At its most basic, communication is the transmission of information in the form of words, images, and sounds. We string words, images, and sounds together to make meaning and to share that meaning with others. How we form the “strings” depends on audience and context. For instance, how we talk, text, or email our friends and personal acquaintances is usually different than how we communicate with our bosses or coworkers.
You might be asking yourself how a technical communications class is different from other academic writing classes. In a traditional academic setting, the writing classroom tends to be about the demonstration of knowledge—expanding on ideas or documenting an understanding of traditional types of papers or essays (explanatory, argumentative, reflective) with the audience being the instructor. In a technical communication classroom, many of the principles are similar—organizing paragraphs effectively, following the writing process—but with an increased focus on the professional context for communicating information and, therefore, even more emphasis on concision, clarity, and accessibility.
Ultimately, the goal of technical communication is to transmit important information as effectively and efficiently as possible—information that allows you and the people around you to do your jobs well.
The other way that technical communications might differ from your concept of a traditional writing class is that it is not limited only to “writing.” Part of transmitting information effectively is recognizing that we have many options for how we can communicate with our audiences. There are, of course, important written forms, such as reports, emails, proposals, and instructions, but you will also need to use visual and oral modes, such as presentations, videos, infographics, or diagrams. Further, web and social media offer professionals even more opportunities to communicate in a wide variety of formats. An effective communicator knows when and how to strategically deploy (or blend) these modes depending on audience and desired response.
The most important “strategy” emphasized in this textbook is that all communication must be designed with audience and purpose in mind. There are almost endless types of documents and forms of communication that will be at your disposal as a professional. In addition to knowing what you are communicating (the information, your expertise), you, the communicator, must thoughtfully consider who you are communicating to (your audience) and why you are communicating (the purpose).
Why is communication so important?
If you asked a professional to tell what they really spend their time doing, you might be surprised to learn that most of their workday is spent communicating. In a professional environment, communication becomes a thread that ties together your expertise, your duties, and your professional relationships. It allows you to first get a job and then perform your job well by fulfilling your duties, learning new skills, and maintaining good working relationships with your colleagues.
Sometimes incredibly knowledgeable people forget to consider the who and why, focusing only on the what, and this can lead to gaps in communication.
Imagine sitting in a lecture on particle physics when you don’t know an electron from a proton. The professor speaks rapidly and offers no pauses for questions from the classroom and assumes that every student, in every seat, is receiving and processing the lecture in the exact same way. As a student, you would feel lost and your focus would be on trying to keep up rather than assimilating any new knowledge on the subject. This professor, in assuming everyone had the same knowledge base, has caused a gap in communication because of a lack of audience awareness. One of the basic tenets of being an effective communicator is to know how to avoid these communication gaps. By understanding an audience’s makeup (education level, background knowledge, values, needs, etc.) and developing communication—in whatever form it may be—we can minimize the possibility of communication failure.
Engineers, especially, must be able to communicate within their teams and also be able to communicate complex information to a variety of audiences with different knowledge backgrounds. As Stephen Pinker (2014) explains,
The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows—that they haven’t mastered the argot of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.
Essentially, anyone who has developed a specific area of expertise needs to be mindful that not everyone around them knows the same information or even sees the world in the same way. Part of being an effective communicator means recognizing that the process of communicating information is dynamic and creative and being sensitive to your audience’s needs and understanding.
Ultimately, the goal of this textbook is to help you develop the tools and critical thinking skills you need to be an effective communicator in your professional life. While we do address specific, common types of workplace documents, it is important to know that the types of communicating you will do in your professional life will evolve and change over time. For instance, people who began their careers in the 1980’s likely did not consider email writing an important skill, but today it is one of the most-used genres of workplace communication. Whatever happens in the future, a nuanced, audience-focused communication strategy will allow you to evolve and thrive. This textbook is a foundation to help you develop an awareness of the adaptability of communication.
Pinker, S. (2104). The source of bad writing. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-cause-of-bad-writing-1411660188