George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technical Writing: Speaker Attitudes and Responsibility

Technical Writing: Speaker Attitudes and Responsibility

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

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