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Technical Writing: "Are You Talking To Me?"

Technical Writing: "Are You Talking To Me?"

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T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Technical Writing: "Are You Talking To Me?"

The Technical Speech Problem

In a charming yet troubling essay in the September, 2011, issue of
the Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery
(CACM, vol. 54, no. 9, DOI: 10.1145/1995376.1995377), editor-in-chief
Moshe Y. Vardi tells about a recent scientific conference at which
he found most of the talks impossible to follow or benefit from.
So he boldly asked the audience...
"How many people could follow 100% of 100% of the
talks?" Silence. "80% of 80%?" One brave soul
responded positively. It was only when I got to
"50% of 50%" that about 50% of the participants
raised their hands. Of course, this statistic
should not be taken too seriously, but, nevertheless,
I found it shocking....What is the point of this
futile exercise?

Teachers often witness a parallel problem when students give talks
(on science projects or team research, for example) to their
classmates. If most talks are inept or confusing, they waste the
time of the speaker and the listeners alike, as well as reinforcing
bad speaking habits.

The CCSS Response

The Common Core State Standards for literacy recognize this need
to orally present complex nonfiction topics adequately. For
example, the "speaking and listening" standard for grades 9-10
overtly connects effective presentation (content management
combined with delivery skill) with effective writing, by
highlighting the same stress on logic, conciseness, and response
to audience needs:
Standard SL9-10.4
Present information, findings, and supporting
evidence clearly, concisely, and logically
such that
[1] listeners can follow the line of reasoning, and
[2] the organization, development, substance, and
style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and
Computer scientist Vardi would be thrilled to see his concerns
addressed in high school classes.

The Relevant Text-Engineering Issues

But how can students grow to meet this standard? The secret to
helping students design effective science talks is to share with
them the engineering insight that while the same usability
principles apply to speaking and to writing, the CONSTRAINTS
they must deal with are different. Vardi himself suggests this
approach when he says that
...students should be taught that preparing
a good talk is quite different from, though
equally important as, writing a good paper.

Just how do the design constraints on talks and papers differ?
Several online aids explore this point. For example, an annotated
analysis for teachers at
and a handy summary chart to scaffold student practice at
can help. Both of these review the four communication problems
shared by technical writing and speaking and then analyze the
divergent design constraints that (student) presenters must
cope with to make a technical talk usable:

1. Structure
Scientific papers can be read in any order (and often are), but
science talks can only be heard in the speaker's order of
Response--Speakers need to take extra precautions to reveal
their talk's overall structure at the start, and then point
out each content milestone as they talk past it.

2. Review
Readers can return to any tough passage for later study, but
listeners must rely on the speaker to review or repeat hard
Response--Thoughtful speakers overtly identify all topic
transitions and plan helpful repetition of troublesome,
demanding sections.

3. Understanding.
Readers can study a science text to gradually understand it,
but technical-talk listeners must comprehend it on the first
Response--Smart presenters assess their audiences carefully
and adjust both their technical depth and their data density
to suit what listeners can reasonably absorb. (They also
tap coordinated visual aids to promote quick comprehension.)

4. Delivery.
A science paper can be read at any pace but a science talk
must be followed at the speaker's delivery pace.
Response--Careful text/graphics integration, rehearsal to find
a good pace empirically, and monitoring audience needs as one
speaks (confused? can't hear?) all help make delivery more

Just seeing this list doesn't make a student an effective science
presenter, of course. But it does spell out the tasks students
must practice for improvement. Ignoring these special constraints
on technical talks surely leads to trouble--as Vardi's lament
about the presentation blunders of his professional colleagues
at conferences reveals.

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