Communicating as a Professional

Rebecca E. Burnett, Lisa Dusenberry, Andy Frazee, Joy Robinson, and Rebecca Weaver

What do accountants, architects, astrophysicists, biomedical engineers, computer scientists, economists, mechanical engineers, NGO organizers, and military officers have in common? All create and interpret technical communication—written documents, oral presentations, and visuals. What do the silicon chips, prostheses, wetlands conservation, robotics, food banks, and solar panels have in common? All are subjects of technical communication, a broad field that touches every profession, connecting ideas, people, and actions.

What should students expect to learn?

Students who take technical, business, and professional communication at Georgia Tech (LMC 3403, 3431, 3432) become more effective communicators as they develop individual and collaborative communication strategies. They learn principles underlying communication as well as practical processes and strategies that work in their Georgia Tech courses, internships, and co-ops. They also learn processes and strategies that will be valuable for them in future professional careers, whether in non-profit organizations, entrepreneurial startups, big business, traditional industry, research facilities, government agencies, or hospitals.

The sidebars in this chapter describe projects typical of those in technical communication. The first sidebar provides an example of a project in which students create software demonstration videos with accompanying written software instructions. While demonstration videos and instructions are important genres in the workplace, this particular project is equally important for the processes students learn. Whatever the specific assignment, rhetoric, process, and multimodality are central in our technical and business communication courses.

Rhetoric. Students learn to use the synergy among rhetorical factors (e.g., context, purpose, audience, argument, organization, evidence, visuals, design, and conventions) in creating written, oral, and visual artifacts for diverse professional audiences and situations. They learn that some technical, business, and professional communication is formulaic; for example, a monthly memo reminding employees about the regular staff meeting may remain virtually the same from month to month, with simply a change in date, meeting room, and list of topics. However, the majority of the course focuses on difficult communication problems. For example, while the final report about a long-term project may include a formulaic title page and table of contents, the heart of the report addresses the challenges and successes of the particular project. A formulaic approach to this more difficult communication task would be inadequate (and unprofessional).

The infographics sidebar in this chapter describes the importance for students to learn not only rhetorical conventions related to language but also rhetorical conventions related to numeric data. Students learn to transform data into visuals that can tell a story meaningful to the audience. The sidebar explains a project in which students created infographics and then used the new design strategies to improve visuals in technical reports.

Processes. Students in technical, business, and professional communication learn processes that move them beyond their first-year composition courses (e.g., learning to create, plan, draft, design, rehearse, revise, present, and publish) in developing both individual and collaborative projects. They learn much more about project planning and scheduling, often creating Gantt charts and figuring out ways to balance individual contributions to collaborative projects, considering group member’s applicable knowledge as well as available time.

Equally important, students learn the processes involved in standard workplace communication practices such as usability testing. For example, in one recent tech comm class, student teams tested a mobile app from the Red Cross, which involved establishing a testing protocol, inviting and scheduling test participants, and engaging in various roles during the testing (e.g., facilitator, note taker, technician, observer, video recorder). Each team then turned its data into a comprehensive usability report and presentation for the client, detailing recommendations for changes.

Students develop confidence in using a research-based approach to workplace communication, including refinement of expectations about communication processes. They often work with actual clients in service-learning projects. For example, the sidebar about engagement with language describes a client-based project in a recent course. Students redesigned the newsletter, website, and social media presence for the Community Advanced Practice Nurses’ Clinic, a non-profit medical clinic serving Atlanta’s homeless.

Multimodality. Whether people are working individually, collaboratively, domestically, or internationally, a WOVEN (Written, Oral, Visual, Electronic, and Nonverbal) approach to technical, business, and professional communication emphasizes workplace realities. Virtually all workplace communication is in some way multimodal and in some way collaborative. In fact, try to imagine preparing an important professional oral presentation without writing (for example, text that goes on notecards, handouts, PowerPoint slides, or flip chart sheets). Try to imagine preparing the same oral presentation without visuals (for example, objects for demonstration or images on slides or handouts). And try to imagine preparing the same oral presentation without considering the nonverbal elements (for example, the way the speaker looks and sounds, the lighting in the room, and the way the chairs and tables are arranged). Similarly, try to imagine preparing the same presentation without any collaboration—that is, without talking with anyone or consulting on print or online materials during the preparation, without asking anyone to review the presentation materials or give feedback about a rehearsal.

What are typical projects in a tech comm class? Students can expect to find a combination of multimodal artifacts—written, oral, and visual. In completing projects during a semester-long course, regardless of the particular section in which they’re enrolled, students will create several of the artifacts listed in Figure 1. While these do not represent all possible artifacts in the workplace, they are typical of those professionals may be expected to complete.

The assignments and projects in tech comm have evolved as workplace communication needs and expectations have changed. Workplace communication virtually always is multimodal and collaborative in its planning, drafting and/or revising. Students learn standards that apply to professional communication. So what does this mean in practical terms? The questions and explanations in Figure 2 are at the heart of the course. Simply put, professional communication is deemed successful if it is accurate, conventional, accessible, comprehensible, and usable.

Creating Adaptable Communicators

Georgia Tech students enter a marketplace that expects them to not only develop purposeful content but also to effectively design and present it using software tools. To be successful, students must learn how to approach unfamiliar projects and become effective communicators who adapt their knowledge and tools to reach specific audiences.

One project that helps my students build these competencies is a multimodal software demonstration video with accompanying written instructions. To create the demo video, each student learns the major features of a particular software application and selects the most beneficial and provocative ones.  Then students script, record, and edit screencasts that discuss the software’s usefulness and usability. To complement the video, students produce formal written instructions for creating something using their software (like detailed maps with GIS data in Adobe Illustrator). Producing screen-casts for a demo video and for written instructions challenges students to strategically select the appropriate language and level of detail for each.

Overall, software demonstration videos help students learn how to approach something unfamiliar, develop complex projects, and hone artifacts for visual and verbal impact. Students gain empathy for their audience members as fellow learners. Taking tech comm helps my students become adaptable communicators who use dynamic writing and design strategies and, as a bonus, have a library of software resources at their fingertips.

Lisa Dusenberry, PhD (University of Florida), Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow
Specializations: Children’s literature, digital media, and business/technical communication

Infographics: Using Visuals to Present Information

Professionals need to know how to use visuals (e.g., bar charts, graphics, images) accurately, appropriately, and ethically to represent and describe data. Once information is collected and constructed into a display, it can be repurposed in later reports, proposals, and presentations. Many students understand how to make a bar chart or line graph, but when and where to use visuals and how they contribute to an argument or “story” is more difficult.

In my tech comm course, one particular assignment helps students better understand and apply visual concepts. This assignment expects students to examine their rhetorical choices in visually representing data; to use reader-centered organization, style, and language in selecting types of visuals and design; and to summarize important information using design techniques such as chunking, scale, and proximity that are generalizable to many communication situations, including reports and presentations.

This final assignment is an infographic. In class, we approach this individual assignment in phases, including a group critique and a remix of an existing infographic using low-tech tools (white boards, markers, scissors) emphasizing that effective presentation of ideas is not dependent on digital technology. The students’ final, original infographics are printed for display in the classroom and accompanied by a written text (later incorporated into a report) and a brief oral presentation.

Joy Robinson, PhD (Illinois Institute of Technology), Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow
Specializations: Usability testing, information design, instructional design, and online pedagogy, business/technical communication

Thoughtful Engagement With Language

For me, the heart of technical communication is a commitment to thoughtful engagement with the power of language. Students in my tech comm classes develop competence in communicating to audiences, meeting deadlines, synthesizing materials and information, and building effective and meaningful communication practices.

Developing these competencies is especially important for my tech comm class focusing on community engagement. A recent client was the Community Advanced Practice Nurses’ Clinic, a non-profit medical clinic serving Atlanta’s homeless. The clinic needed help redesigning its newsletter, web-site, and social media. The tech comm students wrote and responded to emails, executed a website usability study, conducted evaluations, and wrote about best practices for social media and newsletters, while concurrently investigating larger issues of importance to our project such as the politics of healthcare, uninsured populations, and digital non-profit communication and giving. Students had an actual audience providing feedback to their work, and they had to respond adequately to the client’s needs and preferences. Students learned ways in which teamwork, problem solving, feedback, and revision can happen in professional settings.

Students’ final semester projects included three elements: presentations to clients, instruction manuals for the clinic, and student portfolios, which included written reflections, correspondence, and drafts of client material. The presentations demonstrated the students’ impressive growth in their professional use of written, oral, visual, and non-verbal communication.

Rebecca Weaver, PhD (University of Minnesota), Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow
Specializations: Poetry community discourse analysis, American literature, discourse and writing in universities, history of higher ed, digital humanities, digital pedagogy, multimodal composition, creative writing

  • Correspondence (e.g., letters, memos, email, phone calls, conference calls)
  • Instructions, procedures, and troubleshooting guides
  • Interviews (e.g., interviewer, interviewee, job, information)
  • Job application packets (organizational analysis, cover letter, resumes, responses to conventional interview questions)
  • Manuals (e.g., policies, tasks, operations)
  • Proposals (both solicited and unsolicited)
  • Press releases
  • Marketing campaigns (e.g., radio spots, brochures, billboards)
  • Meeting management (e.g., agendas, minutes, Skype, Hangout)
  • Memos of understanding
  • Oral presentations (e.g., Pecha kuchas, training demos, teams)
  • Posters (e.g., safety, scientific)
  • PowerPoints and Prezis
  • Reports (e.g., analytical, progress, recommendation, trip, usability)
  • Social media presence (e.g., blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter)
  • Visuals (e.g., types, including tables, graphs, maps, diagrams, photos; titles, captions, and in-text references)
  • Videos (e.g., training, documentary, surveillance)
  • Websites (e.g., marketing, organization)
  • White papers
  • Project planning (e.g. Gantt charts)

Figure 1.Typical artifacts created by students in technical communication classes.

  • Accuracy matters—Is everything correct? No exceptions.
  • Conventions matter—Are written, oral, visual, and nonverbal conventions respected? So, for example, all misspellings and grammar and punctuation errors must be eliminated. Words must be pronounced conventionally. Mislabeled graphs and distorted figure scales must be fixed. Design conventions apply to both print and digital artifacts.
  • Accessibility matters—Can the audience access the information, technologically as well as physically? The print needs to be large enough for audience to see the information. The sound needs to be audible and crystal clear. The digital links need to work.
  • Comprehensibility matters—Does the information make sense to the intended audience? The vocabulary and images explaining the concepts must be adapted to the intended audience(s). The argument must be logically presented and well-supported with credible, well-documented evidence.
  • Usability matters—Is the information usable? Just because a document or website is accurate and attractive doesn’t mean it is usable for the intended audience. Can users find the information they need? Is the navigation clear and easy to use?

Figure 2. Criteria for successful artifacts in technical communication

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