Business Communication

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The Basic Course

Business Communication: Getting Started

This type of communication refers to all types of communication which occurs within the context of an organization of any sort, including business, service, educational, and military organizations. Organizational communication deals with topics such as upward communication, downward communication, horizontal communication, informal communication networks and communication within the organizational culture.

The tenets of preparation technique hold in the organizational setting. That is: (1) develop a general topic, (2) conduct general research on your topic, (3) formulate a central idea, (4) conduct specific research on this central theme, (5) organize the outline, (6) critique and complete revisions, (7) organize the final outline, and (8) prepare for your delivery. However, in an organizational setting, you may find your audience is listening not only for information, but to use the issues presented for making decisions. You will need to consider the following strategy (ref. Singer, 1995) that elaborates on the technique described above:

A Word to The Novice. There are four common misconceptions (Sprague and Stuart, p. 12) about public speaking the novice presenter should be aware of--and the experienced should remember:
Good speakers are born, not made.
Good speaking should be easy right away.
Speaking will always be as difficult as it is when you are first learning it.
There are simple formulas for effective speaking.

Becoming a good speaker requires you to coordinate your existing repertoire of skills (conversational speech, writing skills, and performance skills--i.e., your public face or persona). Good public speaking also requires practice--nothing comes easy, especially when it may be your first, or second, effort in presenting information to a new audience. While your speaking skills may be polished, do not overestimate the challenge of a new topic, or oversimplify statistical data when the area is new to you or your audience. Many times, you will find yourself relying on your personal planning-research system as opposed to oratorical savvy. If you are a novice--either to speaking in public or a novice to the work environment in which you find yourself--you will certainly find your first speech challenging! Remember your 3-Ps: planning, preparation, and practice!

You have or will find you have a distinctive style and personality just as your audience has idiosyncratic needs and preferences (Sprague and Stuart, p.13) and situations differ from case to case, from one environment to another. Develop your repetoire so you will be flexible and malleable to the organizational culture. We will introduce you to some basic guidelines that will help you incorporate your experiences into a system and construct your 3-P process.

Listed below are books every communicator in the business sector should have on her/his shelf:

The works of Edward T. Hall:
The Silent Language
Beyond Culture
The Hidden Dimension
The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time


Intercultural Communication: A Reader by L.A. Samovar and Richard E. Porter, eds.
Diffusion of Innovations by Everett M. Rogers
Managing Cultural Differences (4ed) by Harris and Moran
Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands by T. Morrison
The Prince by Nicoli Machaivelli
History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

Basic Guidelines

In Business Communication: Process and Product,
Mary Ellen Guffey (1997) advises us to remember that "knowledge workers are paid for their education and their ability to learn; they engage in mind work. As future knowledge workers, you can expect to be generating, processing, and exchanging information" (p. 6). As such, business communicators must make critical ethical decisions in the transmission of information. Guffey (p. 26) suggests four simple guidelines that can help you make such choices:

Strategy: Your Plan and Timeline

Successful business people create persuasive memos, letters, reports, and presentations that get the results they want (Guffey, p. 264-265). Begin with a plan, then create a timeline. A gantt chart is a great tool for this part of your preparation (consider using Microsoft Project or Microsoft MacFlow software). Your plan may look something like this:

  1. Select your topic or determine what your audience expects (who has asked for the information)
  2. Identify how much time you will have
  3. Narrow the topic to critical points within the time allotted
  4. Clarify purpose and expectations
  5. Frame your thesis statement
  6. Analyze the topic from (a) your perspective and interests, and (b) the perspective of your audience--questions, concerns, values, or biases you may need to consider or be prepared to address
  7. Research sound, expert resources [link to Tim's resource zone]; investigate articles, conduct interviews--especially experts in the topical area, as well as actors and stakeholders who may attend the meeting or occassion of your speech.
  8. Analyze any relevant statistical data ... make certain youunderstand the data and can speak eloquently from the data which you plan to use as part of your presentation. If you are not comfortable with speaking about the inferences made from the data, your audience will draw conclusions about both you and the credibility of the data.
  9. Develop your working outline
  10. Then, develop full-sentence outline of points to be covered
  11. Prepare and add supporting materials that you plan to use as visual aids; test and insure relevance to surrounding points
  12. Check for content and style (i.e., is the "hard copy" congruent with your style?)
  13. Incorporate practice time into your gantt chart (timeline); polish and refine!

Consider making your speech preparation an oral and collaborative process. Use the scheduled practice time to talk aloud, to yourself, about your topic. Talk to other people in your class or at work about your topic. Try out your points and ideas, testing for both clarity and understanding. By going through an informal process of wording-out your speech to casual listeners, you will catch glitches that your ears will not hear. How often do you know what you mean to say, but the person listening heard something entirely different? If that occurs when you are speaking about the topic, points, statistics, etc. to an informal audience, what do you think your formal audience will hear? Try this step, and as you become more at ease speaking in various settings, we believe you will personalize and modify this outline to suit your style, experience, and comfort zone.

Critical Points

Timing: Introducing Critical Points. Your main ideas can be organized according to criteria, time, or conventional groupings (i.e., a report comparing fees, yields, etc.). Speakers provide verbal signposts to highlight organization, key ideas, and transitions. Transitional expressions are: first, second, next, then, therefore, moreover, on the other hand, and in conclusion.

Motivated Sequencing. Developed by Alan Monroe, this psychologically based format anticipates the mental stages through which your listeners progress as they hear your speech (Gronbeck, et al., 1990; in Sprague and Stuart, p. 307): (1) attention via the introduction--what do you want your listener to know, (2) need--why is this important to your listener, (3) satisfaction--what is the listener going to gain [or lose], (4) visualization--what will [or can] the listener see herself or himself doing or becoming as a result of your view or position, (5) action--what do you want, need, or expect the listener to be compelled to do, and (6) conclusion--what conclusions do you want the listener to take away: about you? about the topic?

Giving the Speech. The following seven rules suggest various strategies you can employ when giving the speech depending on your or your audience's individual need:

Statistical Evidence. When using statistical evidence in a persuasive speech, you will want to quantify, clarify, or prove a point by applying the test of who, why, when, and how: (a) investigate the qualifications of the research firm or agency, (b) determine the motivating factors behind the collection of the data (i.e., this is a direct indicator as to how the data was presented--the point it was going to support or be used to disprove or discount), (c) when the data was collected is an indicator of usefulness--i.e., attitudes change, events occur which influence or change assumptions, etc., (d) how the data was collected is a link to inferences, strategy, and research design (Sprague and Stuart, p. 178-179).

Know The Listener:

Identifying and Understanding Your Audience

Audience Diversity and Intercultural Communication. In Toward a Perspective on Cultural Communication and Intercultural Contact, Donal Carbaugh (1990) reminds us that culture must be considered on four levels:

When preparing a presentation, you must consider the diversity of your audience. It is impossible to provide you with the cultural nuances of the ethnic groups and nationalities, or disciplines and specialties, of those individuals you may encounter. However, we have prepared the list below for your reference:

Organizational Culture and Values. Culture has a strong influence, shaping values through families, schools, media, and peers (Sprague and Stuart, p. 267). By knowing the culture of your listeners, the influences on them, you can make a more intelligent presentation that addresses their values and one that may influence their attitude toward you (your credibility) and the topic. You will want to incorporate links between the issues and critical points in your speech to the values of the audience. What are value-links in an organization? You would need to identify and consider the following values when preparing your speech: justice, fairness, compassion, efficiency, technology (access to as well as the attitude your audience may have towards certain scientific advancements), entrepreneurial spirit, intergroup or inter-organizational harmony, organizational hierarchy (i.e., is it steep, tiered, or flat?), as well as organizational temporal values--i.e., what does your audience value: the past, the present, or the future?

How do you determine organizational culture and values prior to your speech? Identifying and understanding organizational culture is as much a part of your research as analyzing data, documenting key experts, etc. Incorporate open-ended questions in your interviews that will allow your respondent(s) to articulate these values, their experiences. Be careful of your personal filters that [may] change the meaning and/or the intent of your interviewee's comments. Take notes during the interview. Write the interviewee's words exactly as spoken. Where you are not clear of his or her meaning, stop and ask for clarification or "test" your understanding by paraphrasing the statement. This will not only minimize and filter your myopic interpretation, but it will also make you appear to be genuinely interested in the other person. Your interviewee will feel comfortable with you. If this individual is attending your presentation and/or is a decision maker, this could prove to be an alliance of mutual benefit.

Types of Business Presentations

In this section, we will give you information and tools that will enable you to render a polished presentation. Topics include:

Informative Business Presentations

The Basics. For informative speaking, plan a strategy based on an understanding of information processing. First and foremost, you must avoid information overload. Give your listeners a framework for organizing the information; remember, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The listener needs to understand what s/he is going to hear--what s/he is going to absorb or know at the end of your speech. The whole should link to the organizational culture, values, and systems (human and technological). After establishing the core and peripheral zones of your topic, move from the simple to the complex. Carefully outline the basic concepts, linkages, and tangents. Use metaphors and analogies the audience will recognize. Then, move from the familiar to the unfamiliar within your topic. You will need to highlight the similarities, then, clarify the points of dissimilarity. You will need to point out inhibiting and enabling forces within the organization. You can enhance this aspect of your presentation by providing illustrations that your audience may have experienced or will encounter in the future. Consider their backgrounds, their areas of specialization and/or disciplines--i.e., are you providing information to an audience of accountants, economists, bankers, lawyers, borough managers, architects, engineers, policy analysts? Or, are you providing information to the museum cureator, the public relations office, the hospital administrators? Are the members of your audience senior level executives, mid-level managers, and/or support staff? Will your audience have representatives for two or more areas noted above and at one or all levels of the organization? What one does, influences how one processes information--remember: where you stand depends on where you sit. Finally, consider how you have learned to process information--i.e., what is important to you when listening to a speaker or when analyzing or interpreting what the speaker is presenting. How we have learned to listen and process information affects what we hear (i.e., filter) and consequently internalize.

Persuasive Business Presentations

Persuasive Strategies: Proposition of Fact, of Value, or of Policy.
"Plan a strategy based on sound logical analysis and an understanding of audience attitude. Select and arrange your content for maximum persuasive impact" (Sprague and Stuart, p. 292).

Sprague and Stuart recount three kinds of propositions (p. 294-295): the proposition of fact, the proposition of value, and the proposition of policy.

Proposition of Fact. There are issues in the factual domain that cannot be verified directly. There are questions or issues where we lack the means to find out, or experts debate the reasoning of the data available to us, or there are instances where we are tempted to draw logical inferences. Examples of such facts are: (a) "Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in the assassination of John F. Kennedy", or (b) "More than two cups of coffee a day increases the chance of cancer of the pancreas", or (c) "Converting to solar energy can save the average homeowner money."

Proposition of Value. You may be attempting to prove an evaluative position. Such a position is to valuate the worth of something, or to establish good or bad, wise or foolish, ethical or unethical, etc. Examples of such values are: (a) "It is wrong to try to avoid jury duty", or (b) "The free enterprise system is the best economic model for a democracy."

Proposition of Policy. The most complex of the persuasive theses is that of policy. The proposition of policy advocates a specific course of action. Examples of the proposition of are: (a) "The federal government should legalize marijuana for private use", or (b) "Children receive a better education in private schools." The proposition of policy mandates a specific recommendation, plan or program that your audience must consider or adopt.

We suggest there is a fourth proposition: the proposition of innovation. The proposition of innovation is the voice of the change agent. The speaker asserts the voice of change--in ideas, in direction, in technology. The proposition of innovation suggests a new frontier or a shift in cultural norms and strategies. In Diffusion of Innovations,Everett Rogers defines diffusion as the process by which (1) an innovation is (2) communicated through certain channels (3) over time (4) among the members of a social system (p. 10). The innovation is an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or unit of adoption; the newness aspect of an innovation may be expressed in terms of knowledge, persuasion, or a decision to adopt (p. 11). Walter Bagehot reminds us that, "One of the greatest points to human nature is the pain of a new idea. It ... makes you think that after all, your favorite notions may be wrong, your firmest beliefs ill-founded ... Naturally, therefore, common men hate a new idea, and are disposed more or less to ill-treat the original man who brings it" (Rogers, p. 312). The role of the change agent is that of one who influences innovation decisions in a direction deemed desirable by the organization. Change agents are linkers; change agents provide a communication link between a resource system of some kind and a client system within the organization (Rogers, p. 313). Rogers poses seven roles (p. 215-316) for the change agent:

What are the factors in change agent success? Numerous evidence suggests change agent success is positively related to the extent of change agent effort in contacting and interacting with organizational members (Rogers, p. 317). Another factor is that success is positively related to the organization's orientation, i.e., client-oriented change agents are more likely to be feedback-minded, and to have a close rapport and high credibility (Rogers, p. 319). A third factor is that success is positively related to the degree to which the diffusion effort is compatible with organizational needs (Rogers, p. 320). Fourth, change agent success is positively related to empathy with those impacted by innovation (Rogers, p. 321). Other factors that impact the effectiveness of a change agent is her or his social status in the organization; her or his level of interaction and participation with members throughout the organization; and the higher education among actors and stakeholders.

The voice of the change agent is resonant throughout the levels of the organization. This voice, or speaker, is usually a politically savvy, and polished member of the upper strata of the organization. As you strive to develop your voice in the organization, watch the change agents. Note how they articulate their position, who listens, who does not; what innovations are on the horizon, why they are important to the organization hierarchy, and how does the change agent(s) convey need, vision, goals, strategies, etc. when presenting a plan or model for change. This is a very different stratum of public speaking.

Technical Presentations

Professional Peers. Your professional peers understand your field's jargon and can draw on relevant background knowledge to understand your points and follow complex ideas. Your presentations to professional peers should be carefully organized, thoroughly documented, and supported with evidence (Burnett, p. 623).

Nonexpert Professionals. According to Burnett, "nonexpert professionals have similar expectations; however, they are less comfortable with technical jargon and less familiar with current theory and practice ... They want technical facts, but do not appreciate being overwhelmed; they will listen to conclusions and recommendations and understand them more easily if you precisely define terms, clearly identify benefits as well as problems, employ visuals to stress key information, and provide a logical, easy-to-follow sequence of points" (p. 623).

International Audiences. Addressing an international audience, whether professional peers or nonexperts, requires additional skills: you need to be familiar with the customs of those you are addressing -- e.g., an Asian or Eastern audience might hesitate to question you because in their culture that would publicly offend an expert; eye contact and hand gestures mean different things in different cultures (p. 624). International audiences benefits immensely from the use of well-designed visual aids. However, you should be aware of words, colors, etc. that carry different meanings across cultures. Refer to the section on culture featured earlier in this section.

In addition to informing or persuading your audience, when giving a technical presentation you may be asked to present a demonstration. This type of presentation is to show the audience how something is done; however, unlike informative or persuasive presentations (in which the speaker is the focus), in a demonstration, the audience concentrates on the process being demonstrated (p. 625). Burnett cautions demonstrators to, "guard against performing the process without talking; effective demonstrators define and describe the process as it happens, educating the audience without drawing attention to themselves" (p. 625-626).

When giving a technical presentation, you would consider the following guideline (Burnett, p. 629-630):


Briefings by virtue of the name are just that: they update a particular constituency within the organization on topics that are usually "hot" on the agenda. The briefing presentation is typically focused on either: (a) new information that impacts a decision already made, or (b) updating a group as to the status of a situation or event that is being closely monitored. The briefing is divided into the following components:

Prior actions
Current activity
New activity that impacts prior action(s) or current practice
Action taken or to be taken

Note: There are usually no more than 3-5 bullets on any one overhead. Information is provided in a pointed, concise manner. When participating in a briefing, the speaker may have no more than 10-15 minutes to bring the group up-to-date. This is when it is imperative that you, the presenter, must speak the language of the audience... know the shorthand of the group as there is seldom time to [re]define terms and explore meaning.

Extemporaneous Presentations

When attending a meeting or professional gathering, always be prepared to have your '15 minutes of fame'. Inevitably, your boss or co-worker will involve you in a conversation about the new project you are working on, the old project you recently finished, or the latest information presented at a conference. Do not underestimate the importance of the impromptu nature of this address. Impromptu and extemporaneous speaking skills are just as important to you professionally as the planned speech. Use the few moments the other individual is speaking to organize the two or three critical points you can speak to with clarity. Take a deep breath. Use the breathing time to organize your words. Also, use the open-ended question technique: ask the listener(s) about their experiences or opinions on the topic--e.g., the results of the project(s), the other feedback they may have heard, etc. You can adjust subsequent comments to the flow of your audience's responses. At any rate, always expect the unexpected. Keep your composure, stay within the organizational framework that you are most comfortable and knowledgeable with, and while others are speaking, plan your final thoughts, summary, or recommendations. As always, if you don't know--don't guess or make it up! In business, inevitably, guesses and/or guestimates always seem to come back to haunt you.

See Presentations

Business Presentations: Preparation Steps--One Last Review

Presentation Software: WWWeb Resources

Before finalizing your presentation, we recommend you take a look at the following speeches presented in a variety of settings:

Organizational Communication: A Brief Word About Interviews

In Lahiff's article, Interviewing for Results, he notes, "While the main goal of the employment interview is to determine a person's suitability for employment, it is not the only goal. As important as securing relevant information from the interviewee is, it is equally important that enough information be transmitted to the interviewee so s/he will have an accurate picture of the job" (p. 400-401). Your introduction to the organization is usually by way of your resume. Your resume can convey volumes about you in two or three pages. The format, the visual design, the font, etc. all say something about you--i.e., how you organize information; but more important, is what your resume reveals about what you think of you. How have you organized the resume: chronologically? functionally? If chronologically organized, what did you emphasize about the individual jobs or experiences? What adjectives or verbs did you select in desicribing yourself or the task? If your resume is functionally organized, what functions are listed first? Why? What words did you select to highlight certain experiences? Did you level the playing field--i.e., all things equal--or did you put emphasis on some activities and less emphasis on others?

When preparing for your interview, did you investigate the organization? What do you know about the organization, its history, its global context, its values? What do you know about the position you are applying for? Do you know anything about a similar position or positions at its sister-competitive organization? Is there a career-path--that is, is this a step in the right direction (which may not be within that particular organization--refer to a recent publication: The Boundaryless Career: A New Era in Employment by D. Rousseau, 1996)

Research the organization before your interview. Go to the interview with a list of questions: questions about the work environment, the organization, its infrastructure, etc.; however, you also want to hear first-hand about: work hours, child care, employee and family health benefits, educational benefits, investment plans or packages, etc.

Nonverbals. The same rules apply to any other presentation: dress for the audience and environment; watch the posture, gestures, and level of eye contact made by the interviewer -- this does not mean you should mirror her/his every move. In fact, some interviewer's may engage in certain behaviors to see how you react. Be yourself, but exercise your "executive-manager" (i.e., the part of you that determines role-differentiation; the casual from the formal; understand your role, and quickly assess how to convey that role). The interview is the yin~yang of impression-management and impression-formation.

Technology. With the emerging computer technology, career centers and employment offices are engaging in new interview techniques which you should at least be aware of at this stage of your educational and/or professional career. Interviews of the not too distant future will be handled via video-conferencing type technology. The face-to-face interview may not occur until a second or third stage interview. Many career centers and employment offices will provide you with an opportunity to participate in pre- or mock interviews that are conducted by your career counselor or human resource specialist. Take advantage of this opportunity, especially if you have never had an opporunity to "see" yourself giving a presentation. Also, speaking about yourself is disconserting for some. This takes practice. Let your career counselor or employment specialist help assist you before engaging in the formal video-interview.

Some final tips on public speaking in the business environment:

Readings and References

Burnett, R.E. (1994). "Oral presentations." In Technical Communication. 3rd ed. Wadsworth Publishing.

Carbaugh, D. (1994). "Toward a perspective on cultural communication and intercultural contact." In Intercultural Communcation: A Reader by Larry A Samovar and Richard E. Porter. 7th ed. Wadsworth Publishing.

Guffey, M.E. (1997). Business communication. 2nd ed. South-Western College Publishing: Ohio.

Hamilton, C. and Parker, C. Communicating for results: A guide for business and the professions. Wadsworth Publishing.

Lahiff, J.M. "Interviewing for Results: Communication Through Interviews." In Organizational Communication by G.R. Shuster, University of Pittsburgh, External Studies Program publication. University of Pittsburgh, College of General Studies. 4th ed.

Singer, M. (1995-1996). How to write an effective policy paper. Handout in Intercultural Communication and Intercultural Management at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh.