Chapter 7: Professional Communication

7.3 Competencies

1. Critical Thinking/Problem Solving

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking means becoming aware of your thinking process. It’s a human trait that allows us to step outside what we read or write and ask ourselves, “Does this really make sense?” “Are there other, perhaps better, ways to explain this idea?” Sometimes our thinking is very abstract and becomes clear only through the process of getting thoughts down in words. As a character in E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel said, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” (Forster, 1976) Did you really convey what you meant to, and will it be easily understood? Successful speaking and writing form a relationship with the audience, reaching the audience on a deep level that can be dynamic and motivating. In contrast, when speaking and writing fails to meet the audience’s expectations, you already know the consequences: they’ll move on.

A paragraph in a book with the word
Excellence in writing comes from effort. Ramunas Geciauskas – Effort II – CC BY 2.0.

Learning to speak and write effectively involves reading, practice, critical thinking, and hard work. You may have seen The Wizard of Oz and recall the scene when Dorothy discovers what is behind the curtain. Up until that moment, she believed the Wizard’s powers were needed to change her situation, but now she discovers that the power is her own. Like Dorothy, you can discover that the power to communicate successfully rests in your hands.

You may be amazed by the performance of Tony Hawk on a skateboard ramp, Mia Hamm on the soccer field, or Michael Phelps in the water. Those who demonstrate excellence often make it look easy, but nothing could be further from the truth. The effort, targeted practice, and persistence will win the day every time. When it comes to communicating, you need to learn to recognize clear and concise messages while looking behind the curtain at how it is created. This is not to say we are going to lose the magic associated with the best people in the field. Instead, we’ll appreciate and examine how it was communicated and success was achieved.

Problem Solving

Business communication can be thought of as a problem-solving activity in which individuals may address the following questions:

  • What is the situation?
  • What are some possible communication strategies?
  • What is the best course of action?
  • What is the best way to design the chosen message?
  • What is the best way to deliver the message?

2. Oral/ Written Communications

Oral Communication

You no doubt have participated in countless conversations throughout your life, and the process of how to conduct a conversation may seem so obvious that it needs no examination. Yet, all cultures have rituals of various kinds, and conversation is one of these universal rituals. A skilled business communicator knows when to speak, when to remain silent, and to always stop speaking before the audience stops listening. Further, understanding conversation provides a solid foundation for communicating. Why discuss the ritual of conversation? Because it is one of the main ways we interact in the business environment, and it is ripe for misunderstandings. Our everyday familiarity with conversations often makes us blind to the subtle changes that take place during the course of a conversation. Examining it will allow you to consider its components, predict the next turn, anticipate an opening or closing, and make you a better conversationalist. Steven Beebe, Susan Beebe, and Mark Redmond offer us five stages of conversation that are adapted here for our discussion (Beebe, S., Beebe, S., and Redmond, M., 2002).

A conversation between two people on opposite benches
Conversations follow rules. Search Engine People Blog – Conversation – CC BY 2.0.

The first stage of conversation is called initiation and requires openness to interact. How you communicate openness is up to you; it may involve nonverbal signals like eye contact or body positions, such as smiling or even merely facing the other person and making eye contact. A casual reference to the weather, a light conversation about the weekend, or an in-depth conversation about how the financial markets are performing this morning requires a source to start the process: someone has to initiate the exchange. For some, this may produce a degree of anxiety. If status and hierarchical relationships are present, it may be a question of who speaks when according to cultural norms. The famous anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski called small talk “phatic communion,” (Malinowski, B., 1935) reinforcing the idea that there is a degree of ritual across cultures on how we initiate, engage, and conclude conversations.

The preview is an indication, verbal or nonverbal, of what the conversation is about, both in terms of content and in terms of the relationship. A word or two in the subject line of an e-mail may signal the topic, and the relationship between individuals, such as an employee-supervisor relationship, may be understood. A general reference to a topic may approach a topic indirectly, allowing the recipient to either pick up on the topic and to engage in the discussion or to redirect the conversation away from a topic they are not ready to talk about. People are naturally curious, and also seek certainty. A preview can serve to reduce uncertainty and signal intent.

Joseph DeVito characterizes this step as getting down to business, reinforcing the goal orientation of the conversation (DeVito, J., 2003). In business communication, we often have talking points, a specific goal or series of points to address, but we cannot lose sight of the related messages within the discussion of content. You may signal to your conversation partner that there are three points to address, much like outlining an agenda at a meeting. This may sound formal at first, but if you listen to casual conversations you’ll often find there is an inherent list or central point where the conversational partners arrive. By clearly articulating, either in written or oral form, the main points, you provide an outline or structure to the conversation.

Similar to a preview step, feedback allows the conversational partners to clarify, restate, or discuss the points of the conversation to arrive a sense of mutual understanding. In some cultures, the points and their feedback may recycle several times, which may sound repetitious to Western ears. In Western cultures, we often get to the point rather quickly and once we’ve arrived at an understanding, we move quickly to the conclusion. Communication across cultures often requires additional cycles of statement and restatement to ensure transmission of information as well as reinforcement of the relationship. Time may be money in some cultures, but time is also a representation of respect. Feedback is an opportunity to make sure the interaction was successful the first time. Failure to attend to this stage can lead to the need for additional interactions, reducing efficiency across time.

The acceptance of feedback on both sides of the conversation often signals the transition to closing, the conclusion of the conversation. Closings are similar to the initiation step (Knapp, M. and Vangelisti, A., 2000), and often involve ritual norms (Malinowski, B., 1935). Verbal clues are sometimes present, but you may also notice the half step back as conversational partners create additional space in preparation to disengage.

There are times when a conversational partner introduces new information in the conclusion, which can start the process all over again. You may also note that if words like “in conclusion” or “oh—one more thing” is used, a set of expectations is now in force. A conclusion has been announced and the listener expects it. If the speaker continues to recycle at this point, the listener’s listening skills are often not as keen as they were during the heat of the main engagement, and it may even produce frustration. People mentally shift to the next order of business and this transition must be negotiated successfully.

By mentioning a time, date, or place for future communication you can clearly signal that the conversation, although currently concluded, will continue later. In this way, you can often disengage successfully while demonstrating respect.

Improving Oral Communication

In successfully communicating orally, it is necessary that we define terms we use and choose precise words to maximize our audience’s understanding of our message. In addition, it is important to consider the audience, control your tone, check for understanding, and focus on results. Recognizing the power of verbal communication is the first step to understanding its role and impact in the communication process.

Even when you are careful to craft your message clearly and concisely, not everyone will understand every word you say or write. As an effective business communicator, you know it is your responsibility to give your audience every advantage in understanding your meaning. Yet your presentation would fall flat if you tried to define each and every term—you would end up sounding like a dictionary.

The solution is to be aware of any words you are using that may be unfamiliar to your audience and define your terms. When you identify an unfamiliar word, your first decision is whether to use it or to substitute a more common, easily understood word. If you choose to use the unfamiliar word, then you need to decide how to convey its meaning to those in your audience who are not familiar with it. You may do this in a variety of ways. The most obvious, of course, is to state the meaning directly or to rephrase the term in different words. But you may also convey the meaning in the process of making and supporting your points. Another way is to give examples to illustrate each concept or use parallels from everyday life.

To increase understanding, choose precise words that paint as vivid and accurate a mental picture as possible for your audience. If you use language that is vague or abstract, your meaning may be lost or misinterpreted. Your document or presentation will also be less dynamic and interesting than it could be.

In addition to precise words and clear definitions, consider your audience and use contextual clues as a guide. If you are speaking to a general audience and choose to use a word in professional jargon that may be understood by many—but not all—of the people in your audience, follow it by a common reference that clearly relates its essential meaning. With this positive strategy, you will be able to forge relationships with audience members from diverse backgrounds.

If you say the magic words “in conclusion,” you set in motion a set of expectations that you are about to wrap it up. If, however, you introduce a new point and continue to speak, the audience will perceive an expectancy violation and hold you accountable. You said the magic words but didn’t honor them. One of the best ways to display respect for your audience is to not exceed the expected time in a presentation or length in a document. Your careful attention to contextual clues will demonstrate that you are clearly considering your audience.

Does your writing or speech sound pleasant and agreeable? Simple or sophisticated? Or does it come across as stuffy, formal, bloated, ironic, sarcastic, flowery, rude, or inconsiderate? Recognize and take control of your tone. Once we have characterized our tone, we need to decide whether and how it can be improved. Getting a handle on how to influence your tone and make your voice match your intentions takes time and skill.

When you are communicating, check for understanding. Even if they really didn’t get it, you can see, ask questions, and clarify right away. That gives oral communication, particularly live interaction, a distinct advantage. Use this immediacy for feedback to your advantage. Make time for feedback and plan for it. Ask clarifying questions. Share your presentation with more than one person, and choose people that have similar characteristics to your anticipated audience.

It can be a challenge to balance the need for attention to detail with the need to arrive at the end product—and its due date. Stephen Covey (1989) suggests beginning with the end in mind as one strategy for success, or be results oriented. If you have done your preparation, know your assignment goals, desired results, have learned about your audience and tailored the message to their expectations, then you are well on your way to completing the task. No document or presentation is perfect, but the goal itself is worthy of your continued effort for improvement.

Written Communication


Reading is one step many writers point to as an integral step in learning to write effectively. You may like Harry Potter books or be a Twilight fan, but if you want to write effectively in business, you need to read business-related documents. These can include letters, reports, business proposals, and business plans. You may find these where you work or in your school’s writing center, business department, or library; there are also many Web sites that provide sample business documents of all kinds. Your reading should also include publications in the industry where you work or plan to work, such as Aviation Week, InfoWorld, Journal of Hospitality, International Real Estate Digest, or Women’s Wear Daily, to name just a few. You can also gain an advantage by reading publications in fields other than your chosen one; often reading outside your niche can enhance your versatility and help you learn how other people express similar concepts. Finally, don’t neglect general media like the business section of your local newspaper, and national publications like the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and the Harvard Business Review. Reading is one of the most useful lifelong habits you can practice to boost your business communication skills.

A young girl reading a book on a rock near a peaceful waterfall
Julie Falk – Emily Reading at Wagner Falls – CC BY-NC 2.0.


Never lose sight of one key measure of the effectiveness of your writing: the degree to which it fulfills readers’ expectations. If you are in a law office, you know the purpose of a court brief is to convince the judge that certain points of law apply to the given case. If you are at a newspaper, you know that an editorial opinion article is supposed to convince readers of the merits of a certain viewpoint, whereas a news article is supposed to report facts without bias. If you are writing ad copy, the goal is to motivate consumers to make a purchase decision. In each case, you are writing to a specific purpose, and a great place to start when considering what to write is to answer the following question: what are the readers’ expectations?

When you are a junior member of the team, you may be given clerical tasks like filling in forms, populating a database, or coordinating appointments. Or you may be assigned to do research that involves reading, interviewing, and note taking. Don’t underestimate these facets of the writing process; instead, embrace the fact that writing for business often involves tasks that a novelist might not even recognize as “writing.” Your contribution is quite important and in itself is an on-the-job learning opportunity that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

When given a writing assignment, it is important to make sure you understand what you are being asked to do. You may read the directions and try to put them in your own words to make sense of the assignment. Be careful, however, not to lose sight of what the directions say versus what you think they say. Just as an audience’s expectations should be part of your consideration of how what, and why to write, the instructions given by your instructor, or in a work situation by your supervisor, establish expectations.

Formal versus Informal

There was a time when many business documents were written in the third person to give them the impression of objectivity. This formal style was often passive and wordy. Today it has given way to active, clear, concise writing, sometimes known as “Plain English” (Bailey, 2008). As business and industry increasingly trade across borders and languages, writing techniques that obscure meaning or impede understanding can cause serious problems. Efficient writing styles have become the norm. Still, you will experience in your own writing efforts this “old school versus new school” writing debate over abbreviations, contractions, and the use of informal language in what was once considered a formal business context. Consider the following comparison of informal versus formal and bureaucratic styles.

Bureaucratic: Attached is the latest delivery data represented in topographical forms pursuant to the directive ABC123 of the air transportation guide supplied by the Federal Aviation Administration in September of 2008.

  • Formal – Please note the attached delivery data for July 2009.
  • Informal – Here’s the delivery data for last month.

There is a debate on the use of formal versus informal styles in business communication. Formal styles often require more detail, adhere to rules of etiquette, and avoid shortcuts like contractions and colloquial expressions. Informal styles reflect everyday speech patterns. Many managers prefer not to see contractions in a formal business context. Others will point out that a comma preceding the last item in a series (known as the “serial comma”) is the standard, not the exception. Some will make a general recommendation that you should always “keep it professional.” Here lies the heart of the debate: what is professional writing in a business context? If you answered “it depends,” you are correct. The skilled business writer will know his or her audience and will adapt the message to best facilitate communication. Choosing the right style can make a significant impact on how your writing is received.

Overcoming Barriers to Effective Written Communication

In almost any career or area of business, written communication is a key to success. Effective writing can prevent wasted time, wasted effort, aggravation, and frustration. Skillful writing and an understanding of how people respond to words are central to accomplishing this goal.

How do we display skillful writing and a good understanding of how people respond to words? Following are some suggestions. Do sweat the small stuff, or spelling errors and incorrect grammar, small details that reflect poorly on you and, in a business context, on your company. They imply either that you are not educated enough to know you’ve made mistakes or that you are too careless to bother correcting them. Making errors is human, but making a habit of producing error-filled written documents makes negative consequences far more likely to occur. When you write, you have a responsibility to self-edit and pay attention to detail.

As writers, we need to keep in mind that words are simply a means of communication and that meanings are in people, not the words themselves. Knowing which words your audience understands and anticipating how they will interpret them will help you prevent bypassing. Nonverbal aspects of a message can get in the way of understanding. Nonverbal expressions in your writing may include symbols, design, font, and the timing of delivering your message. There are no right or wrong answers, but you will use your judgment, being aware that these nonverbal expressions are part of the message that gets communicated along with your words.

Do you review what you write? Do you reflect on whether it serves its purpose? Where does it miss the mark? If you can recognize it, then you have the opportunity to revise. A mental review of the task and your performance is often called reflection. Reflection is not procrastination. It involves looking at the available information and, as you review the key points in your mind, making sure each detail is present and perfect. Reflection also allows for another opportunity to consider the key elements and their relationship to each other.

3. Teamwork/ Collaboration

Teamwork is a compound word, combining team and work. Teams are a form of the group normally dedicated to production or problem-solving. That leaves us with the work. This is where our previous example on problem-solving can serve us well. Each member of the team has skills, talents, experience, and education. Each is expected to contribute. Work is the activity, and while it may be fun or engaging, it also requires effort and commitment, as there is a schedule for production with individual and group responsibilities. Each member must fulfill his or her own obligations for the team to succeed, and the team, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest member. In this context, we don’t measure strength or weakness at the gym but in terms of productivity.

Teams can often achieve higher levels of performance than individuals because of the combined energies and talents of the members. Collaboration can produce motivation and creativity that may not be present in single-contractor projects. Individuals also have a sense of belonging to the group, and the range of views and diversity can energize the process, helping address creative blocks and stalemates. By involving members of the team in decision-making, and calling up on each member’s area of contribution, teams can produce positive results. We can recognize that people want to belong to a successful team, and celebrating incremental gain can focus the attention on the project and its goals.

John Thill and Courtland Bovee (2002, 2004) provide a valuable list to consider when setting up a team, which we have adapted here for our discussion:

  • Select team members wisely
  • Select a responsible leader
  • Promote cooperation
  • Clarify goals
  • Elicit commitment
  • Clarify responsibilities
  • Prompt action
  • Apply technology
  • Ensure technological compatibility
  • Provide prompt feedback

Group dynamics involve the interactions and processes of a team and influence the degree to which members feel a part of the goal and mission. A team with a strong identity can prove to be a powerful force, but it requires time and commitment. A team that exerts too much control over individual members can run the risk or reduce creative interactions and encourage tunnel vision. A team that exerts too little control, with attention to process and areas of specific responsibility, may not be productive. The balance between motivation and encouragement, and control and influence is challenging as team members represent diverse viewpoints and approaches to the problem. A skilled business communicator creates a positive team by first selecting members based on their areas of skill and expertise, but attention to their style of communication is also warranted. Individuals that typically work alone or tend to be introverted may need additional encouragement to participate. Extroverts may need to be encouraged to listen to others and not dominate the conversation. Teamwork involves teams and work, and group dynamics play an integral role in their function and production.

4. Digital Technology


At some point, you may have answered your phone to find a stranger on the other end asking you to take part in a survey for a polling organization like Gallup, Pew, or Roper. Online surveys are also becoming increasingly popular. For example, online survey tools allow people to respond to a set of questions. This type of reader feedback can be valuable.

Normally we’d think of focus groups in a physical setting, but again modern technology has allowed for innovative adaptations. Forums, live Webcasts, and other virtual gatherings allow groups to come together across time and distance to discuss specific topics in online focus groups. A Web camera, a microphone, and an Internet connection are all it takes. There are a number of software programs and online platforms for bringing individuals together. Anticipate that focus groups will increasingly gather via computer-mediated technologies in the future as the costs of bringing people together for a traditional meeting increase.

Given the widespread availability and increasingly low cost of electronic communication, technologies that once served to bring people together across continents and time zones are now also serving people in the same geographic area to facilitate virtual meetings or interviews. Rather than traveling (by plane, car, or even elevator within the same building) to a central point for a face-to-face interaction, busy and cost-conscious professionals often choose to see and hear each other via one of many different electronic interface technologies: audio-only, audio-visual, and social media. These technologies are key to today’s business organizations, and knowing how to use them is a key skill for all job seekers.

The simplest form of audio-only interaction is, of course, a telephone call. When you stop to think about it, we use a great many audio-only modes of communication, ranging from phone calls and voice-activated telephone menus to radio interviews, public address systems, dictation recording systems, and computer voice recognition technology.

The importance of audiovisual interaction in the business world has increased with the availability of conference calls, Web conferences, and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) communications. If you are going to interact via audio and visual signals, make sure you are prepared. Appropriate dress, setting, and attitude are all required. The integration of a visual signal to the traditional phone call means that nonverbal gestures can now be observed in real time and can both aid and detract from the message.

Online communities, forums, blogs, tweets, cloud computing, and avatar-activated environments are some of the continually developing means of social media being harnessed by the business world. The Internet is increasingly promoting tools and platforms for people to interact. From bulletin boards that resemble the Freenet posts of years past to interactive environments like Second Life, people are increasingly representing and interpreting themselves online.

Humans seek interaction, and this has led to new ways to market, advertise, and interact; however, caution is warranted when engaging in social media online. When you use these media, remember a few simple cautions:

  1. Not everything is at it appears. The individuals on the forum may not all be who they represent themselves to be.
  2. The words you write and the images you send, regardless of how much you trust the recipient, may become public and can remain online forever.
  3. Always consider what you access and what you post, and how it represents you and your employer, even if you think others cannot know where you work or who you are.
  4. Be aware that Internet service providers (ISPs) are required by law to archive information concerning the use and traffic of information that can become available under subpoena.

Professional networking sites such as LinkedIn allow people to link to, and interact with, others who work in their industry or related ones. More general social media sites like Facebook, which also present threaded discussions and dynamic interfaces with groups that may or may not be limited to those that user intends. Interactive writing platforms such as blogs, wikis, and cloud computing involve having common documents stored on the Internet which can be accessed from multiple sites at once, further facilitating the interaction. Blogs are Web pages with periodic posts that may or may not feature feedback responses from readers. Wikis are collaborations on Web content that are created and edited by users. Cloud computing involves secure access of files from anywhere as information is stored remotely. Somewhere between a social networking site, where people gather virtually to interact, and a computer game lies the genre of avatar-activated virtual worlds such as Second Life. In these environments, users can meet others and make friends, participate in activities, and create and trade virtual property and services.

Business and industry organizations may also incorporate posts and threaded discussions, but often under a password-protected design on a company’s intranet or limited-access platform. Employees may use their business-provided computer equipment to access sites that are not business related (if not specifically blocked), but all information associated with an each business’s computer is subject to inspection, archival, and supervision.

Every computer is assigned an Internet Protocol or IP address. The IP address can be specifically traced back to the original user, or at least to the computer itself and to who is responsible for its use. From an email via one of the free sites (e.g., Juno, Google’s Gmail, or Yahoo! Mail) to cloud computing and wikis, your movements across the Web leave clear “footprints.”

Feedback in a Virtual Environment

First, let’s examine some aspects of web tracking that many professionals use. Your document may be kept on our company’s Web server, or a computer dedicated to serving the online requests for information via the Internet. Every Web page contains several files including graphics, images, and text. Each file request and receipt between server and browser counts as a hit, regardless of how many files each page contains.

Hits or page views have largely been discredited as a reliable measure of a document’s effectiveness, popularity, or audience size. Page views are a count of how many times a Web page is viewed, irrespective of the number of files it contains.

Nielsen Online and are two companies that provide Web traffic rating services, and Google has also developed services to better enable advertisers to target specific audiences. They commonly track the number of unique visits a reader makes to a Web site, and use cookies, or small, time-encoded files that identify specific users, as a means to generate data.

Jon Kleinberg’s HITS (hyperlink-induced topic search) algorithm has become a popular and more effective way to rate Web pages (Kleinberg, 1998). HITS rank documents by the links within the document, presuming that a good document is one that incorporates and references, providing links to, other Web documents while also being frequently cited by other documents. Hubs, or documents with many links, are related to authority pages, or frequently cited documents.

Moving beyond the Web tracking aspects of feedback measurement in terms of use, let’s examine user-generated responses to your document. Let’s say you have reviewed the posts left by unique users to the comments section of the article. This, in some ways, serves the same purpose as letters to the editor in traditional media.

With the introduction of online media, the speed of this feedback loop has been greatly increased. Public relations announcements, product reviews, and performance data of your organization are often made available internally or externally via electronic communication. Customer comments, like letters to the editor, can be a valuable source of feedback.


Netiquette refers to etiquette, or protocols and norms for communication, on the Internet. Text messages and emails are part of our communication landscape, and skilled business communicators consider them a valuable tool to connect. Whatever digital device you use, written communication in the form of brief messages, or texting, has become a common way to connect. It is useful for short exchanges, and is a convenient way to stay connected with others when talking on the phone would be cumbersome. Texting is not useful for long or complicated messages, and careful consideration should be given to the audience. Electronic mail, usually called e-mail, is quite familiar to most students and workers. It may be used like text or synchronous chat, and it can be delivered to a cell phone. In business, it has largely replaced print hard copy letters for external (outside the company) correspondence, as well as taking the place of memos for internal (within the company) communication (Guffey, 2008). Email can be very useful for messages that have slightly more content than a text message, but it is still best used for fairly brief messages. Emails may be informal in personal contexts, but business communication requires attention to detail, an awareness that your email reflects you and your company, and a professional tone so that it may be forwarded to any third party if needed. Remember that when these tools are used for business, they need to convey professionalism and respect.

You can refer to the Appendix of the textbook for Tips for Effective Business Texting and Tips for Effective Business Emails.

5. Leadership

Leaders take on the role because they are appointed, elected, or emerge into the role. We can see types of leaders in action and draw on common experience for examples. The heart surgeon does not involve everyone democratically, typically appointed to the role through earned degrees and experience, and resembles a military sergeant more than a politician. The autocratic leader is self-directed and often establishes norms and conduct for the group. In some settings, we can see that this is quite advantageous, such as open-heart surgery or during a military exercise, but it does not apply equally to all leadership opportunities.

Contrasting the autocrat is the laissez-faire, or “live and let live” leader. In a professional setting, such as a university, professors may bristle at the thought of an autocratic leader telling them what to do. They have earned their role through time, effort, and experience and know their job. A wise laissez-faire leader recognizes this aspect of working with professionals and may choose to focus efforts on providing the professors with the tools they need to make a positive impact. Imagine that you are in the role of a television director and you have a vision or idea of what the successful pilot program should look like. The script is set, the lighting correct, and the cameras are in the correct position. You may tell people what to do and where to stand, but you remember that your job is to facilitate the overall process. You work with talent, and creative people are interesting on camera. If you micromanage your actors, they may perform in ways that are not creative and that will not draw audiences. If you let them run wild through improvisation, the program may not go well at all. Balancing the need for control with the need for space is the challenge of the laissez-faire leader.

Not all leaders are autocrats or laissez-faire leaders. Thomas Harris and John Sherblom (1999) specifically note three leadership styles that characterize the modern business or organization and reflect our modern economy. We are not born leaders but may become them if the context or environment requires our skill set.

A leader-as-technician role often occurs when we have skills that others do not. If you can fix the copy machine at the office, your leadership and ability to get it running again are prized and sought-after skills. You may instruct others on how to load the paper or how to change the toner, and even though your pay grade may not reflect this leadership role, you are looked to by the group as a leader within that context. Technical skills, from Internet technology to facilities maintenance, may experience moments where their particular area of knowledge is required to solve a problem. Their leadership will be in demand.

The leader-as-conductor involves a central role in bringing people together for a common goal. In the common analogy, a conductor leads an orchestra and integrates the specialized skills and sounds of the various components the musical group comprises. In the same way, a leader who conducts may set a vision, create benchmarks, and collaborate with a group as they interpret a set script. Whether it is a beautiful movement in music or a group of teams that come together to address a common challenge, the leader-as-conductor keeps the time and tempo of the group.

Coaches are often discussed in business-related books as models of leadership for good reason. A leader-as-coach combines many of the talents and skills we’ve discussed here, serving as a teacher, motivator, and keeper of the goals of the group. A coach may be autocratic at times, give pointed direction without input from the group, and stand on the sidelines while the players do what they’ve been trained to do and make the points. The coach may look out for the group and defend it against bad calls and may motivate players with words of encouragement. We can recognize some of the behaviors of coaches, but what specific traits have a positive influence on the group? Thomas Peters and Nancy Austin (1985) identify five important traits that produce results:

  1. Orientation and education
  2. Nurturing and encouragement
  3. Assessment and correction
  4. Listening and counseling
  5. Establishing group emphasis

Coaches are teachers, motivators, and keepers of the goals of the group. There are times when members of the team forget that there is no “I” in the word “team.” At such times, coaches serve to redirect the attention and energy of the individuals to the overall goals of the group. They conduct the group with a sense of timing and tempo, and at times, they relax and let the members demonstrate their talents. Through their listening skills and counseling, they come to know each member as an individual, but keep the team focus for all to see. They set an example. Coaches, however, are human and by definition are not perfect. They can and do prefer some players over others and can display less than professional sideline behavior when they don’t agree with the referee, but the style of leadership is worthy of your consideration in its multidisciplinary approach. Coaches use more than one style of leadership and adapt to the context and environment.

A skilled business communicator will recognize how different leadership approaches and styles have their merits. You can think about what type of leader you would want to follow or what type of leader you would want to be. How might you accomplish this goal? What can you do now to practice your leadership skills?

6. Professionalism/ Work Ethic

Communicating in a Professional Space

What you say, whether in person, on the phone, or online can easily define what people think about you. When you have a job, what you say represents you and your employer. Relationships are what can build or easily tear down you and your company. One bad situation or comment can instantly change what someone thinks about you. If they do not have a good relationship with you, that may make them wonder what it will be like working with your employer or co-workers.

While in the workplace or in professional settings, you need to know how to communicate effectively and professionally with everyone. You want to ensure that you are leaving a good impression. You are the image and branding of your company every day. You are associated with a title and the company name. It is important to stay self-aware of how you act, what you say, and how you portray yourself when meeting new people, in both a work and personal setting.

When in meetings with professional colleagues and superiors, remember to listen before you speak. When others are talking, listen to them and think about what they are saying before you add anything to the discussion. Another important idea to keep in mind is to know your audience. Know who you are talking to and addressing. Are you meeting with other students, professors, current or possible employers? Who you are communicating with can easily change the way that you speak and how comfortable you are with the group of people. Watch your body language and facial expressions when in a meeting, as well. This can speak volumes to your level of engagement in the conversation and respect for the other person.

Your Professional Identity

Many employers use social media as another way to review your qualifications, determine your level of professionalism, and how well you will represent their company and brand. It is imperative that you remain cautious about what you post or share on your social media accounts. It may be that you have protected your privacy settings and are managing your online identity, but people often forget that people may connect to your friends or family through you that have public pages or follow posts you are tagged in. You need to be in control of your self-promotion and personal branding online. It is important to watch what you post, what you re-post and how you respond to posts.

Never talk badly about your place of employment online. If you have a bad day, get mad at your boss or co-workers, etc., do not lash out online; anyone can see your post and this could easily cost you your job or a future one. Employers do not want to hire an employee who will go to social media to talk negatively about their company versus addressing grievance through proper channels, i.e. the Human Resources Department.

Partake in a social media “clean-up”. Go through all of your social media accounts and delete what is inappropriate or does not shed the best light on who you are. If you have posts from middle school, go through and delete them. Delete posts that portray topics and views that are no longer relevant or in-line with who you are today and what you stand for. This helps keep your social media accounts cohesive, well-rounded and true to the person you have evolved into, not the person you might have been or be portrayed to be along the way.

Work Ethic

Be clear and consistent in your communication to establish and demonstrate a strong work ethic. In creating and maintaining your professional identity, you want to make sure that you are clear in presenting yourself in a positive way. Being consistent demonstrates accountability and dependability, letting people know what they can expect from you and that they can count on you. You want to remember, to look for ways to receive and reflect on feedback. Take what you are told and use that to promote change and personal growth so that you continue evolving into a better version of yourself each day as a professional.

You can review the following article for “5 Factors That Demonstrate a Strong Work Ethic”: integrity, sense of responsibility, emphasis on quality, discipline, and sense of teamwork. (Jenkins, 2017)

7. Career Management


Networking is a key to success in the professional world. Making connections and starting to build your professional network while you are still in college will help you to gain experience and possible job offers before graduation. This process starts with communication. You cannot expect employers to contact you. If you are looking for an internship or a job, you need to make those connections yourself.

Get comfortable with being a little uncomfortable and step out of your comfort zone. Be willing to take advantage of opportunities that come your way. There are a million ways to network with professionals all around the world. Go to professional conferences, career fairs, take meetings, send them a message on Linkedin. Any opportunity that can get you meeting people is worth your time. Make the decision to go to an event; it could be the one event that links you to a future career.

When meeting someone in person, have your elevator pitch ready, look professional, and have a firm handshake. The person you are speaking to needs to feel that you are not wasting their time. Be confident and be yourself when meeting someone new.  Start a conversation and be proud of your accomplishments. You are introducing yourself so you can make a professional connection and if you are speaking to an individual who works for your dream company, you want them to know that you are genuine and that the interest that you have for the conversation is authentic.

Take notes while you network, this will help with remembering the conversation as well as key points about the person or company. If someone is taking the time to speak with you or give you advice or information that is important; write it down. If they hand you a business card, make a note on the back of it as to who they are, where you met them, etc. Ask a non-traditional question. Employers tend to hear the same questions over and over again. Asking a unique question shows your interest and that you have come prepared. Asking a question that makes the other individual think about the answer they want to give will help them remember you and will leave a lasting impression.

The Elevator Pitch

You run into the CEO of your dream company. You know that you only have moments to make a lasting impression whilst sharing important information about yourself. What do you say?

You may be thinking, what is an elevator pitch? An elevator pitch is a short, 30 seconds or less, a snippet of who you are along with the information you want someone to know about you. Examples of elevator pitch content are your work experiences; personal accomplishments, your goals, and/or information on how you can help an employer’s company.

When creating an elevator pitch, first, decide what you want to get across in your elevator pitch. Essentially, what is your goal? Next, you need to explain what you do, what is your occupation or talent? What your job title is/what you do at work, who you work for, etc. This section of the elevator pitch needs to be quick and to the point. Then add something unique into your elevator pitch to make it more memorable. According to in their article on Crafting an Elevator Pitch, this is considered your Unique Selling Proposition (USP). What makes you great or unique?

Lastly, you are going to want to end with a question. You want this question to be engaging because you will want the conversation to continue. The key to perfecting your elevator pitch is to PRACTICE. Write your elevator pitch down on paper, say it aloud to yourself, look in a mirror and watch how you say it to yourself. Watch your body language, facial expressions, vocal inflections, etc. Keep doing this until you are confident in yourself and what you are saying.

Your goal when using your elevator pitch is to make the other party feel comfortable and want to join the conversation. You want to leave them wanting to know more about you and think about whether or not you will be an asset to them and their company. One thing to keep in mind is you need to be yourself. Stay confident, be present in the moment and conversation, explain why you would be a good fit for them, and be genuine. People can tell when you are not being yourself and that is a factor that can easily come into play when they are thinking about what you could do for them.

The Elevator Pitch Isn’t For Me

Not everyone is an eloquent speaker or feel comfortable creating a speech to sell themselves. Many business professionals will suggest that you prepare an elevator speech. The article “5 Reasons You Don’t Need an Elevator Pitch”, suggests other networking strategies in place of the traditional elevator speech (Ayu, 2015). This article encourages you to abandon the script which can be problematic for novel speakers for a genuine conversation that focuses on the person and allows them to respond more naturally. Either way, it is important that you plan ahead, know yourself and your strengths to present your best self and build connections that will help you succeed professionally.

The Job Search Process

The job search should begin when you are in college and not after you have already graduated. There are many ways to promote yourself while you are in college. Call the hiring manager directly and schedule an appointment with a company representative or hiring manager to learn more about the company. Any connection you make in person, especially since most application processes are online, will help make a good first impression. The hiring manager’s job is to get to know you, learn your skills, and determine if you are going to be a good fit for their company as well as if their company is going to be a good fit for you. Give them your business card or resume and let them know that you would love to hear from them about any opportunities that might be available. Keep in mind that you only want to provide your phone number if you have a professional voicemail set up and make sure that you give out your professional email or your school email address, not your personal email address. Finally, follow-up after meetings with a thank you card or note showing your appreciation for their time and the information shared with you.

Another tip when you are going through the job search process is to keep a record of the places you applied, when you applied and if you interviewed. It is recommended that you keep an Excel document with all of this information readily available and easily accessible. Have a section where you state the various companies that you have applied for along with the date that you submitted your application. Write down the contact information for the person you are in contact with so that you are prepared and have that information when you need it.

The Application Process

The job search process will allow you to research the company, review the job description, and better prepare your application. Part of the job search process is creating a job portfolio that includes your business documents for applying for work. Your application should necessitate a résumé, references, a cover letter, and, in some cases, a professional website or online profile.

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

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

You can consult the Appendix of the textbook for help with writing a résumé.

If you are asked to attach or send a cover letter, this is the time to explain to the employer why you want this particular job and what makes you want to work for them. This is when you want to let them know what you can do for them and why you would be the perfect fit for their company. In your cover letter, you do not need to talk about what is on your resume! Cover letters connect your resume to their job position announcement.

A professional website or online profile page is similar to a résumé that represents you: your background, qualifications, and examples of your professional work online. People network, link, and connect in new ways via online profiles or professional sites like LinkedIn. In many ways, your online profile is an online version of your résumé with connections, friends, and your skills on public display.

You have to take initiative, take your future into your own hands and step out of your comfort zone. Once you have completed your job search, the next step is the job interview.


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Introduction to Public Communication by Indiana State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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