Its and misses

May 13, 2005

To convey technical information accurately, writers must avoid ambiguity caused by poor punctuation while speakers need to watch to see if audiences are keeping up or nodding off, says Joan van Emden

Writing articles and books and reading papers at conferences is good for academics’ careers but is of little help in teaching scientific and technical undergraduates communication skills in the all-important context of industry. I was reminded of this by a senior manager of an electronics company as I was preparing to run a technical writing course. Most of the delegates had PhDs, and this was the cause of the manager’s problem. “Please,” he begged me, “try to persuade them that we’re not interested in their thought processes or all the background reading they’ve done. We just want to know what they’ve come up with.”

It is an oddity inherent in education that students, for the most part, give information to people already in the know. In industry, people generally read in pursuit of new knowledge. All writing must start with an analysis of the intended audience and its objectives, as well as the writer’s goals. What do we as authors want our writing to achieve? For students writing in an academic context, the answer is obvious: a good mark and a degree that will lead to a promising job. The audience in this instance is lecturers, who know what information should be included and roughly the order in which it is likely to appear. Because of this, a lecturer may skim a piece of work - how many of us swear that we read every word? - and may miss errors in expression, even those that contradict the intended meaning.

But if a student is writing for an audience that is encountering new knowledge, that audience will read with a different eye - they will read more carefully and will be less forgiving of mistakes.

A similar divergence between academic and industrial practice occurs in the spoken word. I once heard an eminent visiting professor announce: “As I’ve a lot to say, I’ll have to speak quickly.” What she meant was “read quickly”. There are few more boring experiences than being read at, especially at speed. Yet reading a paper is the norm at academic conferences, in spite of the fact that the material could be emailed quickly and cheaply to delegates to spare them the effort of attending. Of course, academics go to conferences for other reasons, such as networking. But reading to an audience can easily be seen as the right way to speak, to the detriment of students, who need to make a presentation as part of their job interviews.

Accuracy is rightly held up as a criterion for scientific and technical communication, but people have only limited understanding of its meaning. Accuracy in writing applies not only to the facts but also to the way in which the facts appear on page. A misplaced comma can affect meaning, and ambiguity in science and engineering is perhaps even more dangerous than an outright - and obvious - mistake.

Errors that in themselves may be seen as trivial undermine the writer’s professional credibility. For more than 20 years I have explained to classes of engineering students that the question of “its” having or not having an apostrophe has a simple answer: “it’s” can mean only “it is” or “it has”, and as technical writing is always formal, such abbreviations should be avoided. Therefore “its” in such writing does not have an apostrophe. I have never received a set of student reports that did not have an “it’s” hidden somewhere in its pages. This may not lead to misunderstanding, but it suggests that the writer does not pay attention to detail - a dangerous impression for a scientist or an engineer to give to colleagues or clients.

Accuracy in talking to an audience takes a different form: few of us speak in perfectly grammatical sentences, and much meaning is conveyed by tone of voice and non-verbal communication. Lecturers rightly require students to present correct information but often fail to assess how much of it can comfortably be absorbed by the listener. A conference paper will almost certainly be published, giving the audience a second chance to absorb the message. A speaker who is talking (rather than reading) to an audience, watching and responding to their reactions, will know that most people remember little of what they hear and hardly anything at all if they are bombarded with detail.

Accuracy includes a correct assessment of what the audience needs to know and what supporting material will be appropriate. The differences between written and spoken communication may be downplayed in an academic setting; in students’ future work they are likely to be critical.

There is no right and wrong style of communication; each can be effective in a different context. Lecturers need to be aware, however, not only of their impact on other academics but also of the needs of students, who are more likely in future to be writing and speaking in a company than in a university.

Joan van Emden is a technical communication consultant.

And there's more
Further reading on communication skills

  • Effective Communication for Science and Technology by Joan van Emden (2001), Palgrave Study Guides. This book guides science and technology students through all the communication involved in a typical course, from first assignment to the final project report or dissertation. Includes detailed help and support, with examples and practical advice, including how to apply for a job and succeed at an interview.
  • Writing for Engineers by Joan van Emden (third edition 2005), Palgrave Study Guides
    Practical advice and examples to help students and engineers write clearly, accurately and impressively. Third edition offers help on spelling, grammar and punctuation, choosing an appropriate format and using it accurately, presenting mathematical material clearly, writing for publication, and producing accurate and readable text.
  • Presentation Skills for Students by Joan van Emden and Lucinda Becker (2004), Palgrave Study Guides Guide for all students discusses speaking effectively in seminars, tutorials and formal presentations, and in extracurricular activities, such as standing for office and speaking at or chairing a committee or society meeting. Assistance with career research, including a step-by-step guide to a successful job interview.

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