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Technical Writing: Speaker Attitudes and Responsibility

T.R. Girill Technical Literacy Project leader, STC and LLNL

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
trgirill@acm.org

Technical Writing: Speaker Attitudes and Responsibility

Not My Problem

A recent short article in the Chronicle of Higher Education
raises a serious ATTITUDINAL challenge for any teacher concerned
about promoting effective science communication [Jack C. Schultz
and Jon T. Stemmle, "Teaching Future Scientists to Talk," CHE,
April 5, 2012, https://chronicle.com/article/Teaching-Future-
Scientists-to/131405 ].

The article summarizes a program at the University of Missouri
at Columbia that brings life scientists and journalists (and, in
particular, science students and faculty journalist mentors)
together to "produce blogs, news articles, videos, and science-news
reports using our media lab" for a general audience. Project
leaders were dismayed to quickly discover "how difficult it is
for even brand-new 'scientists' to step outside their isolated
disciplinary world, and the importance of working on their
attitude first....many scientists, especially those in mid-to-
late career, fail to see the value of bridging that gap [with
the public] and may even be hostile to the idea."

Reasons for Indifference

Even science students with only one year's lab experience
had already grown indifferent or hostile to the need for explaining
research projects and results to a wider audience. Schultz and
Stemmle speculate that this is the "secret society" phenomenon
at work--once you learn the vocabulary and distinctions central
to some technical area, you become an insider. You want to
preserve your new special status and hoard your insider insights,
or at least you cease to care if outsiders fail to understand
your work.

Commenters on this CHE article suggested two additional causes
for this indifference to good, broad explanation. One is that
astutely simpliyfing technical material (for outsiders) demands
a level of maturity and a thoroughness of understanding that many
science students lack. The second is that while (some) scientists
notice this problem about science, thoughtful people in other
fields notice it about their own fields too. Learning the
vocabulary and distinctions of any specialized humanities discipline
often leads to just the same attitude that effectively communicating
one's work to "ordinary people" is unworthy or even undesirable.

Cultivating Communication Responsibility

So how does one respond to this communication challenge of
(negative) attitude and (rejected) responsibility? Certainly
a first step is to point out WHO is responsible whenever one
person shares technical information with another: as the provider,
the responsibility in on YOU to help your audience understand and
appreciate the significance of what you are sharing. This is
true even in strictly professional or academic situations. Badly
written, densely obcure research articles in refereed journals
suffer the terrible fate of being ignored and not cited in a
competitive world where recommendation and citation are the gold
standards of success. When scientists present not just to
colleagues but to the press or the public the duty to actively
help one's audience is even greater because of the asymmetry of
expertise. The medical, environmental, or social benefits (or
simply consequences) of one's work can easily be lost unless
each scientist or engineer actively deploys the usability
techniques shown by research to help audience members solve
problems with what they read and hear.

When SPEAKING about technical topics (the case featured in
the title of the CHE article that launched this discussion), the
speaker has even greater responsibilities than the scientist who
writes:

(1) Structure.
A reader can review your technical text in whatever order they
please, but a listener must follow the order in which you
present orally. Hence, technical speakers have an extra obligation
to reveal their talk's structure and to announce milestones
("my third reason is...") as they reach them.

(2) Review.
Readers can easily revisit your text repeatedly, but listeners
rely on you to handle any needed repeats. So technical speakers
must carefully manage their summaries and topic transitions to
allow for such "oral review" by their audience.

(3) Understanding.
Readers can study your words until they understand them, but
listeners must understand on their first (and usually, only)
hearing. So technical speakers have an extra burden of chosing
their vocabulary and data density so that understanding is
really possible with just one exposure.

(4) Delivery.
Readers set their own pace, but listeners must march along at the
speaker's rate. Hence extra practice and well-planned visual aids
are often vital for a successful technical talk.

As a science teacher you can start promoting the attitude
that technical speakers have these four special social
responsibilities just by listing and naming them for students,
as well as by reinforcing them whenever students practice their
presentations. Scaffolding this recognition with the key terms
involved (milestones, data density, topic transitions) is another
empirically grounded way to reinforce effective practice. If
Schlutz and Stemmle are right, beginning early (in high school)
is not only possible but crucial for a genuine and long-lasting
impact on student communication attitudes. [For a more
elaborate review of the four extra duties of effective technical
speakers, see
http://www.ebstc.org/TechLit/talks/talktips.analysis.html ]

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