NSCC Communication Skills for Trades

NSCC Communication Skills for Trades



Jordan Smith, Melissa Ashman, eCampusOntario, Brian Dunphy, Andrew Stracuzzi, Suzan Last, Ashley Orme, and Tim Carson





About This Book

NSCC Communications Skills for Trades was created  for students studying in trades programs at NSCC. This new work  focuses on the skills required for successful communication in the workplace.

It is an adapted work based primarly on Communication Skills: NSCC Edition by Jordan Smith and NSCC with additional content remixed from several other open textbooks:

For a more complete adaptation statement, see the revision history chapter at the end of this book.


Chapter 1: Professional Communications


If there’s a shorthand reason for why you need communication skills to complement your technical skills, it’s that you don’t get paid without them. You need communication and “soft” skills to get work and keep working so that people continue to want to employ you to apply your core technical skills. A diverse skill set that includes communication is really the key to survival in the modern workforce, and hiring trends bear this out.

In its Employability Skills 2000+, the Conference Board of Canada lists “the skills you need to enter, stay in, and progress” in the 21st century workplace. The first category listed is communication skills, specifically how to:

In other words, the quality of your communication skills in dealing with the various audiences that surround you in your workplace are the best predictors of professional success.

(Conference Board, n.d.a)


1.1 Introduction

Jordan Smith

Learning Objective

target icon Learn what is required for good communication.

In our increasingly technological and internationalized workplaces, communications skills are among the most sought-after competencies employers require of job candidates. Every job posting you see will almost certainly ask for candidates with excellent communications skills and the ability to work effectively in teams. The ability to communicate clearly and effectively in written, verbal, visual, and interpersonal contexts is vital for success and advancement in the workplace.

No matter how brilliant or innovative an idea may be, if it is not communicated clearly and promoted effectively to the right audience, it will not become a reality. For an innovative idea to move from concept to project to completion requires many stages in a design process (see Figure 1), almost all of which require clear communication and effective teamwork.

The four phases of a project and associated communications tasks. Image description available.
Figure 1 Phases of a project and some accompanying communications tasks. [Image Long Description]

If the design and implementation teams cannot work and communicate effectively with each other, their final product will fail to meet its potential.

Technical Writing Essentials introduces the key elements of professional style, document design, collaboration, oral presentation, and research skills needed to design productive workplace documents and presentations for a variety of purposes and audiences.


1.2 Communicating in the Digital Age

Learning Objectives

target icon  After studying this unit, you will be able to

      • distinguish between personal and professional uses of communication technologies in ways that ensure career success and personal health


Honestly, how many texts or instant messages do you send in a day? How many emails? Do you prefer communicating by text, instant message app (e.g., SnapChat), or generally online instead of face-to-face in person with businesses? If you’re an average millennial sending out and receiving more than the 2013 average of 128 texts per day (Burke, 2016), that’s a lot of reading and responding quickly in writing—so much more than people your age were doing 20 years ago. Even if just for social reasons, you are probably writing more than most people in your demographic have at any point in human history. This is mostly an advantage because it gives you a baseline comfort with the writing process, even if the quality of that writing probably isn’t quite where it should be if you were doing it for professional reasons.

Where being overly comfortable with texting becomes a disadvantage, however, is when it is used as a way of avoiding the in-person, face-to-face communication that is vital to the routine functioning of any organization. As uncomfortable as it may sometimes be, especially for teens in their “awkward years,” developing conversational skills throughout that decade is hugely important by the time they enter a workforce mostly populated by older generations that grew up without smartphones, developed those advanced conversational skills the hard way by making mistakes and learning from them, and expect well-developed conversational skills of younger generations entering the workforce. Though plenty of business is done online these days, there really is no good substitute for face-to-face interaction.

According to Twilio’s 2016 consumer report on messaging, however, the most preferred channel for customer service among 18-24 year olds (said 31% of respondents) is by text or instant messaging, followed closely by email (p. 8). Face-to-face interaction, however, is preferred by only 6% of respondents.

Chart showing preferred communication media by age group

Messaging Email Telephone Face to Face Other Web Live Chat Mail
18-24 years  31%  29%  23%  6%  4%  4%  2%
25-34 years  32%  32%  21%  4%  5%  5%  2%
35-44 years  31%  30%  26%  4%  4%  4%  1%
45 – 54 years  24%  31%  32%  5%  2%  5%  2%
55+ years  24%  33%  30%  8%  1%  2%  1%

Figure 1.1: Preferred customer service channel by age group (Twilio, 2016)

Customer service aside, face-to-face interactions are still vitally important to the functioning of any organization. In a study on the effectiveness of in-person requests for donations versus requests by email, for instance, the in-person approach was found to be 34 times more successful (Bohns, 2017). We instinctively value human over machine interaction in many (but not all) situations we find ourselves. Though some jobs like nurse or therapist simply cannot function without in-person interaction and would be the last to be automated (if ever), most others will involve a mix of written and face-to-face communication.

Our responsibility in handling that mix requires that we become competent in the use of a variety of devices that bring us a competitive advantage in our work (see Table 1 below). By working in the cloud with our smartphones and laptop, desktop, or tablet devices, for instance, we can collaborate with individuals or teams anywhere and anytime, as well as secure our work in ways we couldn’t when files were tied to specific devices. Through the years, new technology trends will offer up new advantages with new devices that we will have to master to stay competitive.

Those advantages are double-edged swords, however, so it is important that we manage the risks associated with them. With so much mobile technology enabling us to communicate and work on the go, from home, or anywhere in the world with a wi-fi connection, we are expected to be always available to work, to always be “on”—even after hours, on weekends, and on vacation—lest we lose a client to someone else who is available at those times.  Add to that the psychological and physiological impacts of adults averaging 8.8 hours of screen time per day, and it’s no wonder that problematic technology use, including screen addiction, is a growing concern among both health and technology experts (Phillips, 2015). Beyond being an effective communicator and professional in general, just being an effective person—in the sense of being physically and mentally healthy—requires knowing when not to use technology.

But in the workplace, especially if it’s a traditional office environment, we must be savvy in knowing which technology to use rather than always reaching for our smartphones. The modern office offers up a variety of tools that increase productivity and raise the bar on the quality and appearance of the work we do. You must be competent in the use of the latest in presentation technology, voice and video conferencing, company intranets, multifunctional printers, and so on. Even using the latest industry-wide software and social media apps ensures that your communication looks and functions on-point rather than in an antiquated way that makes you look like you stopped trying six years ago.

All such technology will change rapidly in our lifetimes, some will disappear completely, and new devices and software will emerge and either dominate or also disappear. So long as others are using the dominant technology for an advantage in your type of business, then it’s on you to use them also to avoid falling behind and getting stuck on obsolete technology that fewer and fewer people use. Depending on how successful you’re driven to be, you would be wise to even get ahead of the curve by adopting emerging technology early.  Review the following video for an overview of how technology and other trends are shaping the workplace of the future.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Key Takeaway

key iconUse an array of dominant communications technology to maintain a competitive advantage, and know when to put it all away in favour of in-person communication.


pen and paper icon1. Keep a daily journal recording the length of time you spend using various screen devices such as your smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop, TV, etc. Also record the amount of time you use these for school-related activities, social networking activities, entertainment (which you can further break down into passive viewing, such as watching Netflix and YouTube videos, and interactive use such as gaming). What conclusions can you draw from quantifying your screen time? Are your habits consistent each day or throughout the week? Explain what benefit you derive from these activities and how they might help and hinder your professional development.

2. Record how many texts or instant messages you send and receive per day over the course of a week. Count how many you sent because you had good reason to do so by text (as opposed to a phone call), such as to reply in the same channel you received a message or to send a message quietly so as to avoid disturbing others around you (e.g., in-class or late at night). Identify how many messages you could have exchanged merely by calling the person up and having a quick back-and-forth or waiting to talk to them in person. What conclusions can you draw from quantifying your messaging habits?

3. Research what future technology might revolutionize the work you’re training to do. Bearing in mind the job description on the Government of Canada’s Job Bank “Explore Careers by Essential Skills” page, what tasks identified there can be automated? What will still be done by you because it involves the human element that can’t be automated?


Bohns, V. K. (2017, April 11). A face-to-face request is 34 times more successful than an email. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2017/04/a-face-to-face-request-is-34-times-more-successful-than-an-email

Dunckley, V. L. (2014, February 27). Gray matters: Too much screen time damages the brain. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201402/gray-matters-too-much-screen-time-damages-the-brain

Morgan, J. (2016). The 5 trends shaping the future of work [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrhmHbDLM8o

Nielsen. (2016). The Nielsen Total Audience Report. Retrieved from http://www.nielsen.com/content/dam/corporate/us/en/reports-downloads/2016-reports/total-audience-report-q1-2016.pdf

Phillips, B. (2015). Problematic technology use: The impact of capital enhancing activity. Association for Information Systems Electronic Library. Retrieved from http://aisel.aisnet.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=sais2015

Twenge, J. M. (2017, September). Have smartphones destroyed a generation? The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/

Twilio. (2016). Understand how consumers use messaging: Global mobile messaging consumer report 2016. Retrieved from https://assets.contentful.com/2fcg2lkzxw1t/5l4ljDXMvSKkqiU64akoOW/

(Dunckley, 2014; Twenge, 2017; Nielsen, 2016, p. 4)

1.3 The Communication Process

Learning Objectives

target iconAfter studying this unit, you will be able to

        • illustrate the 5 step communication process
        • explain the end goal of communication
        • explain barriers to clear communication


Pre-Learning – Dr. Guffey’s Listening Quiz

How good are you at listening? Take the Dr Guffy interactive quiz.

The quiz enables you to quickly compare your own listening behaviours with behaviours normally thought to be associated with exceptionally good listening skills


Good communication skills are essential to effective business communications.  At its core, the aim of communication is to transmit information from one person to another so that the sender and receiver understand the message in the same way. The responsibility for clear communication usually falls on the sender. But the receiver is also responsible to confirm a clear understanding of the message. Communication is a dynamic and cyclical process.

Breaking down the communication cycle into its parts is helpful to understand the responsibilities of both the sender and receiver of communication, as well as to identify communication barriers.

The 5 Step Communication Process

Two silhouetted heads talking with identical brain patterns and labelling showing how a message is encoded by one, sent to and decoded and interpreted by the other, who then encodes a feedback message that is decoded and interpreted by the first speaker.
Figure 2.1: The Osgood-Schramm model of communication. Sources: Kisspng, 2018; Web Editor 4, 2017

Step 1: Idea Formation  –  The communication process begins when the sender has an idea to be communicated.  The idea will be influenced by complex factors surrounding the sender.  The sender must begin by clarifying the idea and purpose.  What exactly does the sender want to achieve?  How is the message likely to be perceived?  Knowing this information provides a higher chance of successful communication

Step 2: Message Encoding –  The idea must be encoded into words, symbols, and gestures that will convey meaning.  Because no two people interpret information in the exact same way, the sender must be careful to choose words, symbols and gestures that are commonly understood to reduce the chances of misunderstanding.  Therefore, a sender must be aware of the receiver’s communication skills, attitudes, skills, experiences, and culture to ensure clear communication.

Step 3: Message Transmission: Choosing the medium to transmit the message is the next step in the communication process.  Messages can be transmitted in a verbal, written, or visual manner (see Table 1).  For clear communication to occur, the medium and message must match

Table 2.1: Message Transmission Mediums

Verbal Written Visual
In-person speech Email Drawings, paintings
Phone conversation Text, instant message Photos, graphic designs
Voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) Report, article, essay Body language (e.g., eye contact, hand gestures)
Radio Letter Graphs
Podcast Memo Font types
Voicemail message Blog Semaphore
Intercom Tweet Architecture

Step 4: Decoding – When the message reaches the receiver, the message must be decoded into its intended meaning.  Therefore, the receiver must translate the words, symbols, and gestures as the sender intended. Because no two people interpret information in the exact same way, incorrectly decoding a message can lead to misunderstanding.  Successful decoding is more likely when the receiver creates a receptive environment and ignores distractions.  Alert receivers strive to understand both verbal and nonverbal cues, avoid prejudging the message, and expect to learn from the communication.

Step 5: Feedback – A vital part of the communication process is feedback.  Feedback occurs the sender and receiver check to ensure the message was understood as intended.  Feedback is a shared responsibility between the sender and the receiver and can be verbal or non-verbal.  For example, the sender can elicit feedback by asking, “Do you have any questions?” The sender can also improve the feedback process by only providing as much information as the receiver can handle.  Receivers can encourage clear communication by providing clear, timely, descriptive, and non-judgmental feedback.  For example, the receiver can shake his/her head up and down to confirm “yes” I have a question.


An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:


As you can see, this whole process is easier done than said because you encode incredible masses of data to transmit to others all day long in multiple channels, often at once, and are likewise bombarded with a constant multi-channel stream of information in each of the five senses that you decode without being even consciously aware of this complex process. You just do it. Even when you merely talk to someone in person, you’re communicating not just the words you’re voicing, but also through your tone of voice, volume, speed, facial expressions, eye contact, posture, hand movements, style of dress, etc. All such channels convey information besides the words themselves, which, if they were extracted into a transcript of words on a page or screen, communicate relatively little.

In professional situations, especially in important ones such as job interviews or meetings with clients where your success depends entirely on how well you communicate across the verb

and the nonverbal channels, it’s extremely important that you be in complete control of the communication process in order to present yourself as a detail-oriented pro—one that can be trusted to get the job done perfectly.


An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:


Key Takeaway

key icon

      • As a cyclical exchange of messages, the goal of communication is to ensure that you’ve moved an idea in your head into someone else’s head so that they understand your idea as you understood it.
      • The communication process has five steps: idea formation, encoding, channel selection, decoding and feedback.
      • Anything that interferes with clear communication is called noise.
      • Noise can interfere with each step of the communication process.

Exercises 2.1

pen and paper icon    1. Table 1 above compiles only a partial list of channels for verbal, written, and visual channels. Extend that list as far as you can push it.


Guffey, M., Loewry, D., & Griffin, E. (2019). Business communication: Process and product (6th ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson Education. Retrieved from http://www.cengage.com/cgi-wadsworth/course_products_wp.pl?fid=M20b&product_isbn_issn=9780176531393&template=NELSON

FlatGrin. (2016). Model of communication [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HXa320iTPY

Kisspng. (2018, March 17). Clip art – Two people talking. Retrieved from https://www.kisspng.com/png-clip-art-two-people-talking-569998/

Schramm, W. L. (1954). The Process and Effects of Mass Communication. Champaign, IL: U of Illinois P.

Young Entrepreneurs Forum. (2016). 10 barriers to effective communication [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slq1nAhZuqE&list=RDCMUCydShVfAub9TSmL1N4BTlGQ&start_radio=1&t=1.

Web Editor 4. (2017, Januray 12). A pattern of brain activity may link stress to heart attacks. Daily Messenger. Retrieved from https://dailymessenger.com.pk/2017/01/12/a-pattern-of-brain-activity-may-link-stress-to-heart-attacks/

1.4 Troubleshooting Miscommunication

Learning Objectives

target iconAfter studying this unit, you will be able to

      • troubleshoot communication errors by breaking down the communication process into its component parts


Now with a basic overview of the communication process, troubleshooting miscommunication barriers becomes a matter of locating wherein the communication process lies the problem: with the sender and the message they put together, the receiver and their feedback message, or the channel in the context of the environment between them. Identifying the culprit can help avoid costly business errors. According to Susan Washburn, communication problems can lead to:

Let’s examine some of these real scenarios. Take, for instance, the misplaced comma that cost Rogers Communications $1 million in a contract dispute over New Brunswick telephone poles (Austen, 2006) or the absence of an Oxford comma that cost Oakhurst Dairy $5 million in a Maine labour dispute (Associated Press, 2017). In both cases, everyone involved would have preferred to continue with business as usual rather. To avoid costly miscommunication in any business or organization, senders and receivers must be diligent in fulfilling their communication responsibilities and be wary of potential misunderstandings throughout the communication cycle.

Communication Barriers

The communication process may seem simple, but it is not.  There are many barriers and distractions that can inhibit clear communication between sender and receiver. How many times have you thought you communicated an idea clearly only to later understand that you were completely misunderstood? Anything that interferes with clear communication is called Noise. Clear communication can be improved by learning to recognize the noises, or barriers to clear communication, that disrupts the various steps in the communication process.

Noise in the Communication Process

Figure 3.1: Every step in the communication process can be disrupted by Noise. (Source: https://en.ppt-online.org/344580)

Some of the most significant noises are discussed in more detail after this short video presentation of 10 Barriers to Effective Communication.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Significant Communication Barriers

Bypassing: Different words have different meanings to different people.  Bypassing happens when two people attached different meanings to the same word.  For communication to be successful, the sender and receiver must attach the same meaning to the words, gestures, and symbols used to compose a message.  Therefore, using concrete words and commonly understood symbols and gestures will decrease the chances of miscommunication.

Frame of Reference: Everyone experiences the world through a unique perspective based on individual experiences, backgrounds, culture, personality and many other factors.  Thus, no two people experience the world exactly the same.  To ensure communication is clear, the sender must be aware of his/her own frame of reference and the receiver’s frame of reference to achieve clear communication.  For example, the frame of reference between baby-boomers and millennials is quite different.  Therefore, inter-generational communication in the workplace can lead to miscommunication if the sender and receiver do not account for the different frames of reference.

Language Skills:  No matter how great the message, it will not be understood or fully appreciated if the appropriate oral and written skills are not used to express the message.  Spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and fluency errors all interfere with clear communication.   In addition, using jargon, slang, and unfamiliar words will also decrease clear communication.

Distractions:  Emotional interference, physical distractions, and digital interruptions will also decrease clear communication.  Shaping an objective message is difficult when one is feeling joy, fear, resentment, hostility, sadness, or some other strong emotion.  Physical distractions, such as faulty acoustics; sloppy appearance and careless formatting; as well as multi-tasking, information overload, conflicting demands can all interfere with clear communication.  Focusing on what is important and shutting out interruptions increase the chances of effective communication.

Categories of Miscommunication

Sender-related Miscommunication

The responsibility of the sender of a message is to make it as easy as possible to understand the intended meaning. If work must be done to get your point across, it is on you as the sender to do all you can to make that happen. (The receiver also has their responsibilities that we’ll examine below but listening and reading are not necessarily as labour-intensive as composing a message in either speech or writing.) This is why grammar, punctuation, and even document design in written materials, as well as excellent conversational and presentation skills, are so important: sender errors in these aspects of communication lead to readers’ and audiences’ confusion and frustration, which get in the way of their understanding the meaning you intended. If senders of messages fail to anticipate their audience’s needs and miss the target of writing or saying the right thing in the right way to get their messages across, they bear the responsibility for miscommunication and need to pay close attention to the lessons throughout this textbook to help them get back on target.

If the sender has any doubt that their message is being understood, it’s also on them to check in to make sure. If you are giving a presentation, for instance, you can employ several techniques to help ensure that your audience stays with you:

Channel-related Miscommunication

Errors can also be blamed on the medium of the message such as the technology and the environment—some of which can slide back to choices the sender makes, but others are out of anyone’s control. If you need to work out the terms of a sale with a supplier a few towns over before you draw up the invoice and time is of the essence, sending an email and expecting a quick response would be foolish when you (a) have no idea if anyone’s there to write back right away, and (b) would potentially need to go back and forth over the terms; this exchange could potentially take days, but you only have an hour. The smart move is instead to phone the supplier so that you can have a quick conversation. If you need to, you could also text them to say that you’re calling to hammer out the details before writing it up. Of course, you wouldn’t call using a cellphone from inside a parking garage because blame for problems with the reception (or interference) would slide back on you for not positioning yourself appropriately given the available environments. If phone lines and the internet are down due to equipment malfunction (despite paying your bills and buying trustworthy equipment), however rare that might be, the problem is obviously out of your hands and in the environment. Otherwise, it’s entirely up to you to use the right channels the correct way in the environments best suited to clear communication to get the job done.

Receiver-related Miscommunication

The responsibility of the receiver of a message is to be able to actively read or hear not only the message itself but also to understand the nuances of that message in context. Say you were a relatively recent hire at a company and were in line for a promotion for the excellent work you’ve been doing lately, it’s 11:45 a.m., you just crossed paths with your manager in the hallway, and she’s the one who said: “I’m hungry.”  That statement is the primary message, which simply describes how the speaker feels. But if she says it in a manner that, with nonverbals (or secondary messages) such as eyebrows raised signaling interest in your response and a flick of the head towards the exit, suggests an invitation to join her for lunch, you would be foolish not to put all of these contextual cues together and see this as a professional opportunity worth pursuing. If you responded with “Enjoy your lunch!” your manager would probably question your social intelligence and whether you would be able to capitalize on opportunities with clients when cues lined up for business opportunities that would benefit your company. But if you replied, “I’m starving, too. May I join you for lunch? I know a great place around the corner,” you would be correctly interpreting auxiliary messages such as your manager’s intention to assess your professionalism outside of the traditional office environment.

Figure 3.2: The three main categories of miscommunication: sender, channels, and receiver.

Say you arrive at the lunch spot with your manager and sit down to eat, but it’s too noisy to hear each other well; you would be equally foolish to use this environmental problem as an excuse not to talk and instead just browse your social media accounts on your phone (perhaps your usual lunchtime routine when eating solo) in front of her. You could accommodate her need to hear you by raising your voice, but the image of you shouting at your manager also sends all the wrong messages. Rather, if you cite the competing noise as a reason to move to a quieter spot where you can converse with her in a way that displays the polish of your manners and ultimately positions you nicely for the promotion, she would understand that you have the social intelligence to control the environmental conditions in ways that prioritize effective communication.

Of course, so much more can go wrong with the receiver. In general, the receiver may lack the knowledge to understand your message; if this is because you failed to accommodate their situation—say you used formal language and big, fancy words but they don’t understand because they are EAL (English as an additional language)—then the responsibility shifts back to you because you can do something about it. You could instead use more plain, easy-to-understand language. If your audience is a co-worker who should know what you’re talking about when you use the jargon of your profession, but they don’t because they’re in the wrong position, the problem is with the receiver (and perhaps the hiring process).

Another receiver problem may have to do with attitude. If a student, for instance, believes that they don’t really need to take a class in Communications because they’ve been speaking English for 19 years, think their high school English classes were a complete joke, and figure they’ll do just fine working out how to communicate in the workplace on their own, then the problem with this receiver is that overconfidence prevents them from keeping the open mind necessary to learn and take direction. Carried into the workplace, such arrogance would prevent them from actively listening to customers and managers, and they would most likely fail until they develop necessary active listening skills (see below). Employers like employees who can solve problems on their own, but not those who are unable to take direction.

Overcoming Barriers

Understanding the nature of communication can help you overcome the many barriers that can interfere with clear communication.  Recognizing that the communication process is noise-sensitive will help you anticipate the potential noises that can cause miscommunication.  Figure 3.2 provides strategies to help you overcome four different categories of noise.

Figure 3.3: Strategies to overcome communication barriers. (Business Communications, 2018)

The picture emerging here, then, is one where many factors must work in concert to achieve communication of intended meaning. The responsibility of reaching the goal of understanding in the communication process requires the full cooperation of both the sender and receiver of a message to make the right choices and avoid all the perils—personal and situational—that lead to costly miscommunication.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Key Takeaway

key iconBeing an effective professional involves knowing how to avoid miscommunication by upholding one’s responsibilities in the communication process towards the goal of ensuring proper understanding.


pen and paper iconDescribe a major miscommunication that you were involved in lately and its consequences. Was the problem with the sender, channel, environment, receiver, or a combination of these?
Explain what you did about it and what you would do (or advise someone else to do) to avoid the problem in the future.


Associated Press. (2017, March 21). Lack of comma, sense, ignites debate after $10m US court ruling. CBC News | Business. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/comma-lawsuit-dairy-truckers-1.4034234

Austen, I. (2006, October 25). The comma that costs 1 million dollars (Canadian). The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/25/business/worldbusiness/25comma.html

Washburn, S. (2008, February). The miscommunication gap. ESI Horizons, 9(2). Retrieved from http://www.esi-intl.com/public/Library/html/200802HorizonsArticle1.asp?UnityID=8522516.1290


1.5 Listening Effectively

Jordan Smith, Melissa Ashman, eCampusOntario, Brian Dunphy, and Andrew Stracuzzi

Learning Objectives

target iconReframe information gained from spoken messages in ways that show accurate analysis and comprehension

If most communication these days is text-based, why is it still important to be an effective listener? Can’t we just wait till everyone who’s grown up avoiding in-person contact in favour of filtering all social interaction through their smartphones dominate the workforce so that conversation can be done away with at last?

No. Perhaps the first rule in business is to know your customer. If you don’t know what they want or need, you can’t successfully supply that demand and no one’s going to buy what you have to sell. If you don’t actively listen to what your customers or managers say they want, or fail to piece together what they don’t know they want from their description of a problem they need solved, then you may just find yourself always passed over for advancement. Business “intel” gleaned from conversation is the lifeblood of any business, as is the daily functioning of anyone working within one.

A receiver’s responsibilities in the communication process will be to use their senses of hearing, vision, and even touch, taste, and smell to understand messages in whatever channels target those senses. In the case of routine in-person communication, active listening and reading nonverbal social cues are vitally important to understanding messages, including subtext—that is, significant messages that are not explicitly stated but must be inferred from context and nonverbals. In the above case of the manager saying she’s hungry, for instance, she did not say “Join me for lunch so I can base my decision about whether to promote you on your social graces, emotional intelligence, and conversational ability.” Rather, plenty of reading between the lines was required of the receiver to figure out that:

  1. This is an invitation to lunch that ought to accepted
  2. Given the context, the invitation suggests that the manager is considering the receiver for the promotion (otherwise she would avoid the receiver altogether)
  3. This opportunity should be treated like an informal job interview

With so much of the communication process’s success riding on the responsibility of the receiver to understand both explicit and implicit messages, effective, active listening skills are keys to success in any business.

Receiver Errors

Unfortunately, plenty can go wrong on the receiver’s end in listening effectively and making the right inferences. We’ve already looked at the possibility that they may just lack knowledge about both the job and the broader context to understand fully the content of workplace messages and their underlying meanings. They may be:

Many students struggle with this. Some have difficulty being patient enough to listen and would rather speak, otherwise known as grandstanding. In all such cases, the problem is passive listening—when you merely hear noises and barely register the meaning of the message because you have preoccupying internal agenda that is more compelling. Once again, however, communication requires that you do your fair share to ensure that the sender’s meaning is understood.

Be an Active Listener

Fortunately, everyone can practice being a more effective listener by making themselves aware of their own listening habits and actively seeking to improve them. Doing so certainly takes work, especially if your listening habits have been largely passive for most of your life and your attention span is short from a steady diet of small units of media content such as memes. If your problem is that your mind wanders, you must train yourself to focus on the message at hand rather than consume other media in a failed effort to multitask or get distracted by the internal monologue that tries to whisk you away from the present. Work on just being present. Take the earbuds out and keep your cellphone in your pocket when someone is talking, including your college instructors. (When your instructors see you staring intently in the direction of your crotch under your desk and your hands are twitching a little down there, they’re not stupid; they know you’re fiddling with your phone.) Would you tolerate someone blatantly ignoring you to focus on their phone if you were speaking right in front of them? It’s just plain rude and doing this yourself could, in professional situations, get you blacklisted by managers, coworkers, and customers, resulting in missed opportunities.

Rather, maintain strong eye contact with the speaker to show active interest. Resist the social anxiety-driven urge to avert your eyes as soon as pupil-to-pupil contact lasting more than a second or two makes the human connection too real for comfort. Challenge that. Eye contact builds trust, so don’t signal to the speaker that you have something to hide (such as a lack of confidence in yourself) by darting your eyes away. But don’t fake attention either by maintaining eye contact while your mind is a million miles away; good communicators can tell from your nonverbals (like nodding in agreement at the wrong things) when the lights are on but no one’s home.

Perhaps the best strategy for active listening is to devote your brain’s full processing power to the message at hand. One way you can do this is to paraphrase the message (i.e., re-state it in your own words) then ask the speaker if you understood it correctly. Translating the message into words that resonate more with you than what the speaker used helps you remember it because you’ve personally invested yourself in it. You can find a way to make it your own without necessarily agreeing with it (but that helps, too). By doing this, you signal to the speaker that you’ve completed the whole goal of communication: to understand the sender’s meaning as they intended it.

Another processing strategy is to think of questions you can ask for clarification. No matter how thorough a speaker covers a topic, you can probably find gaps to ask about for clarification. “I understand that you’re saying A, B, and C, but what happens to those in situations X, Y, and Z?” Identifying gaps requires keen interest and strong processing power of your brain. But it’s the kind of processing that sends the auxiliary message that you are interested in what the speaker says, which may lead to a deeper conversation and connection—the holy grail of networking.

Figuring out when to talk and when to listen also requires social skills. If you like to grandstand and you get impatient when someone else is talking, you must practice exercising some impulse control. Take turns! By hearing them out and reserving judgment, you can really learn something. If you’re dealing with someone like that—one who monologues and doesn’t know when to pass the ball—you must be a good reader of nonverbal cues to capitalize on the right moment to jump in with the right thing to say. On the other end of the spectrum, it takes skill to know how to draw people who communicate mostly in silence out of their shell if it means that you will mutually benefit from it on a business or personal level.

If you spent too much of your youth lost in screen time rather than interacting in person with friends, however, there’s no time like now and the rest of your life to begin favouring human contact over technology. Of course, the technology will always be there and you’ll be great at using it when the situation calls for it. But your professional and personal well-being depends on knowing how and when to do without it and to get back to what really matters: being human. From there, professional success follows from keeping the communication channels open to solve problems collaboratively one conversation at a time.

Key Takeaway

key iconThe receiver of a message plays a significant role in ensuring that the goal of understanding is achieved, which means active listening in the case of spoken messages.


pen and paper icon1. Pair up with a classmate and do a role-play exercise where one of you tries to explain how to do something while the other multitasks and interrupts. Quiz the multitasker to see if they remember specific steps in the procedure described. Then try it again while the listener practices active listening. How do the two communication experiences compare? Discuss your findings.
2. In a half-hour period of conversation with friends, see if you can count how many times you are interrupted, but don’t tell them ahead of time that you’re counting for this. Share and compare with your classmates.
3. Take Psychology Today’s 33-question (15 min.) Listening Skills Test. Grab a screenshot of your results and, below it and the heading “Barriers to Effective Listening,” write five barriers that particularly annoy you or prevent you from being an active listener—both that you notice in other people and in yourself. Below that and the heading “Effective Listening Strategies,” list five strategies, one for each of the barriers listed above, each identifying a strategy for overcoming the barrier.


Hall, A. (2012, July 14). To succeed as an entrepreneur, know your customer. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/alanhall/2012/06/14/to-succeed-as-an-entrepreneur-know-your-customer/

Listening Skills Test. (n.d.). Psychology Today. Retrieved on December 17, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/tests/relationships/listening-skills-test

Sanbonmatsu, D. M., Strayer, D.L., Medeiros-Ward, N., Watson, J.M. (2013). Who multi-tasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. PLoS ONE 8(1): e54402. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0054402




Chapter 2 Communicating in a Technical Environment

Technical writing gives practical information to a specific audience, which will enable that audience to understand the topic well enough to make a decision or perform a task. This chapter introduces the steps to planning technical documents that meet the needs of the audience and industry standards. There are many types of technical documents that range in the amount of detail provided depending on the audience. Here are some examples

The sentence definition is the most basic form of technical writing. It is used to define a term in its simplest form in one sentence. The art in writing sentence definitions is to define the term so clearly that it can only mean on object or process. Sentence definitions form the backbone of all technical writing. Sentence definitions are used on their own when the audience has minimal or no technical knowledge and they just want to know what the word means.

A description is used to provide the reader with some technical detail about a device or process including what it is, what it looks like and how it works. The art in writing descriptions is knowing just how much technical detail the reader needs to make a decision. Graphics are often used to help the reader visualize the process or device. Descriptions are used when the audience has some technical knowledge and they wants to gain a general understanding of the device or process usually to make a decision.

Instructions are used to provide the reader with enough technical detail use a device or perform a process. The art in writing instructions is being able to break everything down into simple steps without leaving out any detail. Graphics are often used to help the reader visualize the process or device. Instructions are used when the audience has the technical knowledge needed to perform the job


2.1 What is Technical Communication?

Suzan Last

Learning Objectives

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This unit will help you:

  1. Understand what technical writing is, why its important, and what it looks like
  2. Apply a “problem-solving” approach to communications tasks, starting by learning how to fully define the problem before looking for solutions
  3. Recognize the main conventions and characteristics of technical writing, and how they differ from other forms, such as academic and journalistic writing
  4. Understand the importance of defining the “rhetorical situation” in which you are communicating
  5. Apply what you have learned so far by examining “case studies” that demonstrate the costs of poor communication
  6. Appreciate the complexity and iterative nature of a writing process in determining what writing process works best for you.

When you hear the term “technical communication,” what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of scientific reports, specifications, instructions, software documentation, or technical manuals. And you are correct. However, technical communication is so much more than that. Technical Writing is a genre of non-fiction writing that encompasses not only technical materials such as manuals, instructions, specifications, and software documentation, but it also includes writing produced in day-to-day business operations such as correspondence, proposals, internal communications, media releases, and many kinds of reports. It includes the communication of specialized technical information, whether relating to computers and scientific instruments, or the intricacies of meditation. And because oral and visual presentations are such an important part of professional life, technical communication also encompasses these as well.

Why are Technical Communication Skills Important?

In a recent presentation on the topic of Co-op Work Term Reports, the Engineering co-op coordinator for the University of Victoria presented the following statistics regarding the importance of communication skills in the professional world of engineering:

The Reality: Technical Writing and Communication

  • How graduate engineers spend their time:
    • 25-50% Problem solving of some kind
    • 50-75% Communicating (Writing and reading reports, letters, memos, proposals, presentations, discussions w/colleagues, managers, clients)
  • Performance evaluations and job advancement usually depend more on communications skills than on technical skills

He added that engineers who are more advanced in their careers spend only 5-10% of their time engaged in problem solving of some kind and 90-95% of their time engaging in related communications tasks:  researching, writing and reading reports, proposals, emails, letters, memos; giving or attending presentations; discussing and meeting with colleagues, team mates, managers, clients, and so forth. In a recent survey of over 1000 professionals from various professions, over 70% of engineers and almost 50% of programmers rated the quality of their writing as either “very important” or “extremely important” to the performance of their jobs.  Clearly, as Barry Hyman asserts in Fundamentals of Engineering Design, “the stereotype that engineering is for inarticulate nerds is way off base.”

Technical communication is “transactional” – it entails a purposeful transaction between sender and receiver that provides specific information for practical and specific purposes (informing, instructing, persuading) and is usually geared towards the needs of a specific audience. Technical communicators produce a wide variety of documents and other products, such as

Thus, it is a highly “designed” form of communication that requires practitioners to have a heightened awareness of the conventions (rules and expectations) and rhetorical situations (audience, purpose, context) in which they are communicating.

This textbook aims to provide you with that heightened awareness – that is, to introduce you to the basic conventions of technical communications, and to train you to take a reader- and audience-centred approach to communications tasks, to find the tools and methods that will work best to communicate your ideas to your target audience, and to achieve the desired results.

What Does Technical Writing Look Like?

Technical communications can take many forms, depending on the purpose and intended audience.  Consider the following example of technical writing, which is an excerpt adapted from a book called Scientific Sailboat Racing by Ted Wells. From the excerpt in the box below, what can you tell about the intended audience?

The most common question asked by skippers wanting to get to the windward mark faster than they have been doing is “How can I make my boat point higher?”  Getting to the windward mark first depends primarily on the skill and experience of the skipper; however, having a well-rigged boat will make a significant difference.  Look for the following, in order of importance:

  1. Sails: Have good quality sails, and use the appropriate sails for the wind conditions expected.  No one can win races with poor sails, so use the best you can afford.  Keep in mind that the leeches of all sails flutter a little, the jib will backwind the luff of the main on any full or medium sail, and in very light wind, even a perfectly cut sail will probably develop a wrinkle along the front of the battens.  If the sails are obviously no good, replace them.
  2. Mast and Centerboard: Ensure that the mast is far enough forward and the centerboard is far enough back so that there is little or no weather helm.  Make sure the stiffness of the mast suits the sails.
  3. Jib Fairleads: Ensure jib fairleads are properly located for the type of jib being used and the strength of wind expected.
  4. Cleats: Have cleats for both jib and mainsheet; place cleats so that crew can easily make small adjustments for varying wind velocities and hang on the to the jib sheet without having it pop out of the cleat.
  5. Traveler: Have a mainsheet traveler that allows the main to be pulled down without pulling the boom in too far; it should allow the sail to be pulled down tightly enough so that the leech does not fall off without pulling the boom in any further than it should be.
  6. Tiller: Have a flexible tiller extension that allows you to sit well forward, but can be adjusted so that it does not get in the way when coming about.
  7. Boat Weight: Keep the boat as close to minimum weight as possible.  Clearly, a lighter boat is easier to handle, but this is not as critical as other factors.  If choosing between a lighter crew member with less skill and experience, and a heavier crew member who has greater skill, the latter is usually preferable.

Once the boat is properly set up, a skilled and experienced skipper can point significantly higher than expected by understanding and using wind deflection from other boats.  Immediately to leeward of any boat and extending for a distance of about three mast lengths, there is a wind shadow where the wind velocity is greatly decreased.  To leeward of the bow of the boat there is a very small region where the direction of the wind is deflected opposite to the normal deflection and where the velocity is accelerated slightly (see Figure 34).  Except in the direct wind shadow, the deflection of the wind is more important than the decrease in wind velocity, as the decrease in velocity is very slight except in the immediate shadow of the sails of the windward boat.

Wind conditions surrounding a boat

Because of this wind deflection, a boat on the opposite tack cutting behind another boat will be able to point appreciably higher than it normally would.  Many skippers on port tacks who thought they could clear starboard tackers have been fooled by not realizing this fact.  The deflection of their wind in trying to cross in front of the starboard tacker will enable the starboard tacker to point higher without luffing than he normally would be able to do, and the port tacker who thought he could squeeze by suddenly finds that he cannot (See Figure 35).

EXERCISE 1.1 Draft some technical writing related to your interests

Reflect on the description and example of technical writing above in relation to your experience as an employee, as a student, or as a practitioner of a hobby. What kinds of documents have you written that could fall under the genre of Technical Writing?

Write a paragraph or two on a topic about which you have specialized knowledge, and can use specialized terminology to explain the idea or instruct the reader. For example, you might write about effective techniques for executing certain skateboard maneuvers or how to execute a yoga position such as a “downward facing dog.” Consider your audience when choosing how to write this. Will the audience have to be familiar with the terminology used, as in the above sailing example? See if you can write a paragraph that can “baffle me with your techno-jargon,” and then re-write for a general audience, using plain language.

S. McConkey, “Writing a work term report,” ENGR 120 Plenary Lecture, University of Victoria, March 3, 2017.
J. Swartz, S. Pigg, J. Larsen, J. Helo Gonzalez, R. De Haas, and E. Wagner, "Communication in the workplace: What can NC State students expect?" Professional Writing Program, North Carolina State University, 2018 [Online]. Available: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1pMpVbDRWIN6HssQQQ4MeQ6U-oB-sGUrtRswD7feuRB0/edit
B. Hyman, “Ch. 2: Problem formulation,” in Fundamentals of Engineering Design, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002, p. 42.
T. Wells, Scientific Sailboat Racing, New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1950, pp. 94-96.

2.2 Problem-Solving Approach to Communications Tasks

Suzan Last

Learning Objectives

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Describe and use a clearly-articulated design.

In the workplace, many of the communications tasks you perform are designed to solve a problem or improve a situation. Whether you are doing work for a client, for your employer, with your team, or for someone else, you will typically use some sort of design process to tackle and solve the problem. A clearly-articulated design process provides you with a clear, step-by-step plan for finding the best solution for your situation.

Take a moment to search the Internet for the term “design process” and look at “images.” You will find many variations. Have a look at several of them and see if you can find a common pattern.

One commonality you will likely find in examining other people’s design process diagrams is this: the first step in designing any solution is to clearly define the problem. Figure 1. shows NASA’s basic design process. Think about the kind of communication that each step of this process might entail.

State the problem, generate ideas, select a solution, build the item, evaluate, present results, and repeat
Figure 1.  NASA’s Design Process Diagram.

You cannot begin to work on solutions until you have a clear definition of the problem and goals you want to achieve. This critical first stage of the design process requires that you effectively communicate with the “client” or whoever has the “problem” that needs solving. Poor communication at this stage can derail a project from the start.

For our purposes, we will use Barry Hyman’s Problem Formulation model  to clearly define a problem. Hyman’s Problem Formulation model consists of 4 elements:

  1. Need Statement: recognizes and describes the need for a solution or improvement to an “unsatisfactory situation.”  It answers the questions, “what is wrong with the way things are currently? What is unsatisfactory about it? What negative effects does this situation cause?” You may need to do research and supply data to quantify the negative effects.
  2. Goal Statement:  describes what the improved situation would look like once a solution has been implemented. The goal statement defines the scope of your search for a solution. At this point, do not describe your solution, only the goal that any proposed solution should achieve. The broader you make your goal, the more numerous and varied your solutions can be; a narrowly focused goal limits the number and variety of possible solutions.
  3. Objectives define measurable, specific outcomes that any feasible solution should optimize (aspects you can use to “grade” the effectiveness of the solution). Objectives provide you with ways to quantifiably measure how well any solution will solve the problem; ideally, they will allow you to compare multiple solutions and figure out which one is most effective (which one gets the highest score on meeting the objectives?).
  4. Constraints define the limits that any feasible solution must adhere to in order to be acceptable (pass/fail conditions, range limits, etc.). The key word here is must — constraints are the “go/no go” conditions that determine whether a solution is acceptable or not.  These often include budget and time limits, as well as legal, safety and other regulatory requirements.

Communication as Solution

This model can apply to a communications task as well as more physical design tasks. Imagine your communications task as something that will solve a problem or improve a situation. Before you begin drafting this document or presentation, define the problem you want to solve with this document:

Keep in mind that the document you produce is evaluated in terms of how well it responds to the “problem” — that is, how well it meets the overall goal and demonstrates achievement of specific objectives while abiding by constraints.

EXERCISE:  Define a problem

Think of a problem or an “unsatisfactory situation” that you have recently experienced.  It could be as simple as it’s 8pm, I haven’t had dinner yet, and I’m hungry. Use Hymen’s Problem Formulation schema to formally define the problem — without proposing any particular solutions. Your problem definition should ideally allow multiple possible solutions that adhere to the following:

  1. Need/Unsatisfactory situation:
  2. What is your goal?
  3. What are some measurable objectives you want to achieve?
  4. What are your constraints?

Download and use the attached Problem Definition Template (.docx)

"NASA design process."  NASA STEM Engagement [Online]. Available: https://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/best/index.html.Used for educational and noncommercial purposes.
B. Hyman, “Ch. 2: Problem formulation,” in Fundamentals of Engineering Design, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002, pp. 40-54.

2.3 Conventions and Characteristics

Suzan Last

Learning Objectives

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Describe and use a conventions.

Every genre of writing has unique characteristics and rules, called conventions, that help readers classify a document as belonging to a particular genre. This also applies to film and music. Think about the last movie you saw. What type of movie was it? What about that movie gave you that impression? Did the characters wear Stetson hats, ride horses, and carry guns? Did they fly in space ships, encounter alien beings, and use futuristic technology? Those elements are typical conventions of Western and Science Fiction genres.

Non-fiction is a category that can be broken into various genres and sub-genres. The main types of non-fction that are relevant to us are journalism (newspaper writing), academic writing (written by scholars and published in peer reviewed academic journals or books), and technical writing. Before we get into the specific conventions that characterize technical writing, take a moment to think back to your academic writing course and list some conventions typical of journalism (popular press) and academic writing in Table 1.

TABLE 1 Identify the conventions for journalistic and academic writing
Criteria Journalistic Academic
Writing Style
Other Features

Like journalism and scholarly writing, technical writing also has distinct features that readers expect to see in documents that fall within this genre. These include (a) use of headings to organize information into coherent sections, (b) use of lists to present information concisely, (c) use of figures and tables to present data and information visually, and (d) use of visual design to enhance readability. These conventions are connected to the main purposes of technical writing, which include communicating the following:

Technical documentation is intended to communicate information to the people who need it in a way that is clear and easy to read, at the right time to help make decisions and to support productivity. Designing technical communication is like designing any other product for an intended user:  the ultimate goal is to make it “user friendly.”

Key words here are accessible, usable, clear, goal-oriented, effective, and reader-centred.  The characteristics of technical writing support these goals and concepts.

If we filled in Table 1 with typical characteristics of technical writing, it might look something like Table 2.

TABLE 2. Conventions of Technical Writing
Criteria Technical Writing
Purpose To communicate technical and specialized information in a clear, accessible, usable manner to people who need to use it to make decisions, perform processes, or support company goals.
Audience Varied, but can include fellow employees such as subordinates, colleagues, managers, and executives, as well as clients and other stakeholders, the general public, and even readers within the legal system.
Writing Style Concise, clear, plain, and direct language; may include specialized terminology; typically uses short sentences and paragraphs; uses active voice; makes purpose immediately clear.
Tone Business/professional in tone, which falls between formal and informal; may use first person or second person if appropriate; courteous and constructive.
Structure Highly structured; short paragraphs; clear transitions and structural cues (headings and sub-headings) to move the reader directly and logically through the document.
Format/Formatting Can be in electronic, visual, or printed formats; may be long (reports) or short (emails, letters, memos); often uses style guides to describe required formatting features; uses headings, lists, figures and tables.
Other Features Typically objective and neutral; ideas are evidence-based and data-driven; descriptors are precise and quantitative whenever possible.

2.4 Understanding the Rhetorical Situation

Suzan Last and Candice Neveu

Learning Objectives

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Describe and use Task and Audience Analysis .

It is common knowledge in the workplace that no one really wants to read what you write, and even if they want to or have to read it, they will likely not read all of it. So how do you get your reader to understand what you need quickly and efficiently? Start by doing a detailed Task and Audience Analysis — make sure you understand the “rhetorical situation.” Before you begin drafting a document, determine the needs of your rhetorical situation (See Figure 1).

In a rhetorical situation, you have to consider the Writer, Purpose, Audience, Message, and Context & Culture
Figure 1. The Rhetorical Situation.

The “rhetorical situation” is a term used to describe the components of any situation in which you may want to communicate, whether in written or oral form. To define a “rhetorical situation,” ask yourself this question:  “who is talking to whom about what, how, and why?” There are five main components:

PURPOSE refers to why you are writing. Determining your purpose requires that you engage in Task Analysis — that is, determine what you hope to accomplish by writing this document. Ask yourself what you hope the reader(s) will do/think/decide/ or how they will behave as a result of reading the text. There are three general purposes for communication in the workplace: 1) to create a record, 2) to give or request information, and 3) to persuade.

Within those general purposes, you will find a myriad of specific purposes. For example, your purpose may be to  propose an innovative solution to a specific problem. In this case, you want the reader to agree to explore the idea further, or approve funding for further research and development, which would fall under the general purpose of writing to persuade.

WRITER refers to you, the writer/creator/designer of the communication. It is important to examine your own motivation for writing and any biases, past experiences, and knowledge you bring to the writing situation. These elements will influence how you craft the message, whether positively or negatively. This examination should also include your role within the organization, as well as your position relative to your target audience.

AUDIENCE refers to your readers/listeners/viewers/users. Audience Analysis is possibly the most critical part of understanding the rhetorical situation. Consider Figure 2 below. Is your audience internal (within your company) or external (such as clients, suppliers, customers, other stakeholders)? Are they lateral to you (at the same position or level), upstream from you (management), or downstream from you (employees, subordinates)? Who is the primary audience? Who are the secondary audiences? These questions, and others, help you to create an understanding of your audience that will help you craft a message that is designed to effectively communicate specifically to them.

You have relationships with Supervisors; Colleagues and Team Members; Subordinates; and the public, clients, supplies, and government.
Figure 2 Understanding your relationship to your audience.

Keep in mind that your different audiences will also have a specific purpose in reading your document. Consider what their various purposes might be, and how you can best help them achieve their purpose. What do they already know? What do they need to know? Considering what they are expected to do with the information you provide will help you craft your message effectively. Consider also that technical writing often has a long “life-span” – a document you write today could be filed away and reviewed months or even years down the road. Consider the needs of that audience as well.

Audience Purpose for Reading
Executives Make decisions
Supervising Experts/Managers Advise decision makers; direct subordinates
Technical Experts/Co-workers Implement decisions; advise
Lay People/Public/Clients Become informed; choose options; make decisions

Some companies develop audience profiles to help guide their communications. This is a good exercise whenever you have something to communicate, especially if the information is complex. Here are some questions to consider as part of the audience profile:

Developing an Audience Profile

  • Who are your primary readers? (specific names and titles, or general roles)
  • Are they above you in the organizational hierarchy? Lateral, subordinate? Outside of your organization?
  • Who else might read this document? (secondary readers)
  • Do you know what their attitude towards the topic is?
  • How might cultural differences affect their expectations and interpretations?
  • How much technical background do the readers have?
  • How much do they already know about the topic?
  • What situation gave rise to this document?

MESSAGE refers to the information you want to communicate. This is the content of your document. It should be aligned to your purpose and targeted to your audience. While it is important to carefully choose what content your audience needs, it is equally critical to cut out content that your audience does not need or want. “Time is money” may be a tired old cliché, but it is important to avoid wasting your audience’s time with information that is unnecessary or irrelevant to them. Your message should be professional, and expressed in an appropriate tone for the audience, purpose, and context.

CONTEXT refers to the situation that creates the need for the writing. In other words, what has happened or needs to happen that creates the need for communication? The context is influenced by timing, location, current events, and culture, which can be organizational or social. Ignoring the context for your communication could result in awkward situations, or possibly offensive ones. It will almost certainly impact your ability to clearly convey your message to your audience.

Consider the subtle (and not so subtle) similarities and differences in the rhetorical situation when you offer feedback on Course Experience Surveys vs when you evaluate an instructor on Ratemyprofessor.com.

EXERCISE: Identify the differences in the rhetorical situations

Course Evaluation Survey Ratemyprofessor.com

EXERCISE: Task and audience analysis

Download Task and Audience Analysis Exercises (.docx)

The table below contains a collection of details about a research project you have just completed on rising sea levels. Imagine that you’re writing documents for each of the 5 following audiences:

  1. Your supervisor/boss
  2. Scientists
  3. The general public
  4. Politician
  5. High school students

What information about rising sea levels might each audience be interested in? As you go down the list, write in the blank spaces in front of each detail the letter that corresponds to the audiences that you think would find this detail most relevant.

Consider what kind of document might contain that information for that audience.

Interested Audience Categories of Information on Sea Level Rise
The dollar damage caused by sea level increases each year.
A literature review of previous research on rising sea levels.
Descriptions of calibration procedures for your instruments.
Some basic physics of how tides and currents work.
How much your project costs.
A log of all your measurements during the whole project.
A list of people who worked on the project.
Specifications of a new instrument to measure water conditions.
A new result showing a connection between sea level and coastal developments.
Procedures you used to avoid statistical biases in your data.
Your plans for further measurements.
Your recommendations for future research.

2.5 Case Study: The Cost of Poor Communication

Suzan Last

Learning Objectives

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No one knows exactly how much poor communication costs business, industry and government each year, but estimates suggest billions.  In fact, a recent estimate claims that the cost in the U.S. alone are close to $4 billion annually! Poorly-worded or inefficient emails, careless reading or listening to instructions, documents that go unread due to poor design, hastily presenting inaccurate information, sloppy proofreading — all of these examples result in inevitable costs. The problem is that these costs aren’t usually included on the corporate balance sheet at the end of each year, so often the problem remains unsolved.

You may have seen the Project Management Tree Cartoon before (Figure 1.4.1); it has been used and adapted widely to illustrate the perils of poor communication during a project.

Different interpretations of how to design a tree swing by different members of a team and communication failures can lead to problems during the project.
Figure 1 Project Management Tree Swing Cartoon. 

The waste caused by imprecisely worded regulations or instructions, confusing emails, long-winded memos, ambiguously written contracts, and other examples of poor communication is not as easily identified as the losses caused by a bridge collapse or a flood. But the losses are just as real—in reduced productivity, inefficiency, and lost business. In more personal terms, the losses are measured in wasted time, work, money, and ultimately, professional recognition. In extreme cases, losses can be measured in property damage, injuries, and even deaths.

The following “case studies” show how poor communications can have real world costs and consequences. For example, consider the “Comma Quirk” in the Rogers Contract that cost $2 million.  A small error in spelling a company name cost £8.8 million.  Examine Tufte’s discussion (.pdf) of the failed PowerPoint presentation that attempted to prevent the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. The failure of project managers and engineers to communicate effectively resulted in the deadly Hyatt Regency walkway collapse.  The case studies below offer a few more examples that might be less extreme, but much more common.

In small groups, examine each “case” and determine the following:

  1. Define the rhetorical situation: Who is communicating to whom about what, how, and why? What was the goal of the communication in each case?
  2. Identify the communication error (poor task or audience analysis? Use of inappropriate language or style? Poor organization or formatting of information? Other?)
  3. Explain what costs/losses were incurred by this problem.
  4. Identify possible solutions or strategies that would have prevented the problem, and what benefits would be derived from implementing solutions or preventing the problem.

Present your findings in a brief, informal presentation to the class.

Exercises adapted from T.M Georges’ Analytical Writing for Science and Technology.

CASE 1: The promising chemist who buried his results

Bruce, a research chemist for a major petro-chemical company, wrote a dense report about some new compounds he had synthesized in the laboratory from oil-refining by-products. The bulk of the report consisted of tables listing their chemical and physical properties, diagrams of their molecular structure, chemical formulas and computer printouts of toxicity tests. Buried at the end of the report was a casual speculation that one of the compounds might be a particularly effective insecticide.

Seven years later, the same oil company launched a major research program to find more effective but environmentally safe insecticides. After six months of research, someone uncovered Bruce’s report and his toxicity tests. A few hours of further testing confirmed that one of Bruce’s compounds was the safe, economical insecticide they had been looking for.

Bruce had since left the company, because he felt that the importance of his research was not being appreciated.

CASE 2: The unaccepted current regulator proposal

The Acme Electric Company worked day and night to develop a new current regulator designed to cut the electric power consumption in aluminum plants by 35%. They knew that, although the competition was fierce, their regulator could be produced more cheaply, was more reliable, and worked more efficiently than the competitors’ products.

The owner, eager to capture the market, personally but somewhat hastily put together a 120-page proposal to the three major aluminum manufacturers, recommending that their regulators be installed at all company plants.

She devoted the first 87 pages of the proposal to the mathematical theory and engineering design behind his new regulator, and the next 32 to descriptions of the new assembly line she planned to set up to produce regulators quickly. Buried in an appendix were the test results that compared her regulator’s performance with present models, and a poorly drawn graph showed how much the dollar savings would be.

Acme Electric didn’t get the contracts, despite having the best product. Six months later, the company filed for bankruptcy.

CASE 3: The instruction manual the scared customers away

As one of the first to enter the field of office automation, Sagatec Software, Inc. had built a reputation for designing high-quality and user-friendly database and accounting programs for business and industry. When they decided to enter the word-processing market, their engineers designed an effective, versatile, and powerful program that Sagatec felt sure would outperform any competitor.

To be sure that their new word-processing program was accurately documented, Sagatec asked the senior program designer to supervise writing the instruction manual. The result was a thorough, accurate and precise description of every detail of the program’s operation.

When Sagatec began marketing its new word processor, cries for help flooded in from office workers who were so confused by the massive manual that they couldn’t even find out how to get started. Then several business journals reviewed the program and judged it “too complicated” and “difficult to learn.” After an impressive start, sales of the new word processing program plummeted.

Sagatec eventually put out a new, clearly written training guide that led new users step by step through introductory exercises and told them how to find commands quickly. But the rewrite cost Sagatec $350,000, a year’s lead in the market, and its reputation for producing easy-to-use business software.

CASE 4: One garbled memo – 26 baffled phone calls

Joanne supervised 36 professionals in 6 city libraries. To cut the costs of unnecessary overtime, she issued this one-sentence memo to her staff:

When workloads increase to a level requiring hours in excess of an employee’s regular duty assignment, and when such work is estimated to require a full shift of eight (8) hours or more on two (2) or more consecutive days, even though unscheduled days intervene, an employee’s tour of duty shall be altered so as to include the hours when such work must be done, unless an adverse impact would result from such employee’s absence from his previously scheduled assignment.

After the 36 copies were sent out, Joanne’s office received 26 phone calls asking what the memo meant. What the 10 people who didn’t call  about the memo thought is uncertain. It took a week to clarify the new policy.

CASE 5: Big science — Little rhetoric

The following excerpt is from Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, itself both a plea for and an excellent example of clear scientific communication:

The Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) would have been the preeminent instrument on the planet for probing the fine structure of matter and the nature of the early Universe. Its price tag was $10 to $15 billion. It was cancelled by Congress in 1993 after about $2 billion had been spent — a worst of both worlds outcome. But this debate was not, I think, mainly about declining interest in the support of science. Few in Congress understood what modern high-energy accelerators are for. They are not for weapons. They have no practical applications. They are for something that is, worrisomely from the point of view of many, called “the theory of everything.” Explanations that involve entities called quarks, charm, flavor, color, etc., sound as if physicists are being cute. The whole thing has an aura, in the view of at least some Congresspeople I’ve talked to, of “nerds gone wild” — which I suppose is an uncharitable way of describing curiosity-based science. No one asked to pay for this had the foggiest idea of what a Higgs boson is. I’ve read some of the material intended to justify the SSC. At the very end, some of it wasn’t too bad, but there was nothing that really addressed what the project was about on a level accessible to bright but skeptical non-physicists. If physicists are asking for 10 or 15 billion dollars to build a machine that has no practical value, at the very least they should make an extremely serious effort, with dazzling graphics, metaphors, and capable use of the English language, to justify their proposal. More than financial mismanagement, budgetary constraints, and political incompetence, I think this is the key to the failure of the SSC.

CASE 6: The co-op student who mixed up genres

Chris was simultaneously enrolled in a university writing course and working as a co-op student at the Widget Manufacturing plant. As part of his co-op work experience, Chris shadowed his supervisor/mentor on a safety inspection of the plant, and was asked to write up the results of the inspection in a compliance memo. In the same week, Chris’s writing instructor assigned the class to write a narrative essay based on some personal experience. Chris, trying to be efficient, thought that the plant visit experience could provide the basis for his essay assignment as well.

He wrote the essay first, because he was used to writing essays and was pretty good at it. He had never even seen a compliance memo, much less written one, so was not as confident about that task. He began the essay like this:

On June 1, 2018, I conducted a safety audit of the Widget Manufacturing plant in New City. The purpose of the audit was to ensure that all processes and activities in the plant adhere to safety and handling rules and policies outlined in the Workplace Safety Handbook and relevant government regulations. I was escorted on a 3-hour tour of the facility by…

Chris finished the essay and submitted it to his writing instructor. He then revised the essay slightly, keeping the introduction the same, and submitted it to his co-op supervisor. He “aced” the essay, getting an A grade, but his supervisor told him that the report was unacceptable and would have to be rewritten – especially the beginning, which should have clearly indicated whether or not the plant was in compliance with safety regulations. Chris was aghast! He had never heard of putting the “conclusion” at the beginning. He missed the company softball game that Saturday so he could rewrite the report to the satisfaction of his supervisor.

J. Bernoff, "Bad writing costs business billions," Daily Beast, Oct. 16, 2016 [Online]. Available: https://www.thedailybeast.com/bad-writing-costs-businesses-billions?ref=scroll
J. Ward, "The project management tree swing cartoon, past and present," TamingData, July 8, 2019 [Online] Available: https://www.tamingdata.com/2010/07/08/the-project-management-tree-swing-cartoon-past-and-present/CC-BY-ND 4.0.
G. Robertson, “Comma quirk irks Rogers,” Globe and Mail, Aug. 6, 2006 [Online]. Available: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/comma-quirk-irks-rogers/article1101686/
“The £8.8m typo: How one mistake killed a family business,” (28 Jan. 2015). The Guardian [online]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/law/shortcuts/2015/jan/28/typo-how-one-mistake-killed-a-family-business-taylor-and-sons
E. Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, 2001 [Online]. Available: https://www.inf.ed.ac.uk/teaching/courses/pi/2016_2017/phil/tufte-powerpoint.pdf
C. McFadden, "Understanding the tragic Hyatt Regency walkway collapse," Interesting Engineering, July 4, 2017 [Online]: https://interestingengineering.com/understanding-hyatt-regency-walkway-collapse
T.M. Goerges (1996), Analytical Writing for Science and Technology [Online], Available: https://www.scribd.com/document/96822930/Analytical-Writing
C. Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, New York, NY: Random House, 1995.


Chapter 3 Writing Process: Planning

Like communication in general, good writing comes from following a process. Between an author hatching an idea and the audience reading and understanding that idea, the writing process enables the author to craft messages in a time-efficient manner that ultimately meets the needs of the audience. Without following a four-stage process — (1) planning, (2) research or information gathering, (3) drafting and (4) editing) — an author can waste plenty of their own time writing what doesn’t need to be written and wasting the reader’s time by confusing them with a message that doesn’t meet their needs.

The next three chapters deal with each of these four writing stages, dividing them into several steps that, when followed as a matter of habit, can save you time by helping you write no more or less than you need to in achieving your professional communication goals.

3.1 Knowing Your Purpose for Writing

Learning Objectives

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  After studying this unit, you will be able to

      • distinguish between general and specific purposes for writing
      • understand the Writing Process


Figure 4.1: An explanation of each goal in the business writing process (Communicating for Results, 2017)

Rarely does anyone write for professional reasons just for fun. There must always be a good reason for writing an email, filling out a work order, or composing a large market research report.  Knowing your reason for writing is essential to staying on track in the writing process.  Business communications has three main reasons: to inform, to persuade, and to communicate goodwill.

Whatever the purpose of your document, business writing is not intuitive.  Thus, the next four chapters will present a systematic plan for preparing business messages in the digital age: pre-writing,  drafting, and revising, called the 3-x-3 Writing Process.   The process starts with knowing the purpose of the message, which will guide you towards writing an effective message in a document appropriate for the audience and occasion.


The Writing Process


The writing process follows a three-phase process: pre-writing, drafting and revising (see Figure 4.1).  The time you will spend in each phase will depend on the complexity of the problem, the purpose and the audience.  Business writing differs from other forms of writing.  Instead of long paragraphs that fully develop arguments, business writing is focused, clear and concise.  In the workplace, writing should be purposeful, economical, and reader-oriented.  Writing this way is a skill that takes time and practice to develop.  Carefully working through the Writing Process is the key to perfecting this skill.

Figure 4.2: The steps in the Writing Process (Business Communications, 2019).

Pre-writing: Phase I of the writing process involves analyzing the audience.  Messages must provide receivers with the information they need or want to be informed or persuaded.  Anticipating audience reaction is also part of this phase: will the audience have a positive, negative, or neutral response to the message.  A writer must understand these factors and adapt the message to communicate clearly with the intended audience.

Drafting:  Phase II of the writing process involves, researching, organizing, and then drafting the message.  What information is most important to the receiver is at the heart of each part of this phase.  This phase in the writing process is critical to preparing a final document that meets audience needs.

Revising:  Phase III involves editing, proofreading and evaluating the message to ensure the message accomplishes the goal of communication.


An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:


An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Key Takeaways

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        • Business communication has three purposes: to inform, to persuade, and to promote goodwill.  Knowing the purpose for writing at the outset helps keep you on track with topic selection.
        • The three phases of the Writing Process: pre-writing, drafting, and revising, is a systematic way to make the writing process quicker and easier.

Exercises 4.1

pen and paper iconSelect a letter you’ve recently received in the mail (or one your roommate, friend, or family member has received) from a company or organization, ideally a promotional or campaign letter rather than one too specific to your own or the recipient’s situation, and describe both its general and specific purposes. If its general-purpose included informing (recall that a document can have more than one general purpose), identify the subtopics (5 W’s + H).


Bovee, C.L., Thill, J. V., & Scribner J. A. (2016) Business communication essentials (4th ed.). Don Mills, ON: Pearson Canada Inc.

Guffey, M., Loewry, D., & Griffin, E. (2019). Business communication: Process and product (6th ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson Education. Retrieved from http://www.cengage.com/cgi-wadsworth/course_products_wp.pl?fid=M20b&product_isbn_issn=9780176531393&template=NELSON

3.2 Analyzing your Audience

Learning Objectives

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After studying this unit, you will be able to

  • analyze primary and secondary audiences using common profiling techniques
  • adjust writing style according to audience size, position relative to you, knowledge of your topic, and demographic


The first commandment in any business is to “Know thy audience.” Any act of communication success depends entirely on how well the sender tailors the message to meet the needs and expectations of the audience. A writer should always adjust the message, content and style to what is known or can guess about the audience. A writer should communicate to a customer differently than to a co-worker, and different again when communicating to a manager or to the CEO. In each case, the content, tone, word choices (diction), grammar, and overall style (formal or informal) will change according to the audience.

Understanding how to compose the most appropriate message for an audience takes skill and consideration. However, audience profile allows for effective business messages that achieve their communication goals.  When profiling an audience, ask the following questions:

Figure 5.1: How to use an audience profile to write a business message (Business Communication Essentials, 2016).

The following subsections delve further into these considerations to help you answer the above questions in specific situations.

Profiling the Audience 

Figure 5.2: A writer may communicate to one person or a group of people (BCcampus, n.d.)

Writing for Audiences of Various Sizes

Writing to one person, a group of people, or the general public requires a different writing style.   your writing style to accommodate a larger audience. When emailing one person, for instance, you can address them by name in the opening salutation and continue to use the second person singular you throughout. However, when writing for a larger group, a more general and accessible language is required. When writing for the consumer public, in a blog on a company website, language must be as plain and accessible as possible. In Canada, the public includes readers who will appreciate that you use simple words rather than big, fancy equivalents because English maybe the second or third language. Indeed, the Government of Canada has published a handy guide for how to write accessibly in plain language.

Writing Skill 5.1 – Using Simple and Familiar Language:  To effectively communicate with your audience, use plain language and familiar words.  By using everyday familiar words, the audience will understand the message easily and quickly.  Use jargon only when the audience will understand these specialized terms. When, complex words and difficult concepts must be included, illustrate them with examples and provide a glossary when it is necessary to use several such words/concepts.  Use concrete rather than abstract words and give explicit information (e.g., “car crash” rather than “unfortunate accident”).  Finally, choose one term to describe something important and stick to it; using various terms to describe the same thing can confuse the reader


Figure 5.3: List of familiar vs unfamiliar. Business writers are encouraged to use accessible language in business documents. (Business Communications, 2019)
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To reinforce these lessons on plain language, you can examine US Government resources on the topic such as the “Principles of Plain Language” PowerPoint on their Tools page (PLAIN, 2011) and do a selection of plain language exercises (PLAIN, n.d.).


Writing Skill 5.2 – Bias Language: When writing to large audiences, language must be unbiased in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, ability, or orientation.  Communicators want to be inclusive to members of all groups. When communicating to or about a large group of people, using singular pronouns like he, his, or she and her would exclude half of the audience.  Thus, using gender-neutral plural pronouns such as they, their, and them is preferable.  In addition, when identifying people by their role, use non-gender-exclusive equivalents. See Queen’s University’s (2014) Inclusive Language Guidelines page for more on avoiding bias in your writing.

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Writing Skill 5.3 – English idioms: The larger the group, the more careful you must be with using unique English idioms as well. Idioms are quirky or funny expressions we use to make a point. If you wanted to reassure a customer who recently immigrated from North Africa, for instance, before explaining an automotive maintenance procedure unique to Canadian winter weather and said, “Hey, don’t worry, it’ll be a piece of cake,” they may be wondering what eating cake has to do with switching to winter tires. Likewise, if you said instead that it’ll be “a walk in the park,” they would be confused about why they need to walk through a park to get their radials switched. Calling it a “cakewalk” wouldn’t help much, either.

These expressions would be perfectly understood by anyone who has been conversing in English for years because they would have heard it many times before and used it themselves. In the case of using them around EAL (English as an additional language) speakers, however, you would be better off using the one word that these idioms translate as: easy. Again, the whole goal of communication is to be understood, so if you use idioms with people who haven’t yet learned them, you will fail to reach that goal. See www.theidioms.com for a wide selection of English idioms and their meanings.

Test your knowledge of English idioms by playing the matching game below.



Primary and Secondary Audiences

Your primary audience is the person or group the message is created for; the intended receiver of the message.  The primary audience is the decision-maker who will act or not act as a result of the message.  Anyone else who may read or listen to the message in the secondary audience.  The secondary audience falls into two categories. First, those who will influence the primary audience to make a decision; second, those who will be affected by the decision of the primary audience.  Consider the situation below to determine the primary and secondary audiences.


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Always consider secondary audiences for any message.  Writers have little-to-no control over who sees a message.  An email can be forwarded, and text or voicemail messages can be shown or played.  Before sending that email or text, or leaving that voicemail in professional situations, always consider how it would be received by both the primary and secondary audiences.


 Audience and Position

Just as you might wear your best clothes for an important occasion like a job interview or wedding, you must respectfully elevate the formality of your language depending on the perceived importance of the person you are communicating with.

Employers and clients can be judgmental.  An employee’s writing represents the company to clients and other stakeholders (Wiens, 2012).  Formality in writing requires correct grammar and punctuation, whereas more casual writing takes liberties such as using sentence fragments and contractions. The degree of formality in language will depend on your internal and external audiences.  Business communications have three levels of formality depending on who will receive the message: informal, semi-formal, and formal.  Whatever the level of formality, always remember language must befit the context of the workplace.

Informal Language: The lowest level of formality occurs inside a company when communicating across (between co-workers) or downward (to rank-and-file employees).  Here, informal communication can be used in memos, emails, and text messages.  When we put pen to paper, informal communication means, use of first-person pronouns, contractions, active language, and conversational language is accepted.

Semi-Formal Language:  The next level of formality is used when communicating externally or when communicating internally upwards (to a manager and other executives).  Letters, proposals and reports are some documents that required semi-formal language.   Semi-formal language involves reducing the use of first-person pronouns, contractions, and conversational language.

Formal Language: The highest level of formality is used when communicating to national or international audiences.  A high level of formality means eliminating first-person pronouns, contractions, and idioms.  Formal language also involves using third-person pronouns and more passive than active writing.  Finally, using words that when defined in a dictionary or translated through an app conveys the same meaning as the communique.


Figure 5.4: A summary of the characteristics of each level of formality in business communications. (Communicating for Results, 2017; Business Communications, 2019)

Formality in writing also involves carefully selecting words. Word choice is called “diction”.  The words used when writing a co-worker should be different from the words used when writing your manager or a customer.  Table 5.2 provides word choices that reflect informal, semi-formal and formal language.  Understanding the audience will ensure your choice of words is always right for the situation.

Table 5.2 Word Choices Along the Formality Spectrum

Informal / Slang Semi-formal / Common Formal / Fancy
kick off begin / start commence
cut off end terminate
put off delay postpone
awesome / dope good positive
crappy / shoddy bad negative
flaunt show demonstrate
find out discover ascertain
go up rise increase
fess up / come clean admit confess
 mull over  consider  contemplate
 bad-mouth / put down  insult / belittle  denigrate
 plus  also  moreover
 jones for  need  require
 put up with  endure/suffer  tolerate
 leave out / skip  omit  exclude
 give the go-ahead / green light  permit  authorize
 loaded / well-heeled  wealthy/rich  affluent / monied
 deal with  handle  manage
 pronto / a.s.a.p.  now  immediately
 muddy  confuse  obfuscate


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Audience Knowledge

Understanding how much information the audience knows is important so that the correct amount of information is provided: not too much and not too little.  A safe assumption about a  professional audience is that they are busy and do not have time to read unnecessary information. Too much information wastes the reader’s time, insults their knowledge, and wastes the writer’s time. On the other end of that spectrum, writing too little assumes the audience knows more than they do.  A lack of necessary information in a message can lead to errors due to confusion, a waste of time as readers request clarification or misunderstanding based on lack of information.   Remember, the goal of communication is for the receiver to understand information as intended by the sender.  Understanding how much information the receiver requires will help achieve this goal.

Appropriately gauging your audience’s level of knowledge extends to the language you use. Every profession has its jargon, which is the specialized vocabulary, shorthand code words, and slang used among colleagues with the same discipline and specific education. Jargon saves time by making elaborate descriptions unnecessary and is useful among people who speak the same language.

Audience Demographic

The previous subsection explained the necessity of gauging your audience’s level of knowledge in a given subject area, and that extends to their more general level of education as well as other demographic factors such as age, gender, religion, income, location, and so on. Demographic information is quantifiable, countable and measurable.

Depending on your profession, you may have to deal with people of all ages and levels of education from elementary school children to the elderly. Understanding the audience’s demographic data provides insight and allows a message to be adapted to meet the wants and needs of a specific audience.      

Try not to stereotype or make assumptions based on demographic information. People are complicated.  Thus, being respectful towards an audience is key to effective communication.


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Writing Skill 5.4 – Highlighting Reader Benefits: Whenever you need to convince an audience to use a service, buy a product, or follow a policy, it’s effective to first explain what benefits the audience will receive from the action.  Performing audience analysis can help define reader benefits for informative and persuasive messages by uncovering factors that will motivate readers to do or not to do an action.  Writing reader-oriented messages means that you write from the perspective of the reader and consider how the reader will decode the message?  Keep WIIFM in mind when writing messages.  Messages that do not answer the WIIFM question are often ineffective in communicating a message.  Figure 5.5 provides examples of sender focus and reader focus sentences.  In your opinion, which type of sentence is more effective at motivating a reader to complete an action?


Figure 5.5: Messages that spotlight receiver benefits by using the “you” view (Business Communication, 2019).

Writing Skill 5.5 – “You” View: The “you” view writing technique is used to convert messages from the sender’s perspective to the receiver’s perspective.  Writing in the “you” view literally means using the pronouns ‘you’ and ‘your’ to address the reader.  These pronouns have a much greater impact when the message is positive or even neutral. Writing this way is counter-intuitive.  It is more natural to write from our perspective and to use first-person pronouns to encode messages. However,  sender-oriented messages that use first-person personal and possessive pronouns (I, me, my, we, us, and our) don’t register as well with readers because that tends to come off as being self-involved.  Watch the video, You Attitude in Business Writing, for a further explanation of the importance of writing using the “you” view.


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The trick to achieving an audience-oriented message is to catch yourself whenever you begin using first-person pronouns like “I” and “my”, and immediately flip the sentence around to say “you” and “your” instead (see figure 5.5).  Messages more considerate, sympathetic, and even empathetic when your write from the reader’s perspective.  In short, the “you” view helps to communicate goodwill.


An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:


Key Takeaways

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      • Knowing your audience by their size, position relative to you, knowledge of your topic, and demographic helps you craft your message content and style to meet their needs.
      • Adapting your message to the audience increases your chance of effective communication.
      • Highlighting reader benefits and using the “you” view are crucial motivators.


pen and paper icon1. List at least three demographic traits that apply to you. How does belonging to these demographic groups influence your perceptions and priorities? Share your thoughts with your classmates.
2. Recall a time when you started a new job and learned the jargon of the workplace—words that the general public wouldn’t know the meaning of, or at least the meanings you attached to them. Write a glossary listing as many such jargon words as you can along with their definitions How you would explain them to the public? Share a few with the class. (If you’ve never been employed, use a volunteer, sports, or other group activity you’ve engaged in.)
3. Review the last email you wrote. Is it written formally or informally? If informal, revise it so that it is more formal as if you were to send it to a manager or client; if formal, revise it so that it is more informal as if you were to send it to a trusted co-worker. (If you want your most recent email to remain private, search back for the one you wouldn’t mind sharing). Include the original email in your submission.


BCcampus. (n.d.).  Context, audience, purpose. Business writing for everyone.  Retrieved from https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/arley/chapter/ch-3-context-audience-purpose/.

Bovee, C.L., Thill, J. V., & Scribner J. A. (2016) Business communication essentials (4th ed.). Don Mills, ON: Pearson Canada Inc.

Communication Canada. (2003, May). Successful communication tool kit: Literary and you. Government of Canada Publications. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/PF4-16-2003E.pdf

The Conference Board of Canada. (2013). Adult literacy rate—low-level skills. How Canada Performs. Retrieved from http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/education/adult-literacy-rate-low-skills.aspx

Guffey, M., Loewry, D., & Griffin, E. (2019). Business communication: Process and product (6th ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson Education. Retrieved from http://www.cengage.com/cgi-wadsworth/course_products_wp.pl?fid=M20b&product_isbn_issn=9780176531393&template=NELSON

Gregg Learning. (2018).  You attitude in business writing [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJK7hMXehj0.

Lublin, D. (2012, November 8). Do employers have a right to spy on workers? The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/careers/career-advice/experts/do-employers-have-a-right-to-spy-on-workers/article5104037/?ref=http://www.theglobeandmail.com&

Meyer, C. (2017). Communicating for results (4th ed.). Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://oup-arc.com/access/meyer-4e-student-resources#tag_case-studies

PLAIN. (n.d.). Principles of plain language: Exercise packet. The Plain Language Action and Information Network. Retrieved from http://www.plainlanguage.gov/resources/for_trainers/plainfiles/exercises_all_writing_classes.pdf

PLAIN. (2011, March 27). Tools from PLAIN. The Plain Language Action and Information Network. Retrieved from http://www.plainlanguage.gov/resources/for_trainers/PLAIN.cfm

Queen’s University. (2014, April 9). Inclusive language guidelines. Style Guide. Retrieved from http://queensu.ca/styleguide/inclusivelanguage

3.3 Selecting Appropriate Channels

Learning Objectives

target iconAfter studying this unit, you will be able to distinguish between communication channels to determine which is most appropriate for particular situations.


The medium or channel is the vehicle of transmission for a message.  Generally, several communication channels could communicate a message, but choosing the most appropriate channel will depend on the audience, the message, and the purpose of communication.  When communicating a message, choosing from traditional communication channels: memos, letters, face-to-face (F2F) meetings, and telephone calls; as well as digital media: emails, text messages, videoconferencing, blogs, and websites are all options.  The business writer must have a clear understanding of the audience to ensure the channel of communication will effectively communicate the message.  

Figure 6.1: Choosing the best communication channel takes an in-depth understanding of the audience, the purpose and the message. (Business Communications, 2019).

Between traditional and rapid electronic media, we have more choice for communication channels than ever in human history. Each has its own unique advantages and disadvantages that make it appropriate or inappropriate for specific situations. Knowing those pros and cons, summarized in Table 6.1 below for a dozen of the most common verbal and written channels available, is necessary for being an effective communicator in the modern workplace. Choosing channels wisely can mean the difference between a message that is received and understood as intended (the goal of communication), and one that is lost in the noise or misunderstood in costly ways.

Selecting the Right Medium

Media can be categorized into four main types: oral, written, visual, and electronic.

Table 6.1  Types of Business Communication

The advantages and disadvantages of the four categories of business communications. (Business Communication Essentials, 2016).

There are other considerations when choosing the exact channel to send a message.  When is a written memo preferable to an electronic one?  When is a text message more appropriate than a telephone conversation?  Understanding what situation, message, and receiver require which specific channel is the topic of our next section.

Message formality: The choice of channel is a non-verbal cue that affects style and tone.  For example, a memo or letter is for formal in tone and format than is a text or IM message.

Media Limitation:  Some channels are more appropriate for certain messages.  For example, a report will convey a more complex message than a text message or discussing sensitive information is more appropriate in a face-to-face meeting rather than over a text message.

Urgency: Be mindful of people’s time.  Messages that do not require immediate feedback can be communicated via email or voicemail rather than a f2f meeting or telephone conversation.

Cost: Some mediums are more costly than others.  Cost is a non-verbal cue of importance.  For example, communicating the importance of a change in company policy is more likely to be effective if shared in a f2f meeting than through a memo.

Choosing the wrong channel can result in a message that is less effective or even misunderstood.


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The Spectrum of Common Workplace Communication Channels

Choosing the correct communication channel on the spectrum of options using the criteria above involves a decision-making process based on the purposes of the communication, as discussed earlier in this chapter. Factors to consider include convenience for both the sender and receiver, timeliness, and cost in terms of both time and money. Table 6.2 and the video that follows provides information on what medium is best used in what situation.

Table 6.2 Channel Selection Criteria

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Example: When to Select the Email Channel

When choosing to send an email, for instance, you:

  1. Begin with the thought you need to communicate
  2. Decide that it must be in writing for future reference rather than spoken
  3. Consider that it would be more convenient if it arrived cheaply the instant you finished writing it and hit Send
  4. Want to give the recipient the opportunity to respond quickly or at least within the 24-hour norm
  5. Decide that it would be better to send your message by email rather than by other electronic channels such as text, instant message (because you have more to say than would fit in either of those formats), or fax because you know the recipient prefers email over fax, as do most people and all but a few professional fields.

All of these decisions may occur to you in the span of a second or so because they are largely habitual. Figure 6.2 charts out the decision-making process for selecting the most appropriate channel among the 10 given in Table 6.2 above.

Flow chart outlining how to choose the best channel of communication for your needs

Figure 6.2: Channel Selection Process Flow Chart

We will examine the uses, misuses, conventions, and implications of these channels in the chapters ahead. For now, however, let’s appreciate that choosing the right channel at the outset of the writing process saves time—the time that you would otherwise spend correcting communication errors and doing damage control for having chosen the wrong one for the situation at hand. If you find yourself forced to meet someone in person to deal with the damage wrought by toxic email exchange before moving forward, just think how you would be into the next steps if you had skipped the email war and met in person to deal with the situation like adults in the first place.


Key Takeaway

key iconChoose the most appropriate communication channel for the occasion by taking into account the full spectrum of traditional and electronic means, as well as your own and your audience’s needs.


pen and paper iconIdentify the most appropriate channel for communicating what’s necessary in the given situation and explain your reasoning.
1. You come up with a new procedure that makes a routine task in your role in the organization quicker and easier; praise for your innovation goes all the way up to the CEO, who now wants you to meet with the other employees in your role in the seven other branch offices across the country to share the procedure.
2. A customer emails you for a price quote on a custom job they would like you to do for them. (Your company has a formal process for writing up quotes on an electronic form that gives a price breakdown on a PDF.)
3. You are working with two office mates on a market report. Both have been bad lately about submitting their work on time, and you’re starting to worry about meeting the next major milestone a few days from now. Neither has been absent because you can see them in their offices as you walk by in the hallway.
4. You are about to close a deal but need quick authorization from your manager across town about a certain discount you would like to apply. You need it in writing just in case your manager forgets about the authorization or anyone else questions it back at the office.
5. Your division recently received word from management that changes to local bylaws mean that a common procurement procedure will have to be slightly altered when dealing with suppliers. Your team meets to go over the changes and the new procedure, but you need to set it down in writing so that everyone in attendance can refer to it, as well as any new hires.
6. You have a limited amount of time to discuss a potential funding opportunity with a colleague in another city because the proposal deadline is later in the week, and it’s almost closing time in your colleague’s office. You’ll have to hammer out some details about who will write the various parts of the proposal before you get to work on it tonight.
7. You were under contract with a local entrepreneur to perform major landscaping services. Near the end of the job, you discovered that he dissolved his company and is moving on, but you haven’t yet been paid for services rendered. You want to formally inform him of the charges and remind him of his contractual obligations; in doing so, you want to lay down a paper trail in case you need to take him to court for breach of contract.


Bovee, C.L., Thill, J. V., & Scribner J. A. (2016) Business communication essentials (4th ed.). Don Mills, ON: Pearson Canada Inc..

Guffey, M., Loewry, D., & Griffin, E. (2019). Business communication: Process and product (6th ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson Education. Retrieved from http://www.cengage.com/cgi-wadsworth/course_products_wp.pl?fid=M20b&product_isbn_issn=9780176531393&template=NELSON

Royal Society for Public Health. (2017, May 19). Instagram ranked worst for young people’s mental health. Retrieved from https://www.rsph.org.uk/about-us/news/instagram-ranked-worst-for-young-people-s-mental-health.html



Chapter 4 The Writing Process: Researching


Once you’ve identified your purpose for writing, profiled your audience, and selected the appropriate channel, next you must gather the information that your audience needs. From the shortest informative email to the sprawling analytical report, most professional messages involve relaying information that was looked up—that is, they involve research. Employers value employees who are resourceful, whose research skills go well beyond Google-searching on the internet and focusing on the top few results, like anyone can do. Whether such in-demand employees get the needed information from a print book in a library, a manual from a database on a company intranet, an article from a subscription database on the internet, or simply by asking a reputable authority such as a veteran co-worker, they prove their value by knowing where to find valuable information, how to use it appropriately, and how to document it if necessary.


2 Researching, 2.1 Selecting a Methodology, 2.2 Collecting Sources, 2.3 Using Sources, 2.4 Crediting Sources
Figure P3.1: The four-stage writing process and Stage 2 breakdown

1 Preparing, 2 Researching, 3 Drafting, 4 Editing

4.1 Choosing a Research Methodology

Learning Objectives

Target icon


After studying this unit, you will be able to

      • determine the appropriate research methodology that meets the needs of the audience
      • distinguish between formal and informal research


The first step in research is to know what the situation calls for in terms of the formality or rigour of research required. Although formal research carefully documents sources with citations and references, most messages relay informal research such as when you quickly look up some information you have access to and email it to the person who requested it. Either way, you apply skills in retrieving and delivering the needed information to meet your audience’s needs, often by paraphrasing or summarizing, which are extremely valuable skills coveted by employers. Knowing what research type or “methodology” the situation calls for—formal or informal research, or primary or secondary research—in the first place will keep you on track in this still-preliminary stage of the writing process.


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Research Methodology

Informal Research

You conduct informal research when you look up information and deliver share that information in an email or letter without the need to formally cite the source is informal research. It is by far the most common type of research in business.  Every professional conducts informal research several times a day in routine communication with various audiences. Say your manager emails asking you to recommend a new printer to replace the one that’s not working. You’re no expert on printers, but you know who to ask. You go to Erika, the admin. assistant in your previous department and she says to definitely go with the Ricoh printer. You trust what she says, so you end your research there and pass along this recommendation to your manager.  This type of research will is information.

Formal Research

On the other hand, formal research takes a more systematic approach to collect information. Formal research requires the source of information compiled during the research phase is documented using a conventional citation and reference system designed to make it easy for the audience to verify information credibility.

Formal research is more scientific.  Let’s return to the Ricoh example.  Using formal research to find out which printer is best now involves determining printer criteria including capabilities, cost, warranty, service plan, and availability. Next, you may read the product webpages, specification manuals, customer reviews, and reviews on several printers to get a clear idea of the pros and cons. Finally, you test the printers yourself, score them according to your assessment criteria, rank the best to worst, and report the results.

Formal research requires more time, labour, practice, skill, and resources. But why go to so much trouble? Why not just look briefly at all the options and follow your gut? Well, your gut isn’t much help when you’re in a difficult situation. If you’re going to spend a few thousand dollars on the best printer, you’re going to want to do it right. You don’t want to waste money on one that has several problems that you could have known about beforehand had you done your homework. In this case, formal research (“homework”) protects you against preventable losses.

Primary Research

Like formal vs. informal research, primary vs. secondary has much to do with the level of rigor. Basically, primary research generates new knowledge and secondary research applies it. In the above case, the authors of the Consumer Reports article conducted primary research because they came up with the assessment criteria, arranged for access to all the printers, tested and scored each according to how well they performed against each criterion, analyzed the data, determined the ranking of best to worst printer on the market, and reported it in a published article. If you can’t conduct primary research yourself because you don’t have easy access to all the printers worth considering, you are thankful someone else has and would even pay money for that information.

Figure 7.1: A brief overview of the characteristics of primary and secondary research (The Balance, 2019)

Other forms of primary research include surveys of randomly sampled people to gauge general attitudes on certain subjects and lab experiments that follow the scientific method. Primary research is labour-intensive, typically expensive.

Secondary Research

What most people do—especially students—when they conduct research for an academic or professional tasks is secondary research.  Secondary research involves finding and using information that already exists.  To use the printer example above, accessing the Consumer Reports article and using its recommendation to make a case for office printer selection is secondary research.

The easiest, most common, and most expedient research, the kind that the vast majority of informative workplace communication involves is informal secondary research. However, when you do a school research assignment or if your manager requires you to cite the source, then formal secondary research is required. In business, formal secondary research is best for ensuring that company resources are used appropriately and can be supported by all stakeholders. In other words, formal secondary research is a necessary part of a business’s due diligence. In the following section, we will break down the labour-intensive process of building a document around source material collected through formal secondary research.

Key Takeaway

key iconDetermine the most appropriate research methodology—informal or formal, primary or secondary—for your audience and purpose depending on the level of rigour required.


1. Use your college library account to access Consumer Reports and find a report on a product type of interest to you. Assuming that your audience’s needs are for informal secondary research only, write a mock (pretend) email making a recommendation based on the report’s endorsement.
2. Now, for the sake of comparing sources, search for recommendation information on the same product type just by Googling it. What are the top search results? Going down the results list, did you find any unbiased sources that you could use in your recommendation email? What makes these sources biased or unbiased?


Bahir, F. (2015). Intro to research methods [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kB4gKoS4MNw.

Figure 7.1. Infographic. Adapted from “Two types of market research,” by M. Buttignol, 2019, The Balance. Retrieved from https://www.thebalancesmb.com/differences-primary-and-secondary-research-2296908. Copyright 2019 by The Balance.

4.2 Locating Credible Sources

Learning Objectives

Target iconAfter studying this unit, you will be able to

      • locate, select and organize relevant and accurate information drawn from a variety of sources


Once you’ve selected the appropriate research methodology, your next task is to search for sources that can be taken seriously by your audiences and, in so doing, narrow down your topic. Research is largely a process of sorting out the wheat from the chaff, then processing that wheat into a wholesome product people will buy and digest. Appropriately using credible sources reflects well on your credibility, whereas using suspicious sources—perhaps because they were the top results of a Google – undermines your authority.

Figure 8.1: A writer’s credibility and authority is dependent on the ability to separate facts from fiction (USA Today, 2020).

A research document full of dubious sources makes you look uneducated, lazy, flakey, or gullible at best, or at worst, conniving and deceptive. We’re in an age that some have dubbed the “post-truth era” where “fake news” churned out by clickbait-driven edutainment outlets can be a major determining factor in the course of history. Building the critical-thinking skills to distinguish truth from lies, good ideas from bad, facts from propaganda, objective viewpoints from spin, and credible sources from dubious ones are not only an academic or civic duty but also key to our collective survival. Learning how to navigate these perilous waters is one of the most important skills we can learn in school.

College or public libraries and their online databases are excellent places to find quality sources, and you should familiarize yourself with their features such as subject guides and advanced search filters. Even libraries are populated by sources outside the realm of respectability, however, because they cater to diverse stakeholders and interests by being comprehensive, including entertainment materials in their collections. They also have holdings that are horribly out of date and only of historical interest. Whether in the library or on the open internet, the only real way to ensure that a source is worth using is to develop critical thinking skills in knowing what to look for in sorting the wheat from the chaff.

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Assessing the Credibility of Print Sources

Print Versus Digital: What Does the Latest Research Tell Us?
Figure 8.2: Understanding the difference between print and digital media is important to develop good research skills (Reese, 2018).

Developing a good sense of what sources are trustworthy takes time, often through seeing patterns of approval in how diligent professionals rely on certain sources for credible information. If you continue to see respected professionals cite articles in Scientific American and The Economist, for instance, you can be reasonably assured of those sources’ credibility. If you see few or no professionals cite Popular Mechanics or Infowars and you also see non-professionals cite fantastic, sensational, or shocking stories from them in social media, you have good reason to suspect their reliability. The same goes for sources regarding certain issues; if 97% of relevant scientists confirm that global climate change results from human activity, for instance, sources representing or championing the 3% opposition will be seen as lacking credibility. Patterns of source approval take time to track, but you can count on many more immediate ways of assessing credibility in the meantime.

The following indicators are worth considering when assessing print sources:

  • Author credentials
  • Currency
  • Author objectivity
  • Publisher quality
  • Peer review
  • Writing quality
  • References
Figure 8.3: Six guidelines to help you select the best research sources.

Assessing the Credibility of Online Sources

Online sources pose special challenges to students and professionals conducting research, since most will expediently conduct research entirely online where some of the above indicators of credibility must be rethought a little. Sometimes the author isn’t revealed on a webpage, perhaps because it’s a company or organization’s website, in which case your scrutiny shifts to the organization, its potential biases, and its agenda. A research project on electronic surveillance, for instance, might turn up the websites of companies selling monitoring systems, in which case you must be wary of any facts or statistics (especially uncited ones, but even cited sources) they use because they will likely be cherry-picked to help sell products and services. And instead of checking the publisher as you would for a print source, you could consider the domain name; websites with .edu or .gov URL endings usually have higher standards of credibility for the information they publish than sites ending with .com or .org, which are typically the province of commercial enterprises (as in the monitoring systems example above) and special interest groups with unique agendas.

Although successful in being a comprehensive repository of knowledge, Wikipedia.org, for instance, is not generally considered credible and should therefore not appear as a source in a research document unless it’s for a topic so new or niche that no other credible sources for it exist. By the organization’s own admission, “Wikipedia cannot guarantee the validity of the information found [on their site].” The Web 2.0, user-generated nature of Wikipedia means that its articles are susceptible to vandalism or content changes inconsistent with expert opinion, and they aren’t improved by any formal peer-review process. Wikipedia sacrifices credibility for comprehensiveness. For these reasons, a Wikipedia article in a research report is a little laughable; few will take you seriously if they see it there because you will look lazy for stopping at the first available source.

A Wikipedia article can be a good place to start a research task, however. If you’re approaching a topic for the first time, use Wikipedia for a general introduction and a sense of the topic’s scope and key subtopics. (Wikimedia Commons is also a reliable source of images provided you credit them properly.) But if you’re going to cite any sources, don’t stop there; use the credible ones that the Wikipedia article cites by scrolling down to the References section, checking them out, and assessing them for their credibility using the criteria outlined above in Assessing the Credibility of Print Sources.

A final indicator of credibility for online sources, similar to the writing-quality check discussed above, is the overall design quality of the website. The attractiveness of a site may be subjective, but a user-friendly and modern design suggests that money was spent relatively recently on improving its quality. If the site looks like it was designed 10-15 years ago and hasn’t been updated, you can suspect that it’s lost its currency. Some websites look dated despite their content still being relevant, however, because that content doesn’t change drastically over time.

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Key Takeaway

key iconInvestigating and narrowing down a research topic involves using databases to locate reputable sources using criteria to assess for credibility such as the quality of the source author, writing, references, and publisher.


1. Choose a research topic based on an aspect of your professional field that piqued your attention in your other courses in the program. Assemble credible sources using a rubric that ranks each relevant source based on the assessment criteria explained in Assessing the Credibility of Print Sources above (e.g., the criterion for the first line of the rubric may be Author Credibility, which you can score out of 10, with 10 being a bona fide expert in their field and 0 being a dilettante with no experience; the second may be Currency, with 10 points going to a source published last year and 0 for something a century or more out of date, etc.). With each score for each source, give a brief explanation for why you scored it as you did.

2. Consider a recent controversy in the news that all news outlets have covered. Assemble articles from a variety of outlets throughout Canada, the United States, and even internationally, including those with major audience share like the CBC, CNN, FoxNews, and the Guardian, as well as some on the fringe. First compare the articles to identify the information that’s common to them all, then contrast them to identify the information and analysis that distinguishes them from one another. What conclusions can you draw about how bias factors into the reportage of world events?


Cornell University Library. (2017, September 7). Distinguishing scholarly from non-scholarly periodicals: A checklist of criteria. Retrieved from http://guides.library.cornell.edu/scholarlyjournals.

Laurentien Library. (2014).  Introduction to academic research [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdQeaDN9Qic

Reese, Lori. (2018). Print vs. Print vs. online. Retrieved from https://foreword.mbsbooks.com/print-versus-digital-what-does-the-latest-research-tell-us-1#gsc.tab=0

USA Today. (2020). USA’s Today fact check guidelines. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/02/12/fact-check-guidelines-usa-today/4735217002/

Wikipedia. (2017, October 21). List of English-language book publishing companies. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English-language_book_publishing_companies

Wikipedia. (2017, November 18). List of university presses. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_university_presses

White, A. (2017, January 10). Fake news: Facebook and matters of fact in the post-truth era. Ethics in the News: EJN Report on Challenges for Journalism in the Post-truth Era. Retrieved from http://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/resources/publications/ethics-in-the-news/fake-news
Cook, J., et al. (2016, April 13). Consensus on consensus: A synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters 11, 1-7. Retrieved from http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/048002/pdf
Wikipedia. (2015, December 17). General disclaimer. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:General_disclaimer

4.3 Collecting Sources by Reading with a Purpose

Jordan Smith, Melissa Ashman, eCampusOntario, Brian Dunphy, and Andrew Stracuzzi

Learning Objectives

Target icon
4. Use effective reading strategies to collect and reframe information from a variety of written materials accurately.

Part of the process of identifying credible sources involves reading critically to find the best information available for your purposes, and those are whatever you’ve determined your audience’s needs to be. When collecting sources online by entering key terms into a search engine, examining the list of titles, and clicking on those that seem relevant, you begin the process of narrowing down your topic by what research materials are available. Of course, you don’t have time to read all the thousands or even millions of webpages and articles that turn up in Google search results to determine which fulfill your (and your audience’s) purposes. You skim.

Successful skim-reading depends on the effective organization of the sources you’re sorting through as well as your own time-management strategies. For articles, you would focus on the abstract or synopsis—a paragraph that summarizes the entire piece and helps determine if it’s what you’re looking for. For webpages, you would read the very top and then skip down to see if the section headings indicate topics of interest; you can also do a word search (ctrl + f) if you’re scanning for specific concepts. At the level of each paragraph, you rely on the first sentences representing the topic of the paragraph so that you can skim the topic sentences, and perhaps the concluding sentences, to capture the main points and get a sense of how the content flows. Bolded key words and illustrations also help. (If your sources are effectively organized in this fashion, you can express your gratitude by paying it forward to your own readers. Organize your own writing so that you place main points strategically in topic sentences and highlight topics as subheadings. Your readers will be grateful if you help them to skim effectively.)

When you find online sources relevant to your topic, best practice for preparing to document and use them properly is to collect them in an informal annotated bibliography. A formal annotated bibliography lists full bibliographical entries and a proper summary under each entry; as a set of notes, on the other hand, an informal annotated bibliography need only include the source titles, web addresses (URLs that allow you to get back to the sources and collect more information about them later if you end up using them), and some summary points about the sources under each URL. When you begin your research investigation, however, you may want to collect only titles and URLs until you’ve narrowed down a list of sources you think you’ll use, then go back and confirm their relevance by writing some notes under each. (Getting some note-form points down on paper—or on your word processor screen—counts as your first step in the actual writing of your document, giving you a foundation to build on.

The most relevant and useful sources meet the needs of the audience you are preparing your document for. For this you must choose sources with the right amount of detail. You may find plenty of general sources that offer decent introductions (e.g., from Wikipedia) but fall short of providing appropriate detail; in such cases you might be able to find more detailed coverage in the sources that they’ve used if those introductory sources you found are credible for having properly documented their research in the first place. On the other end of the spectrum, sources such as peer-reviewed journal articles might offer a level of detail that far exceeds what you need along with content that goes way over your head; you may want to include these as mere citations if only to point readers in the direction of credible evidence for a minor point supporting a major point. In such cases, you should at least ensure that they indeed prove your point rather than prove something distantly related but not relevant enough to your topic.

During this process you will encounter plenty of information in sources that may both confirm and contradict what you already know about your topic. It’s important that you do what you’re supposed to do as a student: keep an open mind and learn! Refrain from simply discarding contradictory information that will over-complicate your argument. If it turns out that a reputable source undermines your argument entirely, then this is the right point in the game to change your argument so that you don’t end up embarrassing yourself in the end with a fantasy-driven document. If you’re doing a research report into the viability of a waste-to-energy gasification facility, for instance, and you really want to say that it solves both your city’s municipal garbage disposal and energy production needs, you don’t want to find yourself too far down that road before addressing why no such facility has ever achieved profitable positive energy production. Ignoring such a record and the reasons why investors tend to avoid such opportunities, such as the failed Plasco plant in Ottawa, will undermine your credibility.

As a final word of warning, be careful with how you collect source content so that you don’t accidentally plagiarize by the time you use the sources you’ve collected in your final document. If you copy and paste text from sources into your notes as a basis for quotations or paraphrases, ensure that you put quotation marks around it and cite the page numbers (if the source has them) or paragraph numbers (if it doesn’t have page numbers) in parentheses immediately following the closing quotation marks so you can properly cite them if you go on to use them later. If you don’t put quotation marks around copied text, you run the risk of committing plagiarism by rolling unmarked quotations into your final document; even if you cite them, implying that you’ve paraphrased when you’ve really quoted still counts as a breach of academic integrity. We will return to the problem of plagiarism in the next section  when we continue examining the process of building a document around research, but at this point it’s worth reviewing your collection of research material to ensure that it meets the needs of the audience and works towards fulfilling the purpose you determined at the outset of the writing process.

Key Takeaways

key iconNarrowing down a research topic involves skimming through database search results to select relevant sources, as well as skimming through source text to pull out main points that support your hypothesis by knowing where to find them.


Building on Exercise #1 in the previous section, develop the sources you found into an informal annotated bibliography with just titles and URLs for each source, as well as 2-3 main points in quotation marks pulled from the source text and bullet-listed under each URL.

Freedman, L. (2012). Skimming and scanning. Writing Advice. Retrieved from http://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/researching/skim-and-scan/
Chianello, J., & Pearson, M. (2015, February 10). Ottawa severs ties with Plasco as company files for creditor protection. Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved from http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/plasco-energy-group-files-for-creditor-protection

4.4 Using Source Text: Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Summarizing

Learning Objectives

Target icon


After studying this unit, you will be able to

      • quote source text directly with accuracy and correct punctuation
      • paraphrase, summarize and reformat information collected from written materials


Once you have a collection of credible sources as part of a formal secondary research project such as a report, your next step is to build that report using those sources as evidence. When you incorporate outside research into your writing, you must cite that information to ensure the reader knows what information is based on research sources.  As with other areas of business writing, incorporate information from print or digital research into usable evidence takes skill and practice.

Figure 4.4.1: Research can be incorporated into your writing in one or all of these strategies.

You essentially have four ways of using research material:

In each case, acknowledging your source with a citation at the point of use and following-up with bibliographical reference at the end of your document is essential to avoid a charge of plagiarism.  The following video provides a few tips on the why, where, and when of good citation practice.

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Let’s now look at each of these research strategies in turn.

Research Strategies

Quoting Sources

Quoting is the easiest way to use sources in a research document, but it also requires care in using it properly so that you don’t accidentally plagiarize, misquote, or overquote. At its simplest, quoting takes word-for-word information from an original source, puts quotation marks (“ ”) around that information, and embeds it into your writing.   The following points represent conventions and best practices when quoting:

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Paraphrasing Sources

Paraphrasing or “indirect quotation” is putting research information in your own words.  Paraphrasing is the preferred way of using a source when the original wording isn’t important. This way, you can incorporate the ideas and tailor the wording so it is consistent with your writing style and your audience’s needs. Also, paraphrasing a source into your own words proves your advanced understanding of the research information.

Only paraphrase short passages and ensure the paraphrase faithfully represent the source text by containing the same meaning as in the original source in about the same length. Remember, a paraphrase is as much a fact as a direct quotation.  Therefore, your paraphrase must accurately reflect the information in the original text.  As a matter of good writing, you should try to streamline your paraphrase so that it tallies fewer words than the original passage while still preserving the original meaning.  In addition, a paraphrase must always be introduced.  Since a paraphrase does not have visual cues to separate it from your writing, the reader must know when the paraphrase begins, for example with the phrase, “according to the author” and where the paraphrase ends, for example with a citation of the source.

For example: According to the author, paraphrasing can be challenging (author, year).

Properly paraphrasing without distorting, slanting, adding to, or deleting ideas from the source passage takes skill. The stylistic versatility required to paraphrase can be especially challenging to students whose general writing skills are still developing.  A common mistake that students make when paraphrasing is to go only partway towards paraphrasing by substituting major words (nouns, verbs, and adjectives) here and there while leaving the source passage’s basic sentence structure intact. This inevitably leaves strings of words from the original untouched in the “paraphrased” version, which is considered plagiarism.  Consider, for instance, the following botched attempt at a paraphrase of the Lester (1976) passage that substitutes words selectively (lazily):

Students often overuse quotations when taking notes, and thus overuse them in research reports. About 10% of your final paper should be a direct quotation. You should thus attempt to reduce the exact copying of source materials while note-taking (pp. 46-47).

Let’s look at the same attempt, but colour the unchanged words red to see how unsuccessful the paraphraser was in rephrasing the original in their own words (given in black):

Students often overuse quotations when taking notes, and thus overuse them in research reports. About 10% of your final paper should be direct quotation. You should thus attempt to reduce the exact copying of source materials while note taking (pp. 46-47).

As you can see, several strings of words from the original are left untouched because the writer didn’t change the sentence structure of the original. The Originality Report from plagiarism-catching software such as Turnitin would indicate that the passage is 64% plagiarized because it retains 25 of the original words (out of 39 in this “paraphrase”) but without quotation marks around them. Correcting this by simply adding quotation marks around passages like “when taking notes, and” would be unacceptable because those words aren’t important enough on their own to warrant direct quotation. The fix would just be to paraphrase more thoroughly by altering the words and the sentence structure, as shown in the paraphrase a few paragraphs above. But how do you go about doing this?

Paraphrase easily by breaking down the task into these seven steps:

  1. Read and re-read the source-text passage so that you thoroughly understand each point it makes. If it’s a long passage, you might want to break it up into digestible chunks. If you’re unsure of the meaning of any of the words, look them up in a dictionary; you can even just type the word into the Google search bar, hit Enter, and a definition will appear, along with results of other online dictionary pages that define the same word.
  2. Look away and get your mind off the target passage.
  3. Without looking back at the source text, repeat its main points as you understood them—not from memorizing the exact words, but as you would explain the same ideas in different words out loud to a friend.
  4. Still, without looking back at the source text, jot down that spoken wording and tailor the language so that it’s stylistically appropriate for your audience; edit and proofread your written version to make it grammatically correct in a way that perhaps your spoken-word version wasn’t.
  5. Now compare your written paraphrase version to the original to ensure that:
  1. If any two words from the original remain, go further in changing those expressions by using a thesaurus in combination with a dictionary. When you enter a word into a thesaurus, it gives you a list of synonyms, which are different words that mean the same thing as the word you enter into it.
  1. Cite your source. Just because you didn’t put quotation marks around the words doesn’t mean that you don’t have to cite your source.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

For more on paraphrasing, consult the Purdue OWL Paraphrasing learning module and Exercise.

Summarizing Sources

Figure 4.4.2: How to write a summary in three simple steps.

Summarizing is one of the most important skills in communications because professionals of every kind must explain to non-expert customers, managers, and even co-workers complex concepts in a way non-experts can understand. Adapting the message to such audiences requires brevity and the ability to translate jargon-heavy technical details into plain, accessible language.

Summarizing is thus paraphrasing only the highlights of the original source. Like paraphrasing, a summary re-casts the original information in your own words and must be introduced; unlike a paraphrase, a summary is significantly shorter than the original text.  A summary can reduce a whole novel, article, or film to a single-sentence. 

The procedure for summarizing is much like that of paraphrasing except that it involves the extra step of pulling out highlights from the source. Altogether, this can be done in six steps, one of which includes the seven steps of paraphrasing, making this a twelve-step procedure:

  1. Determine how big your summary should be (according to your audience’s needs) so that you have a sense of how much material you should collect from the source.
  2. Read and re-read the source text so that you thoroughly understand it.
  3. Pull out the main points, which usually come first at any level of direct-approach organization (i.e., the prologue or introduction at the beginning of a book, the abstract at the beginning of an article, or the topic sentence at the beginning of a paragraph); review collecting sources above on reading for main points and below on organizational patterns.
    • Disregard detail such as supporting evidence and examples.
    • If you have an electronic copy of the source, copy and paste the main points into your notes; for a print source that you can mark up, use a highlighter then transcribe those main points into your electronic notes.
    • How many points you collect depends on how big your summary should be (according to audience needs).
  4. Paraphrase those main points following the seven-step procedure for paraphrasing outlined in paraphrasing sources above.
  5. Edit your draft to make it coherent, clear, and especially concise.
  6. Ensure that your summary meets the needs of your audience and that your source is cited. Again, not having quotation marks around words doesn’t mean that you are off the hook for documenting your source(s).

Once you have a stable of summarized, paraphrased, and quoted passages from research sources, building your document around them requires good organizational skills. We’ll focus more on this next step of the drafting process in the following chapter, but basically, it involves arranging your integrated research material in a coherent fashion, with main points upfront and supporting points below proceeding in a logical sequence towards a convincing conclusion. Throughout this chapter, however, we’ve frequently encountered the requirement to document sources by citing and referencing, as in the last steps of both summarizing and paraphrasing indicated above. After reinforcing our quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing skills, we can turn our focus on how to document sources.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Key Takeaway

key iconIncluding research in your work typically involves properly quoting, paraphrasing, and/or summarizing source text, as well as citing it.


Find an example of professional writing in your field of study, perhaps from a textbook, trade journal, or industry website that you collected as part of the previous section’s informal annotated bibliography exercise.

  1. If you’ve already pulled out the main points as part of the previous exercise, practice including them as properly punctuated quotations in your document with smooth signal phrases introducing them.
  2. Paraphrase those same main-point sentences following the seven-step procedure outlined in paraphrasing sources above. In other words, if Exercise 1 above was a direct quotation, now try indirect quotation for each passage.
  3. Following the six-step procedure outlined in summarizing sources above, summarize the entire source article, webpage, or whatever document you chose by reducing it to a single coherent paragraph of no more than 10 lines on your page.


Conrey, S. M., Pepper, M., & Brizee, A. (2013, April 3). Quotation mark exercise and answers. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/577/05/

Conrey, S. M., Pepper, M., & Brizee, A. (2017, July 25). How to use quotation marks. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/577/01/

Fairfieldulib. (2015). How to paraphrase [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJ9DOE91oiw.

Lester, J. D. (1976). Writing research papers: A complete guide (2nd ed.). Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman.

PPCC Writing Center elearning Series. (2016). Part 2 Quoting [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=do921cAEL6o&t=51s

Hacker, Diana. (2006). The Bedford handbook (7th ed.). New York: St. Martin’s. Retrieved from https://department.monm.edu/english/mew/signal_phrases.htm p. 603
Cimasko, T. (2013, March 22). Paraphrasing. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/976/02/

4.5 Documenting Sources in APA

Learning Objectives

Target icon After studying this unit, you will be able to

      • integrate and document information using commonly accepted citation guidelines


To prove formally that we’ve done research, we use a two-part system for documenting sources. The first part is a citation that gives a few brief pieces of information about the source right where that source is used in our document and points to the second part, the bibliographic reference at the end of the document. This second part gives further details about the source so that readers can easily retrieve it themselves. Though documenting research requires a little more effort than not, it looks so much better than including research in a document without showing where you got it, which is called plagiarism. Before focusing further on how to document sources, it’s worthwhile considering why we do it and what exactly is wrong with plagiarism.

Academic Integrity vs. Plagiarism

Academic integrity basically means that you do your work yourself and formally credit your sources when you use research, whereas plagiarism is cheating. Students often plagiarize by stealing the work of others from the internet (e.g., copying and pasting text, or dragging and dropping images) and placing it into an assignment without quoting or citing; putting their name on that assignment means that they’ve dishonestly presented someone else’s work as their own. Lesser violations involve not quoting or citing properly. But why would anyone try to deceive their instructor like this when instructors award points for doing research? If you’re going to do your homework, you might as well do it right by finding credible sources, documenting them, and getting credit for doing so rather than sneaking research in and ending up getting penalized for it. But what makes plagiarism so wrong?

Plagiarism is theft, and bad habits of stealing others’ work in school likely begin as liberal attitudes towards intellectual property in our personal lives, but often develop into more serious crimes of copyright or patent violations in professional situations with equally serious financial penalties or destruction of reputations and earning power. The bad habits perhaps start from routines of downloading movies and music illegally because, well, everybody’s doing it and few get caught or so the thinking goes; the rewards seem to outweigh the risks. But when download bandits become professionals and are tasked with, say, posting on their company website some information about a new service the company is offering, their research and writing procedure might go something like this:

  1. They want their description of the service to look professional, so they Google-search to see what other companies offering the same service say about it on their websites. So far so good.
  2. Those other descriptions look good, and the employee can’t think of a better way to put it, so they copy and paste the other company’s description into their own website. Here’s where things go wrong.
  3. They also see that the other company has posted an attractive photo beside their description, so the employee downloads that and puts it on their website also.
Jill Abramson
Figure 4.5.1: Image of Jill Abramson, former editor of the New York Times, who has been accused of plagiarism in her latest book (BBC.com, 2019).

The problem is that both the text and photo were copyrighted, as indicated by the “All Rights Reserved” copyright notice at the bottom of the other company’s webpage. Once the employee posts the stolen text and photo, the copyright owner (or their legal agents) finds it through a simple Google search, Google Alerts notification, reverse image search, or digital watermarking notification . The company’s agents send them a “cease & desist” order, but they ignore it and then find that they’re getting sued for damages. Likewise, if you’re in hi-tech R&D (research and development), help develop technology that uses already-patented technology without paying royalties to the patent owner, and take it to market, the patent owner is being robbed of the ability to bring in revenue on their intellectual property themselves and can sue you for lost earnings. Patent, copyright, and trademark violations are a major legal and financial concern in the professional world, and acts of plagiarism have indeed ruined perpetrators’ careers when they’re caught, which is easier than ever.

Students who think they’re too clever to get caught plagiarizing may not realize that plagiarism in anything they submit electronically is easily exposed by sophisticated plagiarism-detection software and other techniques. Most instructors use third-party software (like Turnitin and SafeAssign) that produces originality reports showing the percentage of assignment content copied from sources found either on the public internet or in a global database of student-submitted assignments. That way, assignments borrowed or bought from someone who’s submitted the same or similar will also be flagged.

Other techniques allow instructors to track down uncited media just as professional photographers or stock photography vendors like Getty Images use digital watermarks or reverse image searches to find unpermitted uses of their copyrighted material.

Plagiarism is also easy to identify in hardcopy assignments. Dramatic, isolated improvements in a student’s quality of work either between assignments or within an assignment will trigger an instructor’s suspicions. If a student’s writing on an assignment is mostly terrible with multiple writing errors in each sentence, but then is suddenly perfect and professional-looking in one sentence only without quotation marks or a citation, the instructor just runs a Google search on that sentence to find where exactly it was copied from.

A cheater’s last resort to try to make plagiarism untraceable is to pay someone to do a customized assignment for them, but this still arouses suspicions for the same reasons as above. The student who goes from submitting poor work to perfect work becomes a “person of interest” to their instructor in all that they do after that. The hack also becomes expensive not only for that assignment but also for all the instances when the cheater will have to pay someone to do the work that they should have just learned to do themselves. For all these reasons, it’s better just to learn what you’re supposed to by doing assignments yourself and showing academic integrity by crediting sources properly when doing research.

But do you need to cite absolutely everything you research? Not necessarily. Good judgment is required to know what information can be left uncited without penalty. If you look up facts that are common knowledge (perhaps just not common to you yet, since you had to look them up), such as that the first Prime Minister of Canada Sir John A. MacDonald represented the riding of Victoria for his second term as PM even without setting foot there, you wouldn’t need to cite them because any credible source you consulted would say the same. Such citations end up looking like attempts to pad an assignment with research.

NSCC Academic Integrity Module

This interactive tutorial will:

  • outline your responsibilities related to academic integrity
  • help you understand and avoid issues of plagiarism and academic misconduct
  • describe how to properly cite your sources
  • direct you to valuable resources and tools

Certainly, anything quoted directly from a source (because the wording is important) must be cited, as well as anyone’s original ideas, opinions, or theories that you paraphrase or summarize (i.e., indirectly quote) from a book, article, or webpage with an identifiable author, argument, and/or primary research producing new facts. You must also cite any media such as photos, videos, drawings/paintings, graphics, graphs, etc. If you are ever unsure about whether something should be cited, you can always ask your librarian or, better yet, your instructor since they’ll ultimately assess your work for academic integrity. Even the mere act of asking assures them that you care about academic integrity. For more on plagiarism, you can also visit NSCC Libraries Academic Integrity Guide, plagiarism.org, and the Purdue OWL Avoiding Plagiarism series of modules.

Citing and Referencing Sources in APA Style

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

As mentioned above, a documentation system comes in two parts, the first of which briefly notes a few details about the source (author, year, and location) in parentheses immediately after you use the source, and this citation points the reader to more reference details (title and publication information) in a full bibliographical entry at the end of your document. Let’s now focus on these in-text citations (“in-text” because the citation is placed at the point of use in your sentence rather than footnoted or referenced at the end) in the different documentation styles—APA, MLA, and IEEE—used by different disciplines across the college.

The American Psychological Association’s (APA) documentation style is preferred by the social sciences and general disciplines such as business because it strips the essential elements of a citation down to a few pieces of information that briefly identify the source and cue the reader to further details in the References list at the back. The basic structure of the parenthetical in-text citation is as follows:

Its placement tells the reader that everything between the signal phrase and citation is either a direct or indirect quotation of the source, and everything after (until the next signal phrase) is your own writing and ideas. As you can see above, the three pieces of information in the citation are author, year, and location.

Figure 4.5.2: All in-text citations must have a corresponding entry on the reference list at the end of the document.

1. Author(s) last name(s)

  1. Year of Publication
  1. Location of the direct or indirect quotation 

Table 4.5.1 shows how these guidelines play out in sample citations with variables such as the placement of the author and year in either the signal phrase or parenthetical in-text citation, number of authors, and source types. Notice that for punctuation:

Table 4.5.1: Example APA-style In-text Citations with Variations in Number of Authors and Source Types

Ex. Signal Phrase In-text Citation Example Sentences Citing Sources
1. Single author + year Paragraph location on a webpage According to CEO Kyle Wiens (2012), “Good grammar makes good business sense” (¶ 7).
2. Generalization Single author + year + location Smart CEOs know that “Good grammar makes good business sense” (Wiens, 2012, ¶ 7).
3. Two authors + year Page number in a paginated book Smart CEOs know that “Good grammar makes good business sense” (Wiens, 2012, ¶ 7).
As Strunk and White (2000) put it, “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words . . . for the same reason that a . . . machine [should have] no unnecessary parts” (p. 32).
4. Book title Two authors + year + page number As the popular Elements of Style authors put it, “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words” (Strunk & White, 2000, p. 32).
5. Three authors + year for first and subsequent instances Paragraph location on a webpage Conrey, Pepper, and Brizee (2017) advise, “successful use of quotation marks is a practical defense against accidental plagiarism” (¶ 1). . . . Conrey et al. also warn, “indirect quotations still require proper citations, and you will be committing plagiarism if you fail to do so” (¶ 6).
6. Website Three authors + year + location for first and subsequent instances The Purdue OWL advises that “successful use of quotation marks is a practical defense against accidental plagiarism” (Conrey, Pepper, & Brizee, 2017, ¶ 1). . . . The OWL also warns, “indirect quotations still require proper citations, and you will be committing plagiarism if you fail to do so” (Conrey et al., 2017, ¶ 6).
7. More than five authors + year Page number in an article Cook et al. (2016) prove that “Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that humans are causing recent global warming” (p. 1).
8. Generalization More than four authors + year + page number How can politicians still deny that “Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that humans are causing recent global warming” (John Cook et al., 2016, p. 1)?
9. Corporate author + year Page number in a report The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC, 2012) recommends that health care spending on mental wellness increase from 7% to 9% by 2022 (p. 13). . . . The MHCC (2012) estimates that “the total costs of mental health problems and illnesses to the Canadian economy are at least $50 billion per year” (p. 125).
10. Paraphrase instead Corporate author + year + page number Spending on mental wellness should increase from 7% to 9% by 2022 (The Mental Health Commission of Canada [MHCC], p. 13). . . . Current estimates are that “the total costs of mental health problems and illnesses to the Canadian economy are at least $50 billion per year” (MHCC, 2012, p. 125).

For more on APA-style citations, see NSCC Libraries APA Citation Guide, and Purdue OWL’s In-Text Citations: The Basics  and its follow-up page on authors.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

The References list

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

In combination, citations and references offer a reader-friendly means of enabling readers to find and retrieve research sources themselves, as each citation points them to the full bibliographical details in the References list at the end of the document. If the documentation system were reduced to just one part where citations were filled with the bibliographical details, the reader would be constantly impeded by 2-3 lines of bibliographical details following each use of a source. By tucking the bibliographical entries away at the back, authors also enable readers to go to the References list to examine at a glance the extent to which a document is informed by credible sources as part of a due-diligence credibility check in the research process.

Each bibliographical entry making up the References list includes information about a source in a certain order. Consider the following bibliographical entry for a book in APA style, for instance:

Example:  Strunk, W., & White, E. B. (2000). Elements of style (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

We see here a standard sequence including the authors, year of publication, title (italicized because it’s a long work), and publication information. You can follow this closely for the punctuation and style of any book. Online sources follow much the same style, except that the publisher location and name are replaced by the web address preceded by “Retrieved from,” as in:

Example: Wiens, K. (2012, July 20). I won’t hire people who use poor grammar. Here’s why. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/07/i-wont-hire-people-who-use-poo/

Note also that the title has been split into both a webpage title (the non-italicized title of the article) in sentence style and the title of the website (italicized because it’s the larger work from which the smaller one came). The easiest way to remember the rule for whether to italicize the title is to ask yourself: is the source I’m referencing the part or the whole? The whole (a book, a website, a newspaper title) is always in italics, whereas the part (a book chapter, a webpage, a newspaper article title) is not; see the third point below on Titles for more on this). A magazine article reference follows a similar sequence of information pieces, albeit replacing the publication or web information with the volume number, issue number, and page range of the article within the magazine, as in:

Example: Dames, K. M. (2007, June). Understanding plagiarism and how it differs from copyright infringement. Computers in Libraries, 27(6), 25-27.
Figure 4.5.3: Template reference list demonstrating some of the key characteristics.

With these three basic source types in mind, let’s examine some of the guidelines for forming bibliographical entries with a view to variations for each part such as number and types of authors and titles:

Though reference generator applications are available online (simply Google-search for them) and as features within word processing applications like Microsoft Word to construct citations and references for you, putting them together on your own may save time if you’re adept at APA. The following guidelines help you organize and format your References page(s) according to APA convention when doing it manually:

Tabbing a References list by making the left-margin tab visible, clicking on the bottom triangle, and dragging it a half-centimeter to the right

Figure 4.5.4: Tabbing a References list by making the left-margin tab visible, clicking on the bottom triangle, and dragging it a half-centimeter to the right

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Citing Images and Other Media

How do you cite an image or a video embedded in a presentation, for instance? A common mistake among students is to just grab whatever photos or illustrations they find in a Google image search, toss them into a presentation PowerPoint or other document, and be done with it. However, that would be classic plagiarism. To avoid plagiarism, the student should determine if they’re permitted to use the image then cite it properly.

Whether you’ve been granted permission or own the image yourself,  you must still credit the source of the image just like when you quote directly or indirectly. Just because a photo or graphic is on the internet doesn’t mean that it’s for the taking; every image is automatically copyrighted by the owner as soon as they produce it (e.g., you own the copyright to all the photos you take on your smartphone). Whether or not you can download and use images from the internet depends on both its copyright status and your purpose for using it. According to Canadian legislation, using images for educational purposes is considered “Fair Dealing” (i.e., safe) when you won’t make any money on it, but contacting the owner and asking permission is still the safest course of action. The next safest is to ask your librarian if your use of an image in whatever circumstances might be considered offside or fair.

Standard practice in citing images in APA style is to refer to them in your text and then properly label them with figure numbers, captions, and copyright details. Referring to them in your text, referencing the figure numbers in parentheses, and placing the image as close as possible to that reference ensures that the image is relevant to your topic rather than a frivolous attempt to pad your research document with non-text space-filler. The image must be:

Even if you retrieve the image from public domain archives such as the Wikimedia Commons (see Figure 4.5.5), you must indicate that status along with the other information outlined above and illustrated below.

. Algonquin couple of the Kitcisipiriniwak

Figure 4.5.5: Algonquin couple of the Kitcisipiriniwak (“Ottawa River Men”) encountered by the French on an islet on the Ottawa River. From “Algonquines,” watercolour by an unknown 18th-century artist, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3a/Algonquins.jpg. Public domain (2008) courtesy of the City of Montreal Records Management & Archives, Montreal, Canada.

If your document is a PowerPoint or other type of presentation, a more concise citation might be more appropriate. The citation below an image on a PowerPoint slide could thus look more like:

. Algonquin couple of the Kitcisipiriniwak

Source: “Algonquines” (2008)

In either case, the References at the end would have a proper APA-style bibliographical entry in the following format:

Example: Creator’s last name, first initial. (Role of creator). (Year of creation). Title of image or description of image. [Type of work]. Retrieved from URL/database

If the identity of the creator is not available and year of creation unknown, as in the above case, the title moves into the creator/owner’s position and the date given is when the image was posted online:

Example: Algonquines. (2008, August 19). [Digital Image]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algonquin_people#/media/File:Algonquins.jpg

For citing and referencing an online video such as from YouTube, you would just follow the latest guidelines from the official authority on each style such as APAStyle.org. Citing these is a little tricky because YouTube users often post content they don’t own the copyright to. If that’s the case, you would indicate the actual author or owner in the author position as you would for anything else, but follow it with the user’s screen name in brackets. If the author and the screen name are the same, you would just go with the screen name in the author position. For a video on how to do this exactly, for instance, you would cite the screen given under the video in YouTube as the author, followed by just the year (not the full date) indicated below the screen name following “Published on”. In the References section, “[Video file]” follows the video’s italicized, sentence-style title, and the bibliographical reference otherwise looks like any other online source:

Example: James B. Duke. (2017, January 13). How to cite Youtube videos in APA format [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydJ7k1ix-p8

Whenever in doubt about what style to follow, especially as technology changes, always consult the relevant authority on whatever source medium you need to cite and reference. If you doubt the James B. Duke Memorial Library employee’s video above, for instance, you can verify the information at APAStyle.org and see that it indeed is accurate advice.  For more, see  the images page on the NSCC Copyright Guide  for a collection of excellent databases and other websites to locate images, detailed instructions for how to cite images in APA and MLA style, and information on handling copyrighted material.

Key Takeaways

key icon

      •   Cite and reference each source you use in a research document following the documentation style conventions adopted by your field of study.
      • Always cite external research: text, images, and video, print or digital


Write a short paragraph that summarizes the unit using proper APA style and a complete reference.


Algonquin College. (2016, March 23). AA20: Plagiarism. Policies. Retrieved from https://www.algonquincollege.com/policies/policy/plagiarism/

APA. (2009). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

BBC.com (2019).  Jill Abramson: Ex-New York Times editor accused of plagiarism. News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-47156917

Conrey, S. M., Pepper, M., & Brizee, A. (2017, July 25). How to use quotation marks. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/577/01/

Cook, J., et al. (2016, April 13). Consensus on consensus: A synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming. Environmental Research Letters 11, 1-7. Retrieved from http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/048002/pdf

Elder, C., Pflugfelder, E., & Angeli, E. (2010, December 2). Avoiding plagiarism. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/930/01/

McAdoo, T. (2011, October 27). How to create a reference for a YouTube video. APA Style. Retrieved from http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2011/10/how-to-create-a-reference-for-a-youtube-video.html

Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2012). Changing directions, changing lives: The mental health strategy for Canada. Calgary: MHCC. Retrieved from http://strategy.mentalhealthcommission.ca/pdf/strategy-images-en.pdf

Paiz, J. M., Angeli, E., Wagner, J., Lawrick, E., Moore, K., Anderson, M., Soderlund, L., Brizee, A., & Keck, R. (2017, September 11). In-text citation: The basics. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/02/

PPCC Writing Center eLearning Series. (2016).  APA style Part 3: Citations [Video File].  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rDSQmO0Skw&t=65s

PPCC Writing Center eLearning Series. (2016). APA References [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TagGFwGpTM&t=8s

Strunk, W., & White, E. B. (2000). Elements of style (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. Retrieved from http://www.jlakes.org/ch/web/The-elements-of-style.pdf

Wiens, K. (2012, July 20). I won’t hire people who use poor grammar. Here’s why. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/07/i-wont-hire-people-who-use-poo/

Helbig, K. (2014, April 20). 11 numbers that show how prolific illegal downloading is right now. Public Radio International. Retrieved from https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-04-20/11-numbers-show-how-prolific-illegal-downloading-right-now
Rose, O. (2013, August 16). 5 easy to use tools to effectively find and remove stolen content. Kissmetrics. Retrieved from https://blog.kissmetrics.com/find-remove-stolen-content/
SecureYourTrademark. (2015, July 13). 71 notorious patent, trademark, and copyright infringement cases. https://secureyourtrademark.com/blog/71-notorious-patent-trademark-and-copyright-infringement-cases/
Bailey, J. (2012, August 21). 5 famous plagiarists: Where are they now? PlagiarismToday. Retrieved from https://www.plagiarismtoday.com/2012/08/21/5-famous-plagiarists-where-are-they-now/
(Smith, 2018, p. 66)
(as cited in Whaley, 1977, p. 64
American Psychological Association (APA). (2018). The Basics of APA style: Tutorial. Learning APA Style. Retrieved from http://www.apastyle.org/learn/index.aspx
Paiz, J. M., Angeli, E., Wagner, J., Lawrick, E., Moore, K., Anderson, M., Soderlund, L., Brizee, A., & Keck, R. (2017, October 2). Reference list: Basic rules. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/05/
Copyright Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. C-42, amended June 19, 2017). Retrieved from the Justice Laws Website: http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/c-42/
Thompson, J. (2017, September 26). Finding and using online images: Citing. Library. Retrieved from https://www.lib.sfu.ca/help/research-assistance/format-type/online-images/citing
James B. Duke. (2017, January 13). How to cite Youtube videos in APA format [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydJ7k1ix-p8


Chapter 5 The Writing Process: Drafting and Editing


Now that you’ve planned out your document and gathered information that meets your audience’s needs, you’re just about ready to start drafting the document’s message. At this point, it’s worthwhile reminding yourself that the words you start entering in your word processor will look different from those your reader will eventually read. By the end of the drafting stage examined in this chapter, your document will be partway there, but how much revising you do depends on how effectively you’ve organized your message.

3. Drafting, 3.1 Organizing, 3.2 Outlining, 3.3 Stylizing Sentences and Paragraphs, 3.4 Document Design
Figure: The four-stage writing process and Stage 3 Breakdown

1 Preparing, 2 Researching, 3 Drafting, 4 Editing





5.1 Choosing an Organizational Pattern

Learning Objectives

Target icon

After studying this unit, you will be able to recognize and apply standard patterns of message organization.


The shape of your message depends on the purpose. As discussed previously, business communications can have three purposes: to inform, to persuade, or promote goodwill. Without a clear plan to achieve the intended purpose, readers can get lost and confused. That is why business writing has standard patterns of organization to structure thoughts and messages to make them understandable to the receiver.

Most business messages follow a three-part structure that accommodates the three-part division of our attention spans and memory:

Attention-grabbing opening: The opening hooks the reader in to keep reading by capturing their attention. In longer messages, the opening includes an introduction that establishes the framework in which the reader can understand everything that follows.

Detail-packed body: The message body supports the opening with further detail supporting the main point. Depending on the type of message and organizational structure that suits it best, the body may involve:

This information is crucial to the audience’s understanding of and commitment to the message.  Our memory typically blurs these details, however, so having them written down for future reference is important. The message body is a collection of important subpoints in support of the main point, as well as transitional elements that keep the message coherent and plot a course towards its completion.

Wrap-up and closing: The closing completes the coverage of the topic and may also point to what’s next, such as cues to what action should follow the message (e.g., what the reader is supposed to do in response to a letter, such as a reply by a certain date).  Depending on the size, type, and organizational structure of the message, the closing may also offer a concluding summary of the major subpoints made in the body to ensure that the purpose of the message has been achieved. In a persuasive message, for instance, this summary helps prove the opening thesis by confirming that the body of evidence and argument supported it convincingly.

The effective writer loads the message with important points both at the opening and closing of a document because the reader will focus on and remember what they read first and last.

Organizing Patterns

Business communications use two main message patterns: Direct Messages,  Indirect Messages,  while bearing in mind to follow the general three-part structure discussed above. Learning these patterns is valuable to reduce confusing and disorganized messages.   Anyone can become a clearer and more coherent thinker by learning to organize messages consistently according to well-established patterns.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Direct Messages

The direct approach frontloads the main point, which means getting right to the point in the first or second sentence of the opening paragraph. The direct approach is used when you expect the audience to be pleased, mildly interested, or have a neutral response to the message.  Positive, day-to-day, and routine messages use the direct organizing pattern.  The explanation and details follow in the body paragraph.  Getting to the main idea saves the reader time by immediately clarifying the purpose of communication and thus reduces receive frustration.

Since most business messages have a positive or neutral effect, business writers should become very familiar with this organizing pattern.  Frontloading a message accommodates the reader’s capacity for remembering what they see first, as well as respects their time in achieving the goal of communication, which is understanding the writer’s point.

Indirect Messages

While the direct approach leads with the main point, the indirect approach strategically moves the main idea deeper in the message. The indirect approach is used for delivering bad, unwanted, or sensitive news.  When you expect the reader will be resistant, displeased, upset, shocked, or even hostile towards the message, the direct approach would come off as overly blunt, tactless, and even cruel.

: Choosing an organizational approach in the writing process infographic
Figure 5.2.1: The two main business writing organizing patterns and when they should be used. (Business Communications, 2019)

The goal of indirect messages is to use the opening paragraph and some of the body area to ease the reader towards an unwanted or upsetting message.  Thus, the indirect approach will first provide an explanation or justification, before delivering the main idea.  This organizing pattern allows the reader to become interested enough to read the whole message. This organizational pattern is ideal for two main types of messages: those delivering bad news or addressing a sensitive subject, and those requiring persuasion such as marketing messages pitching a product, service, or even an idea.

Persuasive Messages: All persuasive message follows the so-called AIDA approach:

  1. Attention-grabbing opener
  2. Interest-generating follow-up
  3. Desire-building details
  4. Action cue

Nearly every commercials follow this general structure, which is designed to keep you interested while enticing you towards a certain action such as buying a product or service. Marketing relies on this structure because it effectively accommodates our attention spans’ need to be hooked in with a strong first impression and told what to do at the end so that we remember those details best, while working on our desires—even subconsciously—in the body paragraphs.

Negative Messages: Likewise, a bad-news message starts by presenting the bad news after an explanation or justification of the bad news is presented.  The typical organization of a bad-news message is:

  1. Buffer offering some good news, positives, goodwill, or any other reason to keep reading
  2. Reasons for the bad news about to come
  3. Bad news buried and quickly deflected towards further positives or alternatives
  4. Action cue

Delaying the bad news softens the blow by surrounding it with positive or agreeable information that keeps the audience reading so that they miss neither the bad news nor the rest of the information they need to understand it. If a doctor opened by saying “You’ve got cancer and probably have six months to live,” the patient would probably be reeling so much in hopelessness from the death-sentence blow that they wouldn’t be in the proper frame of mind to hear important follow-up information about life-extending treatment options. If an explanation of those options preceded the bad news, however, the patient would probably walk away with a more hopeful feeling of being able to beat the cancer and survive. Framing is everything when delivering bad news.

Consider these two concise statements of the same information taking both the direct and indirect approach:

Table 5.2.1.: Comparison of Direct and Indirect Messages

Direct Message Indirect Message
Global Media is cutting costs in its print division by shutting down several local newspapers. Global Media is seeking to improve its profitability across its various divisions. To this end, it is streamlining its local newspaper holdings by strengthening those in robust markets while redirecting resources away from those that have suffered in the economic downturn and trend towards fully online content.

Here we can see at first glance that the indirect message is longer because it takes more care to frame and justify the bad news, starting with an opening that attempts to win over the reader’s agreement by appealing to their sense of reason. In the direct approach, the bad news is delivered concisely in blunt words such as “cutting” and “shutting,” which get the point across economically but suggest cruel aggression with violent imagery. The indirect approach, however, makes the bad news sound quite good—at least to shareholders—with positive words like “improve,” “streamlining,” and “strengthening.” The good news that frames the bad news makes the action sound more like an angelic act of mercy than an aggressive attack. The combination of careful word choices and the order in which the message unfolds determines how well it is received, understood, and remembered as we shall see when we consider further examples of persuasive and bad-news messages later in the textbook.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Organizing Principles

Several message patterns are available to suit your purposes for writing both direct and indirect-approach messages, so choosing one before writing is essential for staying on track. Their formulaic structures make the job of writing as easy and routine as filling out a form.  By using such organizing principles as chronology (a linear narrative from past to present to future), comparison-contrast, or problem-solution, you arrange your content in a logical order that makes it easy for the reader to follow your message.

These organizing principles are identified, explained, and exemplified in Table 11.2 below. Checking out a variety of websites to see how they use these principles effectively will provide a helpful guide for how to write them. These basic structures can provide readers with a recognizable form that will enable them to find the information they need.

Table 5.2.2: Ten Common Organizing Principles

Organizing Principle Structure & Use Example
1. Chronology & 5W+H
  • Linear narrative from beginning to end, including past, present, and possibly future, as well as the who, what, where, when, and how of the story
  • For historical accounts, incident reports, and biographies
Wolfe Landscaping & Snowblowing began when founder Robert Wolfe realized in 1993 that there was a huge demand for reliable summer lawncare and winter snow removal when it seemed that the few other available services were letting their customers down. Wolfe began operations with three snow-blowing vehicles in the Bridlewood community of Kanata and expanded to include the rest of Kanata and Stittsville throughout the 1990s.

WLS continued its eastward expansion throughout the 2000s and now covers the entire capital region as far east as Orleans, plus Barrhaven in the south, with 64 snow-blowing vehicles out on the road at any one time. WLS recently added real-time GPS tracking to its app service and plans to continue expanding its service area to the rural west, south, and east of Ottawa throughout the 2020s.

2. Comparison & Contrast
  • Point-by-point account of the similarities between two or more things, followed by a similarly structured account of their differences
  • For descriptive analysis of two or more related things
Wolfe Snowblowing goes above and beyond what its competitors offer. While all snow blowing services will send a loader-mount snowblower (LMSB) to your house to clear your driveway after a big snowfall, Wolfe’s LMSBs closely follow the city plow to clear your driveway and the snowbank made by the city plow in front of it, as well as the curbside area in front of your house so you still have street parking.

If you go with the “Don’t Lift a Finger This Winter” deluxe package, Wolfe will additionally clear and salt your walkway, stairs, and doorstep. With base service pricing 10% cheaper than other companies, going with Wolfe for your snow-removal needs is a no-brainer.

3. Pros & Cons
  • Account of advantages followed by disadvantages
  • For an analysis of something’s value as a basis for a recommendation to either adopt it or not
Why would you want a snow-removal service?

Advantages include:

  • Worry-free driveway clearing following the city plow
  • Round-the-clock service clearing your driveway before you leave for work and before you return
  • Time saved from shoveling your driveway yourself
  • Avoiding the injuries incurred from shoveling yourself

The disadvantages of other snow-removal services include:

    • 10% more expensive than our base price
    • Potential damage to your driveway or adjoining lawn (WLS will fix any damage free of charge)

As you can see, the advantages of WLS outweigh the disadvantages for any busy household.

4. Problem & Solution
  • Description of a problem scenario followed by a solution that directly solves that problem
  • For marketing products or services and scientific reporting of breakthroughs
Are you fed up with getting all geared up in -40 degree weather at 6 a.m. to shovel your driveway before leaving for work? Fed up with finishing shoveling the driveway in a hurry, late for work in the morning, and then the city plow comes by and snow-banks you in just as you’re about to leave? Fed up with coming home after a long, hard day at work only to find that the city plow snow-banked you out?

Well, worry no more! Wolfe Landscaping & Snowblowing has got you covered with its 24-hour snow removal service that follows the city plow to ensure that you always have driveway access throughout the winter months.

5. Cause & Effect
  • Detailed description of the connection between two or more events, actions, or things to show how they relate
  • For an analysis of the causal connection between things
As soon as snow appears in the weather forecast, Wolfe Landscaping & Snowblowing reserves its crew of dedicated snow blowers for 24-hour snow removal. When accumulation reaches 5 cm in your area, our fleet deploys to remove snow from the driveways of all registered customers before the city plows get there. Once the city plow clears your street, a WLS snowblower returns shortly after to clear the snowbank formed by the city plow at the end of your driveway.
6. Process & Procedure
  • Numbered list describing steps in a chronological sequence of actions towards a goal
  • For an analysis of how something works, or instructions for performing a certain task
Ordering our snow removal service is as easy as 1 2 3:
  1. Call 1-800-555-SNOW or email us at info@wolfelandscaping&snow
  2. Let us know your address and driveway size (can it fit only one parked car, two end-to-end or side-by-side, four, etc.?)
  3. Pay by credit card over the phone or via our secure website, and we will come by to plant driveway markers within the week. That way, our snow blowers will be able to respect your driveway boundaries throughout the winter clearing season.
7. General to Specific
  • Starts with the bigger picture as context before narrowing the focus to something very specific
  • For an in-depth analysis or explanation of a topic
Wolfe Landscaping & Snowblowing provides a reliable snow-removal service throughout the winter. We got you covered for any snowfall of 5 cm or more between November 1st and April 15th. Once accumulation reaches 5 cm at any time day or night, weekday or weekend, holiday or not, we send out our fleet of snow blowers to cover neighbourhood routes, going house-by-house to service registered customers. At each house, a loader-mount snowblower scrapes your driveway and redistributes the snow evenly across your front yard in less than five minutes.
8. Definition & Example
  • Starts with a definition and provides specific examples for illustration
  • For explaining concepts to people coming to the topic for the first time
A loader-mount snowblower (LMSB) is a heavy-equipment vehicle that removes snow from a surface by pulling it into a front-mounted impeller with an auger and propelling it out of a top-mounted discharge chute. Our fleet consists of green John Deere SB21 Series and red M-B HD-SNB LMSBs.
9. Point Pattern
  • A bullet-point listing of various connected but unprioritized points supporting the main point preceding them
  • For breaking down an explanation in a reader-friendly point-by-point presentation such as an FAQ page
Wolfe Landscaping & Snowblowing’s “Don’t Lift a Finger This Winter” deluxe package ensures that you will always find your walkway and driveway clear when you exit your home after a snowfall this winter! It includes:
  • Clearing and salting your driveway with every 3 cm or more of snow accumulation
  • Clearing the snowbank at the end of your driveway within minutes of it being formed by the city plow
  • Shoveling and salting your walkway all the way to your front door after a 3 cm+ snowfall or freezing rain
  • Shoveling by request any other walkways on your property
10. Testimonial
  • First-person account of an experience
  • For offering a perspective that the reader can relate to as if they were to experience it themselves
According to Linda Sinclair in the Katimavik neighbourhood, “Wolfe did a great job clearing our snow this past winter. We didn’t see them much because they were always there and gone in a flash, but the laneway was always scraped clear by the time we left for work in the morning if it snowed in the night. We never had a problem when we got home either, unlike when we used Sherman Snowblowing the year before and we always had to stop, park on the street, and shovel the snowbank made by the city plow whenever it snowed while we were at work. Wolfe was the better service by far.”

Though shorter documents may contain only one such organizing principle, longer ones typically involve a mix of different organizational patterns used as necessary to support the document’s overall purpose.

Key Takeaways

key iconBefore beginning to draft a document, let your purpose for writing and anticipated audience reaction determine whether to take a direct or indirect approach and choose an appropriate organizing principle to help structure your message.


1. Consider some good news you’ve received recently (or would like to receive if you haven’t). Assuming the role of the one who delivered it (or who you would like to deliver it), write a three-part direct-approach message explaining it to yourself in as much detail as necessary.
2. Consider some bad news you’ve received recently (or fear receiving if you haven’t). Write a four-part indirect-approach message explaining it to yourself as if you were the one delivering it.
3. Draft a three-paragraph email to your boss (actual or imagined) where you recommend purchasing a new piece of equipment or tool. Use the following organizational structure:

i. Frontload your message by stating your purpose for writing directly in the first sentence or two.
ii. Describe the problem that the tool is meant to address in the follow-up paragraph.
iii. Provide a detailed solution describing the equipment/tool and its action in the third paragraph.

4. Picture yourself a few years from now as a professional in your chosen field. You’ve been employed and are getting to know how things work in this industry when an opportunity to branch out on your own presents itself. To minimize start-up costs, you do as much of the work as you can manage yourself, including the marketing and promotion. To this end, you figure out how to put together a website and write the content yourself. For this exercise, write a piece for each of the ten organizing principles explained and exemplified in Table 11.2 above and about the same length as each, but tailored to suit the products and/or services you will be offering in your chosen profession.


Baddeley, A. (2000). Short-term and working memory. In E. Tulving & F. I. M. Craik (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Memory (pp. 77-92). New York: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.ca/books?id=DOYJCAAAQBAJ

Houng, D. (2019). Direct and indirect approaches [Video file].  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-uB33AfqMo

5.2 Outlining Your Message

Learning Objectives

Target icon After studying this unit, you will be able to

      • apply outlining techniques to drafting documents


Once the organizing principle has been determined, create an outline for the message.  An outline will help plot the bare-bones structure of the message so it can be fleshed out into full sentences and paragraphs. Outlining helps writers get past one of the most terrifying moments in the writing process: writer’s block. Even after completing all the other steps of the writing process explored above, freezing up while staring down a blank screen is an anxiety-driven mental bottleneck that often comes from either lacking anything to say or thinking that the first draft has to be perfect.  Drafting is supposed to produce a sketchy, disappointing mess only because the goal at this stage is to get ideas down fast so that you can fix them up later in the editing stage.

Figure 5.3.1: A template of an alphanumeric outline.

Outlining is a structured brainstorming activity that helps keep you on track by assigning major, overarching ideas and relatively minor, supporting points to their proper places in the framework of your chosen organizing principle. At its most basic form for a three-part message, an outline looks like the following:

You can add further points in the body and, as shown in the middle of Figure 5.3.1, subdivide them even further with lowercase roman numerals, regular numbers, lowercase letters, etc. depending on the size of the document and the support needed. View the video Outlines, by UNC Writing Center for an overview of the outlining process.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Table 5.3.1 presents an outline of an email message for someone who wants to subscribe to a snow-removal service.  The draft of the email message is also presented to demonstrate how to move from the outline to the completed product.

Table 5.3.1: Brief Message Outline as a Basis for an Email Draft

Message Outline
  1. Interested
  2. Our details
    1.  address
    2. driveway
  3. Questions:
    1. prepaid cost vs. one-time?
    2. discounts?
Email Message Draft
Greetings! I am interested in your snow-removal service this winter.

We’re at 5034 Tofino Crescent, and our driveway can fit four cars, so how much would that come to for the prepaid service?

Alternatively, if we decide to do the snow removal ourselves for most of the winter but are in a jam at some point, is it possible to call you for one-time snow removal? How much would that be? Also, do you offer any discounts for first-time customers?

Warm regards,

Christine Cook

Once an outline is in place, the details of each point can be fleshed out into full sentences and other conventional message components as well.

The specific architecture of the outline depends on the organizing principle chosen as appropriate to convey the writing purpose.  Table 12.2 below demonstrates three principles.

Table 5.3.2: Outline Possibilities Based on Organizing Principles

Organizing Principle Outline
1. Chronology & 5W+H
  1. Past
    1. Founding: who, when, what, and why
    2. Origin and expansion: where, when, and how
  2. Present
    1. Coverage: where
    2. Technology: what
  3. Future: where and when
2. Comparison & Contrast
  1. Main idea: Wolfe is better than the competition
  2. Background context/details: Comparison-Contrast
    1. Comparison: what all companies do—clear your driveway
    2. Contrast: how Wolfe does it better
      1. Follows the city plow
      2. Does your street parking
      3. Offers walkway shoveling and salting
      4. 10% cheaper for base service
  3. Conclusion: Wolfe wins, no contest!
3. Pros & Cons
  1. FAQ: Why get snow removal?
  2. Pros & Cons
    1. Advantages
      1. professional driveway clearing
      2. 24/7 service
      3. saves time
      4. avoids injury
    2. Disadvantages
      1. expense
      2. potential property damage
  3. Concluding recommendation: get the service

As we shall see later in the textbook, outlining is key to organizing other projects such as presentations and reports.  Outlining keeps you on track and prevents wasted efforts.

Figure 5.3.2: Four steps to creating effective outlines.

Key Takeaways

key iconBegin your draft by outlining the major and minor points in a framework based on the organizing principle appropriate for your purpose so that you can flesh it out into full draft sentences after.


1. Find a sample article or document and break it down into a hierarchically structured outline with brief points for each level of organization. Follow the numbering divisions in the outline template given at the beginning of this section. Does this help you understand the structure of the message that you otherwise didn’t consider but nonetheless relied on to understand it?
2. Outline your next substantial email (i.e., more than a hundred words in length) using hierarchical notes following the structure given at the beginning of this section. Does doing so offer any advantages to approaching the writing process without a plan?

5.3 Standard Business Style

Learning Objectives

Target icon After studying this unit, you will be able to

      • edit your writing using elements of business writing style
      • apply the 6 C’s of business writing
      • ensure your writing has the correct tone


Among the most important skills in communication is to adapt your writing style according to the audience to meet their needs as well as your own. Different audiences: a co-worker, the manager, the customer, required different communication styles.   In each case, these audiences have certain expectations about the style of communication, and writers must meet those expectations to be respected and maintain good relations. This section reviews writing style choices and focuses especially on the six major characteristics of good writing common to both formal and casual writing.

Watch theBaroness von Sketch Show Work emails skit.

Thumbnail for the embedded element "Work Emails | Baroness von Sketch Show"

A YouTube element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here: https://pressbooks.nscc.ca/nscccommtrades/?p=96

The Formality Spectrum

There is a general choice between a formal and informal style of writing based on audience profile considerations.  Certain situations call for formal writing and others for a more relaxed style and saw that these styles involve word choices along a spectrum of synonyms from “slangy” to casual to fancy. Here we will review those considerations in the context of the writing process.

Formal Style in Writing

Because a formal style of writing shows respect for the reader, use standard business English especially if your goal is to create goodwill with your audience, such as anyone outside your organization, higher than you within your organization, and those on or around your level with whom you have never communicated with before. These audiences include managers, customers, clients, B2B suppliers and vendors, regulators, and other interested stakeholders such as government agencies. A cover letter, for instance, will be read by a potential manager probably unfamiliar to you, so it is a very real test of your ability to write formally—a test that is crucial to your career success. Many common professional document types also require formality such as other letters, memos, reports, proposals, agreements, and contracts. In such cases, you are expected to follow grammatical rules more strictly and make slightly elevated word choices, but not so elevated that you force your reader to look up rarely used words (they will not; they will just make up their mind about you being pretentious and a slight pain to deal with).

Writing in such a style requires effort because your grammar must be tighter and the vocabulary advanced. Sometimes a more elevated word choice—one with more syllables than perhaps the word that comes to mind—will elude you, requiring you to use a thesaurus (such as that built into MS Word in the Proofing section under the Review menu tab, or the Synonyms option in the drop-down menu that appears when you highlight and right-click a word). At the drafting stage you should, in the interests of speed-writing to get your ideas down nearly as fast as they come, go with the word that comes to mind and leave the synonym-finding efforts for the editing stage. Strictly maintaining a formal style in all situations would also be your downfall, however, because flexibility is also expected depending on the situation.

Conversational Style in Writing

Your ability to gear-down to a more casual/conversational style is necessary for any situation when communicating with familiar people generally on your level and when a personable, conversational tone is appreciated, such as when writing to someone with basic reading skills. In a routine email to a colleague, for instance, you would use the informal vocabulary exemplified in the semi-formal/common column of Table 5.1, including conversational expressions such as “a lot” instead of the more formal “plenty.” You would also use contractions such as it’s for it is or it has, would’ve for would have, and you’re for you are. While not a sign of disrespect, the more relaxed approach says to the reader “Hey, we’re all friends here, so let’s not try so hard to impress each other.” When an upper-level manager wants to be liked rather than feared, they’ll permit a more conversational style of communication in their employees’ interactions with them, assuming that doing so achieves collegiality rather than disrespect.

Incidentally, this textbook mostly sticks to a more conversational style because it’s easy to follow for a readership that includes international EAL learners. Instead of using the slightly fancy, three-syllable word “comprehend” in the middle of the previous sentence, for instance, “follow” gets the point across with a familiar, two-syllable word. Likewise, “casual” is used to describe this type of writing because it’s a six-letter, three-syllable word that’s more accessible to a general audience than the ten-letter, four-syllable synonym “colloquial.” These word choices make for small savings in character- and word-counts in each individual case, but, tallied up over the course of the whole book, make a big difference in size, tone, and general readability, while remaining appropriate in many business contexts. Drafting in such a style is easy because it generally follows the diction and rhythms that come naturally in common conversation.


Figure 5.3.1: Knowing when and how to communicate in a conversational style is important to communicate effectively with specific audiences. (Business Communications, 2019)

Slang Style in Writing

As the furthest extreme on the formality spectrum, slang and other informal means of communication such as emojis are generally unacceptable in business contexts. Since slang is common in teen texting and social media, it appears immature, frivolous, out of place, confusing, and possibly even offensive in serious adult professional situations. Say someone emailed a car cleaning company with questions about their detailing service and received a reply that looks like it was texted out by a 14-year-old such as:

Fo sho i set u up real good, well get yr car cleen smoove top 2 bottom – inside + out – be real lit when were done widdit, cost a buck fiddy for da hole d-lux package, so u down widdit erwat

The inquiring customer would have serious concerns about the quality and educational level of the personnel staffing the company, and thus about the quality of work they’d do.  The customer will probably look for another company with a more business-appropriate style that suggests greater attention to detail and awareness of professional communication standards. A more appropriate  response is likely to assure the customer that their car is in good hands:

Absolutely, we can do that for you. Our White Glove service thoroughly vacuums and wet-vacs all upholstery, plus scrubs all hard surfaces with pro-grade cleaners, then does a thorough wash and wax outside. Your autobody will be like a mirror when you pick it up. Please let us know if you are interested in our $150 White Glove service.

In terms of the writing process, professionals should generally avoid slang style in almost all business situations. If slang is your style, it’s in your best interests to bring your writing habits up to the casual/conversational level with constant practice. Perhaps slang-heavy style would be appropriate when texting a trusted colleague or marketing to teens, but generally, slang should be avoided because it tends to deviate from the typical characteristics of good business writing.

Figure 5.3.2: A comparison of unprofessional writing littered with slang expressions and business-appropriate language. (Business Communications, 2019)

Emojis in Professional Writing

Though emojis’ typical appearance in social media and texting places them at the informal end of the formality spectrum, their advantages in certain situations require special consideration along with some clarity about their current place in professional communication. Besides being easy to access on mobile device keyboards and favoured in social media communication, especially among millennials, emojis are useful for helping clarify the emotional state of the message sender in a way that plain text can’t. They offer a visual cue in lieu of in-person nonverbals. A simple “thumbs up” emoji even works well as an “Okay, got it” reply in lieu of any words at all, so they can help save time for the busy professional. Interestingly, 2,500 years after Egyptian hieroglyphics fell out of use, pictographs are making a comeback! Emojis also go partway toward providing something of a universal language that allows people who speak different languages to communicate in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

However, the lack of precision in emojis can also cause confusion as they may be interpreted differently if the social and cultural context of the receiver differs enough from that of the sender, not to mention differences in their emotional states. This means that emojis aren’t as universal as some claim they are, especially when used by correspondents who speak different languages (Caramela, 2018). Even between those who speak the same language, a smiley-face emoji added to a lightly insulting text message might be intended as a light-hearted jab at the receiver by the sender but might be read as a deeply cutting passive-aggressive dig by the receiver. The same text message said in person, however, comes with a multitude of nonverbal cues (facial expressions, eye movements, body movements, timing, voice intonation, volume, speed, etc.) that help the listener determine the exact intentions of the speaker—meanings that can’t possibly be covered by a little 2D cartoon character.

Be careful with emojis also in any situation involving buying or selling, since commercial messages can end up in court if meanings, intentions, and actions part ways. In one case, emojis were used in a text message signalling intent to rent an apartment by someone who reneged and was judged to be nonetheless on the hook for the $3,000 commitment. As with any new means of communication, some caution and good judgment, as well as attention to notable uses and abuses that show up in the news or company policy directives, can help you avoid making potentially disastrous mistakes.

Though emojis may be meaningfully and understandably added to text/instant messages or even emails between familiar colleagues who have developed a light-hearted rapport featuring their use, there are several situations where they should be avoided at all cost because of their juvenile or frivolous social media reputation. It’s a good idea to avoid using emojis in business contexts when communicating with:

However, in any of the above cases, it would probably be safe to mirror the use of emojis after your correspondent gives you the greenlight by using them first. Yes, emojis lighten the mood and help with bonding among workplace colleagues. If used excessively as part of a larger breakdown of decorum, as mocked in the accompanying Baroness von Sketch Show video short, they suggest a troubling lack of professionalism. Managers especially should refrain from emoji use to set an example of impeccable decorum in communications to the employees they supervise.

The 6 Cs of Style

Whether you’re writing in a formal or casual/conversational style, all good writing is characterized by the “6 Cs” of communication:

Six-C writing is good for business because it fulfills the author’s purpose and meets the needs of the audience by making communication understandable and impactful. Such audience-oriented writing is clearly understood by busy readers; it doesn’t confuse them with ambiguities or require them to come back with questions for clarification. It gets the point across in as few words as possible so that it doesn’t waste readers’ time with wordcount-extending filler.

Good writing flows logically by being organized according to recognizable patterns with its sub-points connected by well-marked transitions. Six-C writing avoids confusing readers with grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors, as well as avoids embarrassing its author and the company they represent, because it is flawlessly correct. It leaves the reader with a good feeling because it is polite, positive, and focuses on the reader’s needs. Six-C writing is persuasive because, with all the above going for it, it exudes confidence. The following sections explain these characteristics in greater detail with an emphasis on how to achieve Six-C writing at the drafting stage.  Let’s begin with a video presentation before focusing on each of the Six-Cs.

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1. Clarity

Clarity in writing means that the words on the page are like a perfectly transparent window to the author’s meaning. Business or technical writing has no time for anything that requires the reader to interpret the author’s meaning or ask for clarification. To the busy reader scanning quickly, bad writing opens the door for wrong guesses that, if acted upon, result in mistakes that must be corrected later; the later the miscommunication is discovered and the further the mistakes spread, the greater the damage control required. Vague writing draws out the communication exchange unnecessarily with back-and-forth requests for clarification and details that should have been clear the first time. Either way, a lack of clarity in writing costs businesses by hindering personal and organizational productivity. Every operation stands to gain if its personnel’s writing is clear in the first place.

Confusion and misunderstanding based on unclear expressions and language can be avoided if hard facts, precise values, and specific pronouns, and concrete descriptions are used.  Figure 13.3 demonstrates the use of these strategies to achieve clarity in writing.

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2. Conciseness

The principle that business writing is economical means to communicate ideas in as few words as possible without compromising clarity. Bad writing makes simple things sound complicated. This is a rookie mistake among some students new to college or employees new to the workforce. Writing long and complex sentences is likely to frustrate audiences.

Readers expect to receive information that gets directly to the point directly. Employees, customers, and other stakeholders want to receive concise messages.  Concise writing presents a better understanding of information to readers.  Figure 13.4 illustrates the benefits of this principle for consumers.

Figure 5.3.3 The benefits of concise writing include greater public awareness. (Business Communications, 2019).

When In the writing process, time spent upfront eliminating wordy phrases will benefit the reader and create a feeling of goodwill towards the sender. Figure 5.3.4 presents several strategies to achieve concise writing.

Figure 5.3.4: A demonstration of five concise writing strategies. (Business Communications, 2019; Business Communication Essentials, 2016).

Writing wordy messages in the drafting stage is acceptable, but such messages must be edited later.  When editing, a writer must understand how much information readers need.  Ensuring the message is concise yet complete is the objective of a good writer.

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3. Coherence and Completeness

Coherence means that your writing flows logically and makes sense because it says everything it needs to say to meet your audience’s needs. The organizational patterns discussed in unit 11, outlining structures in unit 12, and paragraph organization all help to achieve a sense of coherence. The pronouns and transitions you use especially help to connect the distinct points that make up your bare-bones outline structure as you flesh them out into meaningful sentences and paragraphs.

4. Correctness

Correct spelling, grammar, mechanics, etc. should not be a concern at the drafting stage of the writing process, though they certainly must be at the end of the editing stage. Speed-writing to get ideas down requires being comfortable with the writing errors that inevitably pockmark your draft sentences. The perfectionists among us will find ignoring those errors difficult, but resisting the temptation to bog yourself down by on-the-go proof-editing will pay off at the revision stage when some of those awfully written sentences get chopped in the end anyway. Much of the careful editing during the drafting stage will have been a waste of time.

5. Courteous language

No matter what type of document or the expected audience reaction, courteous writing communicates respect for the reader and is fundamental to reader-friendly messages. Whether you’re simply sharing information, making a sales pitch, explaining a procedure, or doing damage control, using polite language helps ensure your reader will be receptive to the information. Saying please never gets old when asking someone to do something for you, nor does saying thanks when they’ve done so—but there’s more to it than that.

Much of courtesy in writing involves taking care to use words that encourage cooperation and avoid negative, critical, pushy, and demanding words and phrases. If you’re processing a contract and the client forgot to sign and date it, for instance, the first thought that occurs to you when emailing to inform them of the error may go something like the following:

You forgot to sign and date our contract, so you’ve got to do that and send it to me a.s.a.p. because I can’t process it till I receive it signed.

Now, if you were the client reading this slightly angry-sounding, accusatory order, you would likely feel a little embarrassed and maybe even a little upset by the edgy, pushy tone coming through in negative words like forgot, do that, a.s.a.p., and can’t. That feeling wouldn’t sit well with you, and you will begin to build an aversion to that person and the organization they represent. Now imagine you read instead a message that says, with reference to the very same situation, the following:

For your contract to be processed and services initiated, please sign, date, and return it as soon as possible.

You would probably feel much better about coming through with the signed contract in short order. You may think that this is a small, almost insignificant shift in meaning, but the difference in psychological impact can be quite substantial, even if it operates subconsciously. Courteous writing is constructive communication that provides instructions on how to move forward. Figure 13.6 presents a few strategies to ensure your writing is courteous.

Figure 5.3.5: A presentation of two strategies to achieve courteous writing. (Business Communications, 2019)

6. Convincing and Confident

Confident writing is highly convincing to readers. Writing that uses decisive language and avoids wishy-washy language like: almost, approximately, basically, might, probably, somewhat, seems and many others, will encourage your audience to accept your decision and opinions rather than question them.  Being overconfident can also have consequences.  Overconfidence can affect the writer’s credibility and turn readers off.  To ensure your writing strikes the appropriate balance apply the following strategies.

Figure 5.3.6: An overview of the strategies to achieve confident writing. (Business Commuications, 2019; Business Communication Essentials, 2016)

While some of the strategies in Figure 13.6 seem subtle, the overall effect is clear, authoritative, and direct writing.  These qualities increase the confidence the receiver has in your message.

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Key Takeaways

key iconDrafting involves writing consistently in a formal, casual/conversational, or informal style characterized by the “Six Cs”: clarity, conciseness, coherence, correctness, courtesy, and conviction.


1. Assemble a Six-Cs scoring rubric for assessing professional writing using the descriptions throughout this unit. In the highest-achievement column, list in point-form the attributes of each characteristic. In the columns describing lesser and lesser levels of achievement, identify how those expectations can fall apart. For help with the rubric form, you may wish to use Rubistar’s writing rubric template.
2. Find examples of past emails or other documents you’ve written that make you cringe, perhaps even high school essays or reports. Identify instances where they are unclear, unnecessarily long-winded, incoherent (lacking both a clear organizational pattern and transitions that drive the argument along), rife with writing errors, rude, and/or unconvincing. Assess and score those specimens using your Six-Cs rubric from Exercise 1 above. Begin to think of how you would improve them.
3. Find a professionally written document, perhaps from a case study in another class. Assess it using the same Six-Cs scoring rubric.
4. Speed-write a written assignment that you’ve been recently assigned in one of the other courses in your program. If you’re not fast at typing (or even if you are and want to try something new), you may start by recording your message into your smartphone’s or computer’s voice recorder app or program and then transcribe it. Ensure that your style hits five of the six style Cs (clarity, conciseness, coherence, courtesy, and conviction) as you write and most definitely do not correct as you go.


Bovee, C.L., Thill, J. V., & Scribner J. A. (2016) Business communication essentials (4th ed.). Don Mills, ON: Pearson Canada Inc..

CBC Comedy. (2017, July 17). Work emails | Baroness von Sketch Show [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWA_j4Vy4oM

Goodman, S. (2016, November 23). And the most enchanting emoji on Instagram is… Curalate. Retrieved from https://www.curalate.com/blog/the-top-100-most-popular-instagram-emojis/

Gray, D. (2011, November 27). Carrot-and-stick management. Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/davegray/6416285269/

Guffey, M., Loewry, D., & Griffin, E. (2019). Business communication: Process and product (6th ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson Education. Retrieved from http://www.cengage.com/cgi-wadsworth/course_products_wp.pl?fid=M20b&product_isbn_issn=9780176531393&template=NELSON

Me.me. (n.d.). Sometimes I use big words I don’t fully understand in an effort to make my self sound more photosynthesis. Retrieved from https://me.me/i/11273424

MindToolsVideos. (2018).  The 7 Cs of Communication [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYBw9-8eCuM

Pringle, R. (2018, March 18). Emojis are everywhere and they're changing how we communicate. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/emojis-forever-pringle-1.4577456
Pringle, R. (2017, May 26). Using the wrong emoji can cost you—literally. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/emoji-lawsuit-1.4131697
Caramela, S. (2018, February 5). Put a smiley on it: Should you use emojis in business communication? Business.com. Retrieved from https://www.business.com/articles/put-an-emoji-on-it-should-you-use-emojis-in-business-communication/

5.4 Effective Document Design

Learning Objectives

Target icon After studying this unit, you will be able to

      • apply the principles of reader-friendly document design to various written formats


The responsibility of a writer to produce reader-friendly documents extends to layout, design, and organizational elements surrounding the words themselves. If an email or report were simply a wall of undifferentiated text running for several screens or pages, any reader would be daunted by the prospect of having to scale that wall. Fortunately, writers can use document templates that make those design choices for them with established styles so that writing a document becomes a matter of just filling in the blanks; if you work for a company that uses templates for certain documents, of course you will use them also for consistency and your own convenience. Even without templates, however, you can use several techniques to help guide your readers’ eyes across the page or screen to easily find what they’re looking for. Rather than being optional nice-to-haves, such techniques are crucially important to how well your document is received.

Before beginning our in-depth discussion on individual elements of good document design, let’s view the video below, Designing Documents, for an overview of design principles aimed at creating effective business documents.

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Design Element

The following design elements will be addressed below: Titles, Headings and Subheadings, Font, Line Spacing, Lists, Visual Aids, Interactive Elements, Balancing Text and Whitespace, Making Accessible, AODA-compliant Documents


Almost every business document that exists as a standalone unit must have a title that accurately represents its contents. It’s the first thing a reader looks for to understand what the document is all about and should thus be easily found centred at the top of the first page of any small document and prominently placed on the cover of larger reports. Even emails and memos have titles in the form of subject lines. In whatever document you find it, the following characteristics make titles essential to your reader’s understanding of the whole:

Headings and Subheadings

After the main title of a document, using headings and subheadings as titles for sections and subsections helps guide the reader around a document’s breakdown of topics. Especially in reports, headings and subheadings that stand out in bold typeface flush (or close) to the left margin and follow a consistent numbering system, exactly as you see in this textbook, help a busy reader quickly locate any specific content they seek. Even a routine email that covers a topic in so much detail that it could be internally divided—without being so big that its content should just go into a document attachment—would benefit from bolded headings.

If your drafting process follows the guide in this chapter, then you would have already drafted your headings and subheadings (and possibly numbering if necessitated by the size of the document) in your outline. The drafting process of fleshing out that outline may suggest tweaks to those heading and subheading titles. As titles, headings must be properly phrased and capitalized like main titles.

When using a word processor such as Microsoft Word, you can achieve additional functionality by using “true headings.” From the Home menu tool ribbon, heading styles are available as options in the Styles section. If you prefer to design your own styles of headings, you can click on the downward triangle at the bottom right of the style examples field and select “Create a Style.” Doing this allows you to see your entire document at a glance on the left and quickly jump to any section you wish by clicking on the Navigation Pane checkbox in the Show section of the View menu tool ribbon (or Alt + w, k), then clicking on the heading for the section you want. This is especially useful in larger documents like reports. Additionally, using such headings makes your document accessible to audiences with assistive technologies such as screen readers (see text below on AODA compliance).


Font selection is an important consideration because it determines how the audience will receive a document. Font involves decisions concerning the style of type, size, and even colour. Consider the following:

1. Font Type: A list of font styles including: Arial, Garamond, Times New Roman, Verdana and Comic SansWriters considering typeface must choose between two major style categories depending on how they would like to accommodate their readers. Serif fonts like Times New Roman and Garamond have little perpendicular crossline “feet” or “hands” at the ends of letter strokes, as well as variable thickness in the strokes themselves, depending on their horizontal/vertical or curving position, which altogether helps readers distinguish between similar letters or combinations of letters, such as m and rn, which almost look like the same letter in a non-serif font. Serif fonts are ideal for printed documents, especially those with smallish font sizes such as newspapers. Without serifs, sans-serif fonts like Arial (the one used in this textbook) or Verdana achieve a more clean and modern look, especially on computer screens where serif fonts appear to whither away at the thin part of the stroke and are thus harder to read. In the appropriate format, all the fonts mentioned above make a document look respectable. Comic Sans, on the other hand, is appropriate for documents aimed at children, but undermines the credibility of any professional document, such as when the unfortunate choice to use it when reporting CERN particle physics discoveries became more newsworthy than the discoveries themselves.

2. Font Size: Size is another important consideration because readers depend on the text being an ideal size for readability and are frustrated by font sizes that are too big or small. In a standard written document, for instance, a 12-point Arial or Times New Roman is the recommended size by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). Increasing the size much past 12-point makes your document appear to be targeting an audience of children. Of course, font size is sometimes increased for titles and any time readers are required to read at a distance, such as posters on a notice board or presentation slides.

Occasions for going smaller with your font size include footnotes in a report or source credits under images in a document or PowerPoint presentation. Decreasing font size to 8-point merely to get all your text to fit onto one page, however, would undermine the document’s purpose and will frustrate the reader. Whatever the situation, strike a balance between meeting the needs of the reader to see the text and design considerations.

3. Font Colour: A choice of colour may also enter into document design considerations, in which case, again, the needs of the reader must be accommodated. Used appropriately, a touch of colour can draw the eye to important text. Colouring your name red at the top of your résumé is effective if few or no other elements in the document are so coloured because your name is essentially the title of your document. Likewise, colouring the title of other documents is effective if there are no expectations of doing otherwise (some company-style guidelines forbid colour).

Any use of colour for text must be high-contrast enough to be readable. The gold standard for high-contrast readability is black text on a white background. Grey-on-white, on the other hand, sacrifices readability for stylishness depending on how light the shade of grey is. A light-yellow text on a white background is nearly impossible to read. In all cases, the readability of the text should be considered not just for those with perfect vision, but especially for those who find themselves anywhere on the spectrum of visual impairment (see text on accessibility below). For this reason, colour should always be used to enhance a document that is already perfectly organized without it; never use colour-coding alone as an organizing principle in a document read by anyone other than you because you can never be sure if some readers will be colour blind or have other visual impairments that render that colour coding useless as a cause for confusion.

4. Boldface, Italics, and Underlining: Boldface, italics, and underlining serve various purposes in focusing audience attention on certain words. Boldface type is especially helpful in directing the audience’s eyes towards titles, headings, and keywords as you can see at the beginning of this paragraph and throughout this textbook. Highlighting in this way is especially helpful to anyone who is visually impaired in any degree. Of course, overusing boldface undermines its impact, so it should be used sparingly and strategically. Likewise, italics and underlining have very specific purposes that we will look at under the banner of mechanics.

Line Spacing

Single-spaced lines are common to most business documents because they accommodate the reader’s need to dart quickly to the next line to continue reading a sentence. The gap between 1.0-spaced lines is just enough to clearly separate one line from another so the hanging elements at the bottom of letters like j and g don’t interfere with the tops of uppercase letters on the line below. Some documents such as academic manuscripts are double-spaced to give readers, who are usually the instructors or teaching assistants grading them, enough space to write comments and editorial marks between the lines. Because doubling the line spacing also doubles the number of pages in a print version, avoid double-spacing documents for audiences who don’t explicitly require it.

Frustratingly, some word processors such as Microsoft Word open blank pages with line spacing values other than single (1.0) spacing as their default setting, such as 1.08 or 1.15. In such cases, a couple of adjustments are necessary if you want to single-space a document you’re writing from scratch. Make these adjustments as soon as you open a blank page or by highlighting all (ctrl. + a) if you’ve already started. In MS Word’s Home menu:

  1. Click on the Line and Paragraph Spacing icon that has four lines representing text with two blue arrows on its left side, one pointing up and one down, in the Paragraph section of the Home menu ribbon (or just type the Alt + h, k keys).Screen shot of Microsoft Office Toolbar showing where line spacing can be foundScreen shot of dialog box in Microsoft Word showing the dropdown menu where line spacing can be changed
  2. Figure 14.1: Where to click to get line-spacing options in the MS Word tool ribbon (above) and Paragraph control panel (right)
  3. Select 1.0 from the dropdown menu or Line Spacing Options from the same to open the Paragraph control panel, and select Single from the Line Spacing dropdown menu in the Spacing section.
  4. Perform the same two steps as above to get the Line and Paragraph Spacing dropdown menu, and select Remove Space After Paragraph or, from the Paragraph control panel, click on the “Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style” checkbox and the Okay button at the bottom to apply the style.

The third action above prevents MS Word from adding a full line of space every time you hit Enter at the end of a line. When typing address lines for a letter without the “Don’t add space” checkbox ticked, for instance, the default line spacing will continue to look like double spacing even if you set the line spacing to single.

Justification should ideally be left as the default left-aligned or “Left-justified / ragged right.” This means that all lines are flush to the left margin and the lines end wherever the last full word fits before the right margin sends (or “wraps”) the next word down to the next line, making each line vary in length so the right margin looks “ragged,” as you can see throughout this textbook. This is usually preferable to “justifying” both the left and right edges of the text so that they align perfectly along both the left and right margins, as in the paragraph below. While this may look clean like newspapers often do with their columns, it does so by adding space between the words within each line, and since every line varies in length without justification, every line with it will vary in the amount of space added between words. Some lines that would be short without justification look awkward with it because the space between some words is greater than the span of small words.

To fix the “hockey teeth” gaps resulting from justification such as what you see in parts of this paragraph, turn on hyphenation in MS Word via the Layout tool ribbon: select Automatic in the Hyphenation dropdown menu in the Page Setup section. This automatically adds hyphens between syllables of long words whose size and position at the end of a line would otherwise send them entirely to the beginning of the next line, decreasing the number of words in the line above and increasing the gap between each. If working in a company document template with justification, keep the justification throughout to be stylistically consistent with other documents produced in that template and ensure that the hyphenation is turned on. Otherwise, left-aligned text is perfectly fine and may even help readers find their place if they lose it momentarily compared with the uniform brick-wall effect of justified text seen here.

Screenshot of Microsoft Word tool bar showing justification icons

Figure 14.2: Where to click to select text justification or left-aligned (“ragged right”) text in the MS Word Home menu tool ribbon


Another technique that helps the reader skim and easily find sought-after content is using numbered or bulleted lists for a series of discreet but related items. Whether you use numbered or bulleted lists depends on your organizing principle:

 Use Bulleted Lists for:
  • Items on a list that have no specific order.  What information is presented first or second is not important.
  • Points on a presentation slide (e.g., PowerPoint) for easier readability


Use Numbered Lists for :
  • Step-by-step procedure or when order is important such as a set of instructions
  • Description of a chronological sequence — a series of events unfolding in time
  • Rankings that arrange items in priority order

You’ve seen numbered and bulleted lists used throughout this textbook (e.g., the two bulleted lists immediately above and a numbered one in the section prior to this). Whichever list type you use, ensure each has the following:

Lists are formatted in two ways: horizontally (as part of a sentence) or vertically (with the use of bullets or numbers).  Use the following exercise to practice writing parallel sentences and creating lists.

Visual Aids

The cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words holds true because images are excellent aids to understanding when placed near the messages they illustrate. Just as the visual elements in this textbook support and reinforce the content, so do photos, graphics, charts, and graphs provide readers something that can be understood and remembered at a glance—as long as those visuals are used appropriately. Of course, the main criterion for usability is if the image helps the reader understand the text better. If the image is complementary, it can only help. If it is unnecessary, confusing, or contradicts the text, however, the image isn’t worth the time and effort it takes to add it to your document. When considering using an image, ask yourself:

The ideal size depends on the resolution, detail of the content, relative importance, and the use to which the document will be put. The following guidelines help ensure that the images you use will meet aesthetic, design, technical, and legal expectations:

With modern word processors, placing an image is as easy as dragging and dropping the image file from a folder into a document (or copying and pasting). Sometimes you will need to be a little craftier with capturing images, however. For instance, if you need to capture a still image of a YouTube video to use as an image, you can pause the video at the moment you would like to capture and use your computer’s screen-capturing program to get the image.

Once your image is in your document, use the layout options to place it where appropriate. Clicking on it may produce a layout icon near the top right that you can click on to open the dropdown menu (alternatively, you can right-click on the image and select the Wrap Text option from the dropdown menu). The default setting left-justifies the image and displaces the text around where you put it, but other layout options allow you to place it elsewhere on the page so that your text wraps around it (“Square,” “Tight,” or “Through”) or so that text doesn’t move around it at all (“Behind” or “In front of text”), which gives you the freedom to move the image anywhere.

Interactive Elements

Another aid to understanding that can benefit readers of an online or electronic document is a weblink that provides them with the option of accessing other online media. Hyperlinking is easy in modern word processors and online applications such as websites and email simply by highlighting text or clicking on an image and activating the hyperlinking feature. Press the control and k keys simultaneously (Ctrl + k), paste the web address into the URL field (copy it by clicking on the web address bar or keying Alt + d, then Ctrl + c), and hit the Okay button (Microsoft Office Support, 2016). Users prefer links that open new tabs in their browser rather than take them away entirely, so seek out that option when hyperlinking. By doing this for an image of a YouTube video screenshot, for instance, you enable readers of a document (including a PowerPoint presentation) to link directly to that video in YouTube rather than embed a large video file in your document. You can additionally link to other areas within a document, as the document version of this textbook does with links to various sections like the one in the previous sentence.

Balancing Text and Whitespace

Another consideration that helps a reader find their way around a page is the balance of text and whitespace, which is simply a gap unoccupied by text or graphic elements. The enemy of

Figure 14.3 Use white space strategically to increase document readability. (TheGCBlogg, 2018).

readability is a wall of text that squeezes out any whitespace, whereas a well-designed document uses whitespace to usher the reader’s eyes towards units of text. Margins should be 3cm or 1″ (2.54cm), which are the default margin sizes in most word processors (e.g., Microsoft Word’s) blank 8.5″x11″ document. Margins also focus attention on the text itself, which makes any crowding of the margins an offense to good design. An attempt to cram more information into a one-page résumé by edging further and further into the margins, for instance, follows the law of diminishing returns: the hiring manager might take your sacrifice of the document’s readability as a sign of selfishness—that you place your own needs above that of your audience, which suggests you would do the same to the customers and management if it suited you.

Making Accessible Documents

The Nova Scotia Accessibility Act sets out guidelines for how workplaces can help people with disabilities, including accommodations that extend to document design. Many of the recommendations covered in this unit, such as font size and colour, are justified as accommodations to people with even mild visual impairment. Someone with colour blindness, for instance, maybe confused if you use coloured text alone as an organizing principle, which is why you should use colour only to enhance text readability while using other means of organization such as boldface type. Not only must you accommodate such individuals, but also those whose severity of impairment requires that they use assistive technologies such as screen readers that convert text to an automated voice. The more straightforward your text is presented, as well as formatted with “true headings” that a screen reader can identify as headings, the easier a person with a disability can hear and understand your message when it’s read out by a screen reader.

Once you are done drafting your document, you can begin to check for any accessibility issues and act on them right away. In MS Word, just go to File and, in the Info tab, select the “Check for Issues” button in the Inspect Document section. It will identify accessibility problems in your document as well as suggest fixes (watch the video below for a demonstration). For instance, if you have a photo without alt text, it will prompt you to write a caption by right-clicking on the image, selecting “Edit Alt Text…” from the dropdown menu, and writing a one- or two-sentence description of the image so that users with screen readers will be able to hear a description of the image they can’t see very well or at all. See the Creating Accessible Documents resources on NSCC’s Digital Accessibility Tool Kit for more on how to make your documents compliant.

Thumbnail for the embedded element "Using the Accessibility Checker"

A YouTube element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here: https://pressbooks.nscc.ca/nscccommtrades/?p=104


Figure 5.4.4 A summary of the top 10 design principles to create impressive business documents. (Business Communication, 2019).

Key Takeaways

key iconMake your document easy to follow at a glance and accessible by using a variety of document design features such as titles, headings/subheadings, lists, visual aids, interactive elements, line spacing, and appropriate font types, sizes, and colours (see summary below).


1. Collect a variety of professional documents, such as reports, memos, and letters. If you have perfect vision, impair your vision perhaps by dimming the lights at night or using a friend’s or family member’s prescription glasses. What do you notice about the readability of those documents when you’ve limited your eyesight? What organizational elements do you especially appreciate when trying to make sense of the document when you’ve otherwise hindered your ability to read?

2. Take any multi-page assignment you’ve done in MS Word that also includes non-text elements like photos. Run an accessibility check on it using the procedure described in this unit and fix the issues identified.

3. Produce a dummy document that follows guidelines in each of the subsections outlined above. The content doesn’t much matter so much as the inclusion of features. Ensure that it has:

  1. A proper title
  2. Some headings and subheadings
  3. A well-chosen font
  4. Single-spacing (1.0 with the “Don’t add space” checkbox checked)
  5. A numbered and a bulleted list, with a properly labeled image
  6. A hyperlink
  7. Nicely balanced
  8. An accessibility check that you act upon by following the recommended fixes for AODA compliance, whitespace, and text


Academic Algonquin. (2013, July 29). Using the accessibility checker [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=62&v=mSY2EyA0rH4

Algonquin College. (2013). Creating accessible documents. Accessibility Resources. Retrieved from https://www.algonquincollege.com/accessibility-resources/accessible-education-tools/creating-accessible-documents/

Apple Support. (2017, November 20). How to take a screenshot on your Mac. Retrieved from https://support.apple.com/en-ca/HT201361

Butterick, M. (2013). Bad fonts. Practical Typography. Retrieved from https://practicaltypography.com/bad-fonts.html

Darling, (2014a). Prepositions. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=1622

Darling, (2014b). Conjunctions. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=1566

Darling, (2014c). Articles and other determiners. Guide to Grammar and Writing. Retrieved from https://plato.algonquincollege.com/applications/guideToGrammar/?page_id=162#art

Guffey, M., Loewry, D., & Griffin, E. (2019). Business communication: Process and product (6th ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson Education. Retrieved from http://www.cengage.com/cgi-wadsworth/course_products_wp.pl?fid=M20b&product_isbn_issn=9780176531393&template=NELSON

Microsoft Office Support. (2016, September 7). Create or edit a hyperlink. Retrieved from https://support.office.com/en-us/article/create-or-edit-a-hyperlink-5d8c0804-f998-4143-86b1-1199735e07bf

Microsoft Support. (2017, April 26). Use Snipping Tool to capture screenshots. Retrieved from https://support.microsoft.com/en-ca/help/13776/windows-use-snipping-tool-to-capture-screenshots

CBC. (2012, July 4). Higgs boson researchers mocked for using Comic Sans font. CBC News. Retrieved http://www.cbc.ca/newsblogs/yourcommunity/2012/07/do-you-use-the-comic-sans-font.html


5.5 Sentences and Paragraphs

Learning Objectives

Target icon After studying this unit, you will be able to

      • understand different sentence types
      • develop direct and indirect paragraphs
      • construct active and passive sentences


Showing your writing abilities involves understanding how to structure sentences and paragraphs.   structure.  Clear, error-free and context-specific sentences create well-developed paragraphs and improve the likelihood of clear with an audience.  Understanding different types of sentences and paragraph structures will make you an effective communicator in business.

Types of Sentences

Determining how to arrange your words to communicate a clear and coherent idea takes skill. The key to developing this skill is to understand how to construct the four types of sentences: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex.  Each type of sentence has its own distinctive quality and purpose.  Table 5.5.1 explains each type of sentence and their structure.

Figure 5.5.1 These four types of sentences are the building block of business writing (Business Communication, 2019).

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Your writing is an expression of you and involves how you choose and use your words to develop ideas and build paragraphs.  These factors will communicate a certain tone to your writing or a reader’s perception of the message: friendly, helpful, angry, demanding, or combative.  At all times, you want to ensure you communicate goodwill and a helpful tone to your reader.  Choosing to write in the active or passive voice and using courteous and polite language will help you communicate the right tone in your writing.

Writing Skill 5.5.1 – Active and Passive Language: When a sentence is structured so the subject of the sentence is the doer of the action, you are using the active voice.   The active voice produces short, direct, easy-to-read sentences that communicate good/neutral information by emphasizing the doer of the action (the “you” view).  For these reasons, most of your business writing will be done using the active voice.


Figure 5.5.2 The subject and verb of a sentence are always side by side in an active sentence.

On the other hand, when the subject in a sentence is receiving the action, you are using the passive voice.  The passive voice produces indirect, formal, vague, and longer sentences.  In business communications, the passive voice is used in very specific situations:

Although, the active voice is used most often in business, sometimes the passive voice is a better strategy to communicate your message.  When an error has been made or negative news must be delivered, using the active voice will make your writing sound accusatory or unsympathetic. Review Figure 5.5.3 for examples of when using the passive voice creates a better tone in your writing.


Figure 5.5.3 The passive creates a better tone in specific situations (Business Communication, 2019).

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Writing Skill 5.5.2 – Positive Language:  Generally, readers are more receptive to positive or neutral news than negative news.  Using positive language will make your message reader-friendly.  In addition, positive language conveys more information, is instructive, is forward looking, and communicates goodwill.  The trick to positive writing is avoiding negative words with negative connotations.  Table 5.5.1 provides a list of some negative words and their connotations when included in your writing.

Table 5.5.1 Avoiding Negative Phrases

When writing, be careful that your language does not communicate unintended negative messages (Business Communication, 2019).

To ensure your writing is positive:



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Effective writers pay attention to the construction of sentences.  Careful and thoughtful use of words and phrases can be challenging.  Thus, continually working on this area of business writing will improve your ability to create well-crafted messages for your audience.

The Paragraph

Paragraphs are the building block of all business documents.  Paragraphs will vary in length and form, but all paragraphs have three essential components: unity, organization, and coherence. It doesn’t matter if you were taught the PEEL, TEEL, or hamburger method of paragraph development, knowing how to arrange the elements of a paragraph will help you clearly communicate your message to the receiver.


The first sentence in a paragraph is the topic sentence which introduces the subject or general idea that will be developed in the paragraph.  Supporting sentences that support, expand, and clarify the topic such as examples, illustrations, and facts and statistics gives the paragraph its unity.


What information comes first, the topic sentence or the supporting sentence will depend on if the paragraph the direct or indirect approach.

Direct Paragraphs: Direct paragraphs start with the main idea (topic sentence) followed by the supporting sentences (explanation).  As was discussed earlier, most business writing follows the direct plan.  Routine information, good news, or non-sensitive messages use the direct approach as readers want to immediately understand the main reason for the communication.  

Figure 5.5.4 Direct organization means paragraphs begin with the topic sentence (Business Communications, 2019)

Indirect Paragraphs: Indirect paragraphs use the opposite organizing pattern.  These paragraphs begin with the supporting sentence to provide an explanation, clarification, or justification before providing the Main idea (topic sentence).  The indirect pattern is used to deliver bad news, sensitive information, or to persuade the reader.  This organizing pattern allows the writer to explain or justify the main point of the message presented in the topic sentence so the reader is more likely to accept the message.

Figure 5.5.5 Indirect organization involves presenting the supporting sentences before the topic sentence (Business Communication, 2019).

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Coherence refers to the way ideas in a paragraph are connected and linked together.  The ideas in well-written paragraphs are logically connected and lead the reader smoothly throughout the paragraph.  When paragraphs are coherent, a group of sentences in a sequence will “make sense” and readers will understand how the sentences work together to communicate the complete message.   When paragraphs are incoherent, sentences lack flow and not logically fit together.  To ensure your paragraphs are coherent, use one or a combination of the following techniques.

Dovetailing: When the topic that ends one sentence, begins the next.  Dovetailing helps to connect sentences by repeating keywords.  A reader will recognize the connection by the repeated keywords.

Pronouns:  Combine pronouns with a noun to which each refers.  Using pronouns in this way helps to build continuity between sentences while cutting down on repetition.  When using pronouns without the helping noun, ensure that pronoun reference is clear.

Transitional Devices:  Transitional words and expressions act as two-way indicators of what has been said and what is going to be said.  Furthermore, therefore, consequently, and however are all examples of transitional words.  Because there are so many transitional words and expressions, understanding what each means and which word or expression is correct for a specific sentence takes practice.  Using the wrong word or expression can change the meaning of a sentence and cause miscommunication.    Transitional devices can be used to

Table 5.5.2 shows how to use dovetailing, pronouns, and transitional devices to achieve coherence.

A demonstration of the three techniques used to create coherence in a paragraph (Communicating for Results, 2017).

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No that we’ve gone through the parts, qualities, and characteristics of an effective business paragraph, view the video below for a demonstration of how to put these components together.

Click on the image above to view the video Writing a Paragraph (Corsera, 2020).

Key Takeaways

key icon

      • Understanding the four types of sentences is important to developing well-crafted paragraphs.
      • use active, passive, and positive language to create a reader-friendly tone in your writing
      • Paragraphs have three important components: unity, organization, and coherence.


Bovee, C.L., Thill, J. V., & Scribner J. A. (2016) Business communication essentials (4th ed.). Don Mills, ON: Pearson Canada Inc..

Coursera. (2020). Writing a paragraph [Video file]. University of Colorado Boulder.  Retrieved from https://www.coursera.org/lecture/writing-for-business/writing-a-paragraph-4Uq3V

Guffey, M., Loewry, D., & Griffin, E. (2019). Business communication: Process and product (6th ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson Education. Retrieved from http://www.cengage.com/cgi-wadsworth/course_products_wp.pl?fid=M20b&product_isbn_issn=9780176531393&template=NELSON


Chapter 6: Routine Correspondence

The vast majority of the couple hundred billion business emails sent every day are short messages of a routine nature such as asking for and sharing information, requesting action, or thanking someone for something given. Most of the time these are positive or neutral messages even when they involve small complaints or claims where you request that an error be corrected. These are all direct-approach messages where the main idea comes right upfront and details follow. Occasionally, you must communicate bad news in writing, which requires a more careful, indirect approach. All of these situations involve conventions that business professionals follow to minimize miscommunication and its fallout, and thus keep their operation running smoothly.

6.1 Information Shares, Action Requests, and Replies

Learning Objectives

Target icon After reading this unit, you will be able to

      • understand the difference between different types of routine messages
      • understand how to components of different types of routine message messages


Ask any professional what kinds of messages they spend the majority of their time at a computer writing and responding to. They will likely tell you that they’re writing an email, memo or letter requesting information or action and replying to those with answers or acknowledgments. To write these types of documents you may need to polish your style, grammar and organization to meet a professional standard. After all, the quality of the responses you get or can give crucially depends on the quality of the questions you ask or are asked. Before looking specifically at each document type, let’s take a minute to watch a video introduction to routine business correspondence.  

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Information Shares

Perhaps the simplest and most common routine message type is where the sender offers up information that helps the receiver. These may not be official memos, but they follow the same structure, as shown in Figure 6.1.1 below.

Figure 6.1.1: The basic format for a routine message with an opening, body, and closing.

Notice here how the writer made the reader’s job especially easy by providing links to the recommended webpages using the hyperlinking feature (Ctrl. + K) in their email.

Replies to such information shares involve either a quick and concise thank-you message or carry the conversation on if it’s part of an ongoing project, initiative, or conversation. Recall that you should change the email subject line as the topic evolves. Information shares to a large group, such as a departmental memo to 60 employees, don’t usually require acknowledgment and would be slightly more formal in tone. If everyone wrote the sender just to say thanks, the barrage of reply notifications would frustrate them as they try to carry on their work while sorting out replies with valuable information from mere acknowledgments. Only respond if you have valuable information to share with all the recipients or just the sender.

Information or Action Requests

Managers, clients, and coworkers alike send and receive requests for information and action all day. Because these provide the recipient with direction on what to do, the information that comes back or action that results from such requests can only be as good as the instructions given. Such messages must therefore be well organized and clear about expectations, opening directly with a clearly stated general request — and proceeding with background and more detailed instruction if necessary as we see in Figure 6.1.2 below.

Figure 6.1.2: The format and structure for a request letter.

Note that, because you’re expecting action to come of the request rather than a yes or no answer, the opening question doesn’t require a question mark. Never forget, however, the importance of saying “please” when asking someone to do something (see unit 13 for more on courteous language). Notice also that lists in the message body help break up dense detail so that request messages are more reader-friendly (see unit 14). All of the efforts that the writer of the above message made to deliver a reader-friendly message will pay off when the recipient performs the requested procedure exactly according to these clearly worded expectations.

Instructional Messages

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Effective organization and style are critical in requests for action that contain detailed instructions. Whether you’re explaining how to operate equipment, apply for funding, renew a membership, or submit a payment, the recipient’s success depends on the quality of the instruction. Vagueness and a lack of detail can result in confusion, mistakes, and requests for clarification. Too much detail can result in frustration, skimming, and possibly missing key information. Profiling the audience and gauging their level of knowledge is key (see unit 5 on analyzing your audience) to providing the appropriate level of detail for the desired results.

Figure 6.1.3: A simple or more complex numbered list is the most effective manner to provide instructions.

Look at any procedures document and you’ll see that the quality of its readability depends on the instructions being organized in a numbered list of parallel imperative sentences. As opposed to the indicative sentences that have a grammatical subject and predicate (like most sentences you see here), imperative sentences drop the subject (the doer of the action, which is assumed to be the reader in the case of instructions). This omission leaves just the predicate, which means that the sentence starts with a verb. In Table 6.1.3 below, for instance, the reader can easily follow the directions by seeing each of the six main steps open with a simple verb describing a common computer operation: Copy, Open, Type, Paste (twice), and Find.

If you begin any imperative sentence with a prepositional (or other) phrase to establish some context for the action first (such as this imperative sentence does), move the adverb after the verb and the phrase to the end of the sentence. (If the previous sentence followed its own advice, it would look like this: Move the adverb after the verb and the phrase to the end of the imperative sentence if you begin it with a prepositional (or other) phrase to establish some context for the action first.) Finally, surround the list with a proper introduction and closing as shown in Figure 6.1.4 below.


Figure 6.1.4: A request with instructions. Note that the instructions are provided using a number list and a verb to begin each instruction.

Though helpful on its own, the above message would be much improved if it included illustrative screenshots at each step. Making a short video of the procedure, posting it to YouTube, and adding the link to the message would be even more effective.

Combining DOs and DON’Ts is an effective way to help your audience complete the instructed task without making common rookie mistakes. Always begin with the DOs after explaining the benefits or rewards of following a procedure, not with threats and heavy-handed ‘Thou shalt nots”. You can certainly follow up with helpful DON’Ts and consequences if necessary, but phrased in courteous language, such as “please remember to exercise caution in construction areas.”

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Indirect Information or Action Requests

If you expect resistance to your request, an indirect approach is more effective (see unit 11 on indirect message organization). Ideally, you’ll make such persuasive pitches in person or on the phone so that you can use a full range of verbal and non-verbal cues (see unit 27 on persuasive messages). When it’s important to have present your argument in writing, however, such requests should be clear and easy to spot, but buffered by goodwill statements and reasonable justifications, as shown in Figure 6.1.5 below.


Figure 6.1.5: Use the indirect approach to write requests the receiver may not be happy about.

Replies to Information or Action Requests

When responding to information or action requests, simply deliver the needed information or confirm that the action has been or will be completed unless you have good reasons for refusing (see unit 26  on negative messages). Stylistically, such responses should follow the 6 Cs of effective business style (see unit 13 ), especially courtesies such as prioritizing the “you” view (unit 13), audience benefits (unit 13), and saying “please” for follow-up action requests (unit 13). Such messages are opportunities to promote your company’s products and services. Ensure the accuracy of all details, however, because courts will consider them legally binding, even in an email, if disputes arise—as the Vancouver Canucks organization discovered in a battle with Canon (Smith, 2015). Manager approval may be necessary before sending. Organizationally, a positive response to an information request delivers the main answer in the opening, proceeds to give more detail in the body if necessary, and ends politely with appreciation and goodwill statements, as shown in Figure 6.1.6 below.


Figure 6.1.6: Use the direct approach for requests the receivers are likely to cooperate with.

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Key Takeaway

key iconFollow best practices when sharing information, requesting information or action, and replying to such messages.



Pick a partner and email them a set of instructions following the message outline template and example given in Table 6.1.3. It must be a procedure with at least five steps and is familiar to you but unfamiliar to them. Can they follow your procedure and get the results you desire?


Gatbondon, G. (2019). Chapter 8: Writing routine and positive messages (MG206) [Video file].  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFUsqgqIMXY

Gregg Learning. (2019).  How to write instructions for business [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIiQcQVr9H0

Smith, C. L. (2015, May 8). Canada: When does an email form a legally binding agreement? Ask the Canucks. Retrieved from http://www.mondaq.com/canada/x/395584/Contract+Law/When+Does+An+Email+Form+A+LegallyBinding+Agreement+Ask+The+Canucks

6.2 Complaints and Claims

Learning Objectives

Target iconAfter reading this unit, you will be able to

      • understand the difference between complaints and claims, and
      • write complaints and claims correspondence


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As the video above suggests, business doesn’t always go smoothly. Customers can be disappointed with a faulty product or poor service; shipments might get damaged on route, lost, or arrive late; or one business might infringe on the rights and freedoms of another. In all such cases,  customers or clients are likely to make your company aware of what went wrong and what they want to be done about it. Indeed, it’s their consumer right to do so and the business or organization receiving such a message should take it as valuable intelligence on customer expectations that must be met for the operation to be viable.

A claim explains what went wrong and demands compensation from the offending party, whereas a complaint explains what went wrong and merely demands correction or apology. Minor complaints are best communicated in person, on the phone, or by email (if it’s important to have them in writing) so they can be dealt with quickly. More serious complaints or claims are delivered as formal letters to lay down a paper trail in case they need to be used as evidence in a lawsuit.

When customers are reasonable about communicating a problem with a situation or business transaction, the customer service representative (CSR) or manager dealing with the matter is more likely to respond positively and meet the need of the client. However, ineffective complaints or claims often merely vent frustrations, issue threats, don’t say what they want or only vaguely imply it, or demand completely unreasonable compensation. Demanding a lifetime supply of milk from your grocery store because one carton happened to be rotten will result in nothing because the manager or CSR will dismiss it altogether as being ridiculous opportunism. Threatening to shop elsewhere makes you sound like a lost cause and therefore not worth losing any more time or money on. Since such messages are usually aggressive (or passive-aggressive) in tone and therefore rude and offensive, the CSR or manager may respond aggressively in turn, give the complainant much less than what they asked for (e.g., a mere apology rather than compensation or replacement), or ignore the complaint altogether. Often the receiver of a complaint message is not the one at fault, so a hostile message would be especially ineffective and possibly even actionable in extreme cases—i.e., liable to cause damages that the recipient could pursue compensation for in court.

Assume that a business will take your complaint or claim seriously if it’s done right because, no matter the industry, companies are rightly afraid of losing business to negative online reviews. According to one study, even one negative review can cost a business 22% of customers and three negative reviews 59%. One mother’s endorsement or warning to others about a local store in a local moms group on Facebook could make or break that business. Even worse, complaints aired on Facebook or Twitter, shared widely to the point of going viral, and picked up by news outlets can destroy all but the too-big-to-fail companies or at least seriously damage their brand. In this age of social media, good customer service is crucial to business survivability. A complaint provides a business with both valuable information about customer expectations and an opportunity to win back a customer—as well as their social network if a good endorsement comes of it from the now-satisfied customer—or else risk losing much more than just the one customer.

Effective complaints or claims are politely worded and motivated by a desire to right wrongs and save the business relationship. They’re best if they remind the business that you’ve been a loyal customer (if that’s true) and really want to keep coming back, but you need them to prove that they value your business after whatever setback prompted the complaint. If the writer of such messages strikes the right tone, they can end up getting more than they originally bargained for.

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Writing a Complaint or Claim Message Organization

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Complaints and claims take the direct approach of message organization even though they arise from dissatisfaction. They follow the usual three-part message organization we’ve seen before:

  1. Opening: To be effective at writing a complaint or claim, be clear, precise, and polite about what you want in the opening. If you want financial compensation or a replacement product in the case of a claim, be clear about the amount or model. You could also suggest equivalent or alternative compensation if you stand a poor chance of getting exactly what you want. If you want an error corrected or an apology in response to your complaint, be upfront about it.
  2. Body: The message body justifies the request with a narrative account of what should have happened versus what actually happened instead. Be objective in writing the account because an angry tone coming through in negative words, accusations, and exaggerations will only undermine the validity of your complaint or claim. Be precise in such details as names, dates and times, locations (addresses), and product names and numbers. Wherever possible, provide and refer to evidence. For instance, you may include copies (definitely not originals) of documentation such as receipts, invoices, work orders, bills of lading, emails (printed), phone records, photographic evidence, and even video (e.g., of a damaged product).
  3. Closing: No matter what prompted the complaint or claim, the closing must be politely worded with action requests (e.g., a deadline) and goodwill statements. Nasty parting shots, even if merely passive-aggressive, may lower your chances of getting what you’re asking for. By complementing the recipient’s company, however, you increase your chances of getting not only what you wanted, but perhaps a little extra. In damage-control mode, the business wants you to feel compelled to tell your friends that the company really turned it around.

Table 6.2.1: Outline for Complaints or Claims

Outline Content Example Message
Subject Line 3- to 7-word title Refund for unwanted warranty purchase
1. Opening Main action request Greetings:

Please refund me for the $89.99 extended warranty that was charged to my Visa despite being declined at the point of sale.

2. Body Narrative of events justifying the claim or complaint This past Tuesday (June 12), I purchased an Acer laptop at the Belleville location of Future Shock Computers and was asked by the sales rep if I would like to add a 3-year extended warranty to the purchase. I declined and we proceeded with the sale, which included some other accessories. When I got home and reviewed the receipt (please find the PDF scan attached), I noticed the warranty that I had declined was added to the bill after all.
3. Closing Deadlines and/or submission details Please refund the cost of the warranty to the Visa account associated with the purchase by the end of the week and let me know when you’ve done so. I have enjoyed shopping at Future Shock for the great prices and customer service. I would sincerely like to return to purchase a printer soon.

Much appreciated!


Notice that the final point in the closing suggests to the store manager that they have an opportunity to continue the business relationship if all goes well with the correction. The implication is that a special deal on the printer will smooth things over.

The Adjustment Letter

If a company grants what the complainant or claimant has asked for, communicating this is called an adjustment message. An adjustment letter or email is heavy on courtesy in letting the disappointed customer know that they are valued and will be (or have already been) awarded what they were asking for, and possibly even a little extra. In the case of coupons for discounts on future purchases, the little extras help smooth things over and win back the customer’s confidence, hopefully so they will tell their friends that the store or company is worthy of their business after all.

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Adjustment Message Organization

An adjustment message takes the direct approach by immediately delivering the good news about granting the claimant’s request. Though you would probably start with an apology if this situation arose in person, starting on a purely positive note is more effective in a written message. Tone is also important here; resist the urge to shame the customer—even if they’re partly to blame or if part of you still suspects that the claim is fraudulent. If you’re going to grant the claim, write it whole-heartedly as if others will be able to see it and judge whether your company has good customer service or if you’re going to be jerks about it.

Though a routine adjustment letter might skip a message body, a more serious one may need to go into more detail about how you are complying with the request or take the time to explain what your company is doing to prevent the error again. Doing this makes the reader feel as though making the effort to write will have made a positive impact in the world, however small, because it will benefit not only you, but also everyone else who won’t have to go through what you did. Even if you have to explain how the customer can avoid this situation in the future (e.g., by using the product or service as it was intended), putting the responsibility partly on their shoulders, do so in entirely positive terms. An apology might also be appropriate in the message body.

Table 6.2.2: Outline for Adjustment Messages Replying to Complaints and Claims

Outline Content Example Message
Subject Line Identify the previous subject line Re: Refund for unwanted warranty purchase
1. Opening Main point about granting the request Hello, Samantha:

Absolutely, we would be happy to refund you for the $90 warranty mistakenly charged along with your purchase of the Acer laptop. For your inconvenience, we will also offer you a $20 gift card for future purchases at our store.

2. Body Details of compliance and/or assurances of improved process To receive your refund and gift card, please return to our Belleville location with your receipt and the credit card that was charged, so that we can credit the same card $90. (For consumer protection reasons, we are unable to complete any transactions without the card.)

We are sorry for inconveniencing you and will speak with all sales staff about the importance of carefully checking the accuracy of any bill of sale before sending the order for payment. To ensure that this doesn’t happen again, we will also instruct sales staff to confirm with customers whether an extended warranty appearing on the sales bill is there with consent before completing any transaction.

3. Closing Courteous statements expressing confidence in future business relations We appreciate your choosing Future Shock for your personal electronics and look forward to seeing you soon to credit your Visa card and provide you with the best deal in town on the printer you were looking to purchase.

Have a great day!


Of course, not all complaints or claims deserve an adjustment, so we will examine how to write refusals effectively.


Apologizing is tricky because it is essential to winning back customer confidence in some situations, but also leaves you or your company open to legal action in others. For minor matters, admitting fault with an apology usually helps vindicate or validate the customer. In more serious matters, especially involving injury or damage to property or even someone’s reputation (and thus their earning potential), a written apology might be read as admitting fault and be used as evidence in court. For this reason, it’s best to ask a manager or legal department for guidance on apologizing to a customer or other stakeholder in writing.

Figure 6.2.1: Include these steps to compose an effective apology for company error (Communicating for Results).

If apologizing is appropriate because you genuinely erred, no legal repercussions are expected, and it’s the right thing to do when trying to soothe an angry response and mend a damaged business relationship, ensure that the apology has the following four characteristics:

Apologizing may even be necessary when you’re not really in the wrong, but the customer’s or public’s perception is that you are. In crisis communications, effective apologies show that you care enough about your existing and potential clientele to say and do what it takes to win back their trust and confidence in you. You can do this without falsely claiming that you made an error (if you genuinely didn’t) by saying that you apologize for the misunderstanding. Dismissing complaints and doubling down on an error, on the other hand, shows a brazen disrespect for the people your success depends on.

Figure 6.2.2: An example of how to integrate the steps in Figure 6.2.1 into a written document (Khan, n.d.).

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Key Takeaway

key iconWhen something goes wrong in a commercial situation, courteous communication is essential when both asking for and responding to complaints and claims.



1. If you’ve ever felt mistreated or taken advantage of in a business transaction but did nothing about it, write a complaint or claim letter asking that the company correct the wrong following the guidance in Table 6.2.2 above. You don’t need to actually send it, but do so if you feel strongly about it and feel as though you have a reasonable chance at success.

2. Put yourself in the shoes of the company that you wrote to in the previous exercise. Write a response to your message following the advice in Table 6.2.2 above.


Golden, M. (2018). Your written response to customer complaints must do these 3 things [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UV6UCsrA-Fg

Khan, A. (n.d.). How to apologize to customers. Freshdesk Blog. Retrieved from https://freshdesk.com/customer-service-skills/how-to-apologize-blog/

LinkedIn Learning. (2014). Productivity tutorial: Writing a claim letter – lynda.com [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGOJLtrsxuE&list=RDCMUCikzJG7RbnNZhKLqqaXRM6A&start_radio=1&t=38&t=38

Meyer, C. (2017). Communicating for results (4th ed.). Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://oup-arc.com/access/meyer-4e-student-resources#tag_case-studies

Michael, P. (2007, January 28). How to complain and get a good result. Wise Bread. Retrieved from http://www.wisebread.com/how-to-complain-and-get-a-good-result

tmuka. (n.d.). Bad customer service montage [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTbHwnxCGaI

Arevalo, M. (2017, March 15). The impact of online reviews on businesses. BrightLocal. Retrieved from https://www.brightlocal.com/2017/03/15/the-impact-of-online-reviews/
Dangerfield, K. (2018, June 11). Starbucks across Canada closing early Monday for anti-bias training: Here’s what to know. Global News. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/4266192/starbucks-canada-close-monday-bias-training/

6.3 Negative Messages

Learning Objectives

Target icon


After reading this unit, you will be able to:

      • organize and write negative messages
      • outline the structure of an indirect-approach bad-news message
      • explain the importance of communicating bad news carefully in professional contexts


Just as in life, the workplace isn’t always sunny. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, and it’s your job to communicate about them in a way that doesn’t ruin your relationships with customers, coworkers, managers, the public, and other stakeholders. When doing damage control, bad-news messages require care and skillful language because your main point will meet resistance. Rarely are people okay being told that they’re laid off, their application has been rejected, their shipment got lost en route, prices or rates are increasing, their appointment has to be moved back several months, or they’re losing their benefits. Though some people prefer that the messenger be blunt about it, in most cases you can assume that the receiver will appreciate or even benefit from a more tactful, indirect approach. Keep in mind the following advice whenever required to deliver unwelcome news.

Negative Messages Topics

The Seven Goals of Bad-news Messages

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

The video above provides five strategies for delivering bad news.  Your ability to manage, clarify, and guide understanding is key to addressing challenging situations while maintaining trust and integrity with customers, coworkers, managers, the public, and other stakeholders. The list below provides a few more goals when delivering bad news in person or in writing:

  1. Be clear and concise to avoid being asked for additional clarification.
  2. Help the receiver understand and accept the news.
  3. Reduce the anxiety associated with the bad news as much as possible by expressing sympathy or empathy.
  4. Maintain trust and respect between you and your audience to ensure the possibility of good future relations.
  5. Deliver the bad news in a timely fashion in the appropriate channel(s).
  6. Avoid the legal liability that comes with admitting negligence or guilt.
  7. Achieve the designated business outcome.

Let’s look at how we can achieve these goals in examples of the tricky situations in which we might find ourselves in the workplace.

Let’s say you are a supervisor and your manager has tasked you with getting Chris, an employee who is usually late for work and has been arriving even later recently, to start arriving on time. Chris’s tardiness is impairing not only his performance but also that of the entire team that depends on his work. You figure there are four ways you can handle this:

  1. Stop by Chris’s cubicle and simply say, “Get to work on time or you’re out”
  2. Invite Chris out to a nice lunch and let him have it
  3. Write Chris a stern email
  4. Ask Chris to come to your office and discuss the behaviour with him in private

Let’s see how each of these alternatives meets our seven goals in delivering bad news.

Figure 6.3.1: Follow this process to deliver bad news (Business Communication, 2019).

First, if you approach Chris with a blunt ultimatum at his desk, you can get right to the point there but risk straining the supervisor-employee relationship by putting him in his place in front of everyone. The aggressive approach might prompt Chris to demand clarification, make defensive excuses, or throw hostile counter-offensives right back—none of which are desired outcomes. For that matter, the disrespectful approach doesn’t formally confirm that the tardiness will end. The lack of tact in the approach may reflect poorly on you as the supervisor, not only with Chris but with your manager as well.

When you need to speak to an employee about a personnel concern, it is always best to do so 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.

Let’s say you invite Chris to lunch at a nice restaurant. He sees the fine linen on the table, silverware for more than the main course, and water glasses with stems. The luxurious environment says “good job,” but your serious talk will contradict this nonverbal signage, which will probably be an obstacle to Chris’s ability to listen. If Chris doesn’t understand and accept the message, requiring him to seek clarification, your approach has failed. Furthermore, the ambush fails to build trust, so you don’t know whether Chris is going to make the extra effort to arrive early or just put in his time there doing the bare minimum while looking for another job.

Let’s say instead that you’ve written Chris a stern email. 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 clearly say 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 Chris 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.

You ask Chris to join you in a private conversation. You start by expressing concern and asking an open-ended question: “Chris, I’ve been concerned about your work lately. Is everything all right?” As Chris answers, you may demonstrate that you are listening by nodding your head and possibly taking notes. You may learn that Chris has been having problems sleeping or that his living situation has changed. Or Chris 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 tardiness and name one or more specific mistakes you have found in Chris’s work, ending by repeating your concern. Because showing your concern makes Chris feel valued, he opens up about his situation so that you understand. It may turn out that he has to drop his kids off for school at 8 a.m. and then contend with Queensway traffic for the next hour to get to the office, consistently making him a half-hour late. You can then both agree that he’ll stay a little later or put in the missing hours at home, then write up that agreement in an email with your manager Cc’d.

Regardless of how well or poorly the conversation goes, if Chris tells other employees about it, they will 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 Chris. 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 considered above.

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 Chris’s performance and tardiness 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 Chris’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 (Business Communication for Success, 2015).

Organizing an Indirect Bad-news Message

Key to achieving Goal #2 of delivering bad news—i.e., helping the receiver understand and accept information they don’t want to hear or read—is organizing the message using the indirect approach. If you tactlessly provide your audience with really bad news, you run the risk of them rejecting or misunderstanding it because they may be reeling from the blow and be too distracted with anger or sadness to rationally process the explanation or instructions for what to do about the bad news. A doctor never delivers a really serious diagnosis by coming right out and saying “You have cancer!” first thing. Instead, they try to put a positive spin on the results (“It could be worse”), discuss test results in detail, talk about treatment options, and only then come around to telling the patient the bad news. At that point, being clear about the bad news ensures that the receiver understands the gravity of the situation and is therefore motivated to follow through on the therapeutic recommendations given earlier. Key to avoiding misunderstandings when delivering bad news, then, is the following four-part organization:

Figure 6.3.2: Determining when to use an indirect pattern is dependent on the communication situation (Business Communication, 2019).
  1. Buffer
  2. Justification
  3. Bad news + redirection
  4. Positive action closing

This is much like the three-part structure we’ve seen before, only the body is now divided into two distinct parts where the order really matters.  An explanation of each part of an indirect negative newsletter follows.

Bad-news Message Buffer

Begin with neutral or positive statements that set a goodwill tone and serve as a buffer for the information to come. A buffer softens the blow of bad news. The following are some possible buffer strategies:

The idea here is not to fool the audience into thinking that only good news is coming but to put them in a receptive frame of mind for understanding the explanation that follows. If you raise the expectation that they’re going to hear the good news that they’re getting what they want only, to let them down near the end, they’re going to be even more disappointed for being led on. If you give them the bad news right away, however, they may be more distracted with emotion to rationally process the explanation or instructions for what to do about the bad news.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Bad-news Justification

The justification explains the background or context for the bad news before delivering the bad news itself. Let’s say that you must reject an application, claim for a refund, or request for information. In such cases, the explanation could describe the strict acceptance criteria and high quality of applications received in the competition, the company policy on refunds, or its policy on allowable disclosures, and the legalities of contractually obligated confidentiality, respectively. Your goal with the explanation is to be convincing so that the reader says, “That sounds reasonable” and similarly accepts the bad news as inevitable given the situation you describe. On the other hand, if you make the bad news seem like mysterious and arbitrary decision-making, your audience will probably feel like they’ve been treated unfairly and might even escalate further with legal action or “yelptribution”—avenging the wrong in social media. While an explanation is ethically necessary, never admit or imply responsibility without written authorization from your company cleared by legal counsel if there’s any way that the justification might be seen as actionable (i.e., the offended party can sue for damages).

Use additional strategies to make the justification more agreeable such as focusing on benefits. If you’re informing employees that they will have to pay double for parking passes next year in an attempt to reduce the number of cars filling up the parking lot, you could sell them on the health benefits of cycling to work or the environmental benefit of fewer cars polluting the atmosphere. If you’re informing a customer asking why a product or service can’t include additional features, you could say that adding those features would drive the cost up and you would rather respect your customer’s pocketbooks by keeping the product or service more affordable. In any case, try to pitch an agreeable, pro-social, or progressive benefit rather than saying that you’re merely trying to maximize company or shareholder profits.

The Bad News Itself and Redirection

Burying the bad news itself in the message is a defining characteristic of the indirect approach. It’s akin to the “hamburger” organization of constructive criticism sandwiched between statements of praise. Far from intending to hide the bad news, the indirect approach frames the bad news so that it can be properly understood and its negative (depressing or anger-arousing) impact minimized.

The goal is also to be clear in expressing the bad news so that it isn’t misunderstood while also being sensitive to your reader’s feelings. If you’re rejecting a job applicant, for instance, you can be clear that they didn’t get the job without bluntly saying “You failed to meet our criteria” or “You won’t be working for us anytime soon.” Instead, you can clearly imply it by putting the bad news in a subordinate clause in the passive voice:

Though another candidate was hired for the position, . . .

The passive voice enables you to draw attention away from your own role in rejecting the applicant, as well as away from the rejected applicant in the context of the competition itself. Instead, you focus on the positive news of someone getting hired. While the rejected applicant probably won’t be pleased for the winning candidate, the subordinate clause here allows for speedy redirection to a consolation prize.

Redirection is key to this type of bad news’ effectiveness because it quickly shifts the reader’s attention to an alternative to what they were seeking in the first place. Some kind of consolation prize (e.g., a coupon or store credit) helps soothe the pain and will be appreciated as being better than nothing, at least. Even if you’re not able to offer the reader anything of value, you could at least say something nice. In that case, completing the sentence in the previous paragraph with an active-voice main clause could go as follows:

. . . we wish you success in your continued search for employment.

This way, you avoid saying anything negative while still clearly rejecting the applicant.

Positive Action Closing

As we’ve seen in previous explorations of message organization, the closing here involves action information. If your redirection involves some alternative, such as a recommendation to apply elsewhere, some follow-up details here would help the reader focus on the future elsewhere rather than getting hung up on you and your company’s decision. Your goals here are the following

The first and last goals are important because you don’t want the reader to respond asking you to clarify anything. The second goal is important because you ultimately want to appear respectable and avoid giving the reader a reason to smear your reputation in social media or proceed with legal action against you.  See Table 6.3.1 for an example.

Table 6.3.1: Bad News Message Outline and Example Message

Part Example Message
1. Buffer Thank you for your order. We appreciate your interest in our product and are confident you will love it.
2. Explanation We are writing to let you know that this product has been unexpectedly popular with over 10,000 orders submitted on the day you placed yours.
3. Bad news + redirect This unexpected increase in demand has resulted in a temporary out-of-stock/backorder situation. Despite a delay of 2-3 weeks, we will definitely fulfill your order as it was received at 11:57 p.m. on October 9, 2018, as well as gift you a $5 coupon towards your next purchase.
4. Positive action closing While you wait for your product to ship, we encourage you to use the enclosed $5 coupon toward the purchase of any product in our online catalog. We appreciate your continued business and want you to know that our highest priority is your satisfaction.

Avoiding Disaster in Bad-news Messages

Delivering bad news can be dangerous if it angers the reader so much that they are motivated to fight back. If you’re not careful with what you say, that message can be used as evidence in a court case that, when read by a judge or jury, could compromise your position. You can lower the risk of being litigated by following the general principles given below when delivering bad news. The following video is a good example of what not to do when delivering bad news.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Avoid Negative or Abusive Language

Sarcasm, profanity, harsh accusations, and abusive or insulting language may feel good to write in a fit of anger but, in the end, make everyone’s lives more difficult. When someone sends an inflammatory message and it’s interpreted by the reader as harmful to their reputation, it could legally qualify as libel that is legitimately actionable. Even if you write critically about a rival company’s product or service by stating (as if factually) that it’s dangerous, whereas your version of the product or service is safer and better, this can be considered defamation or libel. If said aloud and recorded, perhaps on a smart phone’s voice recorder, it is slander and can likewise be litigated. It’s much better to always write courteously and maturely, even under difficult circumstances, to avoid fallout that involves expensive court proceedings.

Avoid Oversharing but Tell the Truth

When your job is to provide a convincing rationale that might make the recipient of bad news accept it as reasonable, be careful with what details you disclose. When rejecting a job applicant, for instance, you must be especially careful not to share the scoring sheets of the winning and rejected candidates, nor even summarize them. Though that would give them full picture, it would open you up to a flood of complaints and legal or human-rights challenges picking apart every little note. Instead, you would simply wish the rejected candidate luck in their ongoing job search. When you must provide detail, avoid saying anything bad about anyone so that you can’t be accused of libel and taken to court for it. Provide only as much information as is necessary to provide a convincing rationale.

At the same, it’s important that you tell the truth so that you can’t be challenged on the details. If you are inconsistent or contradictory in your explanation, it may invite scrutiny and accusations of lying. Even making false claims by exaggerating may give the reader the wrong impression, which can lead to serious consequences if acted upon. Though some might say that omitting the truth is a form of lying, telling the truth selectively is the necessary compromise of a professional constrained by competing obligations to both the organization they represent and the reader who they don’t want to anger or severely disappoint.

Respect the Recipient’s Privacy

Criticizing an employee in a group email or memo—even if the criticism is fair—is mean, unprofessional, and an excellent way of opening yourself to a world of trouble. People who call out others in front of a group create a chilly climate in the workplace, one that leads to fear, loathing, and a loss of productivity among employees, not to mention legal challenges for possible libel. Called-out employees may even resort to sabotaging the office with misbehaviour such as vandalism, cyberattacks, or theft to get even. Always maintain respect and privacy when communicating bad news as a matter of proper professionalism.

Direct-approach Bad-news Messages

We’ve so far looked at expressing bad news using the indirect approach, but is it ever right to deliver bad news using the direct approach? Are there occasions where you can or should be upfront about the bad news? In the following situations, yes, it’s certainly appropriate to deliver bad news by getting right to the point:

Figure 6.3.3: Although most bad news will be delivered using an indirect approach, in certain situations, the direct approach is preferable (Business Communications, 2019).

In the above situations, structure your message following the same three-part organization we’ve seen elsewhere:

  1. Opening: State the bad news right upfront.
  2. Body: Briefly explain why the bad news happened.
  3. Closing: Express confidence in continued business relations with a goodwill statement and provide any action information such as contact instructions should the recipient require further information.

Of course, clarity and brevity in such messages is vital to maintaining friendly relations with your audiences.

Figure 6.3.4: An example of how to apply the direct approach to delivering bad news (Business Communication, 2019).

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Key Takeaway

key iconWrite carefully when addressing negative situations, such as delivering bad news, usually by burying the bad news after a buffer and rationale, and following it with redirection to minimize the harm that the message might cause.


1. Think of a time when you were given bad news by email or letter, such as when you were told that a warranty couldn’t be honoured for the type of damage inflicted on your product or your application was rejected. How well did it fulfill or fail to fulfill the seven goals of delivering bad news.

2. Sales have decreased for two consecutive quarters at your business. You must inform your sales team that their hours and base pay will be reduced by 20 percent if the company is to break even this quarter. While you may have a few members of your sales team that are underperforming, you can’t afford to be short-staffed now, so you must keep the entire team for the time being. Write negative news messages in both the direct and indirect approach informing your sales team of the news following the advice.

3. Research a crisis in your area of training or career field. What communication issues were present and how did they affect the response to the crisis? If the situation was handled well, what are the major takeaways? If handled poorly, what do you think you would have done differently?


Crawley, D. (2015). How to Deliver Bad News: Customer Service Training 10 [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ltg2X0e5g-0

Lehman, C. M., DuFrene, D, & Murphy, R. (2013). BCOM (1st Can. Ed.). Toronto: Nelson Education.

Mallet, L., Vaught, C., & Brinch, M. (1999). The emergency communication triangle. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh Research Laboratory.

Skill Boasters. (2014). Breaking Bad News – Difficult Workplace Conversations Training [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BN-RbUFAJx4

Guffey, M. E., Loewy, D., Almonte, R. (2016). Essentials of business communication (8th Can. Ed.). Toronto: Nelson. p. 194
(Guffey et al., 2016, p. 190)

6.4 Persuasive Messages

Learning Objectives

Target icon


After reading this unit, you will be able to:

      • organize and write persuasive messages
      • outline the structure of a persuasive message
      • explain the importance of persuasion in professional contexts


Persuasion involves moving or motivating your audience by presenting arguments that convince them to adopt your view or do as you want. You’ve been doing this ever since you learned to speak. From convincing your parents to give you a treat to persuading them to lend you the car keys, you’ve developed more sophisticated means of persuasion over the years simply because of the rewards that come with their success. Now that you’ve entered (or will soon enter) the professional world, honing persuasive strategies for the workplace is vital to your livelihood when the reward is a sale, a promotion, or merely a regular paycheque.

Persuasion begins with motivation. If persuasion is a process and your audience’s action (e.g., buying a product or service) is the goal, then motivating them to accept an argument or a series of positions leading to the decision that you want them to adopt helps achieve that goal. If your goal is to convince a pet owner to spay or neuter their pet, for instance, you would use a few convincing arguments compelling them to accept that spaying or neutering is the right thing to do.  With all businesses involved in some sort of persuasion, how do you stand out?  The video below explains a few effective persuasive techniques. 

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

The Rhetorical Triangle


Figure 6.4.1: The Rhetorical Triangle explaining the three methods of persuasion (Visualcommunicationguy, 2020).

Use the rhetorical triangle by combining logic, emotional appeal, and authority (a.k.a. logos, pathos, and ethos in classical Aristotelian rhetoric) to cater your message to your audience. You could appeal to their sense of reason by explaining the logical consequences of not spaying or neutering their pet: increasing the local cat or dog population or even producing a litter that you yourself have to deal with, including all the care and expenses related to it. You might appeal to their emotions by saying that the litters resulting from your pet’s mating with strays will suffer starvation and disease in their short lives. You could establish your credibility by explaining that you’ve earned a diploma in the Vet Tech program at Algonquin College and have eight years of experience seeing the positive results that spaying or neutering has on local dog or cat populations, making you a trustworthy authority on the topic. All of these moves help overcome your audience’s resistance and convince them to follow your advice. These three appeals can also complement other effective techniques in persuading an audience as we shall see throughout this section.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Principles of Persuasion

What’s the best way to succeed in persuading people to buy what you’re selling? Though there may sometimes be a single magic bullet, a combination of strategies has been found to be most effective. Social psychologist Robert Cialdini offers us six principles of persuasion that are powerful and effective no matter what the cultural context. Use them to help persuade people, but also recognize their use by others when determining how you’re being led towards a purchase, perhaps even one you should rightly resist.  The six principles are: Reciprocity, Scarcity, Authority, Commitment and Consistency, Consensus, and Liking.  Each principle is explained in detail following the video.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Principle of Reciprocity

I scratch your back; you scratch mine. Reciprocity means that when you give something to somebody, they feel obligated to give something back to you in return, even if only by saying “thank you.” If you are in customer service and go out of your way to meet the customer’s need, you are appealing to the principle of reciprocity by increasing the likelihood of making a purchase from you because you were especially helpful. Reciprocity builds trust and a relationship develops, reinforcing everything from personal to brand loyalty. By taking the lead and giving, you build in a moment a sense of obligation motivating the receiver to follow social norms and customs by giving back.

Principle of Scarcity

It’s universal to want what you can’t have. People are naturally attracted to the rare and exclusive. If they are convinced that they need to act now or it will disappear, they are motivated to act. Scarcity is the perception of a dwindling supply of a limited and valuable product. For a sales representative, scarcity may be a key selling point—the particular car, theater tickets, or pair of shoes you are considering may be sold to someone else if you delay making a decision. By reminding customers not only of what they stand to gain but also of what they stand to lose, the sales rep increases the chances of swaying the customer from contemplation to action, which is to close the sale.

Principle of Authority

Notice how saying “According to researchers, . . .” makes whatever you say after these three words sound more true than if you began with “I think that . . . .” This is because you’re drawing on authority to build trust, which is central to any purchase decision. Who does a customer turn to? A salesperson may be part of the process, but an endorsement by an authority holds credibility that no one with a vested interest can ever attain. Knowledge of a product, field, trends in the field, and even research can make a salesperson more effective by the appeal to the principle of authority. It may seem like extra work to educate your customers, but you need to reveal your expertise to gain credibility. We can borrow a measure of credibility by relating what experts have indicated about a product, service, market, or trend, and our awareness of competing viewpoints allows us insight that is valuable to the customer. Reading the manual of a product is not sufficient to gain expertise—you have to do extra homework. The principle of authority involves referencing experts and expertise.

Figure 6.4.2: The six persuasive principles that influence human behaviour (Business Communication, 2019).

Principle of Commitment and Consistency

When you commit to something, you feel obligated to follow through on it. For instance, if you announce on social media that you’re going to do yoga every day for a month, you feel greater pressure to actually do so than if you resolved to do it without telling anyone. This is because written words hold a special power over us when it feels as though their mere existence makes what we’re doing “official.” If we were on the fence, seeing it now in writing motivates us to act on it and thereby honour our word by going through with the purchase. In sales, this could involve getting a customer to sign up for a store credit card or a rewards program.

Principle of Consensus

If you make purchase decisions based on what you see in online reviews, you’re proving how effective the principle of consensus can be. People trust first-person testimonials when making purchase decisions, especially if there are many of them and they’re unanimous in their endorsement. The herd mentality is a powerful force across humanity. If “everybody else” thinks this product is great, then it must be great. Such argumentum ad populum (Latin for “argument to the people”) is a logical fallacy because there’s no guarantee that something is true if the majority believe it. We are genetically programmed to trust our tribe in the absence of more credible information because it makes decision-making easier in the fight for survival.

Principle of Liking

We are more likely to buy something from someone we like, who likes us, who is attractive, and who we can identify with because we see enough points of similarity between ourselves. These perceptions offer a sense of safe belonging. If a salesperson says they’re going to cut you a deal because they like you, your response is to reciprocate that acceptance by going through with the deal. If you find them easy to look at—no matter which sex—you are predisposed to like them because, from an evolutionary standpoint, attractiveness suggests genetic superiority and hence authority. Furthermore, if the salesperson makes themselves relatable by saying that they had the same problem as you and this is what they did about it, you’re more likely to follow their advice because that bond produces the following argument in your mind: “This person and I are similar in that we share a common problem, they solved it expertly by doing X, and I can therefore solve the same problem in my life by doing X”.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Indirect AIDA Pattern of Persuasion

When you consider the tens or hundreds of thousands of TV commercials you’ve seen in your life, you understand how they all take the indirect approach because they assume you will resist parting with your money. Instead of taking a direct approach by simply saying in seven seconds “Come to our store, give us $100, and we’ll give you these awesome sunglasses,” commercials use a variety of techniques to motivate you to ease your grip on your money. They will dramatize a problem-solution scenario, use celebrity endorsements, humour, special effects, jingles, intrigue, and so on. You’re well familiar with the pattern from having seen and absorbed it many times each day of your life, but when you must make a persuasive pitch yourself as part of your professional duties, you may need a little guidance with the typical four-part indirect pattern known as “AIDA”:

Figure 6.4.3: Each element of the AIDA strategy explained (Business Communication, 2019).

A – Attention-getting Opening

When your product, service, or initiative is unknown to the reader, come out swinging to get their attention with a surprise opening. Your goal is to make it inviting enough for the reader to want to stay and read the whole message. The opening can only do that if it uses an original approach that connects the reader to the product, service, or initiative with its central selling feature. This feature is what distinguishes it from others of its kind; it could be a new model of (or feature on) a familiar product, a reduced price, a new technology altogether, etc. A tired, old opening sales pitch that appears to be aimed at a totally different demographic with a product that doesn’t seem to be any different from others of its kind, however, will lose the reader at the opening pitch. One that uses one of the following techniques, however, stands a good chance of hooking the reader in to stick around and see if the pitch offers an attractive solution to one of their problems:

The goal here is to get the reader thinking, “Oooh, I want that” or “I need that” without giving them an opportunity to doubt whether they really do. Of course, the attention-gaining opening is unnecessary if the reader already knows something about the product or service. If the customer comes to you asking for further details, you would just skip to the I-, D-, or A-part of the pitch that answers their questions.

I – Interest-building Background

Once you’ve got the reader’s attention in the opening, your job is now to build on that by extending the interest-building pitch further. If your opening was too busy painting a solution-oriented picture of the product to mention the company name or stress a central selling feature, now is the time to reveal both in a cohesive way. If the opening goes “What weighs nothing but is the most valuable commodity in your lives? —Time,” a cohesive bridge to the interest-building background of the message could be “At Synaptic Communications, we will save you time by . . . .” Though you might want to save detailed product descriptions for the next part, some descriptions might be necessary here as you focus on how the product or service will solve the customer’s problem.

The key to making this part effective is describing how the customer will use or benefit from the product or service, placing them in the centre of the action with the “you” view:

When you log into your WebCrew account for the first time, an interactive AI guide will greet and guide you through the design options for your website step by step. You will be amazed by how easy it is to build your website from the ground up merely by answering simple multiple-choice questions about what you want and selecting from design options tailored to meet your individual needs. Your AI guide will automatically shortlist stock photo options and prepare text you can plug into your site without having to worry about permissions.

Here, the words you or your appear 11 times in 3 sentences while still sounding natural rather than like a high-pressure sales tactic.

D – Desire-building Details and Overcoming Resistance

Now that you’ve hooked the reader in and hyped-up your product, service, or idea with a central selling feature, you can flesh out the product description with additional evidence supporting your previous claims. Science and the rational appeal of hard facts work well here, but the evidence must be appropriate. A pitch for a sensible car, for instance, will focus on fuel efficiency with litres per 100 km or range in number of kilometres per battery charge in the case of an electric vehicle, not top speed or the time it takes to get from 0 to 100 km/h. Space permitting, you might want to focus on only two or three additional selling features since this is still a pitch rather than a product specifications (“specs”) sheet, though you can also use this space to point the reader to such details in an accompanying document or webpage.

Testimonials and guarantees are effective desire-building contributions as long as they’re believable. If someone else much like you endorses a product in an online review, you’ll be more likely to feel that you too will benefit from it. A guarantee will also make the reader feel as though they have nothing to lose if they can just return the product or cancel a service and get their money back if they don’t like it after all. Costco has been remarkably successful as a wholesaler appealing to individual grocery shoppers partly on the strength of a really generous return policy.

Rhetorically, this point in the pitch also provides an opportunity to raise and defeat objections you anticipate the reader having towards your product, service, or idea. This follows a technique called refutation, which comes just before the conclusion (“peroration”) in the six-part classical argument structure. It works to dispel any lingering doubt in the reader’s mind about the product as pitched to that point.

If the product is a herbicide being recommended as part of a lawncare strategy, for instance, the customer may have reservations about spreading harmful chemicals around their yard. A refutation that assures them that the product isn’t harmful to humans will help here, especially if it’s from a trusted source such as Health Canada or Consumer Reports. Other effective tricks in the vein of emotional appeal (complementing the evidence-based rational appeal that preceded it) include picturing a worst-case scenario resulting from not using the product. Against concerns about using a herbicide, a pitch could use scare-tactics such as talking about mentioning the spread of wild parsnip that can cause severe burns upon contact with skin and blindness if the sap gets in your eyes. By steering the customer to picturing their hapless kids running naïvely through the weeds in their backyard, crying in pain, rubbing their eyes, and going blind, you can undermine any lingering reservations a parent may have about using the herbicide.

A – Action-motivating Closing

The main point of your message directs the reader to act (e.g., buy your product or service), so its appearance at the end of the message—rather than at the beginning—is what makes an AIDA pitch indirect. If the AID-part of your pitch has the reader feeling that they have no choice but to buy the product or service, then this is the right time to tell them how and where to get it, as well as the price.

Pricing itself requires some strategy. The following are well-known techniques for increasing sales:

If the product or service is subscription-based or relatively expensive, breaking it down to a monthly, weekly, or even daily price installment works to make it seem more manageable than giving the entire sum. Equating it to another small daily purchase also works. The cost of sponsoring a child in a drought-stricken nation sounds better when it’s equated with the cost of a cup of coffee per day. A car that’s a hundred dollars per week in lease payments sounds more doable than the entire cost, especially if you don’t have $45,000 to drop right now but are convinced that you must have that car anyway. Framing the price in terms of how much the customer will save is also effective, as is brushing over it in a subordinate clause to repeat the central selling point:

For only $49.99 per month, you can go about your business all day and sleep easy at night knowing your home is safe with Consumer Reports’ top-rated home security system.

Action directions must be easy to follow to clinch customer buy-in. Customers are in familiar territory if they merely have to go to a retail location, pick the unit up off the shelf, and run it through the checkout. Online ordering and delivery is even easier. Vague directions (“See you soon!”) or a convoluted, multi-step registration and ordering process, however, will frustrate and scare the customer away. Rewards for quick action are effective, such as saying that the deal holds only while supplies last or the promo code will expire at the end of the day.

Sales pitches are effective only if they’re credible. Even one exaggerated claim can sink the entire message. Saying that your product is the best in the world, but not backing this up with any third-party endorsement or sales figures proving the claim, will undermine every other credible point you make by making your reader doubt it all (Lehman, DuFrene, & Murphy, 2013, pp. 134-143). We’ll return to the topic of avoidable unethical persuasive techniques, but first, let’s turn our attention in the next section to a more uplifting type of message.

Figure 6.4.4: An example of a persuasive letter employing the AIDA writing principles (Business Communication, 2019).

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

A revised version of the email using the AIDA principles is below.

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Persuasion in the Digital Age

Persuasive messages via digital communication is now an established part of business practice.  The degree of social media success is measured by the application of the six persuasion techniques and the degree to which your message is heard, repeated, and valued.  Inside an organization, managers and employees must communicate with each other taking several strategies into account in order to effectively persuade the other. Managers and employees should use

The video below provides an overview of being persuasive in the digital age.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Key Takeaway

key icon

      • Use reliable strategies and persuasive indirect message patterns to persuade readers to buy products or services, adopt your ideas, or support initiatives.
      • Apply the six persuasive principles to influence human behaviour
      • Use the AIDA principles to construct effective persuasive messages
      • Recognize the impact social media is having on persuasive messages



1. Recall a purchase where you were upsold or bought something that you later regretted after following the salesperson’s advice. Break down how they were able to convince you to want something you didn’t need to the point of acting on that desire. Identify which of the principles of persuasion they used to get your dollar.

2. Let’s say you have a database of customers who have consented to receiving notices of promotional deals and special offers from the company you work for in the profession of your choosing or an industry adjacent to it (e.g., if you’re training to be a police officer, put yourself in the position of marketing for a company selling tasers to police departments). Write a one-page letter that will be mailed out to each convincing them to purchase a new product or service your company is offering. Make sure to follow the indirect AIDA pattern and involve some of the persuasive strategies discussed in this unit.


Bovee and Thill Business Communication Videos. (2014). Adapting persuasive messages skills to social media [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlof39oZFms

Influenceatwork. (2012). Science of persuasion [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFdCzN7RYbw&t=106s

Guffey, M., Loewry, D., & Griffin, E. (2019). Business communication: Process and product (6th ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson Education. Retrieved from http://www.cengage.com/cgi-wadsworth/course_products_wp.pl?fid=M20b&product_isbn_issn=9780176531393&template=NELSON

Lehman, C. M., DuFrene, D, & Murphy, R. (2013). BCOM (1st Can. Ed.). Toronto: Nelson Education.

Thevisualcommunicationguy.com. (2020). The rhetorical appeals (rhetorical triangle). The VCG. Retrieved from https://thevisualcommunicationguy.com/rhetoric-overview/the-rhetorical-appeals-rhetorical-triangle/

The RSA. (2014). Dan Pink on Persuasion [Video file].  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OCAT0Uk5j0&t=106s

Boachie, P. (2016, July 21). 5 strategies of ‘psychological pricing.’ Entrepreneur. Retrieved from  https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/279464


Chapter 7: Electronic Written Communication

We begin our applied-writing unit with electronic channels because they are by far the most popular both for personal and business use. Most students have grown up with these channels, which gives them the advantage of familiarity. With that comfort, however, may also come years of bad habits deeply rooted in the development of those skills for personal distraction and social ends. This chapter will attempt to provide those students a way to professionalize those communication skills. Email deserves a close look because it is the most widespread and established of the electronic forms. Since so much of our lives are wrapped up in electronic interaction, reviewing the netiquette principles established at the outset of the electronic communications revolution can actually help us move forward as we look at the newest and fastest communication channels, texting and instant messaging.

7.1 Emailing

Learning Objectives

Target iconAfter studying this unit, you will be able to

      • identify characteristics of effective professional emails
      • understand how to compose effective professional emails


An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:


The video introduced you to electronic mail, widely known as “e-mail” or just “email,”.  As the video noted, by volume, emails are the most popular written communication channel in the history of human civilization. With emails being so cheap and easy to send on desktop and laptop computers, as well as on mobile phones and tablets, a staggering 280 billion emails are sent globally per day—that’s over a hundred trillion per year. Most are for business purposes because email is such a flexible channel ideal for anything from short, routine information shares, requests, and responses, to important formal messages delivering the content that letters and memos used to handle. Its ability to send a message to one person or as many people as you have addresses for, integrate with calendars for scheduling meetings and events, send document attachments, and send automatic replies makes it the most versatile communication channel in the workplace.

Integrating the 3 x 3 Writing Process

This mindboggling quantity of 3.2 million emails sent per second doesn’t necessarily mean that quality is a non-issue for email, however. Because it has, to some extent, replaced mailed letters for formal correspondence, emails related to important occasions such as applying for and maintaining employment must be impeccably well written. Your email represents you in your physical absence, as well as the company you work for if that’s the case, so it must be both good, well-written and appropriate.

Begin by ensuring that you really need an email to represent you because emailing merely to avoid speaking in person or calling by phone can do more harm than good. If an email is necessary, however, then it must be effective. As people who make decisions about your livelihood, the employers and clients you email can be highly judgmental about the quality of your writing. To them, it’s an indication of your professionalism, attention to detail, education, and even intelligence. The writing quality in a single important email can be the difference between getting hired and getting fired or remaining unemployed.  Using the 3 x 3 Writing Process (see Figure 7.1) gives you a road map to writing effective emails.


Figure 7.1 The produce effective emails that communicate your message, apply the 3 x 3 writing process of pre-writing, drafting and revising (Business Communications, 2019).

Structure and Content

Before delving into the details of how to construct emails, let’s review the advantages, disadvantages, and occasions for their use.

Table 7.1 Excerpt: Email Pros, Cons, and Proper Use

Email Address

The first thing you see when an email arrives in your inbox is who it’s from. The address determines immediately how you feel about that email—whether excited, uninterested, curious, angry, hopeful, scared or just obliged to read it. Your email address will create similar impressions on those you email depending on your relationship with them. It’s therefore important that you send from the right email address.

If you work for a company, obviously you must use your company email address for company business. Customers expect it. Bear in mind that in a legal and right-to-privacy sense, you don’t own these emails. If they exist on a company server, company administrators can read any email they are investigating a breach of company policy or criminal activity. This means that you must be careful not to write anything in an email that could compromise your employability.

If you’re writing on your own behalf for any business or job-application purposes, it’s vital that you have a respectable-looking email address. Using a college or university email is a good bet because it proves that you indeed are attending or attended a post-secondary institution when you’ve made that claim in your application.  If your name is Justin Trudeau, for instance, your ideal email address would simply be justin.trudeau@ with one of the major email providers like Gmail or Outlook/Hotmail.

What’s fundamentally important, however, is that you retire your teenage joke email address. If you have one of these, now that you’re an adult, it will only do irreparable harm to your employability prospects if you’re using it for job applications. Any potential employer or other professional who gets an email from pornstar6969baby@whatever.com is going to delete it without even opening it.

Also, just as your demeanour and language style changes in social, family, and professional contexts, you should likewise hold multiple email accounts—one for work, one for school, and one for personal matters. Each of the 3.8 billion email users in the world has an average of 1.7 email accounts.It’s likely that you will have more than three throughout your life and retire accounts as you move on from school and various workplaces. If you can manage it, you can set up forwarding so that you can run multiple accounts out of one, except where company or institutional policy requires that you work entirely within a designated email provider or client.

Timestamp & Punctuality

The timestamp that comes with each email means that punctuality matters and raises the question of what the expectations are for acceptable lag time between you receiving an email and returning an expected response. Of course, you can reply as soon as possible as you would when texting and have a back-and-forth recorded in a thread. What if you need more time, however?

Though common wisdom used to be that the business standard is to reply within 24 hours, the availability of email on the smartphones that almost everyone carries in their pockets has reduced that expectation to a few hours. Recent research shows that half of email responses in business environments in fact comes within two hours (Vanderkam, 2016). Some businesses have internal policies that demand even quicker responses because business moves fast. If you can get someone’s business sooner than the competition because you reply sooner, then of course you’re going to make every effort to reply right away. Of course, the actual work you do can get in the way of email, but you must prioritize incoming work in order to stay in business.

What if you can’t reply within the expected number of hours? The courteous course of action is to reply as soon as possible with a brief message saying that you’ll be turning your attention to this matter as soon as you can. You don’t have to go into detail about what’s delaying you unless it’s relevant to the topic at hand, but courtesy requires that you at least give a timeline for a fuller response and stick to it.

Subject Line

The next most important piece of information you see when scanning your inbox is the email’s subject line. The busy professional who receives dozens of emails each day prioritizes their workload and response efforts based largely on the content of the subject lines appearing in their inbox. Because the subject line acts as a title for the email, the subject line should accurately summarize its topic in 3-7 words.

The wordcount range here is important because your subject line shouldn’t be so vague that its one or two words will be misleading, nor so long and detailed that its eight-plus words will be cut off by your inbox layout. Though it must be specific to the email topic, details about specific times and places, for instance, should really be in the message itself rather than in the subject line (see Table 7.2 below). Also, avoid using words in your subject line that might make your email look like spam. A subject line such as Hello or That thing we talked about might appear to be a hook to get you to open an email that contains a malware virus. This may prompt the recipient to delete it to be on the safe side, or their email provider may automatically send it to the junkmail box, which people rarely check. It will be as good as gone, in any case.

Table 7.2: Subject Line Length

Too Short Just Right Too Long and Detailed
Problem Problem with your product order Problem with your order for an LG washer and dryer submitted on April 29 at 11:31 p.m.
Meeting Rescheduling Nov. 6 meeting Rescheduling our 3 p.m. November 6 meeting for 11am November 8
Parking Permits Summer parking permit pickup When to pick up your summer parking permits from security

Stylistically, notice that appropriately sized subject lines typically abbreviate where they can and avoid articles (the, a, an), capitalization beyond the first word (except for proper nouns), and excessive adjectives.

Whatever you do, don’t leave your subject line blank. Even if you’re just firing off a quick email to send an attachment to yourself, the subject line text will be essential to your ability to retrieve that file later. Say you find yourself desperately needing that file months or even years later because the laptop it was saved on was stolen or damaged beyond repair, which you couldn’t have predicted at the time you sent it. A search in your email provider for words matching those you used in the subject line will quickly narrow down the email in question. Without words in the subject line or message, however, you’ll have no choice but to guess at when you sent the email and waste time going through page after page of sent-folder messages looking for it. A few seconds spent writing a good subject line can potentially save hours of frustrating searches.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Opening Salutation & Recipient Selection

When a reader opens your email, its opening salutation indicates not only who the message is for but also its level of formality. As you can see in Table 7.3 below, opening with Dear [Full Name] or Greetings, [Full Name]: strikes an appropriately respectful tone when writing to someone for the first time in a professional context. When greeting someone you’ve emailed before, Hello, [First name]: maintains a semiformal tone. When you’re more casually addressing a familiar colleague, a simple Hi [First name], is just fine.

Table 7.3: Opening Salutation Examples

First-time Formality Ongoing Semiformal Informal
Dear Ms. Melody Nelson:
Dear Ms. Nelson:
Greetings, Ms. Melody Nelson:
Greetings, Ms. Nelson:
Hello, Melody:
Hello again, Melody:
Thanks, Melody. (in response to something given)
Hi Mel,
Hey Mel,

Notice that the punctuation includes a comma after the greeting word and a colon after their name for formal and semiformal occasions. Informal greetings, however, relax these rules by omitting the comma after the greeting word and replacing the colon with a comma. Don’t play it both ways with two commas; Hi, Jeremy, appears too crowded with them.

Depending on the nature of the message, you can use alternative greeting possibilities. If you’re thanking someone for information they’ve sent you, you can do so right away in the greeting; e.g., Many thanks for the contact list, Maggie. When your email exchange turns into a back-and-forth thread involving several emails, it’s customary to drop the salutation altogether and treat each message as if it were a text message even in formal situations.

Formality also dictates whether you use the recipient’s first name or full name in your salutation. If you’re writing to someone you know well or responding to an email where the sender signed off at the bottom using their first name, they’ve given you the green light to address them by their first name in your response. If you’re addressing someone formally for the first time, however, strike an appropriately respectful tone by using their full name. If you’re addressing a group, a simple Hello, all: or Hello, team: will do.

Be careful when selecting recipients. First, spell their name correctly because email addresses often have non-standard combinations of name fragments and numbers; any typos will result in the server bouncing your email back to you as being unsent. Wait before entering their name in the recipient or “To” field in case you accidentally hit the Send button before you’re finished drafting your email. If you prematurely send an email, immediately send a quick follow-up apologizing for the confusion and the completed message. Another preventative measure is to compose a message offline, such as in an MS Word or simple Notepad document devoid of formatting, then copy and paste it into the email field when you’re ready to send.

If you have a primary recipient in mind but want others to see it, you can include them in the CC (carbon/complimentary copy) line. (If confidentiality requires that recipients shouldn’t see one another’s addresses, BCC [blind carbon copy] them instead). Be selective with whom you CC. Yes, it’s good to keep your manager in the loop, but you may want to do this only at the beginning and the end of a project’s email “paper” trail. They will appreciate that things are underway and wrapping up but may get annoyed if their inbox is flooded with every little mundane back-and-forth throughout the process. If in doubt, speak with your manager about their preferences for being CC’d.

Never “reply all” so that everyone included in the “To” line and CC’d sees your reply unless your response includes information that everyone absolutely must see.  Bear in mind that, concerning email security, no matter who you select as the primary or secondary (CC’d) recipients of your email, always assume that it may be forwarded on to other people, including those you might not want to see it. Emails are not private. You have no control over whether the recipients will forward an email on to others , and if your email contains any legally sensitive content, it can even be retrieved from the server storing it with a warrant from law enforcement. A good rule of thumb is to never send an email that you would be embarrassed by if it were read by your boss, your family, or a jury. No technical barriers prevent it from falling into their hands.

Message Opening

Most emails will be direct-approach messages where you get right to the point in the opening sentence immediately below the opening salutation. As we saw in unit 11 on message organization, the direct-approach pattern does the reader a favour by not burying the main point under a pile of contextual background. If you send a busy professional on a treasure hunt for your main point, a request for information for example, don’t blame them if they don’t find it and don’t provide the information you asked for. They might have given up before they got there or missed it when skimming, as busy people tend to do. By stating in the opening exactly what you want the recipient to do, however, you increase your chances of achieving that goal.

Table 7.4 Direct- vs. Indirect-approach Email Openings

Sample Direct Opening Sample Indirect Opening
We have reviewed your application and are pleased to offer you the position of retail sales manager at the East 32nd and 4th Street location of Swansong Clothing. Thank you very much for your application to the retail sales manager position at the East 32nd and 4th Street location of Swansong Clothing. Though we received a large volume of high-quality applications for this position, we were impressed by your experience and qualifications.

Indirect-approach emails should be rare and only sent in extenuating circumstances. Using email to deliver bad news or address a sensitive topic can be seen as a cowardly way of avoiding difficult situations that should be dealt with in person or, if the people involved are too far distant, at least by phone. Other circumstances that might force you to use the indirect approach for emails include the following:

In such cases, the indirect approach means that the opening should use buffer strategies to ease the recipient into the bad news or set the proper context for discussing the sensitive topic.

Otherwise, your email must pass the first-screen test, which is that everything the recipient needs to see is visible in the opening without forcing them to scroll further down for it. Before pressing the Send button, put yourself in your reader’s shoes and consider whether your message passes the first-screen test. If not, and if you have no good reason to take the indirect approach, then re-organize your email message by moving (copying, cutting, and pasting, or ctrl. + C, ctrl. + X, ctrl. + v) its main point up to make it the opening of your message.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Message Body

Emails long enough to divide into paragraphs follow the three-part message organization where the message body supports the opening main point with explanatory details such as background information justifying an information request. With brevity being so important in emails, keeping the message body concise, with no more information than the recipient needs to do their job, is extremely important to the message’s success. The message body, therefore, doesn’t need proper three-part paragraphs. In fact, one-sentence paragraphs (single spaced with a line of space between each) and bullet-point lists are fine. If your message grows in length beyond the first screen, document design features such as bold headings help direct readers to the information they need. If your message gets any larger, moving it into an attached document is better than writing several screens of large paragraphs. Unlike novels, people don’t enjoy reading emails per se.

Also keep email messages brief by sticking to one topic per email. If you have a second topic you must cover with the same recipient(s), sending a separate email about it can potentially save you time if you need to retrieve that topic content later. If the subject line doesn’t describe the topic you’re looking for because it was a second or third topic you added after the one summarized in the subject line, finding that hidden message content will probably involve opening several emails. A subject line must perfectly summarize all of an email’s contents to be useful for archiving and retrieval, so sticking to one topic per email will ensure both brevity and archive retrieval efficiency.

Message Closing

An email closing usually includes action information such as direction on what to do with the information in the message above and deadlines for action and response. If your email message requests that its nine recipients each fill out a linked Doodle.com survey to determine a good meeting time, for instance, you would end by saying, Please fill out the Doodle survey by 4 p.m. Friday, May 18. If the message doesn’t call for action details, some closing thought (e.g., I’m happy to help. Please drop me a line if you have any questions) ends it without giving the impression of being rudely abrupt. Goodwill statements, such as Thanks again for your feedback on our customer service, are necessary especially in emails involving gratitude.

Closing Salutation

A courteous closing to an email involves a combination of a pleasant sign-off word or phrase and your first name. As with the opening salutation, closing salutation possibilities depend on the nature of the message and where you want to position it on the formality spectrum, as shown in Table 7.5 below.

Table 7.5: Closing Salutation Examples

Formal Semiformal Informal
Best wishes,
Kind regards,
Much appreciated,
Warm regards,
Get better soon,
Good luck,
Take care,
Many thanks,
All good things,
Be well,
Bye for now,

Your first email to someone in a professional context should end with a more formal closing salutation. Later emails to the same person can use the appropriate semiformal closing salutation for the occasion. If you’re on friendly, familiar terms with the person but still want to include email formalities, an informal closing salutation can bring a smile to their face. Notice in Table 17.5 that you capitalize only the first word in the closing salutation and add a comma at the end.

Including your first name after the closing salutation ends in a friendly way as if to say, “Let’s be on a first-name basis” if you weren’t already, greenlighting your recipient to address you by your first name in their reply. In your physical absence, your name at the end is also a way of saying, like politicians chiming in at the end of campaign ads, “I’m [name] and I approve this message.” It’s a stamp of authorship. Omitting it gives the impression of being abrupt and too busy or important to stop for even a second of formal niceties.


Not to be confused with an electronic version of your handwritten signature, the e-signature that automatically appears at the very bottom of your email is like the business card you would hand to someone when networking. Every professional should have one. Like a business card, the e-signature includes all relevant contact information. At the very least, the e-signature should include the details given in Table 7.6 below.

Table 7.6: E-signature Part

E-signature Parts Examples
Full Name, Professional Role
Company Name
Company address
Phone Number(s)
Company website, Email address
Jessica Day, Graphic Designer
UXB Designs
492 Atwater Street
Toronto, ON  M4M 2H4
416-555-2297 (c)
uxb.com | jessica.day@uxb.com
Full Name, Credentials
Professional Role
Company Name
Company Address
Phone Number(s)
Company website, email address
Winston Schmidt, MBA
Senior Marketing Consultant
Tectonic Global Solutions Inc.
7819 Cambie Street, Vancouver, BC  V5K 1A4
604.555.2388 (w) | 604.555.9375 (c)
tectonicglobal.com | m.bennington@tgs.com

Depending on the individual’s situation, variations on the e-signature include putting your educational credentials after your name (e.g., MBA) on the same line and professional role on the second line, especially if it’s a long one, and the company address on one line or two. Also, those working for a company usually include the company logo to the left of their e-signature. Some instead (or additionally) add their profile picture, especially if they work independently, though this isn’t always advisable because it may open you to biased reactions. Other professionals add links to their social media profiles such as LinkedIn and the company’s Facebook and Twitter pages. For some ideas on what your e-signature could look like, simply image-search “email e-signature” in your internet browser’s search engine.

If you haven’t already, set up your e-signature in your email provider’s settings or options page. In Gmail, for instance, click on the settings cog icon at the top right, select Settings from the dropdown menu, scroll down the General tab, and type your e-signature in the Signature field. Make absolutely sure that all of the details are correct and words spelled correctly. You don’t want someone to point out that you’ve spelled your professional role incorrectly after months of it appearing in hundreds of emails.


Email’s ability to help you send and receive documents makes it an indispensable tool for any business. Bear in mind a few best practices when attaching documents:

Before Sending Your Email

Before hitting the send button, follow through on the entire writing process, especially the Editing stage with its evaluation, revision, and proofreading sub-stages. Put yourself in your reader’s position and assess whether you’ve achieved the purpose you set out to achieve in the first place. Evaluate also if you’ve struck the appropriate tone and formality. If you’re aware that your tone is too angry, for instance, save the message in the drafts folder and take time to cool down by focusing on other business for a while. When you come back to your email draft the next day, you will usually find that you don’t feel as strongly about what you wrote the day before. Review the advice about netiquette in section 6.2, then replace the angry words with more carefully chosen expressions to craft a more mature response before hitting the send button. You’ll feel much better about this in the end.

After revising generally, always proofread an email. In any professional situation, but especially in important ones related to gaining and keeping employment, any typo or error related to spelling, grammar, or punctuation can cost you dearly. A poorly written email is insulting because it effectively says to the recipient: “You weren’t important enough for me to take the time to ensure that this email was properly written.” Worse, poor writing can cause miscommunication if it places the burden of interpretation on the reader to figure out what the writer meant to say if that’s not clear. If the recipient acts on misinterpretations, and others base their actions on that action, you can soon find that even small errors can have damaging ripple effects that infuriate everyone involved.

Sample 1: Review the following poorly written email.

Analysis: The poorly written draft has the look of a hastily and angrily written text to a “frenemy.” An email to a superior, however, calls for a much more formal, tactful, courteous, and apologetic approach. The undifferentiated wall of text that omits or botches standard email parts such as opening and closing salutations is the first sign of trouble. The lack of capitalization, poor spelling (e.g., councilor instead of counsellor), run-on sentences and lack of other punctuation such as apostrophes for contractions, as well as the inappropriate personal detail all suggest that the writer doesn’t take their studies seriously enough to deserve any favours. Besides tacking on a question at the end, one that could be easily answered by reading the syllabus, the writer is ultimately unclear about what they want; if it’s an explanation for why they failed, then they must be upfront about that. The rudeness of the closing is more likely to enrage the recipient than get them to deliver the requested information.

Sample 2: Now review the revised email.

Analysis:  The improved version stands a much better chance of a sympathetic response. It corrects the problems of the first draft starting with properly framing the message with expected formal email parts. It benefits from a more courteous tone in a message that frontloads a clear and polite request for information in the opening. The supporting detail in the message body and apologetic closing suggests that the student, despite their faults, is well aware of how to communicate like a professional to achieve a particular goal.

After running such a quality-assurance check on your email, your final step before sending it should involve protecting yourself against losing it to a technical glitch. Get in the habit of copying your email message text (ctrl. + A, ctrl. + C) just before hitting the Send button, then checking your Sent folder immediately to confirm that the email sent properly. If your message vanished due to some random malfunction, as can happen occasionally, immediately open a blank MS Word or Notepad document and paste the text there (ctrl. + V) to save it. That way, you don’t have to waste five minutes rewriting the entire message after you solve the connectivity issues or whatever else caused the glitch.


Figure 7.2: A summary of important tips to composing effective emails (Doyle, 2019).

For similar views on email best practices, see Guffey, Loewy, and Almonte (2016, pp. 90-97), which furnished some of the information given above.

Key Takeaway

key iconFollow standard conventions for writing each part of a professional or academic email, making strategic choices about the content and level of formality appropriate for the audience and occasion.


1. Take one of the worst emails you’ve ever seen. It could be from a friend, colleague, family member, professional, or other.

i. Copy and paste it into a blank document, but change the name of its author and don’t include their real email address (protect their confidentiality).
ii. Use MS Word’s Track Changes comment feature to identify as many organizational errors as you can.
iii. Again using Track Changes, correct all of the stylistic and writing errors.

2. Let’s say you just graduated from your program and have been putting your name out there, applying to job postings, networking, and letting friends and colleagues know that you’re on the job market. You get an email from someone named Dr. Emily Conway, the friend of a friend, who needs someone to put together some marketing brochures for her start-up medical clinic in time for a conference in a week. It’s not entirely what you’ve been training to do, but you’ve done something like it for a course assignment once, and you need rent money, so you decide to accept the offer. Dr. Conway’s email asks you five questions in the message body:

i. Our mutual friend mentioned you just graduated from college. What program? How’d you do?
ii. Can you send a sample of your marketing work?
iii. How much would you charge for designing a double-sided 8½x11″ tri-fold brochure?
iv. When you’ve completed your design, would you be okay with sending me the ready-to-print PDF and original Adobe Illustrator file?
v. If I already have all the text and pictures, how soon can you do this? Can you handle the printing as well?

Dr. Conway closes her email asking if you’d like to meet to discuss the opportunity in more detail and signs off as Emily. Draft a formal response email that abides by the conventions of a formal email.


Doyle, A. (2019).  How to write and send professional email messages.  Thebalancecareers. Retrieved from https://www.thebalancecareers.com/how-to-write-and-send-professional-email-messages-2061892

Guffey, M., Loewy, D., & Almonte, R. (2016). Essentials of Business Communication (8th Can. ed.). Toronto, Nelson.

Guffey, M., Loewry, D., & Griffin, E. (2019). Business communication: Process and product (6th ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson Education. Retrieved from http://www.cengage.com/cgi-wadsworth/course_products_wp.pl?fid=M20b&product_isbn_issn=9780176531393&template=NELSON

Khanna, K. (2017, March 25). Attachment size limits for Outlook, Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, Facebook and WhatsApp. The Windows Club. Retrieved from http://www.thewindowsclub.com/attachment-size-limits-outlook-gmail-yahoo

Klockars-Clauser, S. (2010, March 26). Flaming computer – “don’t panic” (4549185468). Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flaming_computer_-_%22don%27t_panic%22_(4549185468).jpg

MindToolsVideos. (2018). 6 steps for writing effective emails [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y50xhHQ8Qf0&feature=emb_logo

Neel, A. (2017, March 7). Follow your passion. Unsplash. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/QLqNalPe0RA

Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. (2010, July 21). Collection and use of employee’s email deemed acceptable for purposes of investigating breach of agreement. Retrieved from https://www.priv.gc.ca/en/opc-actions-and-decisions/investigations/investigations-into-businesses/2009/pipeda-2009-019/

The Radicati Group. (2017, January). Email statistics report, 2017-2021. Palo Alto, CA: The Radicati Group, Inc. Retrieved from https://www.radicati.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Email-Statistics-Report-2017-2021-Executive-Summary.pdf

Rawpixel. (2018, March 28). Person using MacBook Pro on brown wooden desk 1061588. Retrieved from https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-using-macbook-pro-on-brown-wooden-desk-1061588/

Tumisu. (2017, December 14). Contact us contact email phone mail inbox. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/en/contact-us-contact-email-phone-2993000/

Vanderkam, L. (2016, March 29). What is an appropriate response time to email? Fast Company. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/3058066/what-is-an-appropriate-response-time-to-email

7.2 Netiquette and Social Media

Learning Objectives

Target icon After studying this unit, you will be able to discuss emerging netiquette standards in social media used for professional purposes.


We create and curate personal profiles, post content and comments, and interact via social media as a normal part of both our personal and professional lives. How we conduct ourselves on the open internet can leave a lasting impression, one not so easily undone if it’s regrettable. The hilarious but compromising selfie you posted on Instagram five years ago is still there for your potential employer to find, judge for what it says about your professionalism, and speculate about what customers might think if they saw it too. That sarcastic but not-so-PC reply to a public post on Facebook or Twitter in a heated moment a decade ago can come back to haunt you. We’re all learning as we go in this new media environment, but any mistakes we make along the way, no matter how much we’ve matured since, are still there for all to see and can have lasting impacts on our careers. Many candidates for political office have been taken down by their past social-media posts and the agents tasked with digging them up, and you can be sure that untold numbers of job applicants have similarly scuppered their chances with similar cavalier shares. Some guidance about what can be done about those mistakes, as well as how to conduct ourselves properly moving forward, can help improve your employability.

Shea’s Netiquette

Virginia Shea’s Rules of Netiquette offer helpful guidelines for online behaviour:

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.

Legal Responsibilities

Your writing in a business context means that you represent yourself and your company. What you write and how you write it can be part of your company’s success but can also expose it to unintended consequences and legal responsibility. When you write, keep in mind that your words will keep on existing long after you have moved on to other projects. They can become an issue if they exaggerate, state false claims, or defame a person or legal entity such as a competing company. Another issue is plagiarism, using someone else’s writing without giving credit to the source. Whether the “cribbed” material is taken from a printed book, a website, or a blog, plagiarism is a violation of copyright law and may also violate your company policies. Industry standards often have legal aspects that must be respected and cannot be ignored. For the writer, this can be a challenge, but it can be a fun challenge with rewarding results.

The rapid pace of technology means that the law cannot always stay current with the realities of business communication. Computers had been in use for a couple of decades before the Copyright Act of 1985 was amended in 1997 to deal with internet-enabled copyright infringement. Technology advanced even further before the next major amendment came with the Copyright Modernization Act of 2012. Developments since then will continue to demand new laws to clarify what is fair and ethical, what should be prohibited, and who owns the rights to what.

For example, suppose your supervisor asks you to use your Facebook page or Twitter account to give an occasional “plug” to your company’s products. Are you obligated to comply? If you later change jobs, who owns your posts or tweets—are they yours, or does your now-former employer have a right to them? And what about your network of “friends”? Can your employer use their contact information to send marketing messages? These and many other questions remain to be answered as technology, industry practices, and legislation evolve.

Our product is better than X company’s product. Their product is dangerous and you would be a wise customer to choose us for your product solutions.

What’s wrong with the two sentences above? They may land you and your company in court. You made a generalized claim of one product being better than another, and you stated it as if it were a fact. The next sentence claims that your competitor’s product is dangerous. Even if this is true, your ability to prove your claim beyond a reasonable doubt may be limited. Your claim is stated as fact again, and from the other company’s perspective, your sentences may be considered libel or defamation.

Libel is the written form of defamation or a false statement that damages a reputation. If a false statement of fact that concerns and harms the person defamed is published—including publication in a digital or online environment—the author of that statement may be sued for libel. If the person defamed is a public figure, they must prove malice or the intention to do harm, but if the victim is a private person, libel applies even if the offense cannot be proven to be malicious. You have a Charter right to express your opinion (section 2[b]), but the words you use and how you use them, including the context, are relevant to their interpretation as opinion versus fact. Always be careful to qualify what you write and to do no harm.

Using Social Media Professionally

Review sites, blogs, tweets, and online community forums are some of the continually developing means of social media being harnessed by business and industry to reach customers and other stakeholders. People’s comfort in the online environment forces businesses to market and interact there or risk a massive loss in sales and interest. Though most users learn how to use social media as an extension or facilitator of their social lives, using the same platforms for professional reasons requires some change in behaviour.

First, recognize that every modern business or organization should have a social media presence in the sites they expect their customer base to frequent, especially popular sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Messaging here must be consistent across the platforms when alerting the customer base of important information such as special events, deals, and other news.

Next, follow expert advice on how to properly take advantage of social media in detail to promote your operation and reach people. Large companies will dedicate personnel to run their social media presence, but small businesses can do much of it themselves if they follow some decent online advice such as the following:

Know also that social media is a constantly evolving environment. Stay on trend by continually searching out and implementing the latest advice similar to the above.

Finally, always consider how the sites you access and what you post represent you and your employer, even if you think others don’t know where you work or who you are. Internet service providers (ISPs) are required by law to archive information concerning the use and traffic of information that can become available under subpoena. Any move you make leaves digital footprints, so you will have to answer for any misstep that brings shame upon you or your company.

Key Takeaway

key iconWhether in the public or private corners of the internet, conduct yourself online in a manner that is always conducive to your professional success, following established netiquette principles, as well as using social media effectively and responsibly.


1. Recount how you have experienced a breach of netiquette such as online bullying. Were you a perpetrator, enabler, victim, or combination? What did you learn from it?

2. Identify and explain three ways that you can professionalize your online presence using social media.

Harris, K. (2015, September 17). How political operatives dig up dirt to take down candidates. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canada-election-2015-vetting-candidates-media-1.3229594
Tahmincioglu, E. (2009, October 11). Your boss wants you on Twitter: Companies recognizing the value of having workers promote products. MSNBC Careers. Retrieved from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/33090717/ns/business-careers
Mineo, G. (2017, September 19). The do's and don'ts of how to use Facebook for business [Infographic]. Retrieved from https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/dos-donts-facebook-business-infographic
Dawley, S. (2018, January 30). How to use Instagram for business: A complete guide for marketers. Retrieved from https://blog.hootsuite.com/how-to-use-instagram-for-business/

7.3 Texting and Instant Messaging

Learning Objectives

Target icon After studying this unit, you will be able to use rapid electronic communication channels such as texting and instant messaging in a professional manner.

Whatever digital device you use, written communication in the form of Short Message Service (SMS), or texting, has been a convenient and popular way to connect since the 1990s. Instant messaging (IMing) apps like Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger have increased the options people have to send and respond to brief written messages in real time when talking on the phone would otherwise be inconvenient. In business, texting and IMing are especially advantageous for hashing out details precisely in writing so that they can be referred to later. Texting and IMing are not useful for long or complicated messages but are great for connecting while on the go. However, consider your audience and company by choosing words, terms, or abbreviations that will deliver your message most effectively using these communication tools.

Tips for Effective Business Texting:

Key Takeaway

key iconProfessionalize your use of rapid electronic communication such as texting and instant messaging so that you can assume a competitive advantage throughout your careers.


1. Write out your answers to the following questions:

i. How old were you when you got your first mobile phone?
ii. When did you send your first text?
iii. How many texts do you send per day, on average, now?
iv. How many times do you speak on the phone with the same device, on average, throughout your day? If you call (or receive calls) far less than text, why do you think that is?
v. Is the first thing you look at when you wake up in the morning your smartphone notifications, and are they the last thing you look at before you go to sleep at night? If so, why? If not, why do you think it is for so many people?
vi. Do you think it’s fair to say that your smartphone use can be characterized as an addiction? If so, how is it impeding you from living a more healthy and fulfilling life? Is there anything you are prepared to do about it? If not, do you see it as a problem for people around you? Do you challenge them on it? Do you find it a challenge to discipline yourself to prevent it from being an addiction in your case?

2. Identify three ways that you must change your texting and IM behaviour in professional—rather than purely social—contexts.


Chapter 8: Traditional Written Communication

We continue our applied-writing unit with traditional document forms that are still vital to the functioning of modern businesses have. Despite origins as handwritten and typed hard-copy documents, letters, memos, reports, and proposals continue to prove their worth both in the form of printed hard copies and electronic documents shared by email. Every professional should familiarize themselves with the conventions associated with each type of document so that they can use them to achieve their particular purposes.

8.1 Letters

Learning Objectives

Target iconAfter studying this unit, you will be able to

      • identify the parts of effective letters
      • identify the different types of letter formats
      • compose an effective letter


As one of the most formal documents you can send, a letter conveys a high degree of respect to its recipient. Sending a letter is your way of saying that the recipient matters. Letters are usually one- to two-page documents sent to people or organizations outside of the organization from which they’re sent, whereas memos are equivalent documents for communications within an organization. Though we use email for many of the occasions that we used to send letters for before the twenty-first century, letters are still sent rather than emails for several purposes:

In these cases, letters offer the advantage of formality, confidentiality (it’s illegal to open someone else’s mail), and a record of evidence.

Types of Letter Formats

There are two main types of letters: block-style letters and modified-block style. The block style used by organizations has a company letterhead at the top, whereas modified-block letters are typically written independently by individuals. Though you may see minor format variations from company to company, letters have 10-12 major parts, each of which we’ll examine for the conventions that, if followed, show that you are able to write to a high standard of formality should the occasion call for it.

Figure 8.1.1: The two main letter formats used in business communications.

Letter Parts

Letters have 10 – 12 parts, including: Return Address or Company Letterhead, Date Line, Recipient Address, Subject Reference, Opening Salutation, Message Opening, Message Body, Message Closing, Closing Salutation, Signature, Signature Block, Enclosure Notice.  The following video explains each part of a standard letter.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Before delving into the details of how to compose a letter, let’s review the advantages, disadvantages, and occasions for using letters.

Table 8.1.1 Excerpt: Letter Pros, Cons, and Proper Use

Constructing a Professional Letter

Return Address or Company Letterhead

The first piece of information in a letter is usually the sender’s address. In block-style letters, the address appears as part of the company letterhead in the header under or beside the prominently displayed and brand-stylized company name and logo. Use a company letterhead template whenever writing on behalf of the company you work for; never use it for personal messages (e.g., reference letters for a relative) not authorized by the company. The company letterhead address usually appears in the one-line style following the format given below:

[Street number] [Street name] [Street type], [City or town], [Provincial abbreviation] [two spaces] [Postal code with a single space in the middle]

Example: 1385 Woodroffe Avenue, Ottawa, ON  K2G 1V8

The letterhead also includes other contact information such as phone and fax numbers, as well as the company web address. Some company letterhead templates move some or all of these parts, besides the company name and logo, to the footer so that the whole page is framed with company branding. For dozens of letter template examples, go to open a blank new document in MS Word and type “letter” into the document type or go to Letters.

A preview of multiple Microsoft Word Letter templatesFigure 8.1.2: Selection of Microsoft Word business letter templates

Because modified-block-style letters are sent by individuals unaffiliated with a company, they typically include only the sender’s two-line address at the top, which divides the above address style in half so that the street number, name, and type go on the first line (with no comma at the end), and the city/town, provincial abbreviation, and postal code go on the second, as shown below:


1385 Woodroffe Avenue
Ottawa, ON   K2G 1V8

In both styles of address, strike a formal tone by fully spelling out the street type rather than abbreviating it (e.g., Street, not St.; Avenue, not Ave.; Road, not Rd.; Crescent, not Cres.; Boulevard, not Blvd.; Court, not Crt.; etc.). Using abbreviations is fine in informal, personal letters, however.

A distinguishing feature of the modified-block style is that the sender address is justified (flush) to the vertical middle of the page (i.e., the left edge of its text lines up with it) rather than the left margin. Do this by highlighting the two address lines, then clicking and dragging the base of the left-margin tab in your word processor’s ruler right to the vertical midpoint of the page. If your page has 2.5 cm margins, that would be at around the 8.25 cm mark. Note that modified-block-style letters place the sender’s address on the first line below the header (i.e., about an inch or 2.5 cm from the top edge of the page) and don’t include the sender’s name at the top of this address block. The reader can find the sender’s name by darting their eyes down to the signature block at the bottom.

In some circumstances, you may want to use block-style letters with a letterhead when writing on your own behalf rather than for a company. When writing a cover letter, for instance, you can stylize your name prominently as if it were the name of a company so that it stands out in a larger font in bold typeface, possibly in an eye-catching colour. Because this appears in the header margin, adopting the block style has the additional advantage of placing your name and contact information automatically on every page so that consistent personal branding extends to the one- to two-page résumé that follows, including the references page that would be separated out for confidentiality reasons.

Date Line

In a formal letter, the date must follow the unambiguous style that fully spells out the month, gives the calendar date, a comma, and the full year (e.g., April 25, 2020). In block-style letters, this appears left-justified (its left edge lines up with the left margin) often with 2-3 lines of space between it and the company letterhead above it and, for symmetry, as much between it and the recipient address below.

In modified-block-style letters, however, the date often appears as the third line of the sender address block. Its left edge, therefore, lines up with the vertical middle of the page. Only one line of space should separate the date line from the recipient address below. After this, block-style and modified-block letters are formatted in the same way until you get to the signature block at the bottom.

Recipient Address (receiver’s block)

No matter what style of letter you use, the recipient’s address is left-justified, begins with the recipient’s full name on the top line, and follows with their mailing address on the lines below in the format options given in Table 20.2 below.

Table 8.1.2: Standard Letter Address Format for Company and Personal Recipients

Address Format Examples
Title Full Name, Professional Role
Company Name
# Street Type
Town/City, PA  A1B 2C3
Dr. Michelle Masterton, Geriatrician
Tidal Healthcare Clinic
6519 Maynard Street
Halifax, NS  B4L 6C9
Title Full Name, Credentials
Professional Role (if long)
# Street Type
Town/City, PA  A1B 2C3
Mr. Jonathan Carruthers, MBA
Freelance Marketing Consultant
3489 Cook Street
Victoria, BC  V9G 4B2

Notice that commas follow only (1) the recipient’s name if followed by a professional role (capitalized) or credentials abbreviation and (2) the city or town. Two spaces separate the provincial abbreviation (PA) from the postal code, which has a single space in the middle dividing the six alpha-numeric characters into two groups of three for readability. Though you sometimes see addresses that fully spell out the province, rather than abbreviate it, and have only one space between the province and postal code, the style given above is dominant and has the advantage of being more concise and clearly distinguishing the province from the postal code without crowding the line with commas. Keep the end of each line free of any punctuation.

Subject Reference

Like a subject line in an email, letters can have subject lines that indicate the topic or purpose. The same titling principles as email apply (see unit 17), only the letter’s subject reference begins with “Re:” or “RE:” or  “Subject:” and is entirely in either bold typeface or all-caps, but not both. You might also see it positioned above or below the opening salutation, but usually above. Like all the text blocks beside the date line, a blank line of space separates this from the other parts above and below.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Opening Salutation

The most common opening salutation for a letter is given in Table 20.3 below:

Table 8.1.3: Opening Salutation

Opening Salutation Form Examples
Dear [Title] [Full or Last Name]: Dear Ms. Françoise Hardy:
Dear Mr. Serge Gainsbourg:
Dear Mrs. Pattie Boyd:
Dear Dr. Landy:
Dear Ms. Vartan:
Dear Dana Dortmund:

The Dear, title, full name, and colon all signal formality. Variations in formal letters include omitting the title or the first name, but not both at once. Omit the title if you’re at all concerned about its accuracy. For instance, if the recipient’s first name is a unisex name and you’re not sure if they’re male or female, skip the gender title to avoid offending the recipient by mixing up their gender. Unless you’re sure that the recipient prefers Mrs. (indicating that she’s married) over Ms. because she’s used it herself, Ms. might be the safer option. Avoid the title Miss because it’s no longer commonly used and appears outdated. If you’re addressing someone who identifies as non-binary, then Mx. might be best if you must use a title, or just no title at all. Other considerations in the opening salutation include the following:

Message Opening

Letters are ideal for both direct- and indirect-approach messages depending on the occasion for writing them. Consistent with what we saw in unit 11 , direct-approach letters get right to the point by stating their main point or request in a paragraph of no more than a sentence or two. Letters organized with openings like this lend themselves to positive or neutral messages. Ideal for formally delivering bad-news or persuasive messages, indirect-approach letters begin with a buffer paragraph—again, this may only be a sentence or two—just to say some nice things before getting to the bad news or difficult request in the body of the message. (See unit 11 for more on the indirect approach).

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Message Body

Whether the opening takes the direct or indirect approach, the body supports this with explanatory detail (see §unit 11 on message bodies). Ensure that your message body abides by the 6 Cs of (see unit 13), especially conciseness because a letter should only be a page or two. If appropriate for the content, use effective document design features such as numbered or bulleted lists to improve readability (see unit 14 ). For instance, if your letter contains a series of questions, use a numbered list so that the reader can respond to each with a corresponding numbered list of their own.

Message body paragraphs should be proper three-part paragraphs. Like all other text blocks throughout (except for the return address above and signature block below in a modified-block letter), every line in the message body must be flush to the left margin, including the first. In other words, rather than indent a paragraph’s first line as novels do to mark where one paragraph ends and another begins, separate them with a blank line. Brevity in formal letters limits the number of paragraphs to what you can fit in a page or two.

Message Closing

The closing mirrors the opening with a sentence or two that wraps up the letter with something relevant to the topic at hand (see unit 11  on message closings). Because of their formality, letters almost always end with a goodwill statement, such as an expression of gratitude thanking the reader for their attention or consideration. For instance, a cover letter thanks the reader for their consideration, invites them to read the enclosed résumé, and expresses interest in meeting to discuss the applicant’s fit with the company in person since getting an interview is the entire point of an application. A thank-you letter will thank the recipient again, and a recommendation letter will emphatically endorse the applicant. Even letters delivering bad news or addressing contentious situations should end with pleasantries rather than hostile or passive-aggressive jabs. If an action is required, be sure to indicate when you would expect to follow through.

Closing Salutation

A simple Sincerely or Cordially are standard business letter closing salutations that signal the formal end of the message much like the opening salutation did before the beginning of the message proper. A more personal letter sent to someone you know well may end with Yours truly (with the second word all lowercase), but don’t use this with someone you’ve never met or with anyone you want to maintain a strictly professional relationship with. Always place a “hanging comma” at the end of the line, as you can see in Table 21.4 below.


Your signature is a guarantee of authorship that carries legal weight. In a printed letter, leave enough space—usually about three single-spaced lines—to autograph your signature by hand. When sending a letter that you write and submit completely electronically, you have two options for an electronic signature, as explained in Table 20.4 below. Of the two, an image of your hand-written signature looks much more professional than a typed-out version using a simulated handwriting font. The hand-written image gives the impression that you are adept at technology.

Table 8.1.4: How to Make Signatures for Electronically Written and Sent Letters

Signature Image Simulated Signature

Galileo Galilei

Galileo Galilei, Astronomer
Image source: Connormah (2009)


Galileo Galilei

Galileo Galilei, Astronomer

  1. Write your signature several times on a piece of blank, white paper.
  2. Scan the document.
  3. Crop the best image into a close-fitting jpeg image file. If the scanner makes a PDF file of the scanned image, make a jpeg file of the best signature by using the Snipping Tool (Microsoft Support, 2017) with the file type set to jpeg and saving the captured image.
  4. Drag and drop the signature image from the folder where you saved it to the space between your closing salutation and your full printed name in the signature block.
  5. Adjust the signature size so that it occupies the equivalent of about 2-3 single-spaced lines and delete any blanks lines of space above and below it so that it fits snugly between the closing salutation and your full printed name.
  1. Your product warranty claim seems valid. Your product warranty claim seems valid. Your product warranty claim seems valid. Your product warranty claim seems valid. vType your name on the line between your closing salutation and full printed name in the signature block.
  2. Highlight it.
  3. Go to the font selection dropdown menu and select a simulated handwriting signature that is common to most computers such as Freestyle Script.
  4. Adjust the font size so that your simulated signature occupies the equivalent of 2-3 single-spaced lines.

Don’t cut corners when assembling an image of your handwritten signature. For instance, taking a smartphone photo of your signature rather than scanning it will look amateurish because the background will probably be greyish or another off-white shade that will clash with the pure white of your page background. Also, drawing your signature with your computer’s mouse or touchpad will look shaky like it was signed by a seven-year-old. The inserted signature image must be seamlessly integrated and smoothly drawn for it to look professionally done.

Besides giving the impression that you’re adept at technology, making an image file of your handwritten signature for electronic letters also sets you up for using it repeatedly to sign contracts and other documents electronically. If current labour trends take us to a predominant gig economyhaving a shortcut for signing emailed contracts will save you time. Unless you’re sent a contract via DocuSign or an equivalent technology solution to legally sign documents in a secure manner, a PDF contract sent to you would otherwise require printing it out, signing it, scanning it, and emailing it back. With a signature image, you can just drag and drop your signature into the document after downloading it, re-save it as a PDF, and email it back to the employer in a minute or two.

Though the simulated signature is certainly easier to put together, it carries with it several problems: it looks lazy and even tacky, carries no legal authority, and may not appear as a simulated signature font when it’s opened by the recipient on another computer. If it’s opened on, say, a Mac computer when you wrote it on a Windows-based PC, the signature might be converted into 25-pt. Arial font, making the recipient wonder why you chose a font that looks nothing like handwriting for your signature. The reason is that their computer didn’t have the signature font you chose, or something was lost in translation, and their reader rendered the signature into a different font. For these reasons, using an image of your actual signature is better.

Signature Block

The signature block clarifies the sender’s name in full since handwritten signatures are rarely legible enough to do so themselves. The sender’s professional role follows their name either on the same line (with a comma in between) if both the name and role are short enough, and on the second line if they are too long together. On the line below the sender’s name and role can appear the name of the company they work for and their work email address on the third line; all three lines are single-spaced. If you are writing independently, putting your email address and phone number on the line(s) after your printed name depends on if you used a simple modified-block style address at the top, in which case you should add your contact info in the signature block. If you used a personal letterhead, perhaps for a job application cover letter, then you need not include anything more than your full printed name in your signature block.

Sometimes letters are written on someone else’s behalf, perhaps by an administrative assistant. In such cases, the signature and typed-out name of the person responsible for the letter is given at the bottom, then the initials of the person who typed it appear after a line of space below the last line of the signature block.

Enclosure Notice

Just as emails can include attachments, letters are often sent along with other documents. Cover letters introduce résumés, for instance, and letters of transmittal introduce reports to their intended recipients. In such cases, an enclosure notice on the very last line of the page (above the footer margin) tells the reader that another document or other documents are included with the letter. This would look like the following:

Enclosures (2): Résumé, Portfolio

For other documents included with the letter, simple, brief titles such as Brochure or Thank-you Card would suffice. Separate each with a comma if you have more than one.

Sample 1 – Ineffective Letter

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Sample 2:  Revised Letter

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Before Sending Your Letter

Given the importance of the letter you’re writing, especially if it has to do with employment, editing is crucial to your career success. Even a single writing error in a cover letter, for instance, is enough to prompt the reader to dump it in the shredder without even glancing at the enclosed résumé, making the applicant’s efforts useless. Apply all the revising and proofreading advice in Part 5 to ensure that the letter fulfills its purpose and represents you well with its flawless attention to detail.

For more perspectives on business letters, including slight format variations, see the following resources:

Key Takeaway

key iconIf you need to send a highly formal message to show respect to your recipient and ensure confidentiality, follow standard business letter conventions.


1. Put together a letterhead template for a fictional company that you might work for, or even start yourself, in the career you’re training for. There’s no need to go overboard with a fancy with a logo design; many companies’ trademark is just their company name in an interesting font (e.g. Google or the fictional Dunder Mifflin in the TV show The Office). Include fictional contact information either at the top or bottom.

2. Using the company letterhead template you designed for Exercise #1, write a letter that you would send to everyone in your customer contact database advertising a new product or service that you would offer in the career you’re training for.

3. If you did the email assignment at the end of unit 17, revise it in the form of a personal modified-block-style letter (invent details as necessary, including Dr. Emily Conway’s company name and address for the recipient address block). Ensure that it is perfectly written in a formal style.


Connormah. (2009, August 28). Galileo signature. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Galileo_Signature.svg

GCFLearnFree.org. (2017). Writing a formal business letter [Video file].  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xUTguLaaXI.

Guffey, M., Loewry, D., & Griffin, E. (2019). Business communication: Process and product (6th ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson Education. Retrieved from http://www.cengage.com/cgi-wadsworth/course_products_wp.pl?fid=M20b&product_isbn_issn=9780176531393&template=NELSON

Leuca, A. (2008, March 13). Modified block business letter. Retrieved from http://www.savvy-business-correspondence.com/ModifiedBlockBizLetter.html

Microsoft Office. (2014, December 10). Letters. Office Templates. Retrieved from https://templates.office.com/en-us/Letters

Microsoft Support. (2017, April 26). Use Snipping Tool to capture screenshots. Retrieved from https://support.microsoft.com/en-ca/help/13776/windows-use-snipping-tool-to-capture-screenshots

Meyer, C. (2017). Communicating for results (4th ed.). Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://oup-arc.com/access/meyer-4e-student-resources#tag_case-studies

(Microsoft Office, 2014)
Doyle, A. (2018, April 6). How to format a business letter. The Balance Careers. Retrieved from https://www.thebalancecareers.com/how-to-format-a-business-letter-2062540
Purdue OWL. (n.d.). Writing the basic business letter. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/653/01/
wikiHow. (2018, May 14). How to write a business letter. Retrieved from https://www.wikihow.com/Write-a-Business-Letter

8.2 Memos

Learning Objectives

Target iconAfter studying this unit you will be able to

      •  identify memo structure and content
      • write a traditional memo


A memo (or memorandum, meaning “reminder”) communicates policies, procedures, short reports, or related official business within an organization. It assumes a one-to-all perspective, broadcasting a message to a group audience, rather than to an individual. Memos are objective in tone and avoid all personal bias or subjective preference, especially because they may have legal standing when reflecting policies or procedures. Accuracy is therefore paramount in memos lest ambiguities result in mistakes that then become legal matters.

Writing a Clear Business Memo Video

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Before exploring memos in more detail, let’s review the advantages, disadvantages, and occasions for using memos given earlier in Table 8.2.1 on channel selection.

Table 8.2.1 Excerpt: Memo Pros, Cons, and Proper Use

Memo Purpose

A memo’s purpose is often to inform, but it occasionally includes an element of persuasion or call to action. Memos are most appropriately used for internal organizational messages that may be too detailed or too long to be communicated via an email.  Memos allow organizations to clearly spell-out 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 imminent changes. If a company wants employees to take action, it may also issue a memorandum about that action. In this way, memos often represent the business or organization’s interests. They may also include statements that align business and employee interest, and underscore common ground and benefit.  Memos usually carry nonsensitive and routine information; therefore, most emails will be written using the direct approach.

Memo Format

A memo has four distinct sections: header, purpose statement, body, and call-to-action.  Memos often have letterheads with the word “MEMO” written clearly with the company name and logo at the top of the page. Below are the header fields identifying the recipient, author, date, and subject much like you would see in an email. In fact, email header fields are based on those traditionally found in memos, so the same principles for what to include here, such as how to title the document in the subject line, are true of emails.

Unlike emails, memos omit the opening salutation but, from there, are similar in their three-part message organization with an opening, body, and closing. Always direct-approach, the memo message opening states the main point, the body supports this with details, and the closing gives action information or a summary. Let’s examine each section of a memo in more detail.  Figure 8.2.1 provides a sample memo for review.

Figure 8.2.1: A general overview of four components of a memo: header, purpose, body, and call-to-action.

Header: The header of a memo provides logistical information:

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Purpose: The first paragraph of the memo contains the most important information.  The reason for writing the memo as well as the action requested of the receiver should be stated directly in this paragraph.  Get to the point as quickly as possible using only 1-2 sentences to state the information.

Figure 8.2.2

Figure 8.2.2: An example of a one sentence opening paragraph for a memo stating the reason for writing and the requested receiver task.

Body: The middles paragraphs of a memo provide more detailed information about the context or problem and the task, assignment, or action required.  The body of a memo may be multiple paragraphs depending on the memo’s subject matter.  Each paragraph should be between 3 – 5 sentences.  Use of graphic highlights: lists, tables, headers, etc., are encouraged for this section of the memo to achieve conciseness and to increase readability.  Make sure the body paragraphs answer receiver questions and clearly identify a deadline and people involved.

Call-to-Action:  The final paragraph of a memo summarizes content, states next steps, invites feedback, provides resources and offers contact information.  The final paragraph should also ensure goodwill, but avoid cliche sayings.  Use specific and concrete statements to ensure receiver understanding


Vague: Please contact me at your earliest convenience.

Concrete:  Please call my direct line (ext. 222) by end of day Monday, June 22.

Sample 1: Ineffective Memo

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Sample 2: Improved Memo

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Types of Memos

Request Memos

A request memo does exactly what its name suggests, requests an action of the receiver.  An effectively-composed request memo will clearly state the requested action within the opening paragraph of the memo. The explanation or justification for the request is included in the body of the memo, while being polite and using the “you” view will ensure the reader understands the benefits of completing the requested action. Requests that require a great deal of effort, time, or resources should follow the indirect approach to have the best chance of persuading the reader.


Similar to the request memo, the name of this memo also suggests its purpose: replying to a previous correspondence.  When constructing the reply memo, respond to each request in the order made.  Use the direct approach as the receiver will want your immediate response to each request without searching.  If necessary, provide additional information that may be useful to the original request.  Responding immediately to a request memo, especially if you’ve received a request from senior officials within the organization, shows efficiency and professionalism.

Follow-up Memos

A follow-up memo provides a written record of an oral conversation.  For example, a memo that records a discussion of a recent meeting that confirms the time, place, date, participants, meeting purpose and decisions.  Committing the basic facts, decisions, and issues discussed in a meeting ensures that memory does not become the basis for moving forward.  Writing follow-up messages protects you and the receivers by ensuring a shared and common understanding of the important details and facts.  The more important the oral conversation, the more important it is to ensure a written confirmation of the discussion is created.

Figure 8.2.3

Good Memo Checklist
Figure 8.2.3: A few tips on writing well-structured emails

For more on memos, see the following resources:

Key Takeaway

key iconRecord office policies, procedures, and short reports for formal distribution within an office following memo conventions.


1. Let’s say a new bylaw affects the way you do business in the career you’re training for. Assuming you’ve risen to the position of manager at your workplace, write a memo that explains the new bylaw and how you will adjust the way you conduct business there. Be creative with both the bylaw and your policy or procedure with respect to it.
2. Imagine that your company is about to adopt new technology (e.g., new software, new laptops, mobile phones, etc.). Inform the employees and discuss the benefits of the new tool in a memo. Explain in point-form, as in the example above, how this development will impact their work.

3. Write a short summary field study report (see unit 29) for a class lecture in one of your other courses this week. Use a one-page memo to describe the conference and summarize the lecture as if you were reporting it to classmates who could not attend. Summarize the lecture topic accurately and concisely.

GCFLearnFree.org. (2018). Writing a clear business memo [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHZdnldGuls
Guffey, M., Loewry, D., & Griffin, E. (2019). Business communication: Process and product (6th ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson Education. Retrieved from http://www.cengage.com/cgi-wadsworth/course_products_wp.pl?fid=M20b&product_isbn_issn=9780176531393&template=NELSON
Meyer, C. (2017). Communicating for results (4th ed.). Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://oup-arc.com/access/meyer-4e-student-resources#tag_case-studies
Kopywriting Kourse. (2020). How to write an effective memo.  Retrieved from https://kopywritingkourse.com/how-to-write-a-memo/
Perkins, C., & Brizee, A. (2018, March 23). Memos: Audience and Purpose. Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/590/1/
wikiHow. (2018, May 14). How to write a memo. Retrieved from https://www.wikihow.com/Write-a-Memo


Chapter 9 Common Technical Documents

Just as the literary genre of poetry contains many forms — such as sonnets, haiku, epics, limericks, etc., — each with its own set of rules and conventions, technical writing also contains many forms, and each form has some conventions that must be observed. This chapter discusses several of the most common document forms, and reviews the general requirements for content, formatting, and style.

9.1 Proposals

Suzan Last

Proposals and progress reports are some of the most common types of reports you will likely find yourself writing in the workplace. These reports are persuasive in nature:  proposals attempt to persuade the reader to accept the writer’s proposed idea; progress reports assure the reader that the project is on time and on budget, or explain rationally why things might not be going according to the initial plan.

A proposal, in the technical sense, is a document that tries to persuade the reader to implement a proposed plan or approve a proposed project. Most businesses rely on effective proposal writing to ensure successful continuation of their business and to get new contracts. The writer tries to convince the reader that the proposed plan or project is worth doing (worth the time, energy, and expense necessary to implement or see through), that the author represents the best candidate for implementing the idea, and that it will result in tangible benefits.

A man holds a woman's hand and offers her flowers
Not that kind of proposal.

Proposals are often written in response to a Request For Proposals (RFP) by a government agency, organization, or company. The requesting body receives multiple proposals responding to their request, reviews the submitted proposals, and chooses the best one(s) to go forward. Their evaluation of the submitted proposals is often based on a rubric that grades various elements of the proposals. Thus, your proposal must persuade the reader that your idea is the one most worth pursuing. Proposals are persuasive documents intended to initiate a project and get the reader to authorize a course of action proposed in the document. These might include proposals to

Proposals can have various purposes and thus take many forms. They may include sections such as the following:

Four Kinds of Proposals

There are 4 kinds of proposals, categorized in terms of whether or not they were requested, and whether they are meant to solve a problem within your own organization or someone else’s. From the following descriptions, you will see that can they also overlap:

  1. Solicited Proposals:  an organization identifies a situation or problem that it wants to improve or solve and issues an RFP (Request for Proposals) asking for proposals on how to address it. The requesting organization will vet proposals and choose the most convincing one, often using a detailed scoring rubric or weighted objectives chart to determine which proposal best responds to the request.
  2. Unsolicited Proposals:  a writer perceives a problem or an opportunity and takes the initiative to propose a way to solve the problem or take advantage of the opportunity (without being requested to do so). This can often be the most difficult kind of proposal to get approved.
  3. Internal Proposals:  these are written by and for someone within the same organization. Since both the writer and reader share the same workplace context, these proposals are generally shorter than external proposals, and usually address some way to improve a work-related situation (productivity, efficiency, profit, etc.). As internal documents, they are often sent as memos, or introduced with a memo if the proposal is lengthy.
  4. External Proposals:  these are sent outside of the writer’s organization to a separate entity (usually to solicit business). Since these are external documents, they are usually sent as a formal report (if long), introduced by a cover letter (letter of transmittal). External proposals are usually sent in response to a Request for Proposals, but not always.

EXERCISE 9.1 Task Analysis

If you are writing proposal assignments, identify the kind of proposals you are tasked with writing by placing them within the grid below. Given the kinds of proposals you must write, what forms will you use (memo, letter, report, etc.)?

Solicited Unsolicited

Proposals written as an assignment in a Technical Writing classes generally do the following:

  1. Identify and define the problem that needs to be solved or the opportunity that can be taken advantage of. You must show that you clearly understand the problem/situation if you are to convince the reader that you can solve it.  Rubrics that assess proposals generally place significant weight (~20%) on clarity and accuracy of the problem definition.
  2. Describe your proposed project, clearly defining the scope of what you propose to do. Often, it is best to give a general overview of your idea, and then break it down into more detailed sub-sections.
  3. Indicate how your proposed solution will solve the problem and provide tangible benefits. Specifically, indicate how it will meet the objectives and abide by the constrains outlined in the problem definition. Give specific examples. Show the specific differences between “how things are now” and “how they could be.” Be as empirical as possible, but appeal to all appropriate persuasive strategies. Emphasize results, benefits, and feasibility of your proposed idea.
  4. Include the practical details: propose a budget and a timeline for completing your project. Represent these graphically (budget table, and Gantt chart). Your timeline should include the major milestones or deliverables of the project, as well as dates or time frames for completion of each step.
  5. Conclude with a final pitch that summarizes and emphasizes the benefits of implementing your proposed idea – but without sounding like an advertisement.

Additional Proposal Elements to Consider

  1. Describe your qualifications to take on and/or lead this project; persuade the reader that you have the required skills, experience, and expertise to complete this job.
  2. Decide what graphics to use to illustrate your ideas, present data, and enhance your pitch.
  3. Include secondary research to enhance your credibility and the strength of your proposal.
  4. Choose format; is this a memo to an internal audience or a formal report to an external audience? Does it require a letter of transmittal?

All proposals must be convincing, logical, and credible, and to do this, they must consider audience, purpose and tone.

Irish and Weiss urge readers to keep the following in mind:

An engineering proposal is not an advertisement. It must show, with objective language, clarity, and thoroughness, that the writers know what they are doing and will successfully complete the project.

Sample Proposal Organization

Each proposal will be unique in that it must address a particular audience, in a particular context, for a specific purpose. However, the following offers a fairly standard organization for many types of proposals:


Clearly and fully defines the problem or opportunity addressed by the proposal, and briefly presents the solution idea; convinces the reader that there is a clear need, and a clear benefit to the proposed idea.

Project Description

Detailed description of solution idea and detailed explanation of how the proposed idea will improve the situation:

  1. Confirm feasibility (is it do-able?) How will you find out?

  2. Explain the specific benefits of implementing the idea and the consequences of not doing it

  3. Give a detailed description or explanation of your proposed idea or methodology, and the resources needed to achieve goals

  4. Address potential obstacles or objections; concede where appropriate


Establish writer’s qualifications and experience to lead this project.

Timeline and Budget

Provide a detailed timeline for completion of project (use a Gantt chart to indicate when each stage of the project will be complete). Provide an itemized budget for completing the proposed project.


This is your last chance to convince the reader; be persuasive!


List your research sources.

Language Considerations

Proposals are fundamentally persuasive documents, so paying attention to the rhetorical situation—position of the reader (upward, lateral, downward or outward communication), the purpose of the proposal, the form, and the tone—is paramount.

As always, adhere to the 7 Cs by making sure that your writing is

The Life Cycle of a Project Idea

A great idea does not usually go straight from proposal to implementation. You may think it would be a great idea to construct a green roof on top of the Clearihue building, but before anyone gives you the go ahead for such an expensive and time-consuming project, they will need to know that you have done research to ensure the idea is cost effective and will actually work.  Figure 9.2.1 breaks down the various stages a project might go through, and identifies some of the typical communications tasks that might be required at each stage.

Most ideas start out as a proposal to determine if the idea is really feasible, or to find out which of several options will be most advantageous. So before you propose the actual green roof, you propose to study whether or not it is a feasible idea. Before you recommend a data storage system, you propose to study 3 different systems to find out which is the best one for this particular situation. Your proposal assumes the idea is worth looking into, convinces the reader that it is worth spending the time and resources to look into, and gives detailed information on how you propose to do the “finding out.”

The four phases of a project and associated communications tasks. Image description available.
Figure 9.2.1 Phases of a project and some accompanying communications tasks. [Image Long Description]

Once a project is in the implementation phase, the people who are responsible for the project will likely want regular status updates and/or progress reports to make sure that the project is proceeding on time and on budget, or to get a clear, rational explanation for why it is not.


[Proposal image]. [Online]. Available: https://pixabay.com/en/couple-love-marriage-proposal-47192/. Pixabay License.
R. Irish and P. Weiss, Engineering Communication: From Principle to Practice, 2nd Ed., Don Mill, ONT:  Oxford UP, 2013.
[Lightbulb image]. [Online]. Available: https://www.iconfinder.com/icons/667355/aha_brilliance_idea_think_thought_icon. Free for commercial use.

9.2 Progress Reports

Suzan Last

You write a progress report to inform a supervisor, associate, or client about progress you have made on a project over a specific period of time. Periodic progress reports are common on projects that go on for several months (or more). Whoever is paying for this project wants to know whether tasks are being completed on schedule and on budget. If the project is not on schedule or on budget, they want to know why and what additional costs and time will be needed.

Progress reports answer the following questions for the reader:

Purpose of a Progress Report

The main function of a progress report is persuasive:  to reassure clients and supervisors that you are making progress, that the project is going smoothly, and that it will be completed by the expected date — or to give reasons why any of those might not be the case. They also offer the opportunity to do the following:

Format of a Progress Report

Depending on the size of the progress report, the length and importance of the project, and the recipient, a progress report can take forms ranging from a short informal conversation to a detailed, multi-paged report. Most commonly, progress reports are delivered in following forms:

Organizational Patterns for Progress Reports

The recipient of a progress report wants to see what you’ve accomplished on the project, what you are working on now, what you plan to work on next, and how the project is going in general. The information is usually arranged with a focus either on time or on task, or a combination of the two:

Information can also be arranged by report topic. You should refer to established milestones or deliverables outlined in your original proposal or job specifications. Whichever organizational strategy you choose, your report will likely contain the elements described below.

Progress Reports – Structural Overview

1. Introduction

Review the details of your project’s purpose, scope, and activities. The introduction may also contain the following:

  • date the project began; date the project is scheduled to be completed
  • people or organization working on the project
  • people or organization for whom the project is being done
  • overview of the contents of the progress report.

2. Project status

This section (which could have sub-sections) should give the reader a clear idea of the current status of your project. It should review the work completed, work in progress, and work remaining to be done on the project, organized into sub-sections by time, task, or topic. These sections might include

  • Direct reference to milestones or deliverables established in previous documents related to the project
  • Timeline for when remaining work will be completed
  • Any problems encountered or issues that have arisen that might affect completion, direction, requirements, or scope.

3.  Conclusion

The final section provides an overall assessment of the current state of the project and its expected completion, usually reassuring the reader that all is going well and on schedule. It can also alert recipients to unexpected changes in direction or scope, or problems in the project that may require intervention.

4.  References section if required.

9.3 Technical Descriptions and Definitions

Suzan Last

Descriptive technical writing uses a combination of visuals and text to both “show” and “tell” the reader about the information being conveyed. Like more creative descriptions, technical descriptions sometimes draw on the “five senses” and metaphorical comparisons (analogies) to allow the reader to fully conceptualize what is being described. More often, however, they rely on concrete, measurable descriptors. Technical descriptions can take many forms, depending on purpose and audience. Descriptions can range from a brief sentence, to a paragraph, a whole section of a report, or an entire manual. Poorly written technical descriptions can cause confusion, waste time, and even result in catastrophe! Technical product descriptions are often legally required to ensure safety and compliance. Attention to detail is critical.

Product specifications require detailed descriptions of design features; instructions often require specific descriptive detail to “show” the reader what to do. Some general categories of technical descriptions include the following:

Definitions in Technical Writing – Sample student presentation (.pdf)

Technical Description of a Mechanism

Mechanism descriptions should provide a clear understanding of the object being described, including

The reader should be able to clearly picture, and therefore understand, the nature of the object being described, what it does, and how it works.

In order to achieve this clarity for the reader, the writer must choose significant details and organize information logically. Select details that can be described precisely and measurably, such as

color materials texture, smell, taste
shape component parts finish
size properties patterns, designs
dimensions principles at work interactions

Depending on the reader’s need, the description may range from a general overview requiring only a few sentences to a multi-chapter manual detailing every aspect of the mechanism’s parts and functions in order to troubleshoot technical problems and complete repairs. For a fun example of the latter, see the Star Trek: The Next Generation: Technical Manual (cover depicted in Figure 7.4.1), which provides detailed descriptions of all equipment and technology used aboard the fictional U.S.S. Enterprise-D.

Cover of manual
Figure 7.4.1 Cover Page of “Star Trek: The Next Generation: Technical Manual”.

Before you begin to draft your description, you must consider your purpose and audience: Why does your audience need this description? What will they use it for? Are you describing different types of solar panels for the average consumers to help them choose the one that best fits their needs? Are you providing schematics to technicians and installers?

Once you have your purpose and audience clearly in focus, draft a description that includes the following elements:

  1. Definition: What is it, and what is its main purpose?
  2. Overview: Describe the mechanism’s overall appearance (“big picture” description of its overall size, shape, general appearance).
  3. Components: Describe the main component parts in labelled sections; consider the order of information carefully here. Create a logical connection between each component described.
  4. Explanation: how do the parts work together to fulfill its function? What key principles govern its functioning? Consider how much detail is necessary here for your intended audience.
  5. Visuals: include graphics that clearly illustrate the mechanism and/or its parts. Show the device as a whole; consider showing specific details in expanded views, cut-aways, or labelled diagrams. You may even embed or link to videos showing the device in action.
  6. Conclusion: depending on the purpose, you might review product’s history, availability, manufacturing, costs, warnings, etc.)
  7. References: Sources you have used in your description, or additional sources of information available (if relevant).

You might consider using a template, like the Technical Description Template below, keeping in mind that while templates can be helpful guides, they do not provide much flexibility and may not work for all situations.

Technical Description Template
Audience and Purpose Who will read this description and why?
Definition and Function What is it? What does it do? What is its function/purpose?
Overview Describe its overall appearance (shape, size, color, etc.)
Components and Explanations Describe the component parts (chose most relevant features) and explain how they work together; try to find the most logical way to organize this explanation.
Visuals What kind of illustrative graphics will you use? Where?
  • Diagrams

  • Photographs

  • Cut-away views

  • Exploded views

Conclusion Do you need to offer any further information? History? Warnings? Context? Costs? etc.
References Any sources used, or supplemental sources to suggest

Sample Descriptions

Examine the description of the “Up Goer Five” in Figure 7.4.2 (click on image for larger version). Who might the intended audience be?

Blueprint of rocket, labeled using silly-sounding simplistic language such as "fire comes out here"
Figure 7.4.2 A description of the blueprints for NASA’s Saturn Five rocket using only the 1000 most commonly-used English words

Compare the description in Figure 7.4.2 to the information given on the NASA website about the Mars Curiosity Rover.

Note the differences in the level of detail, vocabulary, and overall purpose of the descriptions. If you used the information on the NASA site to fill in the Technical Description Template, you might end up with something like the following chart.

Template for Description of Mars Curiosity Rover
Definition Curiosity Rover – a NASA robot designed to explore Mars
Function Travels around the Gale Crater on Mars, collecting data to send back to Earth. Its mission is to see if Mars could ever have supported life, and if humans could survive there someday
Overview Car-sized, 6 wheel robot, about 7’ tall, with a roughly square chassis that has several appendages connected to it that house sensors of various types
  • Main body protects the computer, electronics and instrument systems

  • “Neck and head” like a mast coming out of the centre of the chassis, this houses many of the rover’s cameras

  • Six legs – “rocker bogie” design – wide apart, allows all wheels to remain on uneven terrain

  • Arm – roughly 7 ’ long, (with “shoulder, elbow and wrist” joints), with a “hand” at the end, extends out of the front of the chassis. This contains many tools for drilling, collecting samples, etc.

  • “Tail” – contains radio-isotopic power source that powers the rover

  • Overall view (front and side? Top view?)

  • View of arm with labeled components

  • View of head and neck with labeled components

Conclusion/Supplemental Information about lifespan? Travel speed? Energy use?
References NASA website – Mars Curiosity Rover page

You may find that some of these elements are not necessary; again, consider what your target audience already knows. Strike a balance between unnecessarily stating the obvious and incorrectly assuming your readers have knowledge that they may lack.

In refining the details of your description and its component parts, consider the following:

EXERCISE 7.2 Practice technical description

Choose a common, everyday object (such as one of the objects in Figure 7.4.3) and draft a technical description for an audience unfamiliar with the object. Start by imagining a target audience and purpose, and then try filling in the Technical Description Template with detailed information. Using the information in your template, draft a short description of 1-2 paragraphs, and add properly-captioned visuals.

Figure 7.4.3 Common objects for practice description.
R. Sturnback and M. Okuna, Star Trek: The Next Generation: Technical Manual. New York: Pocket Books, 1991.
R. Munroe, "Up Goer Five" [Online]. Available:  https://xkcd.com/1133/  Also see "1133 Up Goer Five - explained," Explain xkcd wiki [Online]. Available:  https://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/1133:_Up_Goer_Five . CC-BY-NC 2.5.
[Corkscrew and bicycle images]. [Online]. Available: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dogbomb/527733767 and https://www.flickr.com/photos/8205548@N08/4607907389. CC BY 2.0.

9.4 Long Reports – Recommendation Reports and Feasibility Studies

Suzan Last

Long reports, such as Feasibility and Recommendation Reports, are most often the final step in a series of documents, often beginning with a Proposal and perhaps following a series of Progress Reports. The reports in this rather loosely defined category are variously called feasibility reports, recommendation reports, evaluation reports, assessment reports, etc. They all do roughly the same thing—provide a careful study of a situation or problem, and often recommend what should be done to improve the situation. There are some subtle differences among these types, and names for them can vary.

Feasibility Reports

A feasibility report studies a situation (for example, a problem or opportunity) and a plan for doing something about it, and then determines whether that plan is “feasible”—whether it is practical in terms of current technology, economics, time frame, social needs and preferences, and so on. The feasibility report answers the question “Should we implement Plan X?” by stating “yes,” “no,” or sometimes a “maybe” or “under certain conditions.” Not only does it indicate whether the idea is feasible, it also provides the data and the reasoning behind that determination; conversely, it might outline the reasons why the idea cannot or should not be implemented, or what obstacles must be overcome before the idea can become feasible. Typical questions addressed in these reports include

Recommendation Reports

A recommendation reports starts from a stated need; it offers a selection of solution options, presents a detailed comparative analysis of the options, and then recommends one, some, or none. For example, a company might be looking at grammar-checking software and want a recommendation on which product is the best fit for them. As the report writer on this project, you could study the market for this type of application and recommend one particular product, 2-3 possible products (differing perhaps in their strengths and their weaknesses), or none (maybe none of them are appropriate for the client’s specific needs). The recommendation report answers the question “Which option should we choose, and why?” (or in some cases “Which are the best options?) by recommending Product B, or maybe both Products B and C, or none of the products. These recommendations might arise from questions such as

Evaluation Reports

An evaluation report provides a judgment or assessment rather than a yes-no-maybe answer or a recommendation. It provides a studied opinion on the value or worth of something. For example, for over a year the city of Austin had free bus transportation in an attempt to increase ridership and reduce automobile traffic. Did it work? Was it worthwhile?—These are questions an evaluation report would attempt to answer. This type of report compares a thing to a set of requirements (or criteria) and determines how well it meets those requirements. (And of course, this may result in a recommendation: to continue the project, scrap it, change it, or other possibilities.)

As you can see, these distinctions are rather fine, and they overlap somewhat. In real-world writing, these types often combine; you might see elements of the recommendation report combine with the feasibility report, for example.

Typical Contents of Recommendation and Feasibility Reports

Whatever variety of feasibility or recommendation report you write, whatever name people call it—most of the sections and the organization of those sections are roughly the same.

The structural principle fundamental to this type of report is this:  you provide not only your recommendation, choice, or judgment, but also the data, analysis, discussion, and the conclusions leading to it. That way, readers can check your findings, your logic, and your conclusions to make sure your methodology was sound and that they can agree with your recommendation. Your goal is to convince the reader to agree with you by using your careful research, detailed analysis, rhetorical style, and documentation. Since your reader will want to make an evidence-based decision, it is critical that all of your claims and recommendations are supported by sound research and evidence.

The general problem-solving approach for a Recommendation Report entails the steps shown in the example below.

Typical Recommendation Report Elements
1. Identify the need What is the “unsatisfactory situation” that needs to be improved?
2. Identify the criteria for responding to the need

What is the overall goal?

What are the specific, measurable objectives any solution should achieve?

What constraints must any solution adhere to?

3. Determine the solution options you will examine

Define the scope of your approach to the problem.

Identify the possible courses of action that you will examine in your report. You might include the consequences of simply doing nothing.

4. Study how well each option meets the criteria

Systematically study each option, and compare how well they meet each of the objectives you have set.

Provide a systematic and quantifiable way to compare how well to solution options meet the objectives (weighted objectives chart).

5. Draw conclusions based on your analysis Based on the research presented in your discussion section, sum up your findings and give a comparative evaluation of how well each of the options meets the criteria and addresses the need.
6. Formulate recommendations based on your conclusion Indicate which course of action the reader should take to address the problem, based on your analysis of the data presented in the report.

These steps generally coincide with how you will organize your information.  Your report will be divided into several sections that will likely include most or all of the following elements:

  1. INTRODUCTION:  the introduction should clearly indicate the document’s purpose. Your introduction will discuss the “unsatisfactory situation” that has given rise to this report, and the requirements that must be met (the Problem Definition). Your reader may also need some background. Finally, provide an overview of the contents of the report.
  2. TECHNICAL BACKGROUND:  some recommendation or feasibility reports may require technical discussion in order to make the rest of the report meaningful. The dilemma with this kind of information is whether to put it in a section of its own or to fit it into the comparison sections where it is relevant. For example, a discussion of power and speed of tablet computers is going to necessitate some discussion of RAM, megahertz, and processors. Should you put that in a section that compares the tablets according to power and speed? Should you keep the comparison neat and clean, limited strictly to the comparison and the conclusion? Maybe all the technical background can be pitched in its own section—either toward the front of the report or in an appendix.
  3. REQUIREMENTS AND CRITERIAa critical part of feasibility and recommendation reports is the discussion of the requirements (objectives and constraints) you’ll use to reach the final decision or recommendation. Here are some examples:
    • If you’re trying to recommend a tablet computer for use by employees, your requirements are likely to involve size, cost, hard-disk storage, display quality, durability, and battery function.
    • If you’re looking into the feasibility of providing every student at Austin Community College with an ID on the ACC computer network, you’d need define the basic requirements of such a program—what it would be expected to accomplish, problems that it would have to avoid, and so on.
    • If you’re evaluating the recent program of free bus transportation in Austin, you’d need to know what was expected of the program and then compare its actual results to those requirements.

Requirements can be defined in several ways:

Numerical Values:  many requirements are stated as maximum or minimum numerical values. For example, there may be a cost requirement—the tablet should cost no more than $900.

Yes/no Values:  some requirements are simply a yes-no question. Does the tablet come equipped with Bluetooth? Is the car equipped with voice recognition?

Ratings Values in some cases, key considerations cannot be handled either with numerical values or yes/no values. For example, your organization might want a tablet that has an ease-of-use rating of at least “good” by some nationally accepted ratings group. Or you may have to assign ratings yourself.

The requirements section should also discuss how important the individual requirements are in relation to each other. Picture the typical situation where no one option is best in all categories of comparison. One option is cheaper; another has more functions; one has better ease-of-use ratings; another is known to be more durable. Set up your requirements so that they dictate a “winner” from situation where there is no obvious winner. A “weighted objectives chart” or “Decision Matrix” is often used in these cases.

4. DISCUSSION OF SOLUTION OPTIONS:  In certain kinds of feasibility or recommendation reports, you’ll need to explain how you narrowed the field of choices down to the ones your report focuses on. Often, this follows right after the discussion of the requirements. Your basic requirements may well narrow the field down for you. But there may be other considerations that disqualify other options—explain these as well.

Additionally, you may need to provide brief technical descriptions of the options themselves. Don’t confuse this with the comparison that comes up in the next section. In this description section, you provide a general discussion of the options so that readers will know something about them. The discussion at this stage is not comparative. It’s just a general orientation to the options presented in an objective way. In the tablets example, you might want to give some brief, general specifications on each model about to be compared.

5. COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS: one of the most important parts of a feasibility or recommendation report is the comparison of the options. Remember that you include this section so that readers can follow the logic of your analysis and come up with different conclusions if they desire. This comparison can be structured using a “block” (whole-to-whole) approach, or an “alternating” (point-by-point) approach.

Block Approach Alternating (Point-by-Point) Approach

All the information about Option 1

Compare all Options according to Criteria A (cost)

All the information about Option 2

Compare all Options according to Criteria B (functionality)

All the information about Option 3

Compare all options according to Criteria C (ease of use)

Direct Comparative Analysis of all three options and Summary of Results

Summary of Results

You might compare 3 solution options (1, 2, and 3) using three criteria for comparison (A, B, and C).  If you were comparing tablets, you’d likely use the point-by-point approach, having a section that compared all three options based on cost (criteria A), another section that compared them on battery function, and so on. You wouldn’t have a section that discussed everything about option 1, another that discussed everything about option 2, and so on. That would not be effective or efficient, because you still have to make direct comparisons somewhere near the end of your discussion (such as in a weighted objectives chart).

Each of these comparative sections should end with a conclusion that sums up the relative strengths and weaknesses of each option and indicates which option is the best choice in that particular category of comparison. Of course, it won’t always be easy to state a clear winner—you may have to qualify the conclusions in various ways, providing multiple conclusions for different conditions.

If you were writing an evaluation report, you wouldn’t be comparing options. Instead, you’d be comparing the thing being evaluated against the requirements placed upon it and the expectations people had of it. For example, Capital Metro had a program of more than a year of free bus transportation. What was expected of that program? Did the program meet those expectations?

6. SUMMARY TABLE: after the individual comparisons, include a summary table (such as a Weighted Objectives Chart explained below) that summarizes the conclusions from the comparative analysis section. Some readers are more likely to pay attention to details in a table than in paragraphs; however, you still have to write up a clear summary paragraph of your findings.

7. CONCLUSIONS:  the conclusions section of a feasibility or recommendation report amalgamates all of the conclusions you have already reached in each of the comparison sections. In this section, you restate the individual conclusions, for example, which model had the best price, which had the best battery function, and so on. You could give a summary of the relative strengths and weakness of each option based on how well they meet the criteria.

This section has to go further. It must untangle all the conflicting conclusions and somehow reach the final conclusion, which is the one that states which is the best choice. Thus, the conclusion section first lists the primary conclusions—the simple, single-category ones. Then it must state secondary conclusions—the ones that balance conflicting primary conclusions. For example, if one tablet is the least inexpensive but has poor battery function, but another is the most expensive but has good battery function, which do you choose and why? The secondary conclusion would state the answer to this dilemma.

8. RECOMMENDATIONS: the final section of feasibility and recommendation reports states the recommendations which flow directly from your conclusions and directly address the problem outlined in the introduction. These may sometimes be repetitive, but remember that some readers may skip right to the recommendation section. Also, there will be some cases where there may be a best choice but you wouldn’t want to recommend it. Early in their history, laptop computers were heavy and unreliable—there may have been one model that was better than the rest, but even it was not worth having. You may want to recommend further research, a pilot project, or a re-design of one of the options discussed.

The recommendation section should outline what further work needs to be done, based solidly on the information presented previously in the report and responding directly to the needs outlined in the beginning. In some cases, you may need to recommend several ranked options based on different possibilities.

Weighted Objectives Charts

When comparing alternative solutions to see which one best meets the design criteria, you will often use a Weighted Objectives Chart (WOC) or a decision matrix of some kind. In order to evaluate the solution alternatives fairly and in an unbiased way, it is important to devise a way of evaluating the designs before they are created, or before you finalize those design alternatives. The criteria that go into a WOC should be based directly on the objectives you defined in your problem definition, and may include additional objectives that will help you measure the effectiveness and desirability of each solution alternative. Then, you build or chose the design alternatives to best fit these criteria.

Creating a weighted objectives chart entails several detailed steps:

  1. Determine the objectives you will use to evaluate the design alternatives (base these on the objectives stated in your problem definition). Aim for at least 5 objectives to create a robust set of evaluation criteria
  2. Place the objectives in order from most to least important
  3. Assign each objective a weight, giving the most important objective the highest weight, and the least important objective receiving the lowest.  The combined weights of all objectives should sum to a unity (1, 10, or 100).
  4. Create a scoring rubric for each objective, showing how you will assign a “grade” for how well each design meets that criteria. This is usually done using a Likert scale (scale of 1-5 or 1-10), with each value having a specific value or range of values. You will need to determine how you will measure and grade achievement of each objective. These can be quantitative (miles per gallon of fuel consumption) or qualitative (subjective experience of comfort), as seen in the scoring rubric sample below.
Points Cost (CND$)
Fuel consumption (m/g) Comfort level
0 over max budget of $5000 less than 27 very uncomfortable
1 4501 – 5000 27-29 poor comfort level
2 4001 – 4500 30-32 below average comfort
3 3501 – 4000 33-36 average comfort
4 3001 – 3500 37-40 above average comfort
5 3000 or less more than 40 extremely comfortable

Once you have determined your objectives, ranked and weighted them, and created scoring rubrics for each one, you can place them all in a table that allows you to easily compare each solution. See Table 7.5.1 for a sample Weighted Objectives Table designed to compare several car purchase options. In the magnitude column, you would enter the actual price, fuel consumption, etc. Under score, enter the score that the magnitude gets in the objective scoring rubric (seen above). To get the “value,” multiply your score by the weight. Adding all the values for each option will give you the overall utility value for each option, and show you which one best meets your objectives.

Table 7.5.1   Sample Weighted Objectives table for comparing two car purchase options
Objective Weight Measurement Car A Car B
magnitude score value magnitude score value
Cost 30 price range 4299 2 60
Fuel consumption 25 miles per gallon
Cost of parts 20 average cost
Ease of maintenance 15 ease of servicing
Comfort 10 comfort rating
Overall utility value

Note that the objectives are listed in order from highest to lowest weighted, and all the weights add up to 100. Therefore, if one possible purchase option had a sale price of $4299, you would enter that under the “magnitude;” that would receive a score of 2, based on the scoring rubric; multiply 2 by the weight of 30, and the overall score for that objective is 60.

You can download a fully formatted, blank WOC template in Word here:  Weighted Objectives Chart Template

Revision Checklist for Recommendation Reports

As you reread and revise your recommendation report, ensure that you have included all of the sections and elements described below.

Revision Checklist for Recommendation Reports
Document Section Key Content Elements Check
Introductory Sections Indicate the situation and the audience.
Discuss the background of the problem or opportunity—what brought about the need for the report? Give technical background if necessary.
State requirements—those factors that influence the decision on the choice of options (objectives and constraints).
Indicate how the field of options was narrowed to the ones being compared (if relevant).
Provide an overview of the contents.
Discussion Sections Organize the comparative analysis/discussion of the options using the point-by-point  or whole-to-whole approach. Choose the structure that best matches your content and purpose.
At the end of each comparative section, state the best choice in terms that point of comparison.
Include a summary table, if possible, in which you summarize all the key data in table form.
Conclusion Restate all the key conclusions from the Discussion sections.
State secondary conclusions, and based them on requirements established at the beginning.
State a final conclusion (about the overall feasibility of the idea or about the overall strengths and weaknesses of each option compared).
Recommendations Make recommendations for future actions; reiterate how these actions will provide the sought-after benefits outlined in the introduction.
References Fully document any sources used in the report.
Appendices Add any additional information that has been referred to, but not included in the body of the report.
This chapter was adapted from David Murrey’s “Recommendation and Feasibility Reports”  in Online Technical Writing, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


9.5 Writing Instructions

Suzan Last

One of the most common and important uses of technical writing is to provide instructions, those step-by-step explanations of how to assemble, operate, repair, or do routine maintenance on something. Although they may seems intuitive and simple to write, instructions are some of the worst-written documents you can find. Most of us have probably had many infuriating experiences with badly written instructions. This chapter will show you what professionals consider the best techniques in providing instructions.

An effective set of instruction requires the following:

Preliminary Steps

At the beginning of a project to write a set of instructions, it is important to determine the structure or characteristics of the particular procedure you are going to write about. Here are some steps to follow:

1. Do a careful audience and task analysis

Early in the process, define the audience and situation of your instructions. Remember that defining an audience means defining the level of familiarity your readers have with the topic.

2. Determine the number of tasks

How many tasks are there in the procedure you are writing about? Let’s use the term procedure to refer to the whole set of activities your instructions are intended to discuss. A task is a semi-independent group of actions within the procedure: for example, setting the clock on a microwave oven is one task in the big overall procedure of operating a microwave oven.

A simple procedure like changing the oil in a car contains only one task; there are no semi-independent groupings of activities. A more complex procedure like using a microwave oven contains several semi-independent tasks:  setting the clock; setting the power level; using the timer; cleaning and maintaining the microwave, among others.

Some instructions have only a single task, but have many steps within that single task. For example, imagine a set of instructions for assembling a kids’ swing set. In my own experience, there were more than a 130 steps! That can be a bit daunting. A good approach is to group similar and related steps into phases, and start renumbering the steps at each new phase. A phase then is a group of similar steps within a single-task procedure. In the swing-set example, setting up the frame would be a phase; anchoring the thing in the ground would be another; assembling the box swing would be still another.

3.  Determine the best approach to the step-by-step discussion

For most instructions, you can focus on tasks, or you can focus on tools (or features of tools).  In a task approach (also known as task orientation) to instructions on using a phone-answering service, you’d have these sections:

These are tasks—the typical things we’d want to do with the machine.

On the other hand, in a tools approach to instructions on using a photocopier, there likely would be sections on how to use specific features:

If you designed a set of instructions on this plan, you’d write steps for using each button or feature of the photocopier. Instructions using this tools approach are hard to make work. Sometimes, the name of the button doesn’t quite match the task it is associated with; sometimes you have to use more than just the one button to accomplish the task. Still, there can be times when the tools/feature approach may be preferable.

4.  Design groupings of tasks

Listing tasks may not be all that you need to do. There may be so many tasks that you must group them so that readers can find individual ones more easily. For example, the following are common task groupings in instructions:

  1. Unpacking and setup tasks
  2. Installing and customizing tasks
  3. Basic operating tasks
  4. Routine maintenance tasks
  5. Troubleshooting tasks.

Common Sections in Instructions

The following is a review of the sections you’ll commonly find in instructions. Don’t assume that each one of them must be in the actual instructions you write, nor that they have to be in the order presented here, nor that these are the only sections possible in a set of instructions.

For alternative formats, check out the example instructions.

A Set of Instructions Often Includes the Following

Introduction:  plan the introduction to your instructions carefully. It might include any of the following (but not necessarily in this order):

  • Indicate the specific tasks or procedure to be explained as well as the scope (what will and will not be covered)
  • Indicate what the audience needs in terms of knowledge and background to understand the instructions
  • Give a general idea of the procedure and what it accomplishes
  • Indicate the conditions when these instructions should (or should not) be used
  • Give an overview of the contents of the instructions.

General warning, caution, danger notices instructions often must alert readers to the possibility of ruining their equipment, screwing up the procedure, and hurting themselves. Also, instructions must often emphasize key points or exceptions. For these situations, you use special notices—note, warning, caution, and danger notices. Notice how these special notices are used in the example instructions listed above.

Technical background or theory:  at the beginning of certain kinds of instructions (after the introduction), you may need a discussion of background related to the procedure. For certain instructions, this background is critical—otherwise, the steps in the procedure make no sense. For example, you may have had some experience with those software applets in which you define your own colors by nudging red, green, and blue slider bars around. To really understand what you’re doing, you need to have some background on color. Similarly, you can imagine that, for certain instructions using cameras, some theory might be needed as well.

Equipment and supplies:  notice that most instructions include a list of the things you need to gather before you start the procedure. This includes equipment, the tools you use in the procedure (such as mixing bowls, spoons, bread pans, hammers, drills, and saws) and supplies, the things that are consumed in the procedure (such as wood, paint, oil, flour, and nails). In instructions, these typically are listed either in a simple vertical list or in a two-column list. Use the two-column list if you need to add some specifications to some or all of the items—for example, brand names, sizes, amounts, types, model numbers, and so on.

Discussion of the steps:  when you get to the actual writing of the steps, there are several things to keep in mind: (1) the structure and format of those steps, (2) supplementary information that might be needed, and (3) the point of view and general writing style.

Structure and format:  normally, we imagine a set of instructions as being formatted as vertical numbered lists. And most are in fact. Normally, you format your actual step-by-step instructions this way. There are some variations, however, as well as some other considerations:

  • Fixed-order steps are steps that must be performed in the order presented. For example, if you are changing the oil in a car, draining the oil is a step that must come before putting the new oil. These are numbered lists (usually, vertical numbered lists).
  • Variable-order steps are steps that can be performed in practically any order. Good examples are those troubleshooting guides that tell you to check this, check that where you are trying to fix something. You can do these kinds of steps in practically any order. With this type, the bulleted list is the appropriate format.
  • Alternate steps are those in which two or more ways to accomplish the same thing are presented. Alternate steps are also used when various conditions might exist. Use bulleted lists with this type, with OR inserted between the alternatives, or the lead-in indicating that alternatives are about to be presented.
  • Nested steps may be used in  cases when individual steps within a procedure are rather complex in their own right and need to be broken down into sub-steps. In this case, you indent further and sequence the sub-steps as a, b, c, and so on.
  • “Step-less” instructions. can be used when you really cannot use numbered vertical list or provide straightforward instructional-style directing of the reader. Some situations must be so generalized or so variable that steps cannot be stated.

Supplementary discussion: often, it is not enough simply to tell readers to do this or to do that. They need additional explanatory information such as how the thing should look before and after the step; why they should care about doing this step; what mechanical principle is behind what they are doing; even more micro-level explanation of the step—discussion of the specific actions that make up the step.

The problem with supplementary discussion, however, is that it can hide the actual step. You want the actual step—the specific actions the reader is to take—to stand out. You don’t want it all buried in a heap of words. There are at least two techniques to avoid this problem: you can split the instruction from the supplement into separate paragraphs; or you can bold the instruction.

Writing Style

Placing the key user steps in bold can a very helpful way to signal clearly what the reader needs to do.  Often the command verb is bolded; sometimes bold font highlights the key component being discussed.

Use of the passive voice in instructions can be problematic. For some strange reason, some instructions sound like this: “The Pause button should be depressed in order to stop the display temporarily.” Not only are we worried about the pause button’s mental health, but we wonder who’s supposed to depress the thing (ninjas?). It would be more helpful to indicate when the reader must “press the Pause button.”   Consider this example: “The Timer button is then set to 3:00.” Again, one might ask, “is set by whom?  Ninjas?” The person following these instructions might think it is simply a reference to some existing state, or she might wonder, “Are they talking to me?” Using the third person can also lead to awkwardness: “The user should then press the Pause button.” Instructions should typically be written using command verb forms and using “you” to make it perfectly clear what the reader should do.

Illustrating Your Instructions

Perhaps more than in any other form of technical writing, graphics are crucial to instructions. Sometimes, words simply cannot explain the step. Illustrations are often critical to the readers’ ability to visualize what they are supposed to do.  Be sure that the graphics represent the image from the reader’s perspective.

Formatting Your Instructions

Since people rarely want to read instructions, but often have to, format your instructions for reluctant readability. Try to make your reader want to read them, or at least not resistant to the idea of consulting them.  Highly readable format will allow readers who have figured out some of the instructions on their own to skip to the section where they are stuck.  Use what you have learned about headings, lists, visuals, and passive space to create effective and readable instructions:

Headings: normally, you’d want headings for any background section you might have, the equipment and supplies section, a general heading for the actual instructions section, and subheadings for the individual tasks or phases within that section.

Lists: similarly, instructions typically make extensive use of lists, particularly numbered vertical lists for the actual step-by-step explanations. Simple vertical lists or two-column lists are usually good for the equipment and supplies section. In-sentence lists are good whenever you give an overview of things to come.

Special Notices:  you may have to alert readers to possibilities in which they may damage their equipment, waste supplies, cause the entire procedure to fail, injure themselves or others—even seriously or fatally. Companies have been sued for lack of these special notices, for poorly written special notices, or for special notices that were out of place. See special notices for a complete discussion of the proper use of these special notices as well as their format and placement within instructions.

Revision Checklist for Written Instructions

As you reread and revise your instructions, check that they do the following:

  • Clearly describe the exact procedure to be explained
  • Provide an overview of content
  • Indicate audience requirements
  • Use various types of lists wherever appropriate; in particular, use numbered lists for sequential steps
  • Use headings and subheadings to divide the main sections and subsections in a logical, coherent order
  • Use special notices as appropriate
  • Use graphics to illustrate key actions and objects
  • Provide additional supplementary explanation of the steps as necessary
  • Create a section listing equipment and supplies if necessary.

This chapter was adapted from Online Technical Writing by David McMurrey, which is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


Chapter 10 Reports


A vital part of any business or organization, reports document specific information for specific audiences, goals, or functions. The type of report is often identified by its primary purpose or function, as in an accident report, a laboratory report, a sales report, or even a book report.

Reports are often analytical but sometimes just “report the facts” with no analysis at all. Other reports summarize past events, present current data, and forecast future trends. While a report may have conclusions, propositions, or even calls to action, presenting analysis is the primary function. A sales report, for example, is not designed to make an individual sale. It is, however, supposed to report sales to date and may forecast future sales based on previous trends.

Before delving into reports in detail, let’s review the advantages, disadvantages, and occasions for writing them .

Table 22.1 Excerpt: Report Pros, Cons, and Proper Use

Channel Advantages Disadvantages Expectations Appropriate Use
  • Allows presentation of a high volume of information presenting research and analysis
  • Can take various forms such as a document booklet or proposal for reading alone
  • Time-consuming to write with proper research documentation and visual content
  • Time-consuming for the busy professional to read or an audience to take in
  • Follow conventions for organizing information according to the size of the report, audience, and purpose
  • Visual aids should be covered in the text
  • For providing thorough business intelligence on topics important to an organization’s operation
  • For internal or external audiences
  • For persuading audiences with well-developed arguments (e.g., recommendation reports)

Report Writing Video

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

University of South Australia. (2017). Study Help: Report writing [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GV4yMF8vx6o


10.1 Report Objective: Informational and Analytical

Learning Objectives

Target iconAfter reviewing this information, you will be able to

      • understand the purpose of analytical reports
      • understand the purpose of informational reports


Reports come in all shapes and sizes—from a couple of soft-copy pages shared electronically to a book-sized binder. The type of report depends on its function as expressed in the purpose statement. The function also influences the writing style and other elements such as visual content (figures) and presentation of numerical values. Reports also vary by style and tradition. Regardless of their specific function or type, however, there are two main categories of reports: informational and analytical.

Informational reports provide facts, data, feedback, and other types of information to assist management to make decisions. Informational reports do not provide an analysis or interpretation of information and do not provide recommendations. An example of this type of “just the facts” report is a police accident report. The report will note the time, date, place, contributing factors like weather, and identification information for the drivers involved in an automobile accident. It does not establish fault or include judgmental statements. You should not see “Driver was falling down drunk” in a police accident report. Instead, you would see “Driver failed sobriety tests and breathalyzer test and was transported to the station for a blood sample.” The police officer is not a trained medical doctor licensed to make definitive diagnoses but can collect and present relevant information that may contribute to a diagnosis.

Analytical reports provide facts, data, feedback and other types of information, but they also provide analysis, interpretation, and recommendations. For instance, a field report by a Public Health Agency of Canada physician from the site of an outbreak of the H1N1 virus will note symptoms, disease progression, and steps taken to arrest the spread of the disease. It will ultimately make recommendations on the treatment and quarantine of subjects. Figure 22.1 below includes common reports that, depending on the audience’s needs, maybe informational or analytical.

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Table 22.1 Report Characteristics
Figure 10.1.1 notes important similarities and differences between informational and analytical reports.

Report Writing

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Analytical and Information Report Purpose

Each report purpose is best suited for specific types of reports.  Figure 22.2 below provides an overview of the most appropriate business situations to use an informational or analytical report.

Figure 10.1.2 Informational and Analytical Reports

Figure 10.1.2 provides an overview of when to use informational and analytical reports to communicate your business messages

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Select a Fortune 500 company that appeals to you and search recent tweets and Facebook posts about it.  Write either an informational or analytical report about the company you chose.  In an informational report, summarize your findings in memo form or as an email.  Alternatively, you could write an analytical report analyzing the strategies the company adopts in responding to tweets and Facebook posts.

NPBComm2. (2018). Report writing.  What is the type of report [Video]. Youtube. Retrived from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_eu9maTxHkg.


10.2 Report Organization

Learning Objectives

Target iconAfter studying this unit, you will be able to

      • understand how reports are organized


Because reports vary by size, format, and function, writing them involves adjusting to the needs of the audience while respecting conventions and guidelines. Reports are typically organized around six key elements, the 5Ws + H:

  1. Whom the report is about and/or prepared for
  2. What was done, what problems were addressed, and the results, including conclusions and/or recommendations
  3. Where the subject studied occurred
  4. When the subject studied occurred
  5. Why the report was written (function), including under what authority, for what reason, or by whose request
  6. How the subject operated, functioned, or was used

Pay attention to these essential elements when you consider your stakeholders, or those who have an interest in the report. That may include the person(s) the report is about, whom it is for, and the larger audience of the business, organization, or industry. Ask yourself who are the key decision-makers reading the report, who the experts or technicians will be, and how executives and workers may interpret your words and images.

How to Write a Business Report Video

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Organization Pattern

Although reports have the same sections, the audience, purpose and content of a report will influence the report’s organizing pattern: direct or indirect.

Direct Pattern

Direct reports contain routine, nonsensitive information. Reports using this organizing pattern will present the most important findings first followed by facts, data and other explanatory details.  Thus, the direct approach is most appropriate for informational reports. In addition, when the receiver is likely to be in agreement with and accepting of the report’s information and recommendations, the direct approach can also be applied to analytical reports. This approach allows the receiver to access relevant information in a quick, efficient and easy to follow manner.

Figure 10.2.1 presents the organizing pattern of a direct report.


Indirect Pattern

An indirect approach may contain sensitive, controversial, debated or unpleasant information. As a consequence, not all readers will be knowledgeable of, in agreement with, or accepting of the information and/or recommendations made in the report. For this reason, the indirect approach is used when the audience must be educated about or persuaded of the credibility of the information presented and the merits of the recommendations made.  An indirect report presents the facts, data and other explanatory details before presenting its conclusions and recommendations.  Since only analytical reports present recommendations, the indirect approach is used exclusively with analytical reports.

Figure 10.2.2 shows the organizing pattern of an indirect report.

Ordering Information

In addition to determining if your report will use the direct or indirect approach, information must also be organized to help the reader understand the information.  Five of the more useful ways to organize information are presented below.

Information Organization Methods

Figure 10.2.5 presents five ways to organize information to assist reader comprehension.

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Think of a problem or challenge you have observed or experienced at your workplace.  Do you have an idea or a solution that would help to reduce costs, improve customer service, improve quality, etc?  Before beginning, consider the organizational principles presented in this section to determine how best to organize your information to receive the best possible response from your boss.  Now write the report.

USC. (2018). How to write a business report [Video]. Youtube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8uF1EoIneE&t=46s.


10.3 Report Type and Function: Informal Report

Learning Objectives

Target iconAfter studying this unit, you will be able to

      • identify different types of reports
      • Identify the different functions of reports


Depending on the complexity and depth of content, reports are categorized as either informal or formal. Whatever the type, all reports provide the information that people in an organization need to solve problems and make decisions.

The informal report is 10 pages or under, and for this reason, informal reports are also referred to as the short report.  Informal reports can have both an internal and external audience, but are mostly written for an internal audience.  For internal audiences, the informal report is constructed as a memo or email report; for the external audience, the informal report is constructed as a letter or email report.

In addition, the informal report can be informational or analytical in nature.  The informational report contains non-sensitive, routine information, often presented in a prescribed format such as a fill-in-the-blank form.  For this reason, the sections of an informational report include the introduction, findings, and conclusion.  In contrast, the short analytical report seeks to answer questions about specific problems with the aim of solving those problems.  How can we use social media more effectively? Should we close or open a new plant? How can customer service be improved? Therefore, the short analytical report not only includes an introduction, findings, and conclusion, but also recommendations.  

Table 10.3.3  Informational and Analytical Short Report Sections

Short Informational Reports
  • Introduction
  • Findings
  • Conclusion


Short Analytical Reports
  • Introduction
  • Findings
  • Conclusion
  • Recommendation







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Informal Report Types and Functions

The video above provides a general overview of the short report.  In your professional life, you will find that there are many different types of short reports to respond to the many different activities, duties, and responsibilities in business organizations.  Table 10.3.2 below provides an overview of numerous types of short reports and their functions.

Table 10.3.4 Types and Function of Informal Reports

Note: a review of the many different functions short informational and analytical reports serve in an organization

Labels and Section Headers

Although the informal report is short, any document that is two pages or longer should include a feature that helps to separate information into unique sections.  Utilizing headers for any report in excess of 2-pages creates a better organized report and assists readers to understand, locate, and retain informatio.

Figure 10.3.4

Figure 10.3.4 illustrates the effectiveness of using headers to separate information. Notice how much easier it is to locate information via headers.

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1. Select one of the following questions on which to base a report, and create an outline that contains functional and descriptive headings.

      • Should online retailers compile customer profiles to help market their products?
      • Do people over 40 suffer ageism in the IT industry?
      • Can contemporary pop-up stores play a role in the marketing of new products?

2.  Review a long business article in a journal or newspaper.  Highlight examples of how the article uses headings, transitions, previews, and reviews to help readers find their way.

Lumen (n.d.). Informal reports. Business communications skills for managers. Retrieved January 12, 2020 from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wmopen-businesscommunicationmgrs/chapter/informal-reports/


10.4 Report Type and Function: Formal Report

Learning Objectives

Target iconAfter studying this unit, you will be able to

      • understand the function of a formal report


A formal report is a document that analyzes information, determines conclusions, and offers recommendations to solve problems.  Formal reports are the result of the gathering and analysis of large amounts of data.  This data is then presented to decision makers in business, industry, and government to aid in the process of making important decisions.  Formal reports are longer (10+ pages) and are therefore also referred to as long reports.  Long reports have a more formal tone, tackle complex and challenging topics, and are almost always analytical in nature.  Similar to informal reports, formal reports are also organized into sections and utilize headings and subheadings to help readers access information.  The following video provides and comprehensive overview of the long report.

Writing Long Reports

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Conducting Research

An informal report may be written without including any research.  However, the same cannot be said of the formal report.  Because of the scope and complexity of formal reports, there is a need for in-depth and extensive data research and analysis.  Collecting research is a critical part of writing the formal report.  The conclusions made and the recommendations that follow should be based on facts, statistics, expert knowledge and other forms of information.   Thus, collecting credible, up-to-date, and reliable information is a critical part of writing a formal report. Given the easy access to research databases, the internet, and other sources of digitized information, collecting information is nearly effortless today.

Table 10.4.5 Types of Report Data

Note: The table presents various types of data and the questions to ask to ensure the credibility and reliability of collected information .


Whenever research based on other people’s work is included in a report, credit must be given to that work.  This is called documentation.  Proper documentation adds credibility to the information presented in a report and protects the writer against charges of plagiarism.  Famous historians, high-level journalists, politicians, and educators have suffered grave consequences for not providing the required documentation.

To add clarity to writing and avoid charges of plagiarism, document the following:


      1. Select five business articles from a combination of print and online resources.  Using APA, develop a Reference list of those resources.
      2. Select a professional journal for your field of study.  Select an article that is at least five pages long, of interest to you, and provides information on emerging trends in your field.   Write an executive summary of the article for a busy executive who does not have time to read the entire article but who needs to stay current on what is happening in your field of expertise.
GreggLearning. (2019). Writing long reports [Video]. Youtube.  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szFDwdS-D8k


10.5 Report Parts – Informal and Formal

Learning Objectives

Target iconAfter studying this unit, you will be able to

      • understand the parts of an informal report
      • understand the parts of a formal report


Informal reports differ from formal reports in their length, purpose, and content.  Nonetheless, the parts of an informal and formal report can be divided into three components: front matter, the parts of a report that precede the main body and contain introductory and background information that provides the context for the remainder of the report; body, the presentation of facts, statistics, expert opinion and other forms of research that provide the basis for any decisions made; and back matter, the parts of a report that follow the main body and provides the credentials for the data presented and other supplemental information.  Figure 22.5 organizes the parts of an informal and formal report into the three components.

Parts of Informal and Formal Reports

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To understand the function of each part of an informal and formal report consult Table 10.5.3.  Here the function of each part as well as information on how to compose each part of an informal or formal report is provided.

Table 10.5.3 Common Formal Business Report Elements

Part Function Example

                                                                         Front Matter

1. Letter of Transmittal Optional cover letter that addresses the report’s intended recipients and introduces it See How to Write a Transmittal or Cover Letter (public.wsu.edu)
2. Cover Title and image
Gives the reader an immediate sense of what the report is all about
See Papers and Reports templates (Microsoft Office, 2014)
3. Title fly Title only
Feasibility Study of Oil Recovery from the X Tarpit Sands Location
4. Title page Label, report, features title, author, affiliation, date, and sometimes for whom the report was prepared. Feasibility Study of Oil Recovery from the X Tarpit Sands Location Peak Oilman, X Energy Corporation Prepared for X
5. Table of Contents A list of the main parts of the report and their respective page numbers. Orients the reader around the scope of the report and helps them find specific information. Abstract…………….1
6. List of Illustrations A list of figures and tables to help readers locate them.  The list may be included as part of the TOC or as its own separate page. Figure 1…………….5
Figure 2…………….7
Table 1………………3
7. Executive Summary Presents an overview of the entire report for readers who may not have time to read the details of the full report. Review the steps and an example of well and poorly developed executive summaries.
8. Abstract Enables the reader to get a sense of the entire report at a glance to make quick decisions based on the findings Learn the strategy for developing informative and descriptive abstracts.
7. Introduction Introduces the topic of the report
Establishes the context in which the report topic makes sense
Review these examples of how to write a Purpose Statement and an introduction.


8. Findings Most extensive part of the report that presents the facts, statistics and expert opinion included in report. Use the links to find keys to writing the findings section, including information on integrating graphics, integrating research, and using headers.
9. Conclusion Summarizes the key finding presented in the report Review information and complete exercises on writing a conclusion.
10. Recommendation Outlines specific action to be taken to address issues and problems. Review the recommendation writing process.
Back Matter
9. References List of sources referenced/cited throughout the report This online module on references provides vital information.
10. Appendix Related supporting materials. May include specialized supplemental materials. An overview of creating appendices.

Academic Peport: Overall Structure Video

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An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:


1. You are writing an analytical report on the Canadian sales of your company’s newest product (you can decide on the product).  Of the following topics, identify what section of the report should include each topic.  Briefly explain your decisions.

      • Regional breakdown of sales across the country
      • Date the product was released in the marketplace
      • Sales figures from competitors selling the same products worldwide
      • Prediction of how the Canadian economy will affect sales over the next six months
      • Methods used to obtain those predictions
      • Suggestions for how the company should proceed in the marketplace
      • Actions that must be completed by year’s end to ensure successful market presence


Ashford University. (2019). Integrating research. The writing center. Retrieved January, 19, 2019, from https://content.bridgepointeducation.com/curriculum/file/5408ee9b-e793-44d5-8a4d-e54bc6e72f74/1/Integrating%20Research.zip/story_html5.html

Ashford University. (2019). APA in-text citation helper. The writing center. Retrieved January, 19, 2019, from https://content.bridgepointeducation.com/curriculum/file/9fce9d11-3298-48ef-ac77-12fe7d5c0577/1/In-Text%20Citation%20Helper%20A%20Guide%20to%20Making%20APA%20In-Text%20Citations.zip/story_html5.html

A Research Guide. (2019). How to create an appendix: A guide. Retrieved January 19, 2020, from https://www.aresearchguide.com/make-an-appendix.html

Edraw. (2019). Improve business reports with charts and graphs. Retrieved January 19, 2020, from https://www.edrawsoft.com/improve-business-reports.html

Guffey, M., Loewry, D., & Griffin, E. (2019). Business communication: Process and product (6th ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson Education. Retrieved from http://www.cengage.com/cgi-wadsworth/course_products_wp.pl?fid=M20b&product_isbn_issn=9780176531393&template=NELSON

Meyer, C. (2017). Communicating for results (4th ed.). Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://oup-arc.com/access/meyer-4e-student-resources#tag_case-studies

Monash University. (2018).  Conclusions and Recommendations. Research and learning online. Retrieved January 19, 2020, from https://www.monash.edu/rlo/assignment-samples/engineering/eng-writing-technical-reports/conclusions-and-recommendations

Thill, V, J., Bovee, C, L., Keller, W, I., & Moran, K, M. (2019). Excellence in business communications (6th ed.). Pearson Canada Inc.

UniLearing (2000). Examples of introduction sections. Report writing. Retrieved January 19, 2010, from https://unilearning.uow.edu.au/report/4biii1.html

UniLearing (2000). Good and poor examples of executive summaries. Report writing. Retrieved January 19, 2010, from https://unilearning.uow.edu.au/report/4bi1.html

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (2020). Abstracts. The writing center. Retrieved Janauary 19, 2020, from https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/abstracts/

University of Tasmania. (2018). Statement of purpose.  Accounting communication matters.  Retrieved January 19, 2020, from https://www.utas.edu.au/accounting-communication-matters/writing-an-essay-or-report/starting-to-write/statement-of-purpose

WHO. (2011). Executive summary.  Writing effectively for WHO. Retrieved January 19, 2020, from http://colelearning.net/who/module3/page45.html

WHO. (2011). Report conclusion. Writing effectively for WHO.  Retrieved January 19, 2020, from http://colelearning.net/who/module3/page40.html

PolyU ELC. (2018). Academic report: Overall structure [video] . YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=7&v=gm9t6WYBSuI&feature=emb_logo


10.6 The SlideDeck Report

Learning Objectives

target iconAfter studying this unit, you will be able to

        • understand the difference between a slide deck, presentation, and written report
        • understand the importance of slide decks
        • know the steps in the slide deck design process



In the modern day business environment, reports are also delivered as digital documents called slide decks.  Slide decks are digital reports that can be delivered via email or uploaded to an online site.  Slide decks are a midway point between traditional presentations and written reports.  Although a slide deck is a presentation, it is meant to be read by the receiver, not presented by the sender.  A slide deck contains more text and fewer images than a typical presentation, but less text and more images than a written report. These characteristics make slide decks more inviting to read and easier to understand than written reports while providing more information than a typical presentation.  For this reason, more and more professional fields are using slide decks to organize, summarize and present information on a wide range of business functions and trends.


Figure 10.6.1: Image of a slide deck report that combines reduced amounts of text and visuals to effectively communicate information

Designing  a Slide Deck

In the video below, a pioneer in the field of slide deck presentations, Nancy Duarte, provides some tips on designing slide decks.

Nancy Duarte: How to Create Better Visual Presentations Video

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Why Use Slide Decks

Slide decks have become popular in business for several good reasons.

Pre-meeting Document: Slide decks present information in a short, easy-to-read, accessible format. It’s normal to provide information in advance to meeting attendees. The accessible characteristic of a slide deck allows everyone time to preview the issues and come to the meeting ready to share their views and make decisions.  Therefore, a slide deck serves as a pre-meeting document that informs participants of the important point 

Independent Reading:  A presentation requires a speaker to explain the information presented.  However, a slide deck provides just enough information to clearly communicate the main ideas presented.  Thus, a slide deck allows for independent reading and study at the receiver’s pace, consequently allowing a degree of convenience normal presentations do not.

Informative Handout:  Providing a handout after a meeting or presentation serves to reinforce the main messages presented.  A slide deck can contain the traditional main point highlights, but it can also contain interactive elements, video, and web links so the audience is able to explore all aspects of the information.

Visual Impact:  Visuals help us communicate information quickly to different audiences.  Visuals have the capacity to make complex information accessible.  Thus, the visual aspect of a slide deck ensures that a larger segment of our audience is more likely to understand our message.

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Steps in the Design Process

Choosing a Presentation Software Application

A slide deck is a presentation.  Thus, different types of presentation software can be used to create your slide deck.  Although the most popular presentation software maybe PowerPoint, other presentation software options such as Keynote, Google Slide, ClearSlide, and Prezi can also be used to create a slide deck presentation.

Choose a Slide Template

Your company may have preferred slide templates, but if not, choose a clean and simple slide template based on the colour palette and font of your brand.  Visual consistency is the objective of the template.  Each slide should feel connected by a singular feeling or theme.  Keep things consistent by using a solid background colour or pattern and by using background images that have a similar colour palette.  Templates can also reflect the type of organization and report.  Figure 10.6.2 offers an example.


Figure 10.6.2: These two slide deck templates provide an example of consistency in colour, layout, and font, but the templates also reflect different types of reports and organizations.

Minimize Content 

The business writing principles of short and concise writing apply to slide decks.  When developing a slide deck, aim to present information in short, individual chunks of information.  Avoid redundancy by only including points and visuals that are important for your audience to “see”.  Here are some other tips to ensure your content packs a punch.

For additional information, view Cassie McDaniel’s tutorial that features 22 tips for building great decks.

Colour is one of the key ways that you can communicate visually, so it’s important to be purposeful. Remember, no two people interpret the same symbols in the same way.  It’s your job to ensure your audience does not make unconscious connections in a way that will interfere with clear communication.  Use colour to help your audience highlight an important concept or to focus attention on important information. For example, think about how and when to use your company’s brand colours or the colours of a competitor to help communicate your message.

Use visuals that add value to the conversation.   Use only one visual per slide, so choose a chart, graph, infographic, etc. that will help you communicate your main point via that illustration.  Simple and easy-to-understand graphics are preferable to complex and complicated ones.  Using simple illustrations will help you communicate clearly to your audience.


Figure 10.6.3: Seven simple steps to develop a slide deck

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The Duarte Slide Deck Manual

The Duarte Slide Deck Manual is the industry standard for the development of slide decks.  Review this manual for comprehensive and in-depth information on how to create well-planned and designed slide decks.  The information contained in the manual serves as a guide but also as an example of what businesses today expect from employees in the 21st century.  The manual can be resized for easier viewing by using the enlarge option.

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Exercises 2.1

pen and paper icon

      1. Review a report, proposal, or even an essay that you have previously written.  Using the design principles covered in this section and presented in the Duarte Manual, convert that document into a slide deck report.
Duarte. (n.d.) Slidedocs. Resources. Retrieved from https://www.duarte.com/slidedocs/
Stanford Graduate School of Business. (2014). Nancy Duarte: How to create better visual presentations [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=so9EJoQJc-0


10. 7 Key Takeaways

Key Takeaway

key iconReports require a clear purpose, solid organization, and adherence to conventions.


The following is a 14-point checklist for helping to ensure that a report fulfills its goals:

◻  1. Report considers the audience’s needs

◻  2. Format follows function of report

◻  3. Format reflects institutional conventions and expectations

◻  4. Information is accurate, complete, and documented

◻  5. Information is easy to read

◻  6. Terms are clearly defined

◻  7. Figures, tables, and graphic elements support written content

◻  8. Figures, tables, and graphic elements are clear and correctly labeled

◻  9. Figures, tables, and graphic elements are easily understood without text support

◻  10. Words are easy to read (font, arrangement, organization)

◻  11. Results are clear and concise

◻  12. Recommendations are reasonable and well-supported

◻  13. Report represents your best effort

◻  14. Report speaks for itself without your clarification or explanation

Access the documents below for additional information on report writing.


Chapter 11: Presentations


Many surveys have shown that public speaking is at the top of the list of fears for most people — sometimes, higher on the list than death. No one is afraid of writing their speech or conducting the research: people generally only fear the delivery aspect of the speech, which, compared to the amount of time you will put into writing the speech (days, hopefully), will be the shortest part of the speech giving process (5-8 minutes, generally, for classroom speeches). The irony, of course, is that delivery, being the thing people fear the most, is simultaneously the aspect of public speaking that will require the least amount of time.

11.1 Presentations – An Overview

Learning Objectives

target iconAfter studying this unit, you will be able to

        • demonstrate how to plan a presentation
        • understand how to construct the different parts of any presentation
        • identify the use of different organizing principles for a presentation
        • identify the different methods of speech delivery
        • utilize specific techniques to enhance speech delivery


At some point in your future careers, you will be called upon to give a presentation to your boss, colleagues, perhaps even customers.  Although this may seem scary, it is also an opportunity to prove your knowledge and communication skills.  Public speaking skills are important in a professional environment.  In fact, public speaking skills are “the No. 1 predictor of success and upward mobility” College and university is the perfect time to develop and perfect this skill.  Knowing how to plan and execute a well-developed presentation in a face-to-face or virtual environment is a skill that will make your future employers take notice.

To get started, let’s review the video below to gain an understanding of what is required to develop world-class and effective presentations.

Five Simple Rules for Creating World Changing Presentations Video

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Planning Your Presentation

Planning a presentation is much like planning other business documents.  There is importance to undertaking and applying a systematic process of planning, researching, drafting, and revising before delivering the final product.  Completing this process can take a considerable amount of time.  Figure 11.1.1 provides the planning process

Figure 11.1.1: A three-step process that will prepare you to deliver a flawless presentation.

Planning in any presentation is helpful both to you and to your audience. Your audience will appreciate receiving the information presented in an organized way, and being well organized will make the presentation much less stressful for you.

Successful presenters know their material, are prepared, do not read a script or PowerPoint presentation, do not memorize every single word in order (though some parts may be memorized), and do not make it up as you go along. Your presentation is scripted in the sense that it is completely planned from start to finish, yet every word is not explicitly planned, allowing for some spontaneity and adaptation to the audience’s needs in the moment.

Your organization plan will serve you and your audience as a guide, and help you present a more effective speech. Just as there is no substitute for practice and preparation, there is no substitute for planning.

Knowing the Purpose

Speeches have traditionally been seen to have one of three broad purposes: to inform, to persuade, and — well, to be honest, different words are used for the third kind of speech purpose: to inspire, to amuse, to please, or to entertain. These broad goals are commonly known as a speech’s general purpose, since, in general, you are trying to inform, persuade, or entertain your audience without regard to specifically what the topic will be. Perhaps you could think of them as appealing to the understanding of the audience (informative), the will or action (persuasive), and the emotion or pleasure.

Before getting into the specifics of how to create a purpose statement for a presentation, the following video provides an overview of the process.

Speech Purpose & Central Idea Video

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Now that you know your general purpose (to inform, to persuade, or to entertain), you can start to move in the direction of the specific purpose. A specific purpose statement builds on your general purpose (to inform) and makes it more specific (as the name suggests). So if your first speech is an informative speech, your general purpose will be to inform your audience about a very specific realm of knowledge.

In writing your specific purpose statement, you will take three contributing elements (shown in figure 11.1.2) that will come together to help you determine your specific purpose:

diagram demonstrating three beginning categories, you, your audience, your context leading to a specific purpose statement followed by a central idea statement.Figure 11.1.2. You, your audience, and your context

Keeping these three inputs in mind, you can begin to write a specific purpose statement, which will be the foundation for everything you say in the speech and a guide for what you do not say. This formula will help you in putting together your specific purpose statement:

To _______________ [Specific Communication Word (inform, explain, demonstrate, describe, define, persuade, convince, prove, argue)] my [Target Audience (my classmates, the members of the Social Work Club, my coworkers] __________________. [The Content (how to bake brownies, that Macs are better than PCs].

Example: The purpose of my presentation is to demonstrate to my coworkers the value of informed intercultural communication.

Formulating a Central Idea Statement

While you will not actually say your specific purpose statement during your speech, you will need to clearly state what your focus and main points are going to be. The statement that reveals your main points is commonly known as the central idea statement (or just the central idea). Just as you would create a thesis statement for an essay or research paper, the central idea statement helps focus your presentation by defining your topic, purpose, direction, angle, and/or point of view. Here are two examples:

Specific Purpose – To explain to my classmates the effects of losing a pet on the elderly.

Central Idea – When elderly people lose their animal companions, they can experience serious psychological, emotional, and physical effects.

Specific Purpose – To demonstrate to my audience the correct method for cleaning a computer keyboard.

Central Idea – Your computer keyboard needs regular cleaning to function well, and you can achieve that in four easy steps.

Knowing the audience

Given the diverse nature of audiences, the complexity of the communication process, and the countless options and choices to make when preparing your presentation, you may feel overwhelmed. One effective way to address this is to focus on ways to reach, interact, or stimulate your audience. All audiences fall into four categories: friendly, neutral, uninterested, or hostile (see Figure 32.3).  No matter the audience, your job is to deliver a presentation that will address the needs of your audience.  Ask yourself these questions to determine how well your presentation will meet the needs of your audience:

Figure 11.1.3: Different audiences will require an adjustment to presentation style and organizing pattern.

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Developing and Organizing Content

Presentation Outline

You’re now ready to prepare an outline for your presentation. To be successful in your presentation, you’ll need two outlines: a preparation outline, and a speaking outline.

Preparation outlines are comprehensive outlines that include all of the information in your presentation. Your presentation outline will consist of the content of what the audience will see and hear. Eventually, you will move away from this outline as you develop your materials and practice your presentation.

Your speaking outline will contain notes to guide you; notes that are usually not shared with your audience. It will summarize the full preparation outline down to more usable notes. You should create a set of abbreviated notes for the actual delivery.

Your organizational model will help determine how you will structure (see below) your preparation outline. You can use your presentation outline as a starting point to developing your speaking outline. It’s a good idea to make speaking notes to align with your main points and visuals in each section.   Figure 11.1.4 provides the basic parts of a presentation outline.


Figure 11.1.4: An overview of the steps involved in putting together a presentation outline

Developing the Content

The general organization for presentations includes:

  1. Attention Statement: an engaging or interesting statement that will cause your audience to sit up and take notice.
  2. Introduction: setting out your general idea statement (LINK) and giving the audience an idea of what to expect.
  3. Body: This section contains your research, main points, and other relevant information. It will follow your organizational pattern.
  4. Conclusion: reiterating your idea statement, and/or includes a call-to-action — what you want the audience to do or think about following your presentation.
  5. Residual Message: this is an optional section, but a powerful one. It is the final message you want the audience to remember.

In putting together a presentation, presenters will often use examples and scenarios to help illustrate their message. The main difference between examples and scenarios is that while both help “show” the audience what you mean, an example is the “thing” itself, while a scenario would include more detail about the sequence or development of events. Scenarios also tend to be longer and more nuanced.

Storytelling can be an effective way to convey your message to your audience. Stories are a fundamental part of the human experience, and, if well-told, can resonate with listeners. Some of the most inspiring speakers use storytelling effectively in their presentations. You can find out more about how to incorporate storytelling techniques into presentations from the video below.


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The next 10 minutes might save your life”

In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends

Did these quotes heighten your interest in what the speaker is about to say?.  During the first two to three minutes of a presentation, gaining the attention of listeners is crucial.  Using words and phrases (like the ones above) and effective visual aids will make an immediate impact on listeners and capture their attention.  Presentations that are able to immediately capture the audience’s attention are also more likely to keep the audience’s attention throughout.  Take a minute to view these effective presentations attention getters from experienced and established speakers at TedTalks.

Effective attention-getting strategies that you can incorporate into a presentation include:

In addition, to stimulate the listener’s interest, the introduction must also establish the speaker’s credibility, and preview the main points of the presentation.
How to Do a Presentation – 5 Steps to a Killer Opener Video

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To establish credibility with an audience, provide information on the qualification that empower you to speak about the topic: your job, experience, education, knowledge, etc.  Credibility is established by connecting your qualifications to the presentation’s subject matter.  If you are not a well-known authority on the matter, establishing your credibility will go along way to influence the audience’s decision to listen to your presentation and to take it seriously.

The Introduction must also preview the main points the presentation will discuss.  The preview will provide a broad overview of the presentation’s main points and indicate the order each point will be discussed.  Using a visual aid to present the points and their order is often an effective strategy.

The Body

Most of your presentation will be spent filling in the details of the main points first announced in the Introduction of your presentation.  Effective presenters do not overwhelm their audience with too much information.  Instead, effective presenters streamline their presentations by including only one or two important details for each main point.  To accomplish this task, a presenter must be very informed on the topic and very aware of the audience in order to determine what information will be most impactful to a particular audience.  No matter the audience, too much information can confuse listeners and conceal the central message of the presentation.  So keep presentations simple and logical.  Applying one of several organizing systems to a presentation will assist in streamlining information. For example: Chronology, Comparison/Contrast, Importance, or Best/Worst Cases.

An important part of any presentation is knowing how to connect your main points in a relevant manner, so that your presentation appears fluid?  Using transitional words and phrases provide is one method to help the audience follow the speaker’s ideas, connect the main points to each other, and see the relationships you’ve created in the information you are presenting. Transitions are used by the speaker to guide the audience in the progression from one significant idea, concept or point to the next issue. They can also show the relationship between the main point and the support the speaker uses to illustrate, provide examples for, or reference outside sources. Depending on your purpose, transitions can serve different roles as you help create the glue that will connect your points together in a way the audience can easily follow.

                              Table 1: Examples of Presentation Transitions

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The concluding section of a presentation acts very much like a concluding paragraph for an essay: it summarizes the information presented.  However, for presentations, the concluding section also provides additional benefits for presentations.  An effective conclusion will

The conclusion should be memorable.  Ask yourself the question: what do you want my audience to remember most?  The answer to that question is the subject of your conclusion.  Don’t just say the same things you said during the presentation.  Breath fresh air into the information or come at the information from another angle.  End on a strong and positive note.  Think through and plan your last remarks to ensure the audience walks away with a positive impression of you and your company.

How to End a Presentation Video

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Types of Business Presentations

As we’ve discussed, a presentation will have one of three general purposes: to inform, to persuade, or to entertain.  However, each of these purposes may be required to deliver many different types of information.  In business, you will be involved in different projects, assignments, departments, etc., and be required to provide updates, reports, and overviews of the various activities.  A presentation about an ongoing project to your supervisor will not be the same type of presentation provided to the sales team; the type of presentation students give for a class assignment, is not the same type of weekly presentation your instructor provides.  There are many types of business presentations.  Understanding each type will help to ensure you target your message to the right audience in the right way.

Briefings: A condensed account of business situation.  Briefings bring the members of a department or project together so information can be shared and discussed.

Reports: Routine reports on ongoing projects, issues, problems, or proposals are expected.  There are many types of routine reports, including progress, convention, incident, trip, etc.  During your career, you may be required to present one or more of these types of reports to your superiors, colleagues, or rank-and-file employees, inside and outside your organization.  This type of presentation ranges from very simple presentations with minimal audio-visual and multimedia integration to presentations that include elaborate audio-visual and multimedia integration.

Podcasts: A podcast is an online, prerecorded audio clip delivered online.  Podcasts are used by companies to present up-to-date information on current products and services.  In addition, podcasts are being used to introduce and train employees.

Virtual Presentations: Business teams are often composed of individuals who are not in the same geographic location or perhaps have to work collaboratively outside of normal office hours.  This type of collaborative effort is greatly facilitated by the availability of information technology.  In your career, you may be required to work with a remote team to develop and present a project or different types of reports by making a virtual presentation. The steps to developing effective virtual presentations are the same as any other type of presentation.

Webinars: A webinar is a web-based presentation that is transmitted digitally, with or without video.  Companies use webinars in a similar manner to podcasts.  Company products and services as well as employee training and introductions are presentations common to webinars.

Figure 11.1.5: A summary of the different types of business presentations

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 Key Takeaway

key icon

      • All presentation must have a general purpose, specific purpose and central idea statements is 
      • Correctly profiling an audience will ensure your presentation delivers the right message in the most effective manner
      • All presentations include an attention getter, introduction, body, and conclusion.
      • Correctly matching the message to the correct type of presentation will increase the effectiveness of the message


pen and paper icon

      1. Interview one or two individuals in your professional field.  How is oral communication important in this profession.  Does the need for oral skills change as one advances?  What suggestion can these people make to newcomers to the field for developing proficient oral communication skills?


Bovee, C.L., Thill, J. V., & Scribner J. A. (2016). Business communication essentials (4th ed.). Don Mills, ON: Pearson Canada Inc.

eCampusOntario. (2020). Chapter 5: Presentation organization. Communication for business professionals. Retrieved from https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/commbusprofcdn/chapter/introduction-3/

Guffey, M., Loewry, D., & Griffin, E. (2019). Business communication: Process and product (6th ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson Education. Retrieved from http://www.cengage.com/cgi-wadsworth/course_products_wp.pl?fid=M20b&product_isbn_issn=9780176531393&template=NELSON



(Business Communications, 2019, p. 431). 
Duarte, Inc. (n.d.). Five simple rules for creating world changing presentations [Video file].  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hT9GGmundag&t=1s
COMMpadre Media. (n.d.). Speech purpose & central idea [Video file].  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsOxyci_CNM
(Tucker & Barton, 2016)
Reed, G. (2017). Your go-to presentation outline. Ethos3.com. Retrieved from https://www.ethos3.com/2017/01/your-go-to-presentation-outline-template/
Standford Graduate School of Business. (2013). Nancy Duarte: How to tell a story [Video file].  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9JrRQ1oQWQk
Rule the Room. (2013, July 26). How to Do a Presentation - 5 Steps to a Killer Opener(video). YouTube. https://youtu.be/dEDcc0aCjaA
Communication Coach Alex Lyon. (2017). How to end a presentation [Video file].  Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBO0riisOzU

11.2 Informative and Persuasive Presentations

Learning Objectives

target iconAfter studying this unit, you will be able to

        • describe the functions of the speech to inform
        • provide examples of four main types of speeches to inform
        • understand how to structure and develop a speech to inform
        • identify and demonstrate how to use six principles of persuasion
        • describe similarities and differences between persuasion and motivation
        • identify and demonstrate the effective use of five functions of speaking to persuade



Regardless of the type of presentation, you must prepare carefully.  Are you trying to sell life insurance to a group of new clients, or presenting a proposal to secure financing to expand your business operation?  Are you presenting the monthly update on the different sales divisions in your company, or providing customers with information on how to upgrade their latest computer purchase.  Your future career will require you to present both to inform or to persuade.  Knowing the difference between these two types of presentations and knowing how to construct each type of presentation will be beneficial to your future careers.

Informative vs Persuasive Video

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Presenting to Inform

At some point in your business career, you will be called upon to teach someone something. It may be a customer, coworker, or supervisor, and in each case, you are performing an informative speech. It is distinct from a sales speech, or persuasive speech, in that your goal is to communicate the information so that your listener understands. The informative speech is one performance you’ll give many times across your career, whether your audience is one person, a small group, or a large auditorium full of listeners. Once you master the art of the informative speech, you may mix and match it with other styles and techniques.


Informative presentations focus on helping the audience to understand a topic, issue, or technique more clearly. There are distinct functions inherent in a speech to inform, and you may choose to use one or more of these functions in your speech. Let’s take a look at the functions and see how they relate to the central objective of facilitating audience understanding.

Share: The basic definition of communication highlights the process of understanding and sharing meaning. An informative speech follows this definition when a speaker shares content and information with an audience. As part of a speech, you wouldn’t typically be asking the audience to respond or solve a problem. Instead, you’d be offering to share with the audience some of the information you have gathered related to a topic.

Increasing Understanding: How well does your audience grasp the information? This should be a guiding question to you on two levels. The first involves what they already know—or don’t know—about your topic, and what key terms or ideas might be necessary for someone completely unfamiliar with your topic to grasp the ideas you are presenting. The second involves your presentation and the illustration of ideas. The audience will respond to your attention statement and hopefully maintain interest, but how will you take your speech beyond superficial coverage of content and effectively communicate key relationships that increase understanding? These questions should serve as a challenge for your informative speech, and by looking at your speech from an audience-oriented perspective, you will increase your ability to increase the audience’s understanding.

Change Perceptions: How you perceive something has everything to do with a range of factors that are unique to you. We all want to make sense of our world, share our experiences, and learn that many people face the same challenges we do. For instance, many people perceive the process of speaking in public as a significant challenge, and in this text, we have broken down the process into several manageable steps. In so doing, we have to some degree changed your perception of public speaking.

When you present your speech to inform, you may want to change the audience member’s perceptions of your topic. You may present an informative speech on air pollution and want to change common perceptions such as the idea that most of North America’s air pollution comes from private cars. You won’t be asking people to go out and vote, or change their choice of automobiles, but you will help your audience change their perceptions of your topic.

Gain Skills: Just as you want to increase the audience’s understanding, you may want to help the audience members gain skills. If you are presenting a speech on how to make a meal from fresh ingredients, your audience may thank you for not only the knowledge of the key ingredients and their preparation but also the product available at the conclusion. If your audience members have never made their own meal, they may gain a new skill from your speech.

Exposition versus Interpretation: When you share information informally, you often provide your own perspective and attitude for your own reasons. The speech to inform the audience on a topic, idea, or area of content is not intended to be a display of attitude and opinion.

The speech to inform is like the classroom setting in that the goal is to inform, not to persuade, entertain, display attitude, or create comedy. If you have analyzed your audience, you’ll be better prepared to develop appropriate ways to gain their attention and inform them on your topic. You want to communicate thoughts, ideas, and relationships and allow each listener specifically, and the audience generally, to draw their own conclusions. The speech to inform is all about sharing information to meet the audience’s needs, not your own.

Exposition: Exposition means a public exhibition or display, often expressing a complex topic in a way that makes the relationships and content clear. The goal is to communicate the topic and content to your audience in ways that illustrate, explain, and reinforce the overall content to make your topic more accessible to the audience. The audience wants to learn about your topic and may have some knowledge of it as you do. It is your responsibility to consider ways to display the information effectively.

Figure 11.2.1: Five tips to ensure an objective and unbiased presentation.

Interpretation and Bias: Interpretation involves adapting the information to communicate a message, perspective, or agenda. Your insights and attitudes will guide your selection of material, what you focus on, and what you delete (choosing what not to present to the audience). Your interpretation will involve personal bias.

Bias is an unreasoned or not-well-thought-out judgment. Bias involves beliefs or ideas held on the basis of conviction rather than current evidence. Beliefs are often called “habits of the mind” because we come to rely on them to make decisions. Which is the better, cheapest, most expensive, or the middle-priced product? People often choose the middle-priced product and use the belief “if it costs more it must be better” (and the opposite: “if it is cheap it must not be very good”). The middle-priced item, regardless of the actual price, is often perceived as “good enough.” All these perceptions are based on beliefs, and they may not apply to the given decision or even be based on any evidence or rational thinking.

We take mental shortcuts all day long, but in our speech to inform, we have to be careful not to reinforce bias.

Point of View: Clearly no one can be completely objective and remove themselves from their own perceptual process. People express themselves and naturally relate what is happening now to what has happened to them in the past. You are your own artist, but you also control your creations.

Objectivity involves expressions and perceptions of facts that are free from distortion by your prejudices, bias, feelings or interpretations. For example, is the post office box blue? An objective response would be yes or no, but a subjective response might sound like “Well, it’s not really blue as much as it is navy, even a bit of purple.” Subjectivity involves expressions or perceptions that are modified, altered, or impacted by your personal bias, experiences, and background. In an informative speech, your audience will expect you to present the information in a relatively objective form. The speech should meet the audience’s needs as they learn about the content, not your feelings, attitudes, or commentary on the content.

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Types of Informative Presentations

Speaking to inform may fall into one of several categories. The presentation to inform may be an explanation, a report, a description, or a demonstration.  Each type of informative speech is described below.

Explanation: Have you ever listened to a lecture or speech where you just didn’t get it? It wasn’t that you weren’t interested, at least not at first. Perhaps the presenter used language you didn’t understand or gave a confusing example. Soon you probably lost interest and sat there, attending the speech in body but certainly not in mind. An effective speech to inform will take a complex topic or issue and explain it to the audience in ways that increase audience understanding.

No one likes to feel left out. As the speaker, it’s your responsibility to ensure that this doesn’t happen. Also, know that to teach someone something new—perhaps a skill that they did not possess or a perspective that allows them to see new connections—is a real gift, both to you and the audience members. You will feel rewarded because you made a difference and they will perceive the gain in their own understanding.

Report: As a business communicator, you may be called upon to give an informative report where you communicate status, trends, or relationships that pertain to a specific topic. The informative report is a speech where you organize your information around key events, discoveries, or technical data and provide context and illustration for your audience. They may naturally wonder, “Why are sales up (or down)?” or “What is the product leader in your lineup?” and you need to anticipate their perspective and present the key information that relates to your topic.

Description: Have you ever listened to a friend tell you about their recent trip somewhere and found the details fascinating, making you want to travel there or visit a similar place? Describing information requires an emphasis on language that is vivid, captures attention, and excites the imagination. Your audience will be drawn to your effective use of color, descriptive language, and visual aids. An informative speech that focuses on the description will be visual in many ways. Use your imagination to place yourself in their perspective: how would you like to have someone describe the topic to you?

Demonstration: You want to teach the audience how to program the applications on a new smartphone. A demonstrative speech focuses on clearly showing a process and telling the audience important details about each step so that they can imitate, repeat, or do the action themselves. Consider the visual aids or supplies you will need.

By considering each step and focusing on how to simplify it, you can understand how the audience might grasp the new information and how you can best help them. Also, consider the desired outcome; for example, will your listeners be able to actually do the task themselves? Regardless of the sequence or pattern you will illustrate or demonstrate, consider how people from your anticipated audience will respond, and budget additional time for repetition and clarification.

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Creating an Informative Presentation

An informational presentation is a common request in business and industry. It’s the verbal and visual equivalent of a written report. Informative presentations serve to present specific information for specific audiences for specific goals or functions. Table 33.1 below describes five main parts of a presentation to inform.

Table 11.2.1. Presentation Components and Their Functions. Lists the five main parts or components of any presentation (McLean, S., 2003).



Attention Statement

Raise interest and motivate the listener


Communicate a point and common ground


Address key points


Summarize key points

Residual Message

Communicate central theme, moral of story, or main point

Sample Speech Guidelines:  Imagine that you have been assigned to give an informative presentation lasting five to seven minutes. Follow the guidelines in Table 11.2.2 below and apply them to your presentation.

Table 11.2.2 Sample speech guidelines. Seven key items.


Choose a product or service that interests you (if you have the option of choice) and report findings in your speech. Even if you are assigned a topic, find an aspect or angle that is of interest to research.


Your general purpose, of course, is to inform. But you need to formulate a more specific purpose statement that expresses a point you have to make about your topic—what you hope to accomplish in your speech.


Think about what your audience might already know about your topic and what they may not know, and perhaps any attitudes toward or concerns about it. Consider how this may affect the way that you will present your information.

Supporting Materials

Using the information gathered in your search for information, determine what is most worthwhile, interesting, and important to include in your speech. Time limits will require that you be selective about what you use. Use visual aids!


  • Write a central idea statement that expresses the message, or point, that you hope to get across to your listeners in the speech.
  • Determine the two to three main points that will be needed to support your central idea.
  • Finally, prepare a complete sentence outline of the body of the speech.                


Develop an opening that will

  1. get the attention and interest of your listeners,
  2. express your central idea or message,
  3. lead into the body of your speech.


The conclusion should review and/or summarize the important ideas in your speech and bring it to a smooth close.


The speech should be delivered extemporaneously (not reading but speaking), using speaking notes and not reading from the manuscript. Work on maximum eye contact with your listeners. Use any visual aids or handouts that may be helpful.

Informative presentations illustrate, explain, describe, and instruct the audience on topics and processes.  Now let’s watch an example of an informative speech.

Informative Speech Example Video

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The Persuasive Presentation

No doubt there has been a time when you wanted to achieve a goal or convince someone about a need and you thought about how you were going to present your request. Consider how often people want something from you? When you watch television, advertisements reach out for your attention, whether you watch them or not. When you use the internet, pop-up advertisements often appear. Most people are surrounded, even inundated by persuasive messages. Mass and social media in the 21st century have had a significant effect on persuasive communication that you will certainly recognize.

Persuasion is an act or process of presenting arguments to move, motivate, or change the mind of your audience. Persuasion can be implicit or explicit and can have both positive and negative effects.  Motivation is different from persuasion in that it involves the force, stimulus, or influence to bring about change. Persuasion is the process, and motivation is the compelling stimulus that encourages your audience to change their beliefs or behaviour, to adopt your position, or to consider your arguments.  Let’s view the video below for an overview of the principles of a persuasive presentation.

How to Organize a Persuasive Speech or Presentation Video

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Principles of Persuasion

What is the best way to succeed in persuading your listeners? There is no one “correct” answer, but many experts have studied persuasion and observed what works and what doesn’t. Social psychologist Robert Cialdini (2006) offers us six principles of persuasion that are powerful and effective:  Reciprocity, Scarcity, Authority, Commitment and consistency, Consensus, and Liking.

Figure 11.2.2: Integrating some or all of these principles into your presentation will make it truly persuasive.

Developing a Persuasive Presentation

Persuasive presentations have the following features, they:


When you focus on stimulation as the goal of your speech, you want to reinforce existing beliefs, intensify them, and bring them to the forefront. By presenting facts, you will reinforce existing beliefs, intensify them, and bring the issue to the surface. You might consider the foundation of common ground and commonly held beliefs, and then introduce information that a mainstream audience may not be aware of that supports that common ground as a strategy to stimulate.


In a persuasive speech, the goal is to change the attitudes, beliefs, values, or judgments of your audience. Audience members are likely to hold their own beliefs and are likely to have their own personal bias. Your goal is to get them to agree with your position, so you will need to plan a range of points and examples to get audience members to consider your topic. Here is a five-step checklist to motivate your audience into some form of action:

1. Get their attention
2. Identify the need
3. Satisfy the need
4. Present a vision or solution
5. Take action

This simple organizational pattern can help you focus on the basic elements of a persuasive message that will motivate your audience to take action…

Include a Call to Action

When you call an audience to action with a speech, you are indicating that your purpose is not to stimulate interest, reinforce and accentuate beliefs, or convince them of a viewpoint. Instead, you want your listeners to do something, to change their behaviour in some way. The persuasive speech that focuses on action often generates curiosity, clarifies a problem, and as we have seen, proposes a range of solutions. The key difference here is there is a clear link to action associated with the solutions.

Solutions lead us to consider the goals of action. These goals address the question, “What do I want the audience to do as a result of being engaged by my speech?” The goals of action include adoption, discontinuance, deterrence, and continuance.

Adoption means the speaker wants to persuade the audience to take on a new way of thinking, or adopt a new idea. Examples could include buying a new product, or deciding to donate blood. The key is that the audience member adopts, or takes on, a new view, action, or habit.

Discontinuance involves the speaker persuading the audience to stop doing something that they have been doing. Rather than take on a new habit or action, the speaker is asking the audience member to stop an existing behaviour or idea.

Deterrence is a call to action that focuses on persuading the audience not to start something if they haven’t already started. The goal of action would be to deter, or encourage the audience members to refrain from starting or initiating the behavior.

Finally, with Continuance, the speaker aims to persuade the audience to continue doing what they have been doing, such as keep buying a product, or staying in school to get an education.

A speaker may choose to address more than one of these goals of action, depending on the audience analysis. If the audience is largely agreeable and supportive, you may find continuance to be one goal, while adoption is secondary.

Goals in call to action speeches serve to guide you in the development of solution steps. Solution steps involve suggestions or ways the audience can take action after your speech. Audience members appreciate a clear discussion of the problem in a persuasive speech, but they also appreciate solutions.

Increase Consideration

In a speech designed to increase consideration, you want to entice your audience to consider alternate viewpoints on the topic you have chosen. Audience members may hold views that are hostile in relation to yours, or perhaps they are neutral and simply curious about your topic.  You won’t be asking for action in this presentation, simply to consider an alternative perspective.

Develop Tolerance of Alternate Perspectives

Finally, you may want to help your audience develop tolerance for alternate perspectives and viewpoints.  Your goal is to help your audience develop tolerance, but not necessarily acceptance, of alternate perspectives. By starting from common ground, and introducing a related idea, you are persuading your audience to consider an alternate perspective.

A persuasive speech may stimulate thought, convince, call to action, increase consideration, or develop tolerance of alternate perspectives.  Watch the following video of a persuasive speech with annotation to see the concepts above in action.

Sample Persuasive Presentation Video

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Persuasive Strategies

When you make an argument in a persuasive speech, you will want to present your position logically by supporting each point with appropriate sources. You will want to give your audience every reason to perceive you as an ethical and trustworthy speaker. Your audience will expect you to treat them with respect, and to present your argument in a way that does not make them defensive. Contribute to your credibility by building sound arguments and using strategic arguments with skill and planning.

Stephen Toulmin’s (1958) rhetorical strategy focuses on three main elements, shown in Table 33.3 as a claim, data, and warrant.

Table 11.2.3 Rhetorical strategy.





Your statement of belief or truth

It is important to spay or neuter your pet.


Your supporting reasons for the claim

Millions of unwanted pets are euthanized annually.


You create the connection between the claim and the supporting reasons

Pets that are spayed or neutered do not reproduce, preventing the production of unwanted animals.

This three-part rhetorical strategy is useful in that it makes the claim explicit, clearly illustrating the relationship between the claim and the data, and allows the listener to follow the speaker’s reasoning. You may have a good idea or point, but your audience will be curious and want to know how you arrived at that claim or viewpoint. The warrant often addresses the inherent and often unspoken question, “Why is this data so important to your topic?” and helps you illustrate relationships between information for your audience. This model can help you clearly articulate it for your audience.

Appealing to Emotions

Emotions are psychological and physical reactions, such as fear or anger, to stimuli that we experience as a feeling. Our feelings or emotions directly impact our own point of view and readiness to communicate, but also influence how, why, and when we say things. Emotions influence not only how you say what you say, but also how you hear and what you hear. At times, emotions can be challenging to control. Emotions will move your audience, and possibly even move you, to change or act in certain ways.

Figure 11.2.3: Positive or negative, knowing how to use emotions will make your presentations more persuasive (littleleague.org, 2020)

Be wary of overusing emotional appeals, or misusing emotional manipulation in presentations and communication. You may encounter emotional resistance from your audience.  Emotional resistance involves getting tired, often to the point of rejection, of hearing messages that attempt to elicit an emotional response. Emotional appeals can wear out the audience’s capacity to receive the message.

The use of an emotional appeal may also impair your ability to write persuasively or effectively. Never use a personal story, or even a story of someone you do not know if the inclusion of that story causes you to lose control. While it’s important to discuss relevant and sometimes emotionally difficult topics, you need to assess your own relationship to the message. Your documents should not be an exercise in therapy and you will sacrifice ethos and credibility, even your effectiveness, if you become angry or distraught because you are really not ready to discuss an issue you’ve selected.

Now that you’ve considered emotions and their role in a speech in general and a speech to persuade specifically, it’s important to recognize the principles about emotions in communication that serve you well when speaking in public.   The video below reviews how to effectively integrate emotion, logic and credibility into your presentation.

Ethos Pathos Video

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

DeVito offers five key principles to acknowledge the role emotions play in communication and offer guidelines for there expression.

Emotions Are Universal: Emotions are a part of every conversation or interaction that you have. Whether or not you consciously experience them while communicating with yourself or others, they influence how you communicate. By recognizing that emotions are a component in all communication interactions, you can place emphasis on understanding both the content of the message and the emotions that influence how, why, and when the content is communicated.

Expression of emotions is important, but requires the three Ts: tact, timing, and trust. If you find you are upset and at risk of being less than diplomatic, or the timing is not right, or you are unsure about the level of trust, then consider whether you can effectively communicate your emotions. By considering these three Ts, you can help yourself express your emotions more effectively.

Emotions Are Communicated Verbally and Nonverbally: You communicate emotions not only through your choice of words but also through the manner in which you say those words. The words themselves communicate part of your message, but the nonverbal cues, including inflection, timing, space, and paralanguage can modify or contradict your spoken message. Be aware that emotions are expressed in both ways and pay attention to how verbal and nonverbal messages reinforce and complement each other.

Emotional Expression Can Be Good and Bad: Expressing emotions can be a healthy activity for a relationship and build trust. It can also break down trust if expression is not combined with judgment. We’re all different, and we all experience emotions, but how we express our emotions to ourselves and others can have a significant impact on our relationships. Expressing frustrations may help the audience realize your point of view and see things as they have never seen them before. However, expressing frustrations combined with blaming can generate defensiveness and decrease effective listening. When you’re expressing yourself, consider the audience’s point of view, be specific about your concerns, and emphasize that your relationship with your listeners is important to you.

Emotions Are Often Contagious: It is important to recognize that we influence each other with our emotions, positively and negatively. Your emotions as the speaker can be contagious, so use your enthusiasm to raise the level of interest in your topic. Conversely, you may be subject to “catching” emotions from your audience.

In summary, everyone experiences emotions, and as a persuasive speaker, you can choose how to express emotion and appeal to the audience’s emotions.

Presenting Ethically

What comes to mind when you think of speaking to persuade? Perhaps the idea of persuasion may bring to mind propaganda and issues of manipulation, deception, intentional bias, bribery, and even coercion. Each element relates to persuasion, but in distinct ways. We can recognize that each of these elements in some ways has a negative connotation associated with it. Why do you think that deceiving your audience, bribing a judge, or coercing people to do something against their wishes is wrong? These tactics violate our sense of fairness, freedom, and ethics.

Figure 11.2.4 offers eleven points from the book Ethics in Human Communication.   These points should be kept in mind as you prepare and present your persuasive message.

Figure 11.2.4: Eleven points on how to ensure your presentation remains ethical.

In your speech to persuade, consider honesty and integrity as you assemble your arguments. Your audience will appreciate your thoughtful consideration of more than one view, your understanding of the complexity, and you will build your ethos, or credibility, as you present your document. Be careful not to stretch the facts, or assemble them only to prove yourself, and instead prove the argument on its own merits. Deception, coercion, intentional bias, manipulation and bribery should have no place in your speech to persuade.

An interactive H5P element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here:

Key Takeaway

key icon

      • Understand the function of your informative presentation in order to communicate the right message to the right audience.
      • Organize your information presentation using the five main parts of an informative presentation
      • Use the six principles of persuasion to develop your persuasive presentation
      • Use the Rhetorical Strategy to construct will developed arguments
      • Integrate emotional appeal to effectively engage your audience


pen and paper icon

    1. An elevator speech is to oral communication what a Twitter message (limited to 140 characters) is to written communication. An elevator speech is a presentation that persuades the listener in less than thirty seconds, or around a hundred words.

Creating an Elevator Speech

An elevator speech does not have to be a formal event, though it can be. An elevator speech is not a full sales pitch and should not get bloated with too much information. The idea is not to rattle off as much information as possible in a short time, nor to present a memorized thirty-second advertising message, but rather to give a relaxed and genuine “nutshell” summary of one main idea. The emphasis is on brevity, but a good elevator speech will address several key questions:

What is the topic, product or service?
2. Who are you?
3. Who is the target market? (if applicable)
4. What is the revenue model? (if applicable)
5. What or who is the competition and what are your advantages?

The following are the five key parts of your message:

      • Attention Statement – Hook + information about you
      • Introduction – What you offer
      • Body – Benefits; what’s in it for the listener
      • Conclusion – Example that sums it up
      • Residual Message – Call for action

Task:  Write an elevator speech for your next networking event to introduce yourself to prospective employers.


eCampusOntario. (2020). Chapter 7: Presentation to inform. Communication for business professionals. Retrieved from https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/commbusprofcdn/chapter/introduction-5/

eCampusOntario. (2020). Chapter 8: Presentation to persuade. Communication for business professionals. Retrieved from https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/commbusprofcdn/chapter/introduction-6/

Guffey, M., Loewry, D., & Griffin, E. (2019). Business communication: Process and product (6th ed.). Toronto, ON: Nelson Education. Retrieved from http://www.cengage.com/cgi-wadsworth/course_products_wp.pl?fid=M20b&product_isbn_issn=9780176531393&template=NELSON

Littleleague.org. (2020). “Calm” emotions & “positive” feelings: Two keys to stay healthy during self-Isolation. Resources for parents. Retrieved from https://www.littleleague.org/news/calm-emotions-positive-feelings-two-keys-to-stay-healthy-during-self-isolation/


Lyon, A. (2019). Informative vs persuasive [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=85gg_pgij4I
Comm Studies. (2019). Informative speech example [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StPSgqwCnVk&t=60s
Lyon, A. (2017). How to Organize a Persuasive Speech or Presentation [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnfoFN7TBhw
Costa, J. (2013, October 25). sample persuasive presentation. YouTube. https://youtu.be/d38SPYhY4m4
Lyon, A. [Communication Coach Alex Lyon].(2017). Ethos Pathos Logos [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ey232I5nUk
Enter your footnote content here.
(Johannesen, 1996)

11.3 Delivering A Presentation

Learning Objectives

target iconAfter studying this unit, you will be able to

        • identify the different methods of speech delivery
        • identify key elements in preparing to deliver a speech
        • understand the benefits of delivery-related behaviours
        • utilize specific techniques to enhance speech delivery


Many surveys have shown that public speaking is at the top of the list of fears for most people — sometimes, more high on the list than death. No one is afraid of writing their speech or conducting the research: people generally only fear the delivery aspect of the speech, which, compared to the amount of time you will put into writing the speech (days, hopefully), will be the shortest part of the speech giving process (5-8 minutes, generally, for classroom speeches). The irony, of course, is that delivery, being the thing people fear the most, is simultaneously the aspect of public speaking that will require the least amount of time.

7 Tips to Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking Video

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Delivery is what you are probably most concerned about when it comes to giving presentations. This unit is designed to help you give the best delivery possible and eliminate some of the nervousness you might be feeling. To do that, you should first dismiss the myth that public speaking is just reading and talking at the same time. Speaking in public has more formality than talking. During a speech, you should present yourself professionally. This doesn’t necessarily mean you must wear a suit or “dress up”, but it does mean making yourself presentable by being well-groomed and wearing clean, appropriate clothes. It also means being prepared to use language correctly and appropriately for the audience and the topic, to make eye contact with your audience, and to look like you know your topic very well.

While speaking has more formality than talking, it has less formality than reading. Speaking allows for flexibility, meaningful pauses, eye contact, small changes in word order, and vocal emphasis. Reading is a more or less exact replication of words on paper without the use of any nonverbal interpretation. Speaking, as you will realize if you think about excellent speakers you have seen and heard, provides a more animated message.

Methods of Presentation Delivery

There are four methods of delivery that can help you balance between too much and too little formality when giving a presentation.  The video below reviews all four methods.

Types of Delivery for Speeches and Public Speaking Video

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Impromptu Speaking

Impromptu speaking is the presentation of a short message without advance preparation. You have probably done impromptu speaking many times in informal, conversational settings. Self-introductions in group settings are examples of impromptu speaking: “Hi, my name is Steve, and I’m an account manager.” Another example of impromptu presenting occurs when you answer a question such as, “What did you think of the report?” Your response has not been pre-planned, and you are constructing your arguments and points as you speak. Even worse, you might find yourself going into a meeting and your boss says, “I want you to talk about the last stage of the project. . . “ and you had no warning.

The advantage of this kind of speaking is that it’s spontaneous and responsive in an animated group context. The disadvantage is that the speaker is given little or no time to contemplate the central theme of his or her message. As a result, the message may be disorganized and difficult for listeners to follow.

Here is a step-by-step guide that may be useful if you are called upon to give an impromptu presentation in public:

  1. Take a moment to collect your thoughts and plan the main point you want to make.
  2. Thank the person for inviting you to speak. Avoid making comments about being unprepared, called upon at the last moment, on the spot, or feeling uneasy.
  3. Deliver your message, making your main point as briefly as you can while still covering it adequately and at a pace your listeners can follow.
  4. If you can use a structure, using numbers if possible: “Two main reasons . . .” or “Three parts of our plan. . .” or “Two side effects of this drug. . .” Timeline structures are also effective, such as “past, present, and future or East Coast, Midwest, and West Coast”.
  5. Thank the person again for the opportunity to speak.
  6. Stop talking (it is easy to “ramble on” when you don’t have something prepared). If in front of an audience, don’t keep talking as you move back to your seat.

Impromptu presentations: the presentation of a short message without advance preparation. Impromptu presentations are generally most successful when they are brief and focus on a single point

Manuscript Presentations

Manuscript presentations are the word-for-word iteration of a written message. In a manuscript presentation, the speaker maintains their attention on the printed page except when using visual aids. The advantage of reading from a manuscript is the exact repetition of original words. In some circumstances, this can be extremely important. For example, reading a statement about your organization’s legal responsibilities to customers may require that the original words be exact.

A manuscript presentation may be appropriate at a more formal affair (like a report to shareholders), when your presentation must be said exactly as written in order to convey the proper emotion or decorum the situation deserves.

However, there are costs involved in manuscript presentations. First, it’s typically an uninteresting way to present. Unless the presenter has rehearsed the reading as a complete performance animated with vocal expression and gestures, the presentation tends to be dull. Keeping one’s eyes glued to the script prevents eye contact with the audience. For this kind of “straight” manuscript presentation to hold audience attention, the audience must be already interested in the message and presenter before the delivery begins.

It is worth noting that professional speakers, actors, news reporters, and politicians often read from an autocue device, commonly called a teleprompter, especially when appearing on television, where eye contact with the camera is crucial. With practice, a presenter can achieve a conversational tone and give the impression of speaking extemporaneously and maintaining eye contact while using an autocue device. However, success in this medium depends on two factors: (1) the presenter is already an accomplished public speaker who has learned to use a conversational tone while delivering a prepared script, and (2) the presentation is written in a style that sounds conversational and in spoken rather than written, edited English.

Extemporaneous Presentations

Extemporaneous presentations are carefully planned and rehearsed presentations, delivered in a conversational manner using brief notes. By using notes rather than a full manuscript, the extemporaneous presenter can establish and maintain eye contact with the audience and assess how well they are understanding the presentation as it progresses. Without all the words on the page to read, you have little choice but to look up and make eye contact with your audience.

Presenting extemporaneously has some advantages. It promotes the likelihood that you, the speaker, will be perceived as knowledgeable and credible since you know the speech well enough that you don’t need to read it. In addition, your audience is likely to pay better attention to the message because it is engaging both verbally and nonverbally. It also allows flexibility; you are working from the strong foundation of an outline, but if you need to delete, add, or rephrase something at the last minute or to adapt to your audience, you can do so.

The disadvantage of extemporaneous presentations is that in some cases it does not allow for the verbal and the nonverbal preparation that are almost always required for a good speech.

Adequate preparation cannot be achieved the day before you’re scheduled to present, so be aware that if you want to present a credibly delivered speech, you will need to practice many times. Because extemporaneous presenting is the style used in the great majority of business presentation situations, most of the information in the subsequent sections of this chapter is targeted toward this kind of speaking.

Memorized Speaking

Memorized speaking is the recitation of a written message that the speaker has committed to memory. Actors, of course, recite from memory whenever they perform from a script in a stage play, television program, or movie scene. When it comes to speeches, memorization can be useful when the message needs to be exact and the speaker doesn’t want to be confined by notes.

The advantage to memorization is that it enables the speaker to maintain eye contact with the audience throughout the speech. Being free of notes means that you can move freely around the stage and use your hands to make gestures. If your speech uses visual aids, this freedom is even more of an advantage. However, there are some real and potential costs.

First, unless you also plan and memorize every vocal cue (the subtle but meaningful variations in speech delivery, which can include the use of pitch, tone, volume, and pace), gesture, and facial expression, your presentation will be flat and uninteresting, and even the most fascinating topic will suffer. Second, if you lose your place and start trying to ad lib, the contrast in your style of delivery will alert your audience that something is wrong. More frighteningly, if you go completely blank during the presentation, it will be extremely difficult to find your place and keep going. Obviously, memorizing a typical seven-minute presentation takes a great deal of time and effort, and if you aren’t used to memorizing, it is very difficult to pull off. Realistically, you probably will not have the time necessary to give a completely memorized speech. However, if you practice adequately, your approach will still feel like you are being extemporaneous.

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Preparing For Your Delivery

Your audiences, circumstances, and physical contexts for presenting will vary, but will arise regularly in any business environment. Being prepared to deal with different presenting situations will help reduce the anxiety you may have about giving a speech, so let’s look at some common factors you need to keep in mind as you prepare for a typical business presentation.

Using Lecterns: Lecterns add formality to the presentation situation, but it can be tempting to hide behind it. Use it to hold your notes only. This will enhance your eye contact as well as free up your hands for gesturing, and give the appearance of confidence.

Large spaces: auditoriums or other large spaces can be intimidating. Preparation and practice will prevent poor performance; a rehearsal, if ava