Follow Business Conventions

The third “C” of professionalism is conventionality. Conventionality refers to your ability to conform to professional expectations (format, style, etc.). For instance, a résumé looks like a résumé, a report looks like a report, and an email looks like an email. Following conventions is important in business because it implicitly signals that you belong in the community. You know the rules and you know how to follow them. Alternatively, if you break the mold, you do it with high-quality creativity so that your receiver has no doubt that you still know the rules and belong in the community.

Conventions of business communication are culturally bound. They differ from country to country, and to a lesser extent, from organization to organization or industry to industry. Generally, conventions remain fairly constant and slow to change, although they may change rapidly with new technologies or as societal standards change.

You can see some of the changes to conventions most vividly in how people dress for business or in how email technologies changed how people write memos, and text messaging and instant messaging changed how people write emails. For example, following the COVID pandemic, dress codes have become decidedly more relaxed.[1] Communication has become somewhat more casual over the years with it becoming more common for business people to use emojis in emails.[2]

Identify and Follow Conventions

So how do you identify conventions, especially of business writing and presentations? Well, there are numerous examples provided in books—from how to write cover letters to how to develop a PowerPoint presentation. We won’t go into details of all the different conventions here. Instead, we offer basic steps you can follow to learn what the conventions are for any type of message.

Gather Examples of a Particular Message Type (business letters, annual reports, etc.)
These will be most helpful if they are gathered from within your own company or at least your own industry. You can also search the Internet for examples of any kind of document.

Look for Similarities Across the Examples
These can be in how things are formatted (fonts, colors, white space), how content is ordered, or even particular turns of phrase that are used with regularity. The similarities you notice are the standards of the conventions.

For example, if you look at business letters, you will likely notice several similarities. Business letters normally appear on some form of company letterhead (i.e., the stationery that has the company logo on it). The information is ordered in the same way (date, name and address of the receiver, a salutation, the letter itself, and a signature block). Paragraphs are single spaced with blank lines in between. Those are the standards and you should not deviate from them.

Look for Differences Across the Examples
Now look for ways in which the documents differ from each other. The differences demonstrate where there is wiggle room.

Things that might look different are varying fonts, sometimes the salutation uses “Dear” and sometimes not, sometimes the closing says “Sincerely,” but other times it says “Regards,” or “Best,” or something similar. Sometimes paragraphs are indented and sometimes not. Those are the areas of wiggle room. In those regards, you can use your judgment and personal preference to decide how you want to write the letter.

Check for Company Guidelines
Another thing to keep in mind is that your company may have its own strict guidelines for how it wants messages to be formatted. Company standards are more common in large companies than small ones. For instance, your company may have a designated template to use for PowerPoint presentations that includes approved company colors, fonts, and logos. These can be called “brand standards,” and they are particularly important if you are communicating with external receivers.

Break Conventions Carefully

In some instances, you may decide you want to break the conventions to catch your receiver’s attention. You can do this by exhibiting high-quality creativity. The catch is that any time you break the conventions, it must be both high-quality and creative. Anything less risks looking like an unprofessional error. You have to decide whether the potential payoff of breaking the convention to catch attention is worth the risk of being judged unprofessional or incompetent.

Résumés are a common document in which people break conventions. Let’s face it: the job market is competitive, and you need to stand out. Unconventional approaches to résumés can include things like infographics, online portfolios, video showcases, and QR codes that link to websites or blogs.[3] Nontraditional formats like these can draw positive attention and show off your skills—especially if you are seeking a job in a creative field. But other human resource professionals warn that creative resumes may actually prevent you from getting called for an interview. If you are not sure about your ability to demonstrate both high quality and creativity, you are more likely to have a better outcome following the established conventions.


Your Turn: Create Your Own Email Signature Block

One of the conventions of business communication is the email signature block. It is a pre-formatted block of text with contact information of the sender. It usually contains the person’s name, job title, company name, and contact information. Oftentimes, business people will customize their signature blocks with the company logo or with company colors.

Following the advice above for identifying conventions, find 3-5 email signature blocks from business professionals you know.

  • What similarities do you see between the examples?
  • What differences do you see?
  • Which signature blocks do you like best?

Now develop your own signature block for yourself. Once you like how it looks, you can set your email program to append your email signature block to your outgoing messages.









  1. For a story about how dress codes have become more relaxed since the COVID pandemic check out: Rachel Martin and Milton Guevara, “The Pandemic Has Changed Workplace Fashion. What Does That Mean to You?” NPR, July 7, 2022,
  2. Research has shown that when leaders use emojis, it can help them better communicate with their employees and reduce defensiveness. Read more at: Tomoko Yokoi and Jennifer Jordan, “Using Emojis to Connect with Your Team,” Harvard Business Review, May 30, 2022,
  3. See: Cheryl Vaughn, “The 7 Best Alternative Resume Formats for Professionals,” Make Use Of,  February 19, 2022,


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Business Communication: Five Core Competencies Copyright © 2023 by Kristen Lucas, Jacob D. Rawlins, and Jenna Haugen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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