“Our schools had better get on with what is their overwhelmingly most important task: teaching their charges to express themselves clearly and with precision in both speech and writing; In other words, leading them toward mastery of their own language. Failing that, all their instruction in mathematics and science is a waste of time.” The above statements from Joseph Weizenbaum, M.I.T, are unfortunately the truth, which many have walked away from. Maybe let me give an everyday example that you may go along with well; a prospective business partner tells you to write him a partnership business proposal and you have absolutely no idea on where or how to begin, or better still you don’t know what a business proposal is, yet you’re are a graduate, and this prospective partner may mean you a fortune business if and only if you don’t ruin your image before the signatures are painted. Effective communication, and technical communication to be specific, is the bridge that links the idea in your mind to a ‘successful project’. Even if we could set up our own lab in a vacuum and avoid communicating with all others, what good would our ideas and discoveries be if they never got beyond our own mind? What else, if nothing, is the use of an idea if not effectively communicated to an interested/ prospective client? In this article, I seek to explore this idea and show you why it separates a ‘dying’ idea from a ‘growing’ idea.
Consider the result of a survey of U.S corporations that asked what factors influence managerial promotion. The survey included a list of 22 personal qualities and their importance in advancement. You may be surprised to note that “technical skill based on experience” was placed fourth from the bottom. Attributes such as self-confidence, ambition, flexibility, maturity, ability to make sound decisions, getting things done with and through people, and capacity for hard work all ranked higher. On top of the list was “the ability to communicate.”
Random test 1
Which of the below statements is right? (Answer plus explanation are at the bottom)
- Attributes such as self-confidence, ambition, flexibility and maturity are significant in your career.
- Attributes such as self-confidence, ambition, flexibility and maturity, are significant in your career.
- Attributes such as self-confidence, ambition, flexibility, and maturity are significant in your career.
Truth has it that in the engineering field, you are rarely judged solely by the quality of your technical expertise or work. People also form opinions of you by what you say and write- and how you say and write it. When you write a memo or a report, talk to members of a group, and deal with vendors on the phone or attend meetings, the image others get of you is largely formed by how well you communicate. Even if you work for a large company and don’t see a lot of high-level managers, those same managers can get an impression of you by the quality of your written reports, as well as by what your immediate supervisors tell them. Truth also has it that, many quite average engineers become successful because of above-average communication skills.
Rumours also have it that, technical communication is a skill left only to technical writers. This, I have to say, is a belief held only by ‘youthful’ minds, who may have never even engaged themselves in a job even if their own. Even at online jobs, you have to bid for a project and in the process, you have to write a short proposal just to grab the employer’s attention. You may have little or no technical skills for the job, but how you requested for the opportunity, might have just bought you the job. It is very unfortunate that: a third-year student of mathematics knows not what a ‘conjecture’ is, you run an SME but knows not bookkeeping e.g. cash book, the ledger, or just a balance sheet, you run an agency (even if online) but knows not how to write a catalogue, marketing brochures, or just a flyer.
Engineers write a lot. Most engineers spend over 40% of their work time writing and usually find this percentage increase as they move up the corporate ladder. An engineer may write documents such as: studies (e.g. bioethical, analytical, market), guides (e.g. procedures, tutorials, safety instructions), manuals (e.g. user’s handbook, maintenance, and repair, operations and policy), standard reports (e.g. weekly or annual, progress, lab, inspection, implementation), special reports (e.g. formal, recommendation, site), technical report (e.g. evaluation, troubleshooting, white papers), corporates (e.g. proposals, abstracts, patents, policy statements), publications (e.g. articles, newsletters, flyers, catalogues, literature reviews), and inter-office reports (e.g. memos, letters, updates, bulletins, warnings, announcements) just to mention a few.
Random test 2
Chose the correct article from (a, an, or the) to precede the below acronym for ‘Small and Medium Enterprises.’
A truth that lies in the adage is that; no one can become a good writer- only a good rewriter. The higher your professional career progresses, the more you’ll need to communicate. You should, therefore, regard effective communication as an important tool in your career tool chest. Mind you, learning to communicate effectively is a lifelong task you should always work toward. I am not a master at this but can direct you to invaluable resources that I use to master the same. The best time to begin is while still in school, for technical communication is like learning the Chinese language, it’s quite fascinating and demanding too.
- a guide to writing as an engineer, third edition by David Beer, and David McMurray (used by colleges and universities across the world)
- engineer’s guide to technical writing by Kenneth G. Budinski
- Technically-write by Ron Blicq and Lisa Morreto
- Handbook of technical writing by Gerald J. Alfred
- Professional communication by engineering apps
Continually look for opportunities to develop and strengthen your reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. You can do this through classroom presentations, team projects, active participation in student organizations, and enrollment in communication courses. Poor communication skills is the Achilles’ heel of many engineers and their technical colleagues, both young and experienced, and it can even be a career showstopper. In fact, poor communication skills have probably claimed more casualties than corporate downsizing. Any professional who can’t communicate effectively is definitely held back from career advancement. The risks are less now than later in the workplace.
Answers to random tests:
- The question tested on the effective use of commas. Statement 3 is the right one. The comma after the ‘and’ is called a ‘serial comma’. The serial comma has become practically mandatory in most scientific, technical and legal writing. The ‘and’ joining the last two terms replaces the need for the comma, but this is not the case in technical wring.
- The question tested on articles: a, an, and the. Saying ‘an SME’ seems appropriate. Article ‘a’ is used before words with their first sounds (like the sound /b/ in ‘bag’) is a consonant. Article ‘an’ on the other hand, is used before words with their first sounds (like the sound /e/ in SME) is a vowel (a, e, i, o, u), (or like the sound /e/ in elephant. The article ‘the’ is used before proper nouns (like the Kilimanjaro) or used to refer to a previously mentioned particle in a sentence.