“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”
Technical communication is a form of non-fiction writing that is used by engineers to communicate with each other, clients and the public. Discover how to read technical communication and its importance, goal and costs.
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:
- communication to owners in the bidding process including your company’s qualifications and your proposed bid;
- interactions throughout the project delivery process, e.g., with the owner, inspectors, regulatory compliance, the public, vendors and subcontractors;
- 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 estimates 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 of technical communication are often seen as more important than technical skills (problem solving) when it comes to performance evaluations and job advancement. 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. If you want to be a successful Civil Engineer, you need good technical communication skills!
Goal of Technical CommunicationTechnical 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 result 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
For other types of communication, the same process 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
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
- McConkey, “Writing a work term report,” ENGR 120 Plenary Lecture, University of Victoria, March 3, 2017.
- 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.
- Technical Writing Essentials https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/part/techcomm/
- Donnell, J., Jeter, S., MacDougall, C., Snedeker, J. Writing Style and Standards in Undergraduate Reports. [VitalSource Bookshelf].
- WAC Clearinghouse Resources https://wac.colostate.edu/resources/
- Missouri Science and Technology Writing resources https://writingcenter.mst.edu/onlineresources/