Mikel Chertudi speaks to Amber Owens of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona about her teaching in business communication.
Mikel: Would you please introduce yourself, Amber? What’s your background, and what classes do you teach?
Amber: Hi ABCers! I currently teach Fundamentals of Business Communications to pre-business majors at the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona. I am enthusiastic about this course because it introduces fundamentals to young people who stand to benefit the most from developing a professional voice. I have a diverse background that includes small businesses, large corporations, international consulting groups, and nonprofit service organizations. I find that drawing on this breadth of experience — and adding a dose of good old common sense — is valuable to the undergraduates in my class.
Mikel: How do you frame this assignment within the overall content of this course? Where does this assignment fit among the rest of the assignments in this course?
Amber: This course is focused primarily on written communications, while the subsequent course in the program advances those skills and extends them to verbal communications. The assignments in this course begin with narrowly defined written work. As the students develop a professional voice using basic information design formats, they are progressively challenged with complex audience analysis and strategic messaging. This particular activity serves as catalyst to experience the impact of tone and voice in challenging communications.
Mikel: What spurred you to create this assignment? Were you trying to solve a particular problem?
Amber: The students in this pre-business class are immersed in a progressive scenario throughout the semester. The written assignments ask them to build on what they learn very thoughtfully and develop skills sequentially. The idea is to introduce concepts through mastery. I developed this activity when I noticed that students were having difficulty truly embodying the character and voice of their role in the scenario. I imagined that the personal and immediate nature of non-verbal feedback in a verbal exchange could be transferred to benefit the students’ written strategic messaging and tone.
Mikel: Could you give us an example or two of the scenarios you mentioned? What makes them progressive and what concepts are they aimed at teaching?
Amber: The overarching scenario introduces the student to a consulting company as a new intern. As they complete written assignments, they receive promotions — and more challenging work. Throughout the course, the students advance skills their skills relative to critical thinking, message structure, logic and reasoning, and information design.
Mikel: What do you like most about this assignment?
Amber: Oh, that is tough to say! I love to see the students deeply engaged…when they forget that they are in class and supposed to be learning. That is when some of the most exciting learning actually takes place! This activity accomplishes that.
Mikel: So what is the hook in the assignment that makes it interesting for the students and the instructor?
Amber: It is the scenario and the role that students have to play in it.
Mikel: Do you have any advice for someone who might be interested in trying your approach?
Amber: My advice would be to embrace the unknown and be willing to see where the students’ experience leads the conversation. I find that whenever I do that, I learn something new, too!
Moving the Needle: Bad News Scenarios
This is an in-class activity for undergraduate business students to practice the effective delivery of a bad news message prior to a written deliverable. First, the instructor presents the Bad News Letter format. Students then form pairs in which each plays an alternate role in two business scenarios requiring the delivery of bad news. Upon completion of the activity, each student will have delivered one bad news message and provided feedback to receiving one bad news message.
This activity is appropriate for learners new to drafting indirect bad news messages and serves as preparatory engagement for the written Bad News Letter. The activity reinforces proper indirect message format and promotes insights on tone and relationship management. This activity takes 20 minutes. Procedures and support materials are available upon request.
Through this activity, learners will become able to:
- Assess audience and situation to determine strategic approach for bad news messaging.
- Create buffers that establish context and subtly forecast message outcomes.
- Articulate reasons that logically lead to a specific event (bad news).
- Design bad news messages with intentional word choice and sentence structure to establish appropriate tone.
- Shift focus to positive elements and alternatives in bad news situations.
- Craft messages that preserve or strengthen multiple, potentially complex relationships impacted by bad news.
The results from this single case are limited without a control comparison group. The instructor observed the students to be highly engaged in this activity. The instructor noted enhanced levels of self-awareness, critical reflection, and independent remediation during the activity.
Following the activity, the students shared strengths and opportunities for improvement as experienced in the scenarios. These action items were then applied to the written Bad News Letter. Students completed a brief survey in which they rated the materials and activities that best prepared them for the written assignment. One third of the students indicated that they believed the scenario activity contributed to their success on the written assignment.
Following assessment of the written Bad News Letter assignment, the instructor noted improved critical thinking as demonstrated through acknowledgement of audience relational value and status. Additionally, the Bad News Letters showed a general improvement in tone and absence of etiquette errors. The instructor attributes these gains in part to the complementary value of the in-class scenario activity. In particular, students responded positively to the immediacy of indirect and direct feedback provided through the architecture of the activity, particularly through behavioral and affective cues otherwise absent in preparation for the written assignment.
Recommended Citation: Amber Owens with Mikel Chertudi. (2019). Q&A on Bad News. Western ABC Bulletin, 1.1.