ABC Theme—The “Death” of Traditional Genres?

Could the bell be tolling the death knell of tried-and-true business communication genres? If we are to believe the presenters of two separate sessions at the recent annual Association for Business Communication conference in New Orleans, who swore they were not in collusion, the answer is yes.

The victims? The memo and the sales letter—at least according to Amy Newman, who eulogized the memo, and Debbie DuFrene and Carol Lehman, who buried the sales letter.

According to Newman, the once-ubiquitous printed memo written for an internal audience is gasping for air. While she did find evidence that some large government agencies and educational institutions still circulate the traditional document, Newman contends that e-mail has largely taken the memo’s place. She cited statistics from a survey she conducted indicating that 37 percent of managers said they spent “no time” writing memos, choosing e-mail instead.

Newman suggested that while the content traditionally reserved for the memo is still alive, the mode of delivery has been replaced by e-mail, face-to-face interaction, phone calls, and informal meetings. She even found that some reports (such as the standard memo report) are now relegated to PowerPoint slides.

Attendees of the lively session didn’t fully agree with Newman’s hypothesis, however. Waving hands shot up to debate with the speaker, who teaches at Cornell University in New York. Many in the audience, it appeared, believed that the reports of the memo’s death were greatly exaggerated.

Continuing the “death theme” was a session suggesting that sales letters were likewise obsolete. Debbie DuFrene of Steven F. Austin University in Texas and Carol Lehman from Mississippi State University contended that social media has replaced the traditional sales letter. They pointed out that various social media feed the same messages previously written in sales letters but that now those messages are meted out in tidbits over social media. Such an approach is more appropriate to the expectations of today’s customer, who expects attention 24/7, they said.

The crowd in the room in New Orleans’ Intercontinental Hotel was not hesitant to challenge the presenters. One person groused that if the sales letter was dead, why was her mailbox filled with so many?

In fact, a sizable percentage of the population still thrills to the “tactile pleasure” of physical mail. Paper sales letters coexist happily with e-mail as part of a multipronged marketing strategy at many companies, says Dr. Dana Loewy, Dr. Guffey’s co-author for Business Communication: Process and Product and Essentials of Business Communication.

Nevertheless, the speakers’ common theme resonated some truth. One thing was undeniable—the talks provoked plenty of spirited commentary!

The speakers have made their PowerPoints available for our readers. For Amy Newman’s presentation “The Memo is Dead, Should We Still Teach Students How to Write One?” download the .pptx here. For Debbie DuFrene and Carol Lehman’s talk “The Sales Letter is Dead…But Concepts Live on In Social Media,” first click and then the title of the talk on the page that appears in your browser.

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