Communication Skills

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Entrepreneurs Face Serious Communication Barriers

University of Manchester, home of Emeritus Professor of Management, Derek Torrington (photo: Wikipedia)

Most startup mentors tell me that the single biggest problem they have to deal with in small companies is the lack of open, honest, and effective communication, both from the top down and from the bottom up. Some entrepreneurs forget that talking is not communicating. Fortunately these skills can be learned, and the barriers to communication can be overcome one by one.

Founders have to communicate their ideas and products to investors, business partners, and the rest of the team. Then, hopefully, come customers, distribution channels, and going public or merging with an attractive buy-out candidate. Communication is not just talking, but also listening, writing, body language, and “actions speak louder than words.”

According to a new management guide by Professor Derek Torrington, “Managing to Manage: The Essential Guide to People Management,” it is the listener who determines the extent to which a message is understood, and that is shaped largely by their own experience and background. From an entrepreneur perspective, here are the understanding barrier categories:

Unclear frame of reference. Whenever you discuss any startup matter, the receivers will view it from their particular frame of reference, including their values, their priorities, and their background. The responsibility is on you the entrepreneur to decipher the receiver reference, and do the “translation” of your message to them.
Stereotyping and biases. This is the other end of the spectrum, where the entrepreneur defaults to an extreme extrapolation of the listener reference base. Common problem stereotypes relate to age constraints, gender roles, and cultural performance implications. Effective communication requires compensating for language barriers, no stereotyping, and first focus on performance here and now.
Cognitive dissonance. Psychologists use this term to describe the genuine difficulty the people have in understanding, remembering, and taking action on inputs that they find irreconcilable with the current reality, or with strong existing beliefs. The message heard may be unintentionally distorted, and you must repeat and rephrase often to be effective.
Failure to build relationships. When people are listening to someone with confidence and trust, there is a predisposition to hear the message and agree. On the other hand, if the source is unknown or un-trusted, the message may be ignored or minimized. The solution is to work on relationships first, before attempting persuasive communication.
Technical semantics and jargon. Jargon only has meaning if the symbols are already understood. If an abbreviation or phrase is not commonly used outside a specific group, or experts, it becomes negative communication, with people reading it as presumptive, insulting, or an attempt to deceive. The remedy is to use clear and concise language.
Not paying attention and forgetting. We all have the human predilection to be selective in attention. Attention spans seem to be getting steadily shorter. Add the problem of noise, external and internal, which can blank out whole messages. Pick the right time and place for each message type, to maximize attention and retention.
Information withheld. Sometimes an entrepreneur or executive tries to communicate without full disclosure, perhaps to minimize impact, or due to company policy. This is readily recognized by most constituents, negates the message, and erodes trust. In startups, the best policy is transparent honest disclosure across all levels of the team.
It’s important to remember that communication only happens when the other person really hears what you mean to say. It’s not a one-way street, and there are often barriers on both sides. To be successful, the entrepreneur has the responsibility of overcoming all of these barriers to make the interaction effective. The alternative is a lose-lose situation for both sides.

A climate of open, two-way communication is also the only way to ensure that those who do not understand feel free to ask for clarification. No questions does not always mean that everyone heard the message. How often do you ask for feedback to make sure your communication has been effective?
http://www.forbes.com/sites/martinzwilling/2013/07/07/entrepreneurs-face-serious-communication-barriers/

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How to listen attentively in class?

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Do you ever find yourself nodding off in class? Are you tempted to skip class because you get so little from it anyway? Maybe, too, you find at test-taking time that the instructor asks you about information you’ve never heard of. It’s very likely that the material was presented during those days when you simply tuned out the lecture. So, what can you do about it?

You may choose to listen attentively. Listening is a process of patience as the human brain works about four times as fast as the mouth, and to listen effectively requires considerable self-control. There are many techniques for developing and maintaining the self-discipline needed for attentive listening. Here are several techniques:

1. DEVELOP A POSITIVE ATTITUDE
You are taking that class for some reason; therefore, you have an investment in it. Make the most of your investment. Each class or course may not create the same appeal or interest for you. But on the other hand, neither will each task or undertaking in “life after college” be enticing or rewarding in itself. Keep in mind your long-term goals regarding education and preparation for your lifework. Getting the most out of this course is one step toward that goal.

2. INTEND TO FOLLOW YOUR PROFESSOR’S LECTURE CLOSELY
Go to class determined to listen. Make it a challenge. Try to understand the professor’s style of lecturing by listening closely. Professors have individual lecture styles and learning that style can help you detect key statements and concepts.

3. DO NOT BE DISTRACTED BY AN INSTRUCTOR’S MANNERISMS, DELIVERY, OR VOICE
Concentrate instead on what is said. If you disagree, jot down points of disagreement to bring up later.

4. LISTEN WITH YOUR MIND NOT YOUR EMOTIONS
If the speaker uses a word you don’t like, or makes a point contrary to your beliefs, don’t stop listening — you’ll only be defeating yourself. You don’t have to agree, but don’t allow yourself to be turned off from listening.

5. SIT CLOSE TO THE FRONT OF THE CLASS
By positioning yourself close to the professor, you can focus on his or her face, follow the lecture more effectively, and increase your incentive for attentive listening.

6. BE ALERT
As you probably know, this is not always easy. Avoid eating heavy meals before class; get adequate rest; wear clothing that will allow you to be comfortable and develop an erect posture of attentiveness (rather than a slouch). When you find your mind wandering, shift your focus by looking around the room until you become more alert.

7. READ THE TEXT BEFORE CLASS
This makes the material presented in the lecture clearer, more recognizable, and more retainable.

8. TAKE NOTES
Students who involve themselves with writing down statements and thoughts from the lecture tend to remember more of the material. Besides helping to keep you awake, the physical act of writing will assist you in concentrating and in organizing your thoughts.

9. INFORMALLY SHARE YOUR IDEAS
Getting to know several other people in your class and occasionally getting together to share ideas can help to clarify the information and to solidify learning. Getting together can also create enthusiasm and make learning a lot more fun.

10. ASK QUESTIONS
Questions about the meaning of terms are a good place to start. Best of all, by asking questions you become an active participant in the class rather than a passive observer taking in the events.

11. INTERPRET THE LECTURE
Process the information in light of the previous knowledge and experience to keep your thought processes active and to integrate your learning.

12. EVALUATE YOUR INFORMATION
Sort through information presented to determine the material that is important and critical for remembering.

 Keep these steps in mind as you attend your next class. Adopt them as guidelines for getting the most from classroom lectures as your work toward academic achievement. The rewards will surprise you!

http://www.ctl.ua.edu/ctlstudyaids/studyskillsflyers/generaltips/attentivelistening.htm


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5 Must-Have Soft Skills for Engineers’ Career Success

Technical acumen alone is insufficient for engineering career success. “Soft skills” play an increasingly important role in differentiating STEM professionals for employment and advancement.

renjith krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
renjith krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In the day-to-day work of engineers and technical specialists, soft skills are as important as technical skills. These skills, or emotional intelligence, are often not learned in school and enable professionals to navigate smoothly and effectively through a wide variety of social and professional situations with a wide variety of people. Such skills include communication, cooperation, creativity, leadership, and organization.

A mid-2012 study from Millennial Branding showed that soft skills topped the list of must-haves for employers, with 98 percent of them saying communication skills are essential and 92 percent teamwork skills. Following are five key soft skills that engineers and other STEM professionals should develop for career success.

Soft Skill 1: Communication

While speaking, writing, and listening are everyday actions, many professionals underestimate the importance of communication skills. Engineers tend to prioritize technical skills over communication skills, not realizing that they cannot be fully effective in their jobs if they are inadequate speakers, writers, and listeners. Yet it is particularly in the engineering fields that effective communication skills are crucial to success.

In a recent survey conducted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers of both society members and nonmembers in engineering-related positions, respondents said they believe communication skills — such as business writing, technical writing, public speaking, and presentation preparation — are “crucial” for success as engineers work in and among more varied groups.

The interaction between stakeholders, whether it is internal in an organization or external with partners or clients, is fraught with opportunities for misunderstanding. That is why effective communication also involves listening, which is itself an essential soft skill. Without actively listening to customers, clients, or project partners, problem-solving becomes much more difficult and time-consuming.

Soft Skill 2: Creativity

Creativity is arguably the driving force behind innovation and therefore increasingly gaining recognition as the new capital in uncertain and challenging economic times. Innovation thrives on breakthrough thinking, nimbleness, and empowerment. Organizations often depend on big ideas and creative employees to develop innovative products and services.

In the mid-aughts, IEEE Spectrum noted the frequent accusation that engineers are uncreative — a myth that persists today. Yet, as IEEE Spectrum explained, “every engineer’s core mission is to try to improve the utility of things, to design products or processes that will solve problems better, faster and cheaper.” This mission would rarely be achieved if not for engineers’ ways of thinking, which often lead to problem-solving opportunities that would otherwise remain hidden.

In the engineering fields, creativity can be as valuable to solving a problem as the technical skills to identify and troubleshoot the source of the problem. As such, creative thinking is a soft skill that engineers, scientists, and others in the STEM fields should cultivate in order to become invaluable members of their organizations.

Soft Skill 3: Adaptability

There is no shortage of challenges and issues that arise on any given workday. Having the ability to identify solutions to unforeseen problems requires being able to modify and adjust accordingly to the environment and situation.

This flexibility is one of the soft skills that increasingly more employers look for in employees. The way professionals demonstrate their adaptability is by showing they are able to think on their feet, assess problems, and find solutions. The ability to develop a well-thought-out solution within a given time is a skill that employers value greatly.

At the same time, today’s tech frontier is rapidly reshaping industries, which means that organizations often must implement change internally to keep up. Here, adaptability also means a willingness to face the unexpected.

“Are you the first to complain if plans change? Do you sulk and brood when things don’t go your way?” AOL Jobs recently asked. “If that’s you, think about how you can be a little less rigid. It will make you a more marketable job seeker.”

Soft Skill 4: Collaboration

A 2007 study from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management used almost 20 million papers over five decades and 2.1 million patents to demonstrate that teams increasingly dominate solo authors in knowledge production. The days of single-inventor innovations have been replaced with team research across nearly all fields.

Whether you call it cooperation, collaboration, or teamwork, an engineer’s ability to work with other people from different backgrounds is essential.

“For example, when designing a transformer for high-voltage transmission lines … it takes more than one engineer to complete the project,” the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) recently explained. “It requires a team of engineers and other professionals — drafters, project managers, and administrative staff — working together and potentially interfacing with clients, regulatory agencies, subcontractors, and even public advocacy groups.

“What would be the likelihood of success if team members could not communicate together?” the ASTD continued. “What if they could not share responsibilities and accountability in working as a team? What if there was no leadership present in the project?”

Soft Skill 5: Leadership

Leadership, in and of itself, is not one skill but the blending and integration of a variety of skills. By its very nature, leading people is about successfully interacting with them and convincing them to follow. This makes leadership a key soft skill for STEM professionals who intend to make a difference.

“In an engineering context, leadership incorporates a number of capabilities which are critical in order to function at a professional level,” according to the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). “These capabilities include the ability to assess risk and take initiative, the willingness to make decisions in the face of uncertainty, a sense of urgency and the will to deliver on time in the face of constraints or obstacles, resourcefulness and flexibility, trust and loyalty in a team setting, and the ability to relate to others.”

While much of leadership is character-based, engineers can develop or hone certain leadership skills or attributes to foster personal and professional success.

“Leadership skills are also important to allow engineers later in their careers to help develop and communicate vision for the future and to help shape public policy,” the NSPE continued. “These leadership capabilities are essential for the professional practice of engineering and for the protection of public health, safety and welfare.”

by David Butcher | March 18, 2013
– See more at: http://www.thomasnet.com/journals/career/5-must-have-soft-skills-for-engineers-career-success/#sthash.EIOj0Nl0.dpuf


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Writing Skills: Getting Your Written Message Across Clearly

Improve your writing skills
with James Manktelow & Amy Carlson.

A colleague has just sent you an email relating to a meeting you’re having in one hour’s time. The email is supposed to contain key information that you need to present, as part of the business case for an important project.

But there’s a problem: The email is so badly written that you can’t find the data you need. There are misspellings and incomplete sentences, and the paragraphs are so long and confusing that it takes you three times more than it should to find the information you want.

As a result, you’re under-prepared for the meeting, and it doesn’t go as well as you want it to.

Have you ever faced a situation similar to this? In today’s information overload world, it’s vital to communicate clearly, concisely and effectively. People don’t have time to read book-length emails, and they don’t have the patience to scour badly-constructed emails for “buried” points.

The better your writing skills are, the better the impression you’ll make on the people around you – including your boss, your colleagues, and your clients. You never know how far these good impressions will take you!

In this article, we’ll look at how you can improve your writing skills and avoid common mistakes.
Audience and Format

The first step to writing clearly is choosing the appropriate format. Do you need to send an informal email? Write a detailed report? Create advertising copy? Or write a formal letter?

The format, as well as your audience, will define your “writing voice” – that is, how formal or relaxed the tone should be. For instance, if you write an email to a prospective client, should it have the same tone as an email to a friend?

Definitely not.

Start by identifying who will read your message. Is it targeted at senior managers, the entire human resources team, or a small group of engineers? With everything you write, your readers, or recipients, should define your tone as well as aspects of the content.
Composition and Style

Once you know what you’re writing, and for whom you’re writing, you actually have to start writing.

A blank, white computer screen is often intimidating. And it’s easy to get stuck because you don’t know how to start. Try these tips for composing and styling your document:

Start with your audience – Remember, your readers may know nothing about what you’re telling them. What do they need to know first?
Create an outline – This is especially helpful if you’re writing a longer document such as a report, presentation, or speech. Outlines help you identify which steps to take in which order, and they help you break the task up into manageable pieces of information.
Use AIDA – If you’re writing something that must inspire action in the reader, follow the Attention-Interest-Desire-Action (AIDA) formula. These four steps can help guide you through the writing process.
Try some empathy – For instance, if you’re writing a sales letter for prospective clients, why should they care about your product or sales pitch? What’s the benefit for them? Remember your audience’s needs at all times.
Use the Rhetorical Triangle – If you’re trying to persuade someone to do something, make sure that you communicate why people should listen to you, pitch your message in a way that engages your audience, and present information rationally and coherently. Our article on the Rhetorical Triangle can help you make your case in the most effective way.
Identify your main theme – If you’re having trouble defining the main theme of your message, pretend that you have 15 seconds to explain your position. What do you say? This is likely to be your main theme.
Use simple language – Unless you’re writing a scholarly article, it’s usually best to use simple, direct language. Don’t use long words just to impress people.

Structure

Your document should be as “reader friendly” as possible. Use headings, subheadings, bullet points, and numbering whenever possible to break up the text.

After all, what’s easier to read – a page full of long paragraphs, or a page that’s broken up into short paragraphs, with section headings and bullet points? A document that’s easy to scan will get read more often than a document with long, dense paragraphs of text.

Headers should grab the reader’s attention. Using questions is often a good idea, especially in advertising copy or reports, because questions help keep the reader engaged and curious.

In emails and proposals, use short, factual headings and subheadings, like the ones in this article.

Adding graphs and charts is also a smart way to break up your text. These visual aids not only keep the reader’s eye engaged, but they can communicate important information much more quickly than text.
Grammatical Errors

You probably don’t need us to tell you that errors in your document will make you look unprofessional. It’s essential to learn grammar properly, and to avoid common mistakes that your spell checker won’t find.

Here are some examples of commonly misused words:

Affect/effect
“Affect” is a verb meaning to influence. (Example: The economic forecast will affect our projected income.)
“Effect” is a noun meaning the result or outcome. (Example: What is the effect of the proposal?)
Then/than
“Then” is typically an adverb indicating a sequence in time. (Example: We went to dinner, then we saw a movie.)
“Than” is a conjunction used for comparison. (Example: The dinner was more expensive than the movie.)
Your/you’re
“Your” is a possessive. (Example: Is that your file?)
“You’re” is a contraction of “you are.” (Example: You’re the new manager.)
Note: Also watch out for other common homophones (words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings) – such as their/they’re/there, to/too/two, and so on.
Its/it’s
“Its” is a possessive. (Example: Is that its motor?)
“It’s” is a contraction of “It is.” (Example: It’s often that heavy.) (Yes, it is this way around!)
Company’s/companies (and other possessives versus plurals)
“Company’s” indicates possession. (Example: The company’s trucks hadn’t been maintained properly.)
“Companies” is plural. (Example: The companies in this industry are suffering.)

To learn more about commonly misused words, misused apostrophes, and other grammatical errors, take our Bite-Sized Training session on Written Communication.

Tip:
Some of your readers – arguably an increasing number – won’t be perfect at spelling and grammar. They may not notice if you make these errors. But don’t use this as an excuse: there will usually be people, senior managers in particular, who WILL notice!

Because of this, everything you write should be of a quality that every reader will find acceptable.
Proofing

The enemy of good proofreading is speed. Many people rush through their documents, but this is how you miss mistakes. Follow these guidelines to check what you’ve written:

Proof your headers and subheaders – People often skip these and focus on the text alone. Just because headers are big and bold doesn’t mean they’re error free!
Read the document out loud – This forces you to go more slowly, so that you’re more likely to catch mistakes.
Use your finger to follow text as you read – This is another trick that helps you slow down.
Start at the end of your document – Proofread one sentence at a time, working your way from the end to the beginning. This helps you focus on errors, not on content.

Key Points

More than ever, it’s important to know how to communicate your point quickly and professionally. Many people spend a lot of time writing and reading, so the better you are at this form of communication, the more successful you’re likely to be.

Identify your audience before you start creating your document. And if you feel that there’s too much information to include, create an outline to help organize your thoughts. Learning grammatical and stylistic techniques will also help you write more clearly; and be sure to proof the final document. Like most things, the more you write, the better you’re going to be!


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An Informative Article on How Typeface Affects Communication

How typeface influences the way we read and think
And why everyone hates Comic Sans MS
By Chris Gayomali | June 14, 2013
 
Sometimes fonts speak louder than words.
Sometimes fonts speak louder than words.
Thinkstock/iStockphoto
 
L

ast summer, CERN was on the verge of announcing a discovery so critical to understanding the basic building blocks of the universe that it had been given a divine name: The God particle.

The hunt for the Higgs boson was one of the most expensive and labor-intensive particle physics projects ever undertaken, and promised to answer the fundamental but elusive question of why our atoms stick together in the first place. And yet, when CERN researchers finally announced that they’d glimpsed the Higgs, the world’s first reaction wasn’t to cheer; it was to stifle collective laughter. The institution’s scientists, cradling the most important scientific discovery of the decade, had chosen to present their findings to a breathless public using a peculiar font face: Comic Sans MS.

Possibly the biggest scientific discovery of our time, the #Higgs Boson, announced in glorious MS Comic Sans Font twitpic.com/a3pl0s

— Colin Eberhardt (@ColinEberhardt) July 4, 2012

The whole kerfuffle underscored just how important typefaces are to the way we process information. Words hold power. But the aesthetic manner in which those words are presented can affect the way we read, and the way we think about the information presented.

“Typography is one ingredient in a pretty complicated presentation,” Cyrus Highsmith, a typeface designer and author of the book Inside Paragraphs, told me over the phone. “Typography is the detail and the presentation of a story. It represents the voice of an atmosphere, or historical setting of some kind. It can do a lot of things.”

***

In December, Errol Morris of The New York Times conducted an experiment on the publication’s unsuspecting online readers. It came in two basic parts.

Part one was an ordinary article about a scientific study concerning optimism versus pessimism. In part two, with the help of Cornell psychologist David Dunning, Morris designed a quiz to evaluate whether the Times‘ readers found the study’s conclusions believable.

Here’s the catch. When readers came to the site, the story was presented in different typefaces: Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Comic Sans, and Trebuchet. Roughly 40,000 people responded to the quiz, and the results were weighted to evaluate which fonts inspired more confidence in the research, and which fonts made the information appear less believable. Here’s what Morris found:

The conscious awareness of Comic Sans promotes — at least among some people — contempt and summary dismissal. But is there a typeface that promotes, engenders a belief that a sentence is true? Or at least nudges us in that direction? And indeed there is.

It is Baskerville.

Believe it or not, the results of this test even show a disparity between Baskerville and Georgia — two apparently similar serif typefaces. [New York Times]

Baskerville’s weighted advantage wasn’t huge — just 1.5 percent. “That advantage may seem small,” Dunning told the Times, “but if that was a bump up in sales figures, many online companies would kill for it. The fact that font matters at all is a wonderment.”

Why was Baskerville more believable? Dunning had a theory:

The word that comes to my mind is gravitas. There are some fonts that are informal — Comic Sans, obviously — and other fonts that are a little bit more tuxedo. It seems to me that Georgia is slightly tuxedo. Computer Modern is a little bit more tuxedo and Baskerville has just a tad more starchiness. I would have expected that if you are going to have a winner in Baskerville, you are also going to have a winner in Computer Modern. But we did not. And there can be a number of explanations for that. Maybe there is a slight difference in how they are rendered in PCs or laptops that causes the starch in Computer Modern to be a little softer than the starch in Baskerville. [New York Times]

***

A lot goes into typeface design that we tend not to think about. Online, it’s commonly understood that serifs, or fonts with a tiny line tailing the edges of the lettering, like Times New Roman, help influence the horizontal flow of reading. In reality, it’s not that simple. (User-interface designer Alex Poole pored over 50 empirical studies for his master’s thesis if you’re interested in learning more.)

“There are many very readable sans serif typefaces out there. Plus some shapes of serifs might actually hinder readability if they are too prominent or draw too much attention to themselves,” Alexander Tochilovsky, a design instructor at the Cooper Union School of Art, told me in an email. “Besides the formal qualities of the typeface, [or] the structure of the letters, a lot also depends on how the fonts are employed, and for what purpose.” He continued:

Size of type, letter-spacing, word-spacing, leading (interline spacing), column width, justification, etc., all play a key role in how readable a passage of text is (or isn’t). Text meant for a book requires a different approach of typesetting from one that is meant to be seen on a poster.

Type design is something we tend not to think about when we’re reading. But font can have real-world implications that affect our lives in tangible ways.

Take this somewhat famous quasi-experiment by university student Phil Renaud back in 2006 (preserved for posterity in Pastebin form). Over the course of six semesters, Renaud wrote 52 essays for his classes, earning himself a commendable A- overall.

Here’s the thing: Toward the end of his last semester, Renaud’s average essay score began climbing. “I haven’t drastically changed the amount of effort I’m putting into my writing,” he wrote. “I’m probably even spending less time with them now than I did earlier in my studies.”

What he did change, however, was his essay font — three times, in fact. Renaud went back and looked at his essay scores and the different typefaces he’d used when he submitted his work. His papers were handed to his professors in three different fonts: Times New Roman, Trebuchet MS, and Georgia. Here’s what he tallied:

Why did Georgia — which he switched to later on in his college career — perform better than the others? Here’s what Renaud wrote:

Maybe fonts speak a lot louder than we think they do. Especially to a professor who has to wade through a collection of them; Times seems to be the norm, so it really doesn’t set off any subconscious triggers. Georgia is enough like Times to retain its academic feel, and is different enough to be something of a relief for the grader. Trebuchet seems to set off a negative trigger, maybe just based on the fact that it’s not as easy to read in print, maybe on the fact that it looks like something off a blog rather than an academic journal. Who knows. [Source]

Indeed, Renaud’s observations were consistent with a 1998 study from Carnegie Mellon, which pitted Times New Roman against Georgia. Participants overwhelmingly preferred Georgia over its stodgier doppelgänger, judging Georgia to be “sharper, more pleasing, and easier to read.”

Why, then, does everyone hate Comic Sans MS? Author and designer David Kadavy had the same question, and compared the child-like scribble to another face that’s inversely beloved on the other end of the spectrum: Helvetica.

Kadavy argues that a “mismanagement of visual weight is the main issue that makes reading Comic Sans an unpleasant experience. Evenness of weight, or ‘texture’ is important to the legibility and readability of typography.” It’s partly why Helvetica’s aesthetic appeal is so universal.

Which isn’t to say there’s a one-size-fits all prescription for what kind of font is best for reading, or writing. As with all things, there are all kinds of factors you have to consider: Your audience (what typeface are they comfortable reading?), and the medium you’re delivering your words on (a computer screen is different from the squinty lines in a novel, for example).

In the end, it all “comes back to the context or purpose that fonts are being used for,” Tochilovsky told me. “There is a lot that is going on within any given font, often imperceptible to the eye.”

 

http://theweek.com/article/index/245632/how-typeface-influences-the-way-we-read-and-think


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Mastering the Art of Technical Communication

Engineering professionals have been talking about the importance of soft skills for years, and in the past decade, universities and technical schools have recognized their responsibility in meeting the need to provide education in technical communications.

For experienced professionals, there is no dearth of courses available, both online and on-site. Yet the call for even better skills (in writing for example) continues, and programs are continually being revamped and improved.

“Much work that contains a great deal of technical value gets ignored because the people who did the work failed to communicate properly,” according to Alan P. Rossiter, president of an engineering consulting and training firm Rossiter & Associates, in his book Professional Excellence: Beyond Technical Competence, published by John Wiley & Sons.

Effective Communication

Zachery Koppelmann, coordinator of the Purdue School of Mechanical Engineering Writing Enhancement Program, which addresses concerns of the faculty, alumni, and corporate partners, says “Writing is the foundation of efficient, effective communication between engineers and non-engineers.” The program evaluates undergraduate ME writing, identifies weaknesses, and develops instructional resources to directly address those weaknesses.

“Engineers work with complex processes and extremely detailed data,” says Koppelmann. “Being a great engineer is more than being able to individually understand the processes and data; it is also being able to explain the processes and data in a manner that allows audiences to understand their importance,” he adds.

That means being able to communicate well with both other engineers and those with non-technical backgrounds.

“Many engineering students we work with are brilliant at design and the execution of their designs, but they are often poorly prepared to explain their work to folks outside of their project,” explains Koppelmann. “The most brilliant design can only be used if engineers can effectively explain the design, clearly connect the design to other designs or concepts and directly demonstrate the benefits of the design. Raw data is not self-evident.”

Providing Feedback

Soon after the program started, it was learned that the feedback to ME undergraduates from their instructors was inconsistent. To address this, the program now has specific feedback guidelines and is providing special training for dedicated raters. After this implementation, there has been marked improvement in undergraduate ME writing, says Koppelmann.

Benefits are being realized in more ways than in just the communication process. “We have found that the more engineers are required to explain their designs and processes, the better the designs and processes become,” Koppelmann says. “We believe that this is a result of engineers having to think more carefully about what they are doing, and why they are doing it, so they can effectively and efficiently write about their work,” he adds.

In his book, Rossiter concurs: “Writing is an integral part of a project and should be done as a project progresses and not at the conclusion of the project. Develop an outline and a structure for the report early in the work and draft parts of the report as a project progresses. … The result is not just a better report but a better, more complete, piece of technical work too.”

Nancy Giges is an independent writer.

https://www.asme.org/career-education/articles/business-writing/mastering-the-art-of-technical-communication