On Monday, February 13, panelists John Baker, Rich Leazer, and Bob Powell convened in the Welcome Center at Lawrence Tech to focus on three questions:
- Why does communication matter in the workplace?
- What types of internal and external communication are used?
- How is communication accomplished and what are the trends?
Throughout the discussion, the panel focused on the need to be clear and concise, provide context, and be correct. They considered anticipating users’ needs, understanding audience, and the importance of interpersonal communication regardless of changing technology.
Why Does Communication Matter in the Workplace?
Powell stated that the purpose of communication is to take action and facilitate informed decisions based on reliable information. Since decisions are based on information, it is crucial to make sure that the information is communicated well. Powell stressed the importance of being correct, providing context, and being clear and concise.
Similarly, Leazer noted that we have to assimilate much information and break it down concisely and clearly. Being able to communicate effectively is a highly sought skill, because “You might have the best product, but if no one can use it, what good is it going to be?” Leazer described technical communicators as “sleuths”—detectives who formulate the users’ needs before the user is even aware of those needs. In this way, technical communicators are “advocating for the end user.” Leazer pointed out that it’s okay to “fail faster” because that is how you learn what doesn’t work.
Baker gave an example of a situation that involved not enough communication, which resulted in confusion and incorrect content. Even though the matter is now being resolved, it could have been avoided if the parties had communicated from the beginning.
What Types of Internal and External Communication Are Used?
The panel discussed two ways of thinking about internal and external communication: internal and external audiences, and internal and external forms of communication.
Leazer and Baker focused on internal and external audiences.
Leazer’s internal audience consists of teams that he supports, and his external audiences are doctors, analysts, and staff. External users have generally ended up being a priority; however, he is beginning to work more with both. Working with internal and external audiences has provided him with a bigger picture. Leazer described how when people have big ideas, he assists by taking all the information and presenting it in a clear, concise way. He also talked about how end-user documentation evolves and helps people evolve their own thoughts and strategies.
Baker described the frustration that occurs when you are not able to interact with external users directly.
Powell talked about internal communication, for example, emails, reports, and seminars; and external communication, for example, going public as scientists by presenting at conferences and publishing work. He described going public as a way to leverage problems into the world itself, and how people have come looking to help specifically because they have learned of these problems.
How Is Communication Accomplished and What Are the Trends?
Baker noted that the way communication takes place is important, especially with the predominance of email. Collecting information about users is crucial to create content for the users. It’s becoming a trend to give users what they want exactly when they need it—an example being the Nest Learning Thermostat—and technical communicators should follow this trend.
Likewise, Leazer agreed that we should work on anticipating user needs before they arise. He said that when someone is talking in front of you, it’s not what you’re saying, but how you’re saying it. Know your audience!
Powell focused on time management and the idea of “elevator talk”, by which he meant that you should always be prepared with a short version of what you are working on. He encouraged us to go to the meetings and committees that our customers go to, in order to introduce our own presence and understand them better.
Powell: “It’s okay to learn and practice how to stop.” While we live in an increasingly technology-based internet society, it’s okay to set boundaries and not to demand constant, round-the-clock communication.
Leazer: “As professional communicators, always keep and pursue an awareness of your tools because it’s not the tool we use, it’s how we use it in the moment.”
Baker: “Work on interviewer skills to find out everything you need to know.”
Although Powell, Leazer, and Baker come from different backgrounds and points in their careers, they agreed on the idea that face-to-face communication is not only still relevant today, but an essential skill.
Sasha Nicole Strait is a Wayne State University English major who is volunteering with us this semester as a writer. She has also written an article, The Future, with more thoughts on trends.
Photograph by Holly Helterhoff, senior lecturer at Lawrence Tech.