Technical/Professional Communication Summary

by John December (john@december.com)

This is a summary I presented to my class as a handout, Fall 1993.


In this document, I summarize some principles and ideas that we have discussed in class. I first focus on technical communication as a process of shaping information. Then, I review the process of information development and techniques to shape information. Finally, I describe techniques for learning and teaching technical communication.

Technical Communication is Shaping Information

Whenever you communicate, you convey information. How you shape this information is the key to technical communication.

To create a message, you might use many media: written text, pictures, speech, computer-mediated communication, or other media to create or store information. Whatever medium you use, the message of the communication takes some form---a pattern that reveals the order, amount, and kind of information presented to the audience. Ordering and patterning messages so that they have an effect on an audience that is at the heart of communication.

Focus on Audience Needs

An audience wants to match the message it receives with its need for information. Creating a message that perfectly matches an audiences needs is never possible, but centuries of thought and practice in communication have established techniques that have proven to be effective. The ancient Greeks developed rhetoric to discover the means of persuasion. Industry and academia have worked together to develop techniques for technical communication.

Shaping communication to meet audience needs largely depends on understanding the audience (audience analysis) and the purpose of the communication. In audience analysis, you try to find out what the audience knows, why they are encountering your message, and their concerns and preferences. In addition, you need to recognize that an audience:

  • wants the right information at the right time at the right level of detail
  • has a finite capacity to process information
  • has a finite attention span and patience

Shape Information to Meet Audience Needs

Creating messages that meet an audience needs involves a process of information development. This process includes creating, drafting, testing, and revising the message so that it meets the audience needs. Ultimately, the communicator seeks to create a message that matches a given purpose, audience, and medium. Often, a communicator will create a store of information during this information development process that can be used for other audiences and purposes.

This figure illustrates the information development process. The words around the oval, starting clockwise from objective represent steps in the process. These steps might not be followed in this exact order, and often steps are revisited one or more times before moving on to the next steps (the example dotted ovals). This figure illustrates that information development is a process---not a single act---in which the communicator seeks to refine the information so that it fits the audience needs. Moreover, this process does not involve a lone communicator; rather, it happens in a social and cultural context, and it involves many people working together.

Use Techniques to Shape Information

During the information development process, a communicator can use techniques to shape information for the audience.
  • Structure
    • Use superstructures that follow audience expectations. Example: general report format.
    • Sequence information so that the audience knows what is going to happen ( preview), then gets the information ( present), and then is reminded again ( review).
    • Layer information in hierarchies so that the audience has a way to find information at the right level of detail. Examples: outlines, headings, sections, subsections.
    • Use parallelism to create expectations in the audience about the format of information. Example: active verb phrases at the start of job accomplishments in a resume.
    • Use cues such as headers, page or section numbers and others to give the audience signposts to access the information.
  • Visuals
    • Use a grid pattern to design a page. Create a hierarchy for the information through indentation and placement.
    • Use principles of layout (unity, balance, proportion, emphasis, sequence) when using visual information.
    • In creating written text, consider the typography a, A, a, A, a, A.
  • Language
    • Use logic to create a structure from which audience can reason to get more information. Example: rules in instructions.
    • Use figurative forms (analogy, metaphor) to extend and enhance the audience's understanding of the topic.
    • Use the Old/New information chain to create a sense of cohesion. Applications: topic sentences, transition sentences.
    • Use the rhetorical principles of persuasion: appeal to emotions, logic, ethics when trying to persuade an audience.
    • Use examples to illustrate your points.
    • Try to use the active voice where possible.

Learn to Communicate through Experience or Forms

In order to learn how to become a better technical communicator, you can learn:
  • heuristically when you are placed in a situation in which the imperative of accomplishing a task is foremost in your mind, and you strive to communicate to the audience in order to accomplish that task. This mode of learning requires a well-understood (preferably present) audience. Examples: Resume Game, Beverage Game, Proposal Game.
  • formally when you follow formats and superstructures for presenting information. Within these structures, you shape the information particular to your task. Examples: resume, proposal, report.
An instructor in technical communication can emphasize the:
  • product by teaching students how to use forms and superstructures to create a message.
  • process by emphasizing that information development requires steps.
  • language by focusing on the language (grammar, spelling, syntax) of written or spoken communication.
  • rhetoric by emphasizing rhetorical techniques in persuasion and composition.

Learn by Doing Applications

You can learn how to communicate more effectively in a technical or professional environment by doing exercises which touch on many of the topics described above. In this course, we have done (or will do) the following exercises:

Assignment     Principles                     Medium
----------     ----------                     ------
Resume         layout, chunking information   paper
CMC            locating Net resources         computer-mediated
Instructions   sequence, chunking information paper
Proposal       persuasion                     paper
Written Report explanation                    paper
Oral Report    presentation, sequencing       oral
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Copyright © 1994 John December. All Rights Reserved.

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