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Technical Communications Toolbox

Technical Communication Overview

Technical communication is a form of non-fiction writing that is used by engineers to communicate with each other, clients, and the public.  Discover the importance, goal, how to read, and costs of technical communication.

What Is Technical Communication?

In general, technical writing is a form of non-fiction writing that encompasses technical information and is the primary tool used by engineers to communicate with each other, clients, and the public.  The communication is generally “transactional” which means it is a purposeful transaction between the sender and receiver for practical and specific purposes and geared toward a specific audience.  Technical communication takes many forms: scientific and technical reports, lab reports, specifications, instructions, emails, memos, presentations, proposals, etc.  Some specific examples of communication that occurs in Engineering practice are 1) communication to owners in the bidding process including your company’s qualifications and your proposed bid, 2) interactions throughout the project delivery process, e.g., with the owner, inspectors, regulatory compliance, the public, vendors, and subcontractors 3) internal communication, e.g., progress updates, strategizing meetings, and managing others.

Importance of Technical Communication

As a graduate engineer you will use technical communication extensively.  In fact, some estimates1 place about 50% to 75% of engineers’ time devoted to technical writing while the remaining 25% to 50% is devoted to problem solving.  The skills at technical communication are often seen as more important than technical skills (problem solving) when it comes to performance evaluations and job advancement.   The technical communication is the tool that is used to explain your technical work to supervisors and clients.  If the communication is poor, then the work itself appears poor.

Good technical communication skills are critical in winning bids, communicating with clients and owners, dealing with the public, and working with contractors, subs, and vendors.  In fact, civil engineering employers consistently emphasize to the Mizzou CEE program the importance of communication skills in hiring our graduates.  This is in part due to the fact that civil engineers often deal with large public infrastructure – unlike other engineering fields that are mostly private.  So… If you want to be a successful Civil Engineer, you need good technical communication skills!

“The fundamental purpose of scientific discourse is not the mere presentation of information and thought but rather its actual communication. It does not matter how pleased an author might be to have converted all the right data into sentences and paragraphs; it matters only whether a large majority of the reading audience accurately perceives what the author had in mind.”

–George Gopen and Judith Swan The Science of Scientific Writing

Goal of Technical Communication

Technical communication should provide the information to the reader that allows them to fully understand the work that was done and make conclusions based on the information presented.  The goals may vary based on audience and type of communication.  For example, a lab report will provide the information on how the lab was performed (experimental procedures) and the results of the lab.  A design report may contain the information used to conduct the design, results, and final design suggestions.  Some forms of technical communication are “archival.”  That means they are meant to be kept and referred to by future engineers who are not able to ask you what something means.

Good technical communication is first used to get the job or win the bid/grant.  To do this you need to communicate your company’s/agency’s expertise and the plans for the project.  If you are not successful in the communication, then you may not get the job and will be unable to pay your employees.  During the project good technical communication is critical so that there is no miscommunication about the project that can results in additional costs, delays, risk, or public confusion.   Regulatory agencies might deny a permit if the project and potential impacts are poorly communicated.  Everyone needs clear communication to fulfill their roles: owner, contractor, regulatory agencies, public, and vendors.

For example, in a construction project, communication is what enables every step of the project delivery.  Some communication examples are: owner communicates project requirements, owner communicates to regulatory agencies about environmental impacts, prime contractors communicate to sub-contractors about bidding strategy and teaming, contractors communicate to owner representatives about the progress, owners communicate size, scope, requirements…etc., so consulting engineers can design, engineers document design properly…etc.  All this communication is required so that project can be built properly.

How to Read Technical Writing

Understanding how a reader reads technical writing helps you to know how to write it.  Technical writing is not like a fiction book.  You don’t read from front to back all the way through.  For technical reports, most readers will start with the abstract to determine if it is something they want to learn about.  Then they will jump to the conclusions to see what was determined or recommended.  If they are still interested, then they may read the other chapters (not necessarily in order and not necessarily the whole chapter).   Therefore, in writing, your abstract needs to be a complete accurate portrayal of what the work contains.  The conclusions need to be self-contained and highlight the most important aspects of the work. The other chapters need to be able to stand independently (there may need to be cross-references to other chapters or sections).  In reports, a consistent and easily recognizable format helps orient the reader and guides them.

For other types of communication, the same process of readers not reading the whole thing applies.  For example, contractors will scan requests for proposals (RFPs).  They will not read the entire thing if the first few paragraphs don’t show the project is a good fit.   If the RFP is poorly written, qualified contractors may not even bid on the project.  Furthermore, for a bid proposal, owners or an owner representative, first scans the proposal and may not award a project if poorly written and organized.

Importance of Clarity Conciseness and Completeness

Not only is the format of the communication important, but the writing itself is important. The writing should be more than just grammatically correct.  The writing should be clear (easy to understand), concise (focused and relevant to the report), and complete (provide all the needed information).  Writing that follows these traits will assist the reader in understanding the communication and make the best decisions based on the information.  More information on Clarity, Conciseness, and Completeness can be found here.

In addition, how we communicate is just as important as what we communicate. Some examples in civil engineering include:

  • Don’t say “stop light” but use the term “traffic signals.” We are in the business of moving people and goods not delaying folks.
  • Don’t say “accidents” but say “crashes.”   Human element is a contributory factor in 93% of crashes, so someone was partly at fault.
  • Don’t say that a design is dangerous. This imposes liability on your client or your company. Instead speak in terms of relative risks. One design increases risks over another design. It’s not for us to judge if something is dangerous or not, that’s for the trier of fact to decide if there is litigation.

The Cost of Poor Communication

Poor communication leads to poor decisions and in the end costs the company and the employee.  Consider the cartoon depicted in Figure 1.  Clearer, more effective communication among the customer, engineer, and other parties would have resulted in a better product.  Don’t cost the company money, or yourself the recognition you deserve – learn how to communicate effectively.

Importance of clear communication cartoon
Figure 1 – Project Management Tree Cartoon2

References

  1. McConkey, “Writing a work term report,” ENGR 120 Plenary Lecture, University of Victoria, March 3, 2017.
  2. Ward, “The project management tree swing cartoon, past and present,” Taming Data, July 8, 2019 [Online] Available: https://www.tamingdata.com/2010/07/08/the-project-management-tree-swing-cartoon-past-and-present/CC-BY-ND 4.0.
  3. Technical Writing Essentials https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/part/techcomm/
  4. Donnell, J., Jeter, S., MacDougall, C., Snedeker, J. Writing Style and Standards in Undergraduate Reports. [VitalSource Bookshelf].
  5. WAC Clearinghouse Resources https://wac.colostate.edu/resources/
  6. Missouri Science and Technology Writing resources https://writingcenter.mst.edu/onlineresources/
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