The importance of good, clear communication

Mines students are educated, intelligent people. Why, then, should we be irresponsible with our communication? At the risk of sounding like an EPICS mentor, clear written and oral communication is a key to increasing the effectiveness of the next generation of engineers.

Consider a lecture. More specifically consider two lectures, one which was very engaging and one which left listeners trying to stuff their ears with pencils. Did they present different information? Not necessarily; this phenomenon can crop up even between different sections of the same course. The difference arose in how the information was presented. It is difficult not to be bored when stuck in an hour or two of bullet-point-and-error-bar slides which one does not understand. It is, however, much easier to pay attention to a presenter who mixes things up in slide design or engages the audience or at least makes sure their presentation is at the appropriate level of complexity.

Clear communication can have deeper consequences than participant boredom though. Take as an example the case of Italian seismologists, who did not consider earthquake warnings of a local amateur seismologist credible. Subsequently, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake did hit the town of L’Aquila, killing 309 people. These scientists have now been convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 6 years in prison as well as being permanently banned from practicing science and forced to pay 7.8 million Euros in compensation to victims and the city of L’Aquila.

Whether their science was correct or not is not the key take-away message for young scientists and engineers. The key take-away is that the scientists were unable to communicate their results in a manner that accounted for uncertainty and for the difficulties of prediction. Clarity is a virtue.

Perhaps the ability to communicate lectures and announcements is important, but what about written communication? Surely writing ought to be as simple as plunking down a few words and a chart? Au contraire, writing ought to include a certain amount of thought as well. By the time it becomes time to write a paper, the writer herself has often become so intimately acquainted with the topic that they merely want it gone. However, the reader has not spent all this time with the topic. The writer must take care not to assume too much knowledge, without making the document ungainly. This is a difficult balancing act, but it certainly is possible.

Even so, writing for scientists and engineers ought to be confined to the territory of technical papers and reports, right? Not at all, at least not for the beginning scientist and engineer. The ability to express oneself clearly is necessary to even gain employment. Consider interviews for industry positions and personal statements for graduate school. Mines students need to be able to express themselves in a clear way to attain later success.

Learning to write and speak can be difficult, but it is overall a valuable exercise.

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