millions of dollars; the other, five-year segments from 1960 to the present.

Bar charts, line graphs, and pie charts often use special colour, shading, or line style (solid or dashed). Be sure to indicate what these mean; translate them in a key (a legend) in some unused place in the chart or graph.

Include a title and numbered label for your charts and graphs. Include the title and label below the graphic, as shown in Figure 5.3.2.

A sample vertical bar chart showing the lead-in and lead-out statements and placement of the graphic.
Figure 5.3.2 Example of a chart

As you can see, there is text above and below the chart that calls attention to the graphic and briefly indicates its significance.

Just as you would cite and reference a paraphrase or a direct quote, so too must you cite and reference any charts or graphs that you use that were created by someone else or that were based on someone else’s data. Indicate the source of any graphic or data you have borrowed. Whenever you borrow a graphic or data from some other source, document that fact in the figure title using an in-text citation. You should also include the reference information in the reference list.


This chapter is an adaptation of “Tables, Charts, Graphs” in the Online Technical Writing Textbook by D. McMurray and is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license.


5.4 Headings

Headings are the titles and subtitles you see within the actual text of much professional scientific, technical, and business writing. Headings are like the parts of an outline that have been pasted into the actual pages of the document.

Headings are an important feature of professional technical writing. They alert readers to upcoming topics and subtopics, help readers find their way around in long reports and skip what they are not interested in, and break up long stretches of straight text.

Headings are also useful for writers. They keep you organized and focused on the topic. When you begin using headings, your impulse may be to slap in the headings after you’ve written the rough draft. Instead, visualize the headings before you start the rough draft, and plug them in as you write.

General guidelines

Use headings to mark off the boundaries of the major sections and subsections of a report.

Make the phrasing of headings parallel.

Avoid “stacked” headings—any two consecutive headings without intervening text.

When possible, omit articles from the beginning of headings. For example, “The Pressurized Water Reactor” can easily be changed to “Pressurized Water Reactor” or, better yet, “Pressurized Water Reactors.”

Don’t use headings as lead-ins to lists or as figure titles.

Avoid “widowed” headings; that’s where a heading occurs at the bottom of a page and the text it introduces starts at the top of the next page. Keep at least two lines of body text with the heading, or force it to start the new page.

Format and style

The style and format for headings shown in this chapter is not the “right” or the “only” one; it is just one among many.

As illustrated in Figure 5.4.1, headings function like outline elements inserted into the text at those points where they apply

A sample document showing different levels of headings

Figure 5.4.1 Comparing document headings to an outline

When formatting your headings and subheadings, pay close attention to details such as vertical and horizontal spacing; capitalization; use of bold, italics, or underlining; and punctuation.

Headings occur within the body of a document. Don’t confuse headings with document titles. Although titles may look like first-level headings in smaller documents, think of them as separate things.

First-level headings are the highest level of headings in your document. Apply the same format or style to all first-level headings. This style should be different from that which is applied to second-level heading. All second-level headings should have the same style. Similarly, this style should be different from that which is applied to third-level headings (and all third-level headings should have the same style), and so on. There are different ways and styles you can use to differentiate various levels of headings. Use whatever styles are appropriate for the document and audience.


This chapter is an adaptation of “Headings” in the Online Technical Writing Textbook by D. McMurray and is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license.


5.5 Lists

Lists are useful because they emphasize selected information in regular text.

Lists can be horizontal, with the listed items included directly in the sentence/paragraph. Lists can be vertical, such as when you see a list of three or four items strung out vertically on the page rather than in normal paragraph format. Lists–particularly vertical lists–are noticeable and readers are likely to pay more attention to them. Certain types of lists also make for easier reading. For example, in instructions, it is a big help for each step to be numbered and separate from the preceding and following steps. Lists also create more white space and spread out the text so that pages don’t seem like solid walls of words.

Like headings, the various types of lists are an important feature of professional writing. They help readers understand, remember, and review key points. They help readers follow a sequence of actions or events. They also break up long stretches of straight text.

General guidelines

Use lists to highlight or emphasize text or to enumerate sequential items.

Use a lead-in to introduce the list items and to indicate the meaning or purpose of the list.

Make sure that each item in the list reads grammatically with the lead-in.

Make list items parallel in phrasing.

Avoid overusing lists because using too many lists destroys their effectiveness.

Bullet points are democratic, meaning each item in a bulleted list is of equal importance. This is in contrast to numbered lists where items may have different levels of importance, priority, or sequence. Use bulleted lists for items that are in no required order. Use numbered lists for items that are in a required order (such as step-by-step instructions) or for items that must be referred to by item number.

Horizontal lists

Use a colon to introduce the list items only if a complete sentence precedes the list. Omit the colon if the lead-in is not a complete sentence.

Incorrect: For this project, you need: tape, scissors, and white-out.

Correct: For this project, you need tape, scissors, and white-out.

Use both opening and closing parentheses on the list item numbers or letters: (a) item, (b) item, etc. (Don’t just use one parenthesis.) Use either regular numbers or lowercase letters within the parentheses, but use them consistently. (Do not punctuate either with periods.)

Use lowercase for the text of in-sentence lists items, except when regular capitalization rules require caps.

Punctuate the horizontal list items with commas if they are not complete sentences. Use semicolons if they are complete sentences.

Incorrect: Follow these instructions to get to the store from your home: (1) drive south for three blocks, (2) turn right, (3) drive west for 6 blocks, (4) turn left, (5) drive for half a block, (6) turn right into the parking lot.

Correct: Follow these instructions to get to the store from your home: (1) drive south for three blocks; (2) turn right; (3) drive west for 6 blocks; (4) turn left; (5) drive for half a block; (6) turn right into the parking lot.

Use the same spacing for horizontal lists as in regular non-list text.

Make the horizontal list occur at the end of the sentence. Never place a horizontal list introduced by a colon anywhere but at the end of the sentence!

Incorrect: The following items: tape, scissors, and white-out are needed for this project.

Correct: The following items are needed for this project: tape, scissors, and white-out.

Vertical lists

Introduce the list with a lead-in phrase or clause. Use a colon to introduce the list items only if the lead-in is a complete sentence. Omit the colon if the lead-in is an incomplete sentence.

Avoid using headings as lead-ins for lists.

Use consistent spacing, indentation, and punctuation.

When a separate notice or explanatory paragraph follows a item, indent that separate material to the text of the parent list item, as illustrated in Figure 5.5.1.

An example of a list showing how an additional note relating to one item in the list is indented to its parent.
Figure 5.5.1 Indented material that elaborates on the parent list item

Use the “hanging indent” format for list items two or more lines long.

Use sentence-style capitalization on list items.

Punctuate list items only if they are complete sentences that complete the sentence begun by the lead-in.

When possible, omit articles (a, an, the) from the beginning of non-sentence list items.

A word of caution

If your list contains more than 6-8 items, you might consider consolidating list items or re-formatting your list. Lists with too many items can be overwhelming and challenging to read.


This chapter contains material taken from “Bulleted and numbered lists” in Online Technical Writing Textbook by D. McMurray and is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license.


5.6 Emphasis

Emphasis, as the term is used here, is the use of typographical effects to call attention to text. These effects can include italics, bold, all-caps, quotation marks, color, and so on. Emphasis attracts the attention of the reader—or “cues” them—to actions they must take or to information they must consider carefully.

Practically any special textual effect that is different from regular body text can function as an emphasis technique. Things like italics, bold, underscores, caps, different size type, alternate fonts, colour, and more can act as emphasis techniques.

However, if emphasis techniques are used in excess, readers can become reluctant to read a text and may avoid it altogether because it is too busy or distracting. NOTICE HOW UNREADABLE THIS SENTENCE IS BECAUSE TOO MUCH EMPHASIS IS USED. When it comes to emphasis, there can be too much of a good thing! Emphasis techniques must be used strategically and consistently.


This chapter contains material taken from “Highlighting and emphasis” in the Online Technical Writing Textbook by D. McMurray and is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license.


Part 6: Polishing your message


6.1 Revising, editing, and proofreading

After you have written a draft of your message, you will need to make changes. While you may feel that you write best “under pressure” the night before your assignment is due or in the minutes before sending an email at work, writing a single draft at the last minute rarely results in anyone’s best work. You may feel that you’ve put a lot of effort into your first draft, so it can be challenging to think about changing your work or even eliminating words that you toiled over. However, it’s well worth the pain of revising, editing, and proofreading so you produce a polished piece of writing that others can easily understand.

To revise a piece of writing, it may help you to consider three approaches: look at the big picture, check your organization, and proofread your final draft.

Higher order concerns

Revising for higher order concerns means working on the organization of your ideas. You might insert sentences, words, or paragraphs; you might move them elsewhere in your document; or you might remove them entirely (Meyer, 2017).

When you revise at the “big picture” stage, you are looking at the most important aspects of the writing tasks, and the ones that require the most thought. Here’s a set of questions to help you revise for these higher order concerns:

Another way to edit for higher order concerns is to prepare a reverse outline using your draft. This technique is discussed in the next chapter.

Lower order concerns

Lower order concerns focus on editing and proofreading. When you edit, you work from your revised draft to systematically correct issues or errors in punctuation, grammar, spelling, and other things related to writing mechanics (Meyer, 2017). Proofreading is the last stage where you work from your almost-finished document to fix any issues or errors in formatting or typos you missed (Meyer, 2017). Here’s another way of distinguishing these two tasks. Editing is the act of making changes or indicating what to change; proofreading means checking to make sure those changes were made.

Perhaps you are the person who proofreads and edits as you write a draft, so when you are done drafting and revising for content and structure, you may not have that much editing or proofreading to do. Or maybe you are the person who pays no attention to grammar and spelling as you draft, saving all of the editing until you are finished writing. Either way, plan to carefully edit and proofread your work. For most people, proofreading on a printed copy is more effective than working entirely on screen.

Here are some additional strategies for editing and proofreading your work:


Meyer, C. (2017). Communicating for results: A Canadian student’s guide (4th ed.). Don Mills, Canada: Oxford University Press.


This chapter contains material taken from “Higher order versus lower order concerns” in The Word on College Reading and Writing by M. Babin, C. Burnell, S. Pesznecker, N. Rosevear, and J. Wood and is used under a CC-BY-NC 4.0 International license.


6.2 Reverse outlining

Often, outlining is recommended as an early component of the writing process as a way to organize and connect thoughts so the shape of what you are going to write is clear before you start drafting it. This is a tool many writers use that is probably already familiar to you.

Reverse outlining, though, is different in a few ways. First, it happens later in the process, after a draft is completed rather than before. Second, it gives you an opportunity to review and assess the ideas and connections that are actually present in the completed draft. This is almost an opposite approach from traditional outlining, which considers an initial set of ideas that might shift as the draft is written and new ideas are added or existing ones are moved, changed, or removed entirely. A reverse outline can help you improve the structure and organization of your already-written draft, letting you see where support is missing for a specific point or where ideas don’t quite connect on the page as clearly as you wanted them to.

How to create a reverse outline

  1. At the top of a fresh sheet of paper, write your primary purpose for the text you want to outline. This should be the purpose exactly as it appears in your draft, not the purpose you know you intended. If you can’t find the actual words, write down that you can’t find them in this draft of the message—it’s an important note to make!
  2. Draw a line down the middle of the page, creating two columns below your message purpose.
  3. Read, preferably out loud, the first body paragraph of your draft.
  4. In the left column, write the single main idea of that paragraph (again, this should be using only the words that are actually on the page, not the ones you want to be on the page). If you find more than one main idea in a paragraph, write down all of them. If you can’t find a main idea, write that down, too.
  5. In the right column, state how the main idea of that paragraph supports the purpose.
  6. Repeat steps 3-5 for each body paragraph of the draft.

Once you have completed these steps, you have a reverse outline! It might look a little something like the reverse outline shown in Figure 6.2.1.

An example of a reverse outline
Figure 6.2.1 An example of a reverse outline

Working with the results of your reverse outline

Now what? You’ve probably already made some observations while completing this. Do you notice places where you are repeating yourself in your message? Do you notice places where some of your paragraphs have too many points or don’t clearly support the purpose of the message?

There are a number of observations that can be made with the aid of a reverse outline, and a number of ways it can help you strengthen your messages.

If multiple paragraphs share the same idea

You might try combining them, paring back the information for that specific idea so it doesn’t feel imbalanced in how much space it takes up, and/or organizing these paragraphs about the same point so they are next to each other in the paper.

If any paragraphs have multiple main ideas

Each paragraph should have only one primary focus. If you notice a paragraph does have more than one main idea, you could look for where some of those ideas might be discussed in other paragraphs and move them into a paragraph already focusing on that point. You could also select just the one main idea you think is most important to this paragraph and cut the other points out. Another option would be to split that paragraph into multiple paragraphs and expand on each main idea.

If any paragraph lacks a clear main idea

If it was hard for you to find the main idea of a paragraph, it will also be hard for your reader to find. For paragraphs that don’t yet have a main idea, consider whether the information in that paragraph points to a main idea that just isn’t written on the page yet. If the information does all support one main idea, adding that idea to the paragraph might be all that is needed. Alternatively, you may find that some of the ideas fit into other paragraphs to support their ideas, or you may not need some of them in the next draft at all.

If any ideas don’t connect well to the purpose of the message

It should be clear how the main idea of each paragraph supports the purpose of the message. If that connection is not clear, ask yourself how the main idea of that paragraph does further your purpose and then write that response.

If there are gaps in reasoning

If a message starts out introducing something that is a problem in a community, then presents a solution to the problem, and then talks about why the problem is a problem, this organization is likely to confuse readers. Reorganizing to introduce the problem, discuss why it is a problem, and then move on to proposing a solution would do good work to help strengthen the next draft of this paper. If there are gaps in reasoning, you may need to move, revise, or add transition statements after moving paragraphs around.


This chapter contains material taken from “Reverse outlining” in The Word on College Reading and Writing by M. Babin, C. Burnell, S. Pesznecker, N. Rosevear, and J. Wood and is used under a CC-BY-NC 4.0 International license.


Part 7: Interpersonal communications


7.1 Myths and realities of public speaking

Speaking in public is not like killing lions

From an evolutionary biology perspective, our bodies have developed to respond to stress in advantageous ways. When we needed to run from a bear, hunt a lion, or avoid a snake, our bodies predictably got us prepared with a surge of adrenaline (Burnham & Phelan, 2000). Hunters who didn’t respond well to stress or failed at hunting were less likely to live long enough to reach maturity and reproduce. Thus, we have the successful hunter to thank for our genes.

We can create the perception that speaking in public is like defeating the lion and really get ourselves worked up. Or, we can choose to see it as a natural extension of communication with others. Speaking in public itself is not inherently stressful, but our response to the stimulus can contribute to or reduce our level of stress. We all will have a stress response to a new, unknown, or unfamiliar stimulus. Nevertheless, the butterflies in our stomach are a response we can choose to control by becoming more familiar with the expectations, preparation, and performance associated with speaking in public.

You don’t have to be perfect

Letting go of perfection can be the hardest guideline to apply to ourselves. It’s also in our nature to compare ourselves to others. You might forgive a classmate for the occasional “umm” during a speech, but then turn right around and spend a lot of mental effort chastising yourself for making the same error in your presentation. We all have distinct strengths and weaknesses. Knowing yourself and where you need to improve is an important first step. Recognizing that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and that you won’t become a world-class speaker overnight, may be easier said than done.

It may help to recognize that your listeners don’t want to see you fail; on the contrary, they want you to do well because when you do, they will be able to relax, enjoy, and understand your presentation. You might be surprised to know that not everyone counts each time you say “umm.” However, if you do tend to say “umm,” “ahhh,” or other filler phrases repeatedly, they can distract your audience from your message. One way to find out whether you use filler phrases is to record yourself presenting and then watch it. You might be surprised to find out you’re unconsciously saying something over and over–or that you only said twice what you thought you’d repeated a hundred times! Once you are aware of your tendency to use filler phrases, eliminating them can become a goal for improvement. Improvement is a process, not an end in itself; in fact, many people believe that learning to speak in public is more about the journey than the destination. Each new setting, context, and audience will present new challenges, and your ability to adapt, learned through your journey of experience, will help you successfully meet each new challenge.

Watching a recording of yourself presenting can also be informative for other reasons. It can help you pick up on your body language cues that might be distracting for your audience. For example, you might see if you sway or rock; avoid eye contact with the audience; wring or rub your hands repeatedly; or fiddle with papers, pens, or other objects in your hands. You might also see if you speak only to one or two people in the audience, and you might also hear if you speak too quickly or softly. Many of these habits are often carried out unconsciously because of nervousness. Once you’re aware of doing these things, you can work to eliminate them. But how do you stop, for example, swaying or twirling your cue cards if you don’t even realize you’re doing it? Preparation and practice are key.

Here are some techniques to try:

  • If you are swaying or rocking out of nervousness, trying to stand perfectly still might be incredibly difficult. Instead, consider turning that swaying or rocking into a gentle pacing.
  • If you wring or rub your hands, you can instead try gesturing as you speak.
  • If you fiddle with any objects that are in your hands, then make sure you present with empty hands! For example, if you don’t have papers in your hand, you won’t be able to twirl them, and if you don’t have a pen in your hands, you won’t be able to click it open and closed.
  • If you find you’re having difficulty maintaining eye contact with the audience, try looking between people in the audience, cycling between 3 or 4 different areas. While you still may not be making eye contact with anybody, you will at least be looking out at the entire audience rather than at your feet, your notes, or at the wall at the back of the room.
  • If you find you’re presenting to just one or two people in the audience, you can try practicing looking in a “Z” gaze at the audience. Look first at the back left corner, then the back right, move to the front left, and then the right front. You can then move in reverse or start back at the beginning.
  • If you’re speaking too quickly or too softly, try practicing some vocal exercises, such as some of those described by Julian Treasure in his 2013 Ted Talk. Vocal exercises can help reduce your nervousness and improve your voice control, making it easier for your audience to understand your message.

Organization is key to success

Have you ever thought of a great comeback to something someone said a while after they said it? Wouldn’t it have been nice to be quick and articulate and able to deliver your comeback right then and there? Speaking in public gives you a distinct advantage over “off the cuff” improvisation and stumbling for the right comeback. You get to prepare and be organized. You know you’ll be speaking to an audience in order to persuade them to do, think, or consider an idea or action.

What issues might they think of while you are speaking? What comebacks or arguments might they say if it were a debate? You get to anticipate what the audience will want to know, say, or hear. You get to prepare your statements and visual aids to support your speech and create the timing, organization, and presentation of each point. Many times in life we are asked to take a position and feel unprepared to respond. Speaking in public gives you the distinct opportunity to prepare and organize your ideas or points in order to make an impact and respond effectively.

Speaking in public is like participating in a conversation

This may sound odd at first, but consider the idea of an “enlarged conversation” described by Julia Wood (2001). She expresses a clear connection between everyday speech and public dialogue. Sometimes we take a speech turn, while at other times we remain silent while others take their turn. We do this all day long and think nothing of it. We are often the focus of attention from friends and colleagues, and it hardly ever makes us nervous. When we get on a stage, however, some people perceive that the whole game has changed. It hasn’t. We still take turns, and the speaker will take a longer turn as part of an enlarged conversation. People in the audience will still communicate feedback and the speaker will still negotiate their turn just the way they would in an everyday conversation. The difference is all about how we, as the speaker, perceive the context.

Some people feel that the level of expectations, the need for perfection, or the idealistic qualities we perceive in eloquent speakers are required, and then focus on deficiencies, fears, and the possibility of failing to measure up. By letting go of this ideal, we can approach the challenge with a more pragmatic frame of mind. The rules we play comfortably by in conversation every day are the same as we shift to a larger conversation within the context of public speaking. This viewpoint can offer an alternative as you address your apprehensions and can help you let go of unrealistic expectations.


Burnham, T., & Phelan, J. (2000). Mean genes: From sex to money to food: Taming our primal instincts. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.

Wood, J. (2001). Communication mosaics: An introduction to the field of communication (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


This chapter contains material from Chapter 10.4 “Myths and realities of public speaking” in Business Communication for Success and is used under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license.


7.2 Listening skills

The listening process

Listening is the learned process of receiving, interpreting, recalling, evaluating, and responding to verbal and nonverbal messages. Because it is a process, it doesn’t have a defined start and finish. Like the communication process, listening has cognitive, behavioural, and relational elements and doesn’t unfold in a linear, step-by-step fashion. Models of processes are informative in that they help us visualize specific components, but keep in mind that they do not capture the speed, overlapping nature, or overall complexity of the actual process in action. The stages of the listening process are receiving, interpreting, recalling, evaluating, and responding.


Before we can engage other steps in the listening process, we must take in stimuli through our senses. We primarily take in information needed for listening through auditory and visual channels. Although we don’t often think about visual cues as a part of listening, they influence how we interpret messages. For example, seeing a person’s face when we hear their voice allows us to take in nonverbal cues from facial expressions and eye contact. The fact that these visual cues are missing in email, text, and phone interactions presents some difficulties for reading contextual clues into meaning received through only auditory channels.


During the interpreting stage of listening, we combine the visual and auditory information we receive and try to make meaning out of that information. It is through the interpreting stage that we may begin to understand the stimuli we have received. When we understand something, we are able to attach meaning by connecting information to previous experiences.


Our ability to recall information is dependent on some of the physiological limits of how memory works. As stimuli are organized and interpreted, they make their way to short-term memory where they either expire and are forgotten or are transferred to long-term memory. Recall is an important part of the listening process because it is most often used to assess listening abilities and effectiveness.


When we evaluate something, we make judgments about its credibility, completeness, and worth. In terms of credibility, we try to determine the degree to which we believe a speaker’s statements are correct and/or true. In terms of completeness, we try to “read between the lines” and evaluate the message in relation to what we know about the topic or situation being discussed. We evaluate the worth of a message by making a value judgment about whether we think the message or idea is good/bad, right/wrong, or desirable/undesirable.


Responding entails sending verbal and nonverbal messages that indicate attentiveness and understanding or a lack thereof. We send verbal and nonverbal feedback while another person is talking and after they are done. Back-channel cues are the verbal and nonverbal signals we send while someone is talking and can consist of verbal cues like “uh-huh,” “oh,” and “right,” and/or nonverbal cues like direct eye contact, head nods, and leaning forward. Back-channel cues are generally a form of positive feedback that indicates others are actively listening. People also send cues intentionally and unintentionally that indicate they aren’t listening. If another person is looking away, fidgeting, texting, or turned away, we will likely interpret those responses negatively.

Paraphrasing is a responding behavior that can also show that you understand what was communicated. When you paraphrase information, you rephrase the message into your own words. For example, you might say the following to start off a paraphrased response: “What I heard you say was…” or “It seems like you’re saying…” You can also ask clarifying questions to get more information. It is often a good idea to pair a paraphrase with a question to keep a conversation flowing. For example, you might pose the following paraphrase and question pair: “It seems like you believe you were treated unfairly. Is that right?” Or you might ask a standalone question like “What did your colleague do that made you think they were ‘playing favourites?’” Make sure to paraphrase and/or ask questions once a person’s turn is over because interrupting can also be interpreted as a sign of not listening.

Active listening

Active listening refers to the process of pairing outwardly visible positive listening behaviours with positive cognitive listening practices. Active listening can help address many the environmental, physical, cognitive, and personal barriers to effective listening you may encounter.

Being an active listener starts before you actually start receiving a message. Active listeners make strategic choices and take action in order to set up ideal listening conditions. Physical and environmental noises can often be managed by moving locations or by manipulating the lighting, temperature, or furniture. When possible, avoid important listening activities during times of distracting psychological or physiological noise. Effective listeners must also work to maintain focus as much as possible and refocus when attention shifts or fades (Wolvin & Coakley, 1993).

Eye contact is typically thought of as a key sign of active listening, and speakers usually interpret a listener’s eye contact as a signal of attentiveness. While a lack of eye contact can sometimes indicate inattentiveness, before assuming this is the case, it’s important to consider whether it stems from cultural differences, is a sign of thinking about or processing new information, or happens for other reasons.

A more direct way to indicate active listening is to reference previous statements made by the speaker. Norms of politeness usually call on us to reference a past statement or connect to the speaker’s current thought before starting a conversational turn. Being able to summarize what someone said to ensure that the topic has been satisfactorily covered and understood or being able to segue in such a way that validates what the previous speaker said helps regulate conversational flow. Asking probing questions is another way to directly indicate listening and to keep a conversation going, since they encourage and invite a person to speak more. You can also ask questions that seek clarification and not just elaboration. Speakers should present complex information at a slower speaking rate than familiar information, but many will not. Remember that your nonverbal feedback can be useful for a speaker, as it signals that you are listening but also whether or not you understand. If a speaker fails to read your nonverbal feedback, you may need to follow up with verbal communication in the form of paraphrased messages and clarifying questions.

As active listeners, we want to be excited and engaged, but don’t let excitement manifest itself in interruptions. Being an active listener means knowing when to maintain our role as listener and resist the urge to take a conversational turn.

Note-taking can also indicate active listening. Translating information through writing into our own cognitive structures allows us to better interpret and assimilate information.

Listening with empathy

To be a better empathetic listener, we need to suspend or at least attempt to suppress our judgment of the other person or their message so we can fully attend to both. Paraphrasing is an important part of empathetic listening because it helps us put the other person’s words into our frame of experience without making it about us. In addition, speaking the words of someone else in our own way can help evoke within us the feelings that the other person felt while saying them (Bodie, 2011). Active-empathetic listening is more than echoing back verbal messages. We can also engage in mirroring, which refers to a listener’s replication of the nonverbal signals of a speaker (Bruneau, 1993). Therapists, for example, are often taught to adopt a posture and tone similar to their patients in order to build rapport and project empathy.

Paraphrasing and questioning are useful techniques for empathetic listening because they allow us to respond to a speaker without taking “the floor,” or the attention, away for long. Specifically, questions that ask for elaboration act as “verbal door openers,” and inviting someone to speak more and then validating their speech through active listening cues can help a person feel “listened to” (Hargie, 2011). It’s important to resist the temptation to give unsolicited advice. It is also important to acknowledge any feelings or emotions the speaker has expressed directly through words or indirectly through paralinguistic cues.

Listening in professional contexts

Empathetic listening and active listening can play key roles in organizational communication. Managers are wise to enhance their empathetic listening skills, as being able to empathize with employees contributes to a positive communication climate. Active listening among organizational members also promotes involvement and increases motivation, which leads to more cohesion and enhances the communication climate.


Bodie, G. D. (2011). The Active-Empathetic Listening Scale (AELS): Conceptualization and evidence of validity within the interpersonal domain, Communication Quarterly (59)3:277-295.

Bruneau, T. (1993). Empathy and Listening. In A. Wolvin & C. Coakley (Eds.), Perspectives on listening. Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation.

Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice. London: Routledge.

Wolvin, A. D. & Coakley, C. (1993). A listening taxonomy. In A. Wolvin & C. Coakley (Eds.), Perspectives on listening. Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation.


7.3 Giving and receiving feedback

In many writing classes, students are expected to learn how to give feedback to their peers (commonly called peer review). At first, this may seem intimidating. You may think, “I’m not a teacher–how can I give useful feedback to another student?” What you CAN do is give your classmates an honest reaction as a reader and give advice based on your own experience. It is ultimately up to the person receiving the feedback to decide if they want to use the feedback they receive. If you feel unsure of your ability to give feedback, remember that you are learning from the process too. If you are unsure about the feedback you receive, you can choose to ignore it or check with your instructor. Being able to give feedback professionally is a powerful skill you will use throughout your career.

Giving peer feedback

When your role in peer review is to give feedback, your job is to help the writer by giving your reaction. Think about the kind of feedback you would like to get and also how you would like that feedback to be given. What follows here are some basic rules to follow for responding to someone else’s writing.

First, listen to the writer. What kind of feedback are they asking for? Do they want to know if their message purpose is clear? Do they have questions about citing sources? Make a note about what kind of feedback the writer has requested and keep that in mind as you respond.

Be kind. When you are receiving criticism, isn’t it easier to hear if the person giving the criticism is kind and respectful to you? Do the same for your peer. This doesn’t mean you avoid should avoid pointing out what could be improved; rather, it means you should take care to think about your tone, word choice, and delivery in providing feedback on things that could be improved.

Comment on the higher order concerns first. That means asking questions about anything that confuses you, checking to see if the writing did what the assignment called for, and considering if the order of the message makes sense.

Use “I” statements to help stay focused on your reaction to the writing. For example, instead of saying, “You aren’t clear in this paragraph,” try saying, “I’m confused in this paragraph. Did you mean X or Y?”

Be specific. When your feedback includes statements like “I liked it” or “It was good,” follow up with an explanation of exactly what you liked or thought was good. The same goes for criticism; say exactly what confused you or what was missing.

Ask questions. Use questions to clarify what the writer means, what the resources given are saying, and what the writer is trying to do.

Offer advice based on your own experience. Be specific and provide options, if possible. For example, you could say “If this were my message, based on my experience, you could do A, B, or C.”

Don’t try to make the writer sound like you. If a word is the wrong word, then note that. However, if you just think of a word you like better, that’s just a matter of style and voice.

Don’t edit your peer’s writing for them. If you find the writer has a lot of issues or errors with writing mechanics, such as spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, paragraphing, please do make note these issues exist. However, the responsibility for correcting these errors and rewriting the material to correct these problems lies with the writer, not with you. Providing feedback is helpful, but rewriting someone’s work is plagiarism and can carry serious academic consequences.

Mention what works well AND what could be improved. Imagine you were throwing a ball at a target on the wall with your eyes closed. It seems reasonable to assume you might be missing the target more than you were hitting it. Now imagine if you only heard from those around you what could be improved. Based on that feedback of what you could improve, you may or may not be able to adjust your throws and get the ball on the target. Conversely, if you only heard from those around you what you were doing well, you again may or may not be able to adjust your throws and get the ball on target. However, by combining these two aspects of feedback–what works well AND what could be improved–you’re providing the person with a more wholesome view of their efforts and work, and providing them better guidance around how to improve. It does not serve them well to only provide one-sided feedback, so make sure you mention what works well AND what could be improved.

Make the most of peer feedback

Let’s now consider your role in receiving feedback. Are you eager to get feedback? Scared to share your work? If you are receiving feedback from your peers, remember that ultimately YOU get to decide what feedback to accept and what to ignore. If you don’t think the feedback is correct, ask your instructor what they think.

One way to improve the feedback you get is to ask for the kind of feedback you want. Don’t be afraid to give your peer reviewer some direction.

Listen to or read the feedback with an open mind. Consider that the peer reviewer is your reader. It’s good to know what a real reader got out of your writing.

If you aren’t sure about the feedback or feel upset about it, reconsider the suggestions after a break. It’s okay to say, “I’ll think about that.” If you feel that the reviewer is trying to change your style so that the paper doesn’t sound like you anymore, consider whether the feedback helps you make the paper better. If not, feel free to set that feedback aside.


This chapter contains material from “Giving and receiving feedback” in The Word on College Reading and Writing by M. Babin, C. Burnell, S. Pesznecker, N. Rosevear, and J. Wood and is used under a CC-BY-NC 4.0 International license.


7.4 Team work

It is highly likely you will have to work in a team at some point in your career. Being able to work with others effectively is an essential skill to have in today’s workplace.
Small groups have to start somewhere. Even established groups go through changes as members come and go, as tasks are started and completed, and as relationships change. In this section, we will learn about the stages of group development, which are forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning (Tuckman & Jensen, 1977). As with most models of communication phenomena, although we order the stages and discuss them separately, they are not always experienced in a linear fashion. Additionally, some groups don’t experience all five stages, may experience stages multiple times, or may experience more than one stage at a time.


During the forming stage, group members begin to reduce uncertainty associated with new relationships and/or new tasks through initial interactions that lay the foundation for later group dynamics. Groups return to the forming stage as group members come and go over the life span of a group. Although there may not be as much uncertainty when one or two new people join a group as there is when a group first forms, groups spend some time in the forming stage every time group membership changes.

Given that interpersonal bonds are likely not yet formed and people are unfamiliar with the purpose of the group or task at hand, there are high levels of uncertainty in the group. Early stages of role negotiation begin and members begin to determine goals for the group and establish rules and norms. Group cohesion also begins to form during this stage. Group cohesion refers to the commitment of members to the purpose of the group and the degree of attraction among individuals within the group (Hargie, 2011). The cohesion that begins in this stage sets the group on a trajectory influenced by group members’ feelings about one another and their purpose or task. Groups with voluntary membership may exhibit high levels of optimism about what the group can accomplish. Although the optimism can be motivating, unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment, making it important for group members to balance optimism with realism. Groups with assigned or mandatory membership may include members that carry some degree of resentment toward the group itself or the goals of the group. These members can start the group off on a negative trajectory that will lessen or make difficult group cohesiveness. Groups can still be successful if these members are balanced out by others who are more committed to and positive in regards to the purpose of the group.

Many factors influence how the forming stage of group development plays out. The personalities of the individuals in the group, the skills that members bring, the resources available to the group, the group’s size, and the group’s charge all contribute to the creation of the early tone of and climate within a group (Ellis & Fisher, 1994). For example, more dominant personalities may take early leadership roles in the group that can affect subsequent decisions. Group members’ diverse skill sets and access to resources can also influence the early stages of role differentiation. In terms of size, the bonding that begins in the forming stage becomes difficult when the number of people within the group prevents every person from having a one-on-one connection with every other member of the group. Also, in larger groups, more dominant members tend to assert themselves as leaders and build smaller coalitions within the group, which can start the group on a trajectory toward more conflict during the upcoming storming stage (Ellis & Fisher, 1994).

When a group receives an external charge, meaning that the goal or purpose of the group is decided by people outside the group, there may be less uncertainty related to the task dimensions of the group. Additionally, decisions about what roles people will play, including group leaders and other decisions about the workings of the group, may come from the outside, which reduces some of the uncertainty inherent in the forming stage. Relational uncertainty can also be diminished when group members have preexisting relationships or familiarity with each other. Although the decreased uncertainty may be beneficial at this stage, too much imposed structure from the outside can create resentment or a feeling of powerlessness among group members. Therefore, a manageable amount of uncertainty is actually a good thing for group cohesion and productivity.


During the storming stage of group development, conflict emerges as people begin to perform their various roles, have their ideas heard, and negotiate where they fit in the group’s structure. The uncertainty present in the forming stage begins to give way as people begin to occupy specific roles and the purpose, rules, and norms of a group become clearer. Conflict develops when some group members aren’t satisfied with the role that they or others are playing or the decisions regarding the purpose or procedures of the group. For example, if a leader begins to emerge or is assigned during the forming stage, some members may feel that the leader is imposing his or her will on other members of the group. Leaders should expect some degree of resentment from others who wanted to be the leader, have interpersonal conflicts with the leader, or just have general issues with being led.

Although the word storming and the concept of conflict have negative connotations, conflict can be positive and productive. Just like storms can replenish water supplies and make crops grow, storming can lead to group growth. While conflict is inevitable and should be experienced by every group, a group that gets stuck at the storming stage will likely not have much success in completing its task or achieving its purpose. Influences from outside the group can also affect the conflict in the storming stage. Interpersonal conflicts that predate the formation of the group may distract the group from the more productive idea- or task-oriented conflict that can be healthy for the group and increase the quality of ideas, decision making, and output.


During the norming stage of group development, the practices and expectations of the group are solidified, which leads to more stability, productivity, and cohesion within the group. Group norms are behaviours that become routine but are not explicitly taught or stated. In short, group norms help set the tone for what group members ought to do and how they ought to behave (Ellis & Fisher, 1994). Many implicit norms are derived from social norms that people follow in their everyday life. Norms within the group about politeness, lateness, and communication patterns are typically similar to those in other contexts. Sometimes a norm needs to be challenged because it is not working for the group, which could lead a group back to the storming stage. Other times, group members challenge norms for no good reason, which can lead to punishment for the group member or create conflict within the group.

At this stage, there is a growing consensus among group members as to the roles that each person will play, the way group interactions will typically play out, and the direction of the group. Leaders that began to emerge have typically gained the support of other group members, and group identity begins to solidify. The group may now be recognizable by those on the outside, as slogans, branding, or patterns of interaction become associated with the group. This stage of group development is key for the smooth operation of the group. Norms bring a sense of predictability and stability that can allow a group to move on to the performing stage of group development. Norms can also bring with them conformity pressures that can be positive or negative. In general, people go along with a certain amount of pressure to conform out of a drive to avoid being abnormal that is a natural part of our social interaction (Ellis & Fisher, 1994). Too much pressure, however, can lead people to feel isolated and can create a negative group climate.

Explicit rules may also guide group interaction. Rules are explicitly stated guidelines for members and may refer to things like expected performance levels or output, attitudes, or dress codes. Rules may be communicated through verbal instructions, employee handbooks, membership policies, or codes of conduct (Hargie, 2011). Groups can even use established procedures to manage the flow of conversations and decision-making procedures. Group members can contest or subvert group rules just as they can norms. Violations of group rules, however, typically result in more explicit punishments than do violations of norms.


During the performing stage of group development, group members work relatively smoothly toward the completion of a task or achievement of a purpose. Although interactions in the performing stage are task focused, the relational aspects of group interaction provide an underlying support for the group members. Socialization outside of official group time can serve as a needed relief from the group’s task. During task-related interactions, group members ideally begin to develop a synergy that results from the pooling of skills, ideas, experiences, and resources. Synergy is positive in that it can lead group members to exceed their expectations and perform better than they could individually. Glitches in the group’s performance can lead the group back to previous stages of group development. Changes in membership, member roles, or norms can necessitate a revisiting of aspects of the forming, storming, or norming stages. One way to continue to build group cohesion during the performing stage is to set short-term attainable group goals. Accomplishing something, even if it’s small, can boost group morale, which in turn boosts cohesion and productivity.


The adjourning stage of group development occurs when a group dissolves because it has completed its purpose or goal, membership is declining and support for the group no longer exists, or it is dissolved because of some other internal or external cause. Some groups may live on indefinitely and not experience the adjourning stage. Other groups may experience so much conflict in the storming stage that they skip norming and performing and dissolve before they can complete their task. For groups with high social cohesion, adjourning may be a difficult emotional experience. However, group members may continue interpersonal relationships that formed even after the group dissolves. In reality, many bonds, even those that were very close, end up fading after the group disbands. This doesn’t mean the relationship wasn’t genuine; interpersonal relationships often form because of proximity and shared task interaction. Once that force is gone, it becomes difficult to maintain friendships, and many fade away. For groups that had negative experiences, the adjourning stage may be welcomed.

To make the most out of the adjourning stage, it is important that there be some guided and purposeful reflection. Many groups celebrate their accomplishments with a party or ceremony. Even groups that had negative experiences or failed to achieve their purpose can still learn something through reflection in the adjourning stage that may be beneficial for future group interactions. Often, group members leave a group experience with new or more developed skills that can be usefully applied in future group or individual contexts. Even groups that are relational rather than task focused can increase members’ interpersonal, listening, or empathetic skills or increase cultural knowledge and introduce new perspectives.


Ellis, D.G. & Fisher, B.A. (1994). Small group decision making: Communication and the group process (4th Ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice (5th Ed.). London: Routledge.

Tuckman, B.W. & Jensen, M.C. (1977). Stages of small-group development revisited. Group and organizational studies, 2(4): 419–27.


This chapter is an adaptation of Chapter 13.2 “Small group development” in The Word on College Reading and Writing by M. Babin, C. Burnell, S. Pesznecker, N. Rosevear, and J. Wood and is used under a CC-BY-NC 4.0 International license.


7.5 Intercultural communication

We may be tempted to think of intercultural communication as interaction between two people from different countries. While two distinct national passports communicate a key part of our identity non-verbally, what happens when two people from two different parts of the same country communicate? Indeed, intercultural communication happens between subgroups of the same country. Whether it be the distinctions between dialects in the same language, the differences in perspective between an Eastern Canadian and a Western Canadian, or the rural- versus-urban dynamic, our geographic, linguistic, educational, sociological, and psychological traits influence our communication.

Culture is part of the very fabric of our thought, and we cannot separate ourselves from it, even as we leave home and begin to define ourselves in new ways through work and achievements. Every business or organization has a culture, and within what may be considered a global culture, there are many subcultures or co-cultures. For example, consider the difference between the sales and accounting departments in a corporation. We can quickly see two distinct groups with their own symbols, vocabulary, and values. Within each group there may also be smaller groups, and each member of each department comes from a distinct background that in itself influences behaviour and interaction.

Suppose we have a group of students who are all similar in age and educational level. Do gender and the societal expectations of roles influence interaction? Of course! There will be differences on multiple levels.

More than just the clothes we wear, the movies we watch, or the video games we play, all representations of our environment are part of our culture. Culture also involves the psychological aspects and behaviours that are expected of members of our group. From the choice of words (message), to how we communicate (in person or by e-mail), to how we acknowledge understanding with a nod or a glance (non-verbal feedback), to the internal and external interference, all aspects of communication are influenced by culture.

Defining culture

Culture consists of the shared beliefs, values, and assumptions of a group of people who learn from one another and teach to others that their behaviours, attitudes, and perspectives are the correct ways to think, act, and feel.

It is helpful to think about culture in the following five ways:

  • Culture is learned.
  • Culture is shared.
  • Culture is dynamic.
  • Culture is systemic.
  • Culture is symbolic.

The iceberg (shown in Figure 7.5.1), is a commonly used metaphor to describe culture and is great for illustrating the tangible and the intangible. When talking about culture, most people focus on the “tip of the iceberg,” which is visible but makes up just 10 percent of the object. The rest of the iceberg, 90 percent of it, is below the waterline.

The cultural iceberg

Figure 7.51 The cultural iceberg (by Laura Underwood), adapted from Lindner (2013)

Many business leaders, when addressing intercultural situations, pick up on the things they can see—things on the “tip of the iceberg.” Things like food, clothing, and language difference are easily and immediately obvious, but focusing only on these can mean missing or overlooking deeper cultural aspects such as thought patterns, values, and beliefs that are under the surface. Solutions to any interpersonal miscommunication that results become temporary bandages covering deeply rooted conflicts.

Multicultural, cross-cultural, and intercultural communication

Although they are often used interchangeably, it is important to note the distinctions between the terms multicultural, cross-cultural, and intercultural communication.

Multiculturalism is a rather surface approach to the coexistence and tolerance of different cultures. It takes the perspective of “us and the others” and typically focuses on those tip-of-the-iceberg features of culture, thus highlighting and accepting some differences but maintaining a “safe” distance. If you have a multicultural day at work, for example, it usually will feature some food, dance, dress, or maybe learning about how to say a few words or greetings in a sampling of cultures.

Cross-cultural approaches typically go a bit deeper, the goal being to be more diplomatic or sensitive. They account for some interaction and recognition of difference through trade and cooperation, which builds some limited understanding—such as, for instance, bowing instead of shaking hands, or giving small but meaningful gifts. A common drawback of cross-cultural comparisons is that we can wade into stereotyping and ethnocentric attitudes—judging other cultures by our own cultural standards—if we aren’t mindful.

Lastly, when we look at intercultural approaches, we are well beneath the surface of the iceberg, intentionally making efforts to better understand other cultures as well as ourselves. An intercultural approach is not easy and is often messy, but when you get it right, it is usually far more rewarding than the other two approaches. The intercultural approach is difficult and effective for the same reasons; it acknowledges complexity and aims to work through it to a positive, inclusive, and equitable outcome.

Whenever we encounter someone, we notice similarities and differences. While both are important, it is often the differences that contribute to communication troubles. We don’t see similarities and differences only on an individual level. In fact, we also place people into in-groups and out-groups based on the similarities and differences we perceive. We tend to react to someone we perceive as a member of an out-group based on the characteristics we attach to the group rather than the individual (Allen, 2010). In these situations, it is more likely that stereotypes and prejudice will influence our communication. This division of people into opposing groups has been the source of great conflict around the world, and learning about difference and why it matters will help us be more competent communicators and help to prevent conflict.

Theories of cross-cultural communication 


Social psychologist Geert Hofstede (Hofstede, 1982, 2001, 2005) is one of the most well-known researchers in cross-cultural communication and management. Hofstede’s theory places cultural dimensions on a continuum that range from high to low and really only make sense when the elements are compared to another culture. Hofstede’s dimensions include the following:

  • Power distance: High power distance means a culture accepts and expects a great deal of hierarchy; low power distance means the president and janitor could be on the same level.
  • Individualism: High individualism means that a culture tends to put individual needs ahead of group or collective needs.
  • Uncertainty avoidance: High uncertainty avoidance means a culture tends to go to some lengths to be able to predict and control the future. Low uncertainty avoidance means the culture is more relaxed about the future, which sometimes shows in being willing to take risks.
  • Masculinity: High masculinity relates to a society valuing traits that were traditionally considered masculine, such as competition, aggressiveness, and achievement. A low masculinity score demonstrates traits that were traditionally considered feminine, such as cooperation, caring, and quality of life.
  • Long-term orientation: High long-term orientation means a culture tends to take a long- term, sometimes multi-generational view when making decisions about the present and the future. Low long-term orientation is often demonstrated in cultures that want quick results and that tend to spend instead of save.
  • Indulgence: High indulgence means cultures that are okay with people indulging their desires and impulses. Low indulgence or restraint-based cultures value people who control or suppress desires and impulses.

These tools can provide wonderful general insight into making sense of understanding differences and similarities across key below-the-surface cross-cultural elements, but remember that people are still individuals and may or may not conform to what’s listed in the tools.


Fons Trompenaars is another researcher who came up with a different set of cross-cultural measures. These are his seven dimensions of culture (The seven dimensions of culture, n.d.):

  • Universalism vs. particularism: the extent that a culture is more prone to apply rules and laws as a way of ensuring fairness, in contrast to a culture that looks at the specifics of context and looks at who is involved, to ensure fairness. The former puts the task first; the latter puts the relationship first.
  • Individualism vs. communitarianism: the extent that people prioritize individual interests versus the community’s interest.
  • Specific vs. diffuse: the extent that a culture prioritizes a head-down, task-focused approach to doing work, versus an inclusive, overlapping relationship between life and work.
  • Neutral vs. emotional: the extent that a culture works to avoid showing emotion versus a culture that values a display or expression of emotions.
  • Achievement vs. ascription: the degree to which a culture values earned achievement in what you do versus ascribed qualities related to who you are based on elements like title, lineage, or position.
  • Sequential time vs. synchronous time: the degree to which a culture prefers doing things one at time in an orderly fashion versus preferring a more flexible approach to time with the ability to do many things at once.
  • Internal direction vs. outer direction: the degree to which members of a culture believe they have control over themselves and their environment versus being more conscious of how they need to conform to the external environment.

Like Hofstede’s work, Trompenaars’ dimensions help us understand some of those beneath-the-surface-of-the-iceberg elements of culture. It’s equally important to understand our own cultures as it is to look at others, always being mindful that our cultures, as well as others, are made up of individuals.

High context and low context cultures

High context cultures are replete with implied meanings beyond the words on the surface and even body language that may not be obvious to people unfamiliar with the context. Low context cultures are typically more direct and tend to use words to attempt to convey precise meaning.

For example, an agreement in a high context culture might be verbal because the parties know each other’s families, histories, and social position. This knowledge is sufficient for the agreement to be enforced. No one actually has to say, “I know where you live. If you don’t hold up your end of the bargain, …” because the shared understanding is implied and highly contextual. A low context culture usually requires highly detailed, written agreements that are signed by both parties, sometimes mediated through specialists like lawyers, as a way to enforce the agreement. This is low context because the written agreement spells out all the details so that not much is left to the imagination or “context.”

Working with others

How can you prepare to work with people from cultures different than your own? Start by doing your homework. Let’s assume that you have a group of Japanese colleagues visiting your office next week. How could you prepare for their visit? If you’re not already familiar with the history and culture of Japan, this is a good time to do some reading or a little bit of research online. If you can find a few English-language publications from Japan (such as newspapers and magazines), you may wish to read through them to become familiar with current events and gain some insight into the written communication style used.

Preparing this way will help you to avoid mentioning sensitive topics and to show correct etiquette to your guests. For example, Japanese culture values modesty, politeness, and punctuality, so with this information, you can make sure you are early for appointments and do not monopolize conversations by talking about yourself and your achievements. You should also find out what faux pas to avoid. For example, in company of Japanese people, it is customary to pour others’ drinks (another person at the table will pour yours). Also, make sure you do not put your chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice, as this is considered rude. If you have not used chopsticks before and you expect to eat Japanese food with your colleagues, it would be a nice gesture to make an effort to learn. Similarly, learning a few words of the language (e.g., hello, nice to meet you, thank you, and goodbye) will show your guests that you are interested in their culture and are willing to make the effort to communicate.

If you have a colleague who has traveled to Japan or has spent time in the company of Japanese colleagues before, ask them about their experience so that you can prepare. What mistakes should you avoid? How should you address and greet your colleagues? Knowing the answers to these questions will make you feel more confident when the time comes. But most of all, remember that a little goes a long way. Your guests will appreciate your efforts to make them feel welcome and comfortable. People are, for the most part, kind and understanding, so if you make some mistakes along the way, be kind to yourself. Reflect on what happened, learn from it, and move on. Most people are keen to share their culture with others, so your guests will be happy to explain various practices to you.

Improving your intercultural competence

One helpful way to develop your intercultural communication competence is to develop sensitivity to intercultural communication issues and best practices. From everything we have learned so far, it may feel complex and overwhelming. The Intercultural Development Continuum is a theory created by Mitchell Hammer (2012) that helps demystify the process of moving from monocultural approaches to intercultural approaches. There are five steps in this transition:

1. Denial: Denial is the problem-denying stage. For example, a well-meaning person might say that they pay no attention to race issues because they themselves are “colour blind” and treat everyone the same, irrespective of race. While on the surface this attitude seems fair-minded, it can mean willfully blinding oneself to very real cultural differences. Essentially, not much sensitivity or empathy can be present if one denies that cultural differences actually exist. This is a monocultural mindset. When there’s denial in organizations, diversity feels ignored.

2. Polarization: Polarization is the stage where one accepts and acknowledges that there is such a thing as cultural difference, but the difference is framed as a negative “us versus them” proposition. This usually means “we” are the good guys, and “they” are the bad guys. Sometimes a person will reverse this approach and say their own culture is bad or otherwise deficient and see a different culture as superior or very good. Either way, polarization reinforces already-existing biases and stereotypes and misses out on nuanced understanding and empathy. It is thus considered more of a monocultural mindset. When polarization exists in organizations, diversity usually feels uncomfortable.

3. Minimization: Minimization is a hybrid category that is really neither monocultural nor intercultural. Minimization recognizes that there are cultural differences, even significant ones, but tends to focus on universal commonalities that can mask or paper over other important cultural distinctions. This is typically characterized by limited cultural self-awareness in the case of a person belonging to a dominant culture, or as a strategy by members of non-dominant groups to “go along to get along” in an organization. When dominant culture minimization exists in organizations, diversity feels not heard.

4. Acceptance: Acceptance demonstrates a recognition and deeper appreciation of both their own and others’ cultural differences and commonalities and is the first dimension that exhibits a more intercultural mindset. At this level, people are better able to detect cultural patterns and able to see how those patterns make sense in their own and other cultural contexts. There is the capacity to accept others as being different and at the same time being fully human. When there is acceptance in organizations, diversity feels understood.

5. Adaptation: Adaptation is characterized by an ability not only to recognize different cultural patterns in oneself and other cultures but also to effectively adapt one’s mindset or behaviour to suit the cultural context in an authentic way. When there is adaptation in organizations, diversity feels valued and involved.

The first two steps out of five reflect monocultural mindsets. According to Hammer (2009), people who belong to dominant cultural groups in a given society or people who have had very little exposure to other cultures may be more likely to have a worldview that’s more monocultural. But how does this cause problems in interpersonal communication? For one, being blind to the cultural differences of the person you want to communicate with (denial) increases the likelihood that you will encode a message that they won’t decode the way you anticipate, or vice versa.

For example, let’s say culture A considers the head a special and sacred part of the body that others should never touch, certainly not strangers or mere acquaintances. But let’s say in your culture, people sometimes pat each other on the head as a sign of respect and caring. So you pat your culture A colleague on the head, and this act sets off a huge conflict.

It would take a great deal of careful communication to sort out such a misunderstanding, but if each party keeps judging the other by their own cultural standards, it’s likely that additional misunderstanding, conflict, and poor communication will transpire.

Using this example, polarization can come into play because now there’s a basis of experience for selective perception of the other culture. Culture A might say that your culture is disrespectful, lacks proper morals, and values, and it might support these claims with anecdotal evidence of people from your culture patting one another on the sacred head!

Meanwhile, your culture will say that culture A is bad-tempered, unintelligent, and angry by nature and that there would be no point in even trying to respect or explain things them.

It’s a simple example, but over time and history, situations like this have mounted and thus led to violence, war, and genocide.

According to Hammer (2009), the majority of people who have taken the IDI inventory, a 50- question questionnaire to determine where they are on the monocultural–intercultural continuum, fall in the category of minimization, which is neither monocultural nor intercultural. It’s the middle-of-the-road category that on one hand recognizes cultural difference but on the other hand simultaneously downplays it. While not as extreme as the first two situations, interpersonal communication with someone of a different culture can also be difficult here because of the same encoding/decoding issues that can lead to inaccurate perceptions. On the positive side, the recognition of cultural differences provides a foundation on which to build and a point from which to move toward acceptance, which is an intercultural mindset.

There are fewer people in the acceptance category than there are in the minimization category, and only a small percentage of people fall into the adaptation category. This means most of us have our work cut out for us if we recognize the value—considering our increasingly global societies and economies—of developing an intercultural mindset as a way to improve our interpersonal communication skill.


Allen, B. (2010). Difference matters: Communicating social identity. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Hammer, M.R. (2009). The Intercultural Development Inventory. In M.A. Moodian (Ed.). Contemporary leadership and intercultural competence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Hofstede, G. (1982). Culture’s consequences. (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Hofstede, G. (2005). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Lindner, M. (2013). Edward T. Hall’s cultural iceberg. Prezi presentation retrieved from

The seven dimensions of culture: Understanding and managing cultural differences. (n.d.). Retrieved from


This chapter is an adaptation of Part 4: Interpersonal communication in the professional environment in Professional Communications OER by the Olds College OER Development Team and is used under a CC-BY 4.0 International license. You can download this book for free at


About the author

Melissa Ashman is an instructor of applied communications in the School of Business at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, BC, Canada.