Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Telling It like It Is: The Use of Certainty in Public Business Discourse

Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Telling It like It Is: The Use of Certainty in Public Business Discourse

Article excerpt

"Write with confidence."

"Use definite language."

"Avoid weasel words."

"Deliver bad news in clear, positive, forward-looking language."

Business communication authors (see, for example, Hattersley & McJannet, 1997; Lesikar, Pettit, & Flatley, 1996; Ober, 1998; Penrose, Rasberry, & Myers, 1997) routinely advise managers and future managers to avoid hedging-to "tell it like it is." But is such resoluteness always the best tactic? Or does its use depend upon (or is it affected by) such variables as the organization's industry or profitability?

These questions motivated us to investigate the corporate use of certainty in public oral and written business communications. In this study we used a commercially available text-analysis software program, Sage's DICTION 4.0 (Hart, 1997), to measure the use of certainty in Fortune 500 companies' recorded oral and written business communications. The research question addressed in this study was to determine if and how large profitable and unprofitable (or least profitable) business organizations in different industries differ in their use of certainty in public oral and written business discourse. We tested four hypotheses:

H1: Corporations with the largest profit increase and those with the largest profit decrease will differ significantly in their use of certainty in public business discourse.

H2: Corporations in different industries will differ significantly in their use of certainty in public business discourse.

H3: Public written business communication and public oral business communication will differ significantly in their use of certainty.

H4: Public business discourse and public general discourse will differ significantly in their use of certainty.

We did not analyze the use of certainty in internal communications such as memoranda, e-mail messages, reports developed for internal use, and other private communications.

The purpose of the study was to provide empirical findings that can serve as a theoretical basis for recommending the use of certainty in business communication.

Review of Related Literature

Literature related to our research question comes from three areas: (a) relationships among communication, information, certainty, and profitability; (b) the relationship between certainty and verbal communication; and (c) the validity of computerized content analysis.

Communication, Information, Certainty, and Profitability

In business and organizational activities, information is an outcome of communication that provides people with a greater understanding of their environment, enabling them to coordinate activities, predict the future, make decisions, and solve problems (Kreps, 1990). Information theorists Shannon and Weaver (1949) referred to information as the reduction of uncertainty; that is, something has informational value to the extent that it reduces a receiver's uncertainty and increases the predictability of future events. Thus, information helps to decrease the number of decisions an individual has to make and to increase the certainty with which the individual can direct his or her behavior.

Weick (1979, p. 5) uses the term "equivocality" instead of "uncertainty" in his theory of organizing. Equivocality is the level of understandability of messages to which organization members respond. Some aspects of Weick's definition of equivocality are ambiguity, complexity, and obscurity of messages. The equivocality of a message relates to the certainty with which an organization member can decode that message. Weick suggests using his communication model of rules and cycles to process highly equivocal information input by reducing uncertainty and transforming it into understandable information output with a high degree of predictability.

Managers often face three different environments for decision making and problem solving in organizations: certainty, risk, and uncertainty (Schermerhorn, 1993). …

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