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12.3: Speaking in Business Settings

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Employ audience analysis to adapt communication to supervisors, colleagues, employees, and clients.
    2. Explain the role of intercultural communication competence in intercultural business communication contexts.
    3. Identify strategies for handling question-and-answer periods.
    4. Identify strategies for effectively planning and delivering common business presentations, including briefings, reports, training, and meetings.

    Most people’s goal for a college degree is to work in a desired career field. Many of you are probably working while taking this class and already have experience with speaking in business settings. As you advance in your career, and potentially change career paths as many Americans do now, the nature of your communication and the contexts in which you speak will change. Today’s workers must be able to adapt content, level of formality, and format to various audiences including the public, clients, and colleagues (Dannels, 2001). What counts as a good communicator for one audience and in one field may not in another. There is wide variety of research and resources related to business communication that cannot be included in this section. The International Association of Business Communicators is a good resource for people interested in a career in this area:

    Adapt to Your Audience

    Speaking in business settings requires adaptability as a communicator. Hopefully the skills that you are building to improve your communication competence by taking this class will enable you to be adaptable and successful. The following suggestions for adapting to your audience are based on general characteristics; therefore expect variations and exceptions. A competent communicator can use categories and strategies like these as a starting point but must always monitor the communication taking place and adapt as needed. In many cases, you may have a diverse audience with supervisors, colleagues, and employees, in which case you would need to employ multiple strategies for effective business communication.

    Even though much of the day-to-day communication within organizations is written in the form of memos, e-mails, and reports, oral communication has an important place. The increase in documentation is related to an epidemic of poor listening. Many people can’t or don’t try to retain information they receive aurally, while written communication provides a record and proof that all the required and detailed information was conveyed. An increase in written communication adds time and costs that oral communication doesn’t. Writing and reading are slower forms of communication than speaking, and face-to-face speaking uses more human senses, allows for feedback and clarification, and helps establish relationships (Nichols & Stevens, 1999).


    Much communication in the workplace is written for the sake of documentation. Oral communication, however, is often more efficient if people practice good listening skills.

    Queen’s University – Alumn i Volunteer Summit – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

    It’s important to remember that many people do not practice good listening skills and that being understood contributes to effectiveness and success. You obviously can’t make someone listen better or require him or her to listen actively, but you can strive to make your communication more listenable and digestible for various audiences.

    Speaking to Executives/Supervisors

    Upward communication includes speeches, proposals, or briefings that are directed at audience members who hold higher positions in the organizational hierarchy than the sender. Upward communication is usually the most lacking within an organization, so it is important to take advantage of the opportunity and use it to your advantage (Nichols & Stevens, 1999). These messages usually function to inform supervisors about the status or results of projects and provide suggestions for improvement, which can help people feel included in the organizational process and lead to an increased understanding and acceptance of management decisions (Adler & Elmhorst, 2005). So how do we adapt messages for upward communication?

    The “executive summary” emerged from the fact that executives have tightly scheduled days and prefer concise, relevant information. Executive summaries are usually produced in written form but must also be conveyed orally. You should build some repetition and redundancy into an oral presentation of an executive summary, but you do not need such repetition in the written version. This allows you to emphasize a main idea while leaving some of the supporting facts out of an oral presentation. If an executive or supervisor leaves a presentation with a clear understanding of the main idea, the supporting material and facts will be meaningful when they are reviewed later. However, leaving a presentation with facts but not the main idea may result in the need for another presentation or briefing, which costs an organization time and money. Even when such a misunderstanding is due to the executives’ poor listening skills, it will likely be you who is blamed.

    Employees want to be seen as competent, and demonstrating oral communication skills is a good way to be noticed and show off your technical and professional abilities (Bartolome, 1999). Presentations are “high-visibility tasks” that establish a person’s credibility when performed well (Weinholdt, 2006). Don’t take advantage of this visibility to the point that you perform only for the boss or focus on him or her at the expense of other people in the audience. Do, however, tailor your message to the “language of executives.” Executives and supervisors often have a more macro perspective of an organization and may be concerned with how day-to-day tasks match with the mission and vision of the organization. So making this connection explicit in your presentation can help make your presentation stand out.

    Be aware of the organizational hierarchy and territory when speaking to executives and supervisors. Steering into terrain that is under someone else’s purview can get you in trouble if that person guards his or her territory (McCaskey, 1999). For example, making a suggestion about marketing during a presentation about human resources can ruffle the marketing manager’s feathers and lead to negative consequences for you. Also be aware that it can be challenging to deliver bad news to a boss. When delivering bad news, frame it in a way that highlights your concern for the health of the organization. An employee’s reluctance to discuss problems with a boss leads to more risk for an organization (Bartolome, 1999). The sooner a problem is known, the better for the organization.

    Speaking to Colleagues

    Much of our day-to-day communication in business settings is horizontal communication with our colleagues or people who are on the same approximate level in the organizational hierarchy. This communication may occur between colleagues working in the same area or between colleagues with different areas of expertise. Such horizontal communication usually functions to help people coordinate tasks, solve problems, and share information. When effective, this can lead to more cooperation among employees and a greater understanding of the “big picture” or larger function of an organization. When it is not effective, this can lead to territoriality, rivalry, and miscommunication when speaking across knowledge and task areas that require specialization (Adler & Elmhorst, 2005).

    Many colleagues work collaboratively to share ideas and accomplish tasks together. In a sharing environment, it can be easy to forget where an idea started. This becomes an issue when it comes time for credit or recognition to be given. Make sure to give credit to people who worked with you on a project or an idea. If you can’t remember where an idea came from, it may be better to note that it was a “group effort” than to assume it was yours and risk alienating a colleague.

    Speaking to Supervisees/Employees

    Downward communication includes messages directed at audience members who hold a lower place on the organizational hierarchy than the sender. As a supervisor, you will also have to speak to people whom you manage or employ. Downward communication usually involves job instructions, explanations of organizational policies, providing feedback, and welcoming newcomers to an organization.


    Supervisors can set a good example by keeping a good flow of information going to their employees.

    Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

    This type of communication can have positive results in terms of preventing or correcting employee errors and increasing job satisfaction and morale. If the communication is not effective, it can lead to unclear messages that lead to misunderstandings and mistakes (Adler & Elmhorst, 2005).

    During this type of “top-down” communication, employees may not ask valuable questions. So it is important to create an open atmosphere that encourages questions. Even though including an open discussion after a presentation takes more time, it helps prevent avoidable mistakes and wasted time and money. Let your audience know before a presentation that you will take questions, and then officially open the floor to questions when you are ready. Question-and-answer sessions are a good way to keep information flowing in an organization, and there is more information about handling these sessions in the “Getting Competent” box in this chapter.

    A good supervisor should keep his or her employees informed, provide constructive feedback, explain the decisions and policies of the organization, be honest about challenges and problems, and facilitate the flow of information (Bartolome, 1999). Information should flow to and away from supervisors. Supervisors help set the tone for the communication climate of an organization and can serve as models of expectations of oral communication. Being prepared, consistent, open, and engaging helps sustain communication, which helps sustain morale. Supervisors also send messages, intentional or unintentional, based on where they deliver their presentations. For example, making people come to the executive conference room may be convenient for the boss but intimidating for other workers (Larkin & Larkin, 1999).

    Speaking to Clients / Customers / Funding Sources

    Communication to outside stakeholders includes messages sent from service providers to people who are not employed by the organization but conduct business with or support it. These stakeholders include clients, customers, and funding sources. Communication to stakeholders may be informative or persuasive. When first starting a relationship with one of these stakeholders, the communication is likely to be persuasive in nature, trying to convince either a client to take services, a customer to buy a product, or a funding source to provide financing. Once a relationship is established, communication may take the form of more informative progress reports and again turn persuasive when it comes time to renegotiate or renew a contract or agreement.

    As with other types of workplace communication, information flow is important. Many people see a lack of information flow as a sign of trouble, so make sure to be consistent in your level of communication through progress reports or status briefings even if there isn’t a major development to report. Strategic ambiguity may be useful in some situations, but too much ambiguity also leads to suspicions that can damage a provider-client relationship. Make sure your nonverbal communication doesn’t contradict your verbal communication.

    When preparing for a presentation to clients, customers, or funding sources, start to establish a relationship before actually presenting. This will help you understand what they want and need and will allow you to tailor your presentation to their needs. These interactions also help establish rapport, which can increase your credibility. Many people making a proposal mistakenly focus on themselves or their product or service. Focus instead on the needs of the client. Listen closely to what they say and then explain their needs as you see them and how your product or service will satisfy those needs (Adler & Elmhorst, 2005). Focus on the positive consequences or benefits that will result from initiating a business relationship with you. If you’ll recall from Chapter 11 “Informative and Persuasive Speaking”, this is similar to Monroe’s Motivated Sequence organization pattern, which gets the audience’s attention, establishes the existence of a need or problem, presents a solution to fill the need, asks the audience to visualize positive results of adopting the solution, and then calls the audience to action.

    Use sophisticated and professional visual aids to help sell your idea, service, or product. You can use strategies from our earlier discussion of visual aids, but add a sales twist. Develop a “money slide” that gets the audience’s attention with compelling and hopefully selling content that makes audience members want to reach for their pen to sign a check or a contract (Morgan & Whitener, 2006).


    Include a “money slide” in your presentation to potential clients or customers that really sells your idea.

    Yair Aronshtam – Slide projector – CC BY-SA 2.0.

    Proposals and pitches may be cut short, so imagine what you would do if you arrived to present and were told that you had to cut it down to one minute. If you were prepared, you could pull out your money slide. The money slide could be the most important finding, a startling or compelling statistic, an instructive figure or chart, or some other combination of text and graphic that connects to the listener. Avoid the temptation to make a complicated money slide. The point isn’t to fit as much as you can onto one slide but to best communicate the most important idea or piece of information you have. A verbal version of the money slide is the elevator speech. This is your sales pitch that captures the highlights of what you have to offer that can be delivered in a short time frame. I recommend developing a thirty-second, one-minute, and two-minute version of your elevator speech and having it on standby at all times.

    Speaking in Intercultural Contexts

    It’s no surprise that business communication is occurring in more intercultural contexts. Many companies and consulting firms offer cross-cultural training for businesspeople, and college programs in cross-cultural training and international business also help prepare people to conduct business in intercultural contexts. For specific information about conducting business in more than thirty-two countries, you can visit the following link:

    While these trainings and resources are beneficial, many people expect intercultural business communication training to be reduced to a series of checklists or rules for various intercultural interactions that may be conveyed in a two-hour, predeparture “everything you need to know about Japanese business culture” training. This type of culture-specific approach to cross-cultural training does not really stand up to the complex situations in which international business communicators find themselves (Victor, 1993). Scholars trained more recently in culture and communication prefer a culture-general approach that focuses on “tools” rather than “rules.” Remember that intercultural competence is relative to the native and host cultures of the people involved in an intercultural encounter, and therefore notions of what is interculturally competent change quickly (Ulijn et al., 2000). To review some of our earlier discussion, elements of intercultural competence involve the ability to identify potential misunderstandings before they occur, be a high self-monitor, and be aware of how self and others make judgments of value (Ulijn et al., 2000).

    I will overview some intercultural business communication tips that are more like rules, but remember there are always exceptions, so other competent communication skills should be on standby to help you adapt when the rules approach stops working (Thrush, 1993).

    In terms of verbal communication, make sure to use good pronunciation and articulation. Even if you speak a different language than your audience, clearer communication on your part will help the message get through better. Avoid idiomatic expressions and acronyms, since the meaning of those types of verbal communication are usually only known to cultural insiders. Try to use geographically and culturally relevant examples—for example, referencing the World Cup instead of the World Series. Be aware of differences in communication between high- and low-context cultures. Note that people from low-context cultures may feel frustrated by the ambiguity of speakers from high-context cultures, while speakers from high-context cultures may feel overwhelmed or even insulted by the level of detail used by low-context communicators. The long history of family businesses doing business with family businesses in France means that communication at meetings and in business letters operates at a high context. Dates and prices may not be mentioned at all, which could be very frustrating for an American businessperson used to highly detailed negotiations. The high level of detail used by US Americans may be seen as simplistic or childish to audience members from high-context cultures. Include some materials in the native language or include a glossary of terms if you’re using specific or new vocabulary. Don’t assume that the audience needs it, but have it just in case.

    Also be aware that different cultures interpret graphics differently. Two well-known cases of differing interpretations of graphics involve computer icons. First, the “trash” icon first used on Mac desktops doesn’t match what wastebaskets look like in many other countries. Second, the US-style “mailbox” used as an icon for many e-mail programs doesn’t match with the mail experiences of people in most other countries and has since been replaced by the much more universally recognizable envelope icon. Nonelectronic symbols also have different cultural meanings. People in the United States often note that they are pursuing the “blue ribbon” prize or standard in their business, which is the color ribbon used to designate second place in the United Kingdom.

    “Getting Competent”

    Handling Question-and-Answer Periods

    Question-and-answer (Q&A) periods allow for important interaction between a speaker and his or her audience. Speakers should always be accountable for the content of their speech, whether informative or persuasive, and making yourself available for questions is a good way to demonstrate such accountability. Question-and-answer sessions can take many forms in many contexts. You may entertain questions after a classroom or conference presentation. Colleagues often have questions after a briefing or training. Your supervisor or customers may have questions after a demonstration. Some question-and-answer periods, like ones after sales pitches or after presentations to a supervisor, may be evaluative, meaning you are being judged in terms of your content and presentation. Others may be more information based, meaning that people ask follow-up questions or seek clarification or more detail. In any case, there are some guidelines that may help you more effectively handle question-and-answer periods (Toastmasters International, 2012; Morgan & Whitener, 2006).

    Setting the stage for Q&A. If you know you will have a Q&A period after your presentation, alert your audience ahead of time. This will prompt them to take note of questions as they arise, so they don’t forget them by the end of the talk. Try to anticipate questions that the audience may have and try to proactively answer them in the presentation if possible; otherwise, be prepared to answer them at the end. At the end of your presentation, verbally and nonverbally indicate that the Q&A session is open. You can verbally invite questions and nonverbally shift your posture or position to indicate the change in format.

    Reacting to questions. In evaluative or informative Q&A periods, speakers may feel defensive of their idea, position, or presentation style. Don’t let this show to the audience. Remember, accountability is a good thing as a speaker, and audience members usually ask pertinent and valid questions, even if you think they aren’t initially. Repeating a question after it is asked serves several functions. It ensures that people not around the person asking the question get to hear it. It allows speakers to start to formulate a response as they repeat the question. It also allows speakers to ensure they understood the question correctly by saying something like “What I hear you asking is…” Once you’ve repeated the question, respond to the person who posed the question, but also address the whole audience. It is awkward when a speaker just talks to one person. Be cautious not to overuse the statement “That’s a good question.” Saying that more than once or twice lessens its sincerity.

    Keeping the Q&A on track. To help keep the Q&A period on track, tie a question to one of the main ideas from your presentation and make that connection explicit in your response. Having a clearly stated and repeated main idea for your presentation will help set useful parameters for which questions fall within the scope of the presentation and which do not. If someone poses a question that is irrelevant or off track, you can politely ask them to relate it to a main idea from the talk. If they can’t, you can offer to talk to them individually about their question after the session. Don’t engage with an irrelevant question, even if you know the answer. Answering one “off-track” question invites more, which veers the Q&A session further from the main idea.

    Responding to multipart questions. People often ask more than one question at a time. As a speaker and audience member this can be frustrating. Countless times, I have seen a speaker only address the second question and then never get back to the first. By that point, the person who asked the question and the audience have also usually forgotten about the first part of the question. As a speaker, it is perfectly OK to take notes during a Q&A session. I personally take notes to help me address multipart questions. You can also verbally reiterate the question to make sure you know which parts need to be addressed, and then address the parts in order.

    Managing “Uh-oh!” moments. If a person corrects something you said in error during your presentation, thank them for the correction. After the presentation, verify whether or not it was indeed a mistake, and if it was, make sure to correct your information so you don’t repeat the mistake in future talks. Admit when you don’t know the answer to a question. It’s better to admit that you do not know the answer than to try to fake your way through it. An audience member may also “correct” you with what you know is incorrect information. In such cases, do not get into a back-and-forth argument with the person; instead, note that the information you have is different and say you will look into it.

    Concluding the Q&A session. Finally, take control of your presentation again toward the end of the Q&A session. Stop taking questions in time to provide a brief wrap-up of the questions, reiterate the main idea, thank the audience for their questions, and conclude the presentation. This helps provide a sense of closure and completeness for the presentation.

    1. Which of these tips could you have applied to previous question-and-answer sessions that you have participated in to make them more effective?
    2. Imagine you are giving a presentation on diversity in organizations and someone asks a question about affirmative action, which was not a part of your presentation. What could you say to the person?
    3. In what situations in academic, professional, or personal contexts of your life might you be engaged in an evaluative Q&A session? An information-based Q&A session?