- Explain the do’s and don’ts of business e-mails.
- Describe the process followed to create and deliver successful presentations.
- Learn how to write clear, concise memos.
As mentioned previously, the College Board identified these communication skills as “frequently” or “almost always” necessary in the workplace (College Board, 2004): e-mail, presentation with visuals, technical reports, formal reports, memos, and presentations without visuals. The skill ranked highest in importance was the use of e-mails, including the ability to adapt messages to different receivers or compose persuasive messages when necessary. The ability to make presentations (with visuals) ranked second in importance. Report writing came next. Given the complexity of report writing, we will not cover this topic here. Instead, we will look at the remaining three forms of communication: e-mail, presentations with visuals, and memos.
Tips for Writing Business E-Mails
Dennis Jerz and Jessica Bauer created the following list of the top 10 tips for writing effective e-mail messages (Jerz & Bauer, 2011):
- Write a meaningful subject line. Recipients use the subject line to decide whether to open or delete a message and sometimes where to store it. Write a subject line that describes the content.
- Keep the message focused. Avoid including multiple messages or requests in one e-mail. Try to focus on only one topic. Use standard capitalization and spelling; none of this “thx 4 ur help 2day ur gr8.”
- Avoid attachments. Extract the relevant text from a large file and ask the recipient if he or she wants to see the full document.
- Identify yourself clearly. Identify yourself in the first few lines—otherwise your message might be deleted quickly.
- Be kind. Don’t flame. Avoid writing e-mails when you are upset. Always think before you hit the “send” button. Once it’s gone, you can’t get it back. If you’re mad, write the e-mail, but don’t send it. Keep it in your “save” or “draft” folder and reread it the next day.
- Proofread. Use spell check and read the memo carefully before sending it.
- Don’t assume privacy. Don’t send anything you wouldn’t want posted on the office bulletin board (with your name on it). Remember, employers can read your e-mails!
- Distinguish between formal and informal situations. When writing to a coworker with whom you are friends, you can be less formal than when you are writing to your manager or a client.
- Respond promptly. Get back quickly to the person who sent you the e-mail. If you’re too busy to answer, let the person know you got the message and will respond as soon as you can.
- Show respect and restraint. Watch out: Don’t use the “reply to all” button in error. Don’t forward an e-mail before getting permission from the sender.
Planning, Preparing, Practicing, and Presenting
For some, the thought of making a presentation is traumatic. If you’re one of those people, the best way to get over your fear is to get up and make a presentation. With time, it will get easier, and you might even start enjoying it. As you progress through college, you will have a number of opportunities to make presentations. This is good news—it gives you practice, lets you make your mistakes in a protected environment (before you hit the business world), and allows you to get fairly good at it. Your opportunities to talk in front of a group will multiply once you enter the business world. Throughout your business career, you’ll likely be called on to present reports, address groups at all levels in the organization, represent your company at various events, run committee meetings, lead teams, or make a sales pitch (Barada, 2011). In preparing and delivering your presentation, you can follow a four-step process (plan, prepare, practice, and present) designed by Dale Carnegie, a global training company named after its famed founder (Carnegie, 2011).
Plan your presentation based on your purpose and the knowledge level and interest of your audience. Use words and concepts your audience can understand, and stay focused. If your audience is knowledgeable about your topic, you can skim over the generalities and delve into the details. On the other hand, if the topic is new to them, you need to move through it slowly. As you plan your presentation, ask yourself these questions: What am I trying to accomplish? Am I trying to educate, inform, motivate, or persuade my audience? What does my audience know about the topic? What do I want them to know? How can I best convey this information to them?
Once you have planned your presentation, you’re ready to prepare. It might be easier to write your presentation if you divide it into three sections: opening, body, close. Your opening should grab your audience’s attention. You can do this by asking a question, telling a relevant story, or even announcing a surprising piece of information. About 5 to 10 percent of your time can be spent on the opening. The body covers the bulk of the material and consumes about 80 to 85 percent of your time. Cover your key points, stay focused, but do not overload your audience. It has been found that an audience can absorb only about four to six points. Your close, which uses about 5 to 10 percent of your time, should leave the audience with a positive impression of you and your presentation. You have lots of choices for your close: You can either summarize your message or relate your closing remarks to your opening remarks or do both.
This section should really be called “Practice, Practice, Practice” (and maybe another Practice for emphasis). The saying “practice makes perfect” is definitely true with presentations, especially for beginners. You might want to start off practicing your presentation by yourself, perhaps in front of a mirror. You could even videotape yourself and play it back (that should be fun). As you get the hang of it, ask a friend or a group of friends to listen to and critique your talk. When you rehearse, check your time to see whether it’s what you want. Avoid memorizing your talk, but know it well.
Now you’re ready for the big day—it’s time to present. Dress for the part—if it’s a professional talk, dress like a professional. Go early to the location where you’ll present, check out the room, and be sure any equipment you’ll need is there and works. Try to connect with your audience as soon as you start your presentation. Take your time delivering your opening. Act as natural as you can, and try to relax. Slow your speech down, as you’ll likely have a tendency to speed up if you get nervous. Pause before and after your main point for emphasis. If you put brief notes on index cards, avoid reading from the cards. Glance down at them when needed, but then look up at your audience as you speak. Involve your audience in your presentation by asking them questions. Not only will they feel included, but it will help you relax. When you’re close to finishing, let your audience know this (but don’t announce it too early in the talk or your audience might start packing up prematurely). Remember to leave some time for questions and answers.
It’s very common to use visual aids (generally PowerPoint slides) in business presentations. The use of visual aids helps your audience remember your main points and keeps you focused. If you do use PowerPoint slides, follow some simple (but important) rules (Iasted, 2011):
- Avoid wordiness: use key words and phrases only.
- Don’t crowd your slide: include at most four to five points per slide.
- Use at least an eighteen-point font (so that it can be seen from the back of the room).
- Use a color font that contrasts with the background (for example, blue font on white background).
- Use graphs rather than just words.
- Proof your slides and use spell check.
And most important: The PowerPoint slides are background, but you are the show. Avoid turning around and reading the slides. The audience wants to see you talk; they are not interested in seeing the back of your head.