Does Technical Communication Get 'Lost in Translation?'

May 2006 » Columns
In any communication, at least some of the meaning is lost in simple transmission of a message from the sender to the receiver. "It was obvious that the engineers knew all the ins and outs of the work," a neighbor said about a public project meeting. "But I didn't get half of what they were saying. And they didn't address the matters that are of interest to me."
Cathy Baz&aacute

In some classes on effective communication, I have seen the limitation: "Native or near-native English speakers are not eligible for enrollment." I find, however, that assuming that a native or near-native English speaker can communicate effectively in some professional scenarios has drawbacks.

In any communication, at least some of the meaning is lost in simple transmission of a message from the sender to the receiver. "It was obvious that the engineers knew all the ins and outs of the work," a neighbor said about a public project meeting. "But I didn't get half of what they were saying. And they didn't address the matters that are of interest to me."

"The body language did not help," another neighbor said. "The main presenter did not look confident or interested on the presentation. More pictures and a timeline diagram would have helped." I happened to know the presenting engineer, so I asked him how he and his team had prepared their presentation and how well he thought he had communicated with the audience. "We targeted the various aspects that we considered important and compressed them into the relatively short period of time we had. I worked very hard on some of the technical aspects and wanted the delivery to be solid. I think it went rather well."

Obviously, part of the message was "lost in translation," or, perhaps in delivery to its audience. To improve on my own communication skills, I asked five locally recognized experts to provide some tips on delivering technical communications. They recommended the following:

Know your target audience -Likely the most important yet often overlooked factor. Who are they (e.g. decision-makers vs. colleagues vs. public)? What are the issues they consider important? What are some of their expectations of your document/presentation?
Be truthful-It avoids distrust and erroneous translation. Related tip: Avoid unreliable messages, inconsistency, ambiguity, and redundancy.
Language-The same words will likely be interpreted differently depending on the receiver(s). Your choice of words or language will influence the quality of the communication and project a certain message about you.
Body language/attitude-Be aware that tone, poise, attire, and other non-verbal forms of communication affect the delivery of your message. Personalize your presentation to your target audience.
General assumptions-Assuming that others see a situation or project the same way that you do may not be accurate. The measure(s) of project success may also be different (e.g. innovation vs. public acceptance vs. budget vs. timeline).
Practice-Most audiences can tell when the presenter is not prepared. Similarly, most readers know when a writer has either spent a limited amount of time on the document/report/e-message or lacks experience in written communication.
Perceptual biases-Most people have biases built into their communication; the most common one is stereotyping. As much as possible, avoid assuming that the other person has certain characteristics based on a particular group to which they belong, unless you have proof to the contrary.
Interpersonal relationships-How we perceive communication is affected by our past experience with the individual/group. Perception is also affected by the organizational relationship people have (e.g. communication from a superior may be perceived differently than that from a subordinate or peer). Try to establish how these relationships affect your communication.
Cultural differences-Effective communication requires interpreting the basic values, motives, and assumptions of the target audience. Taking time to evaluate what the main differences likely will be significantly increase the reception of your message.
Humor-Many people fail to appreciate the fine but very distinct line between genuine, healthy humor and cynicism, sarcasm or, worse, offense. If you're in doubt, try to extract an honest opinion from a colleague or friend on your delivery.
Self-fulfilling prophecies-If you think that the presentation/report will be a success, you have reached half your goal. The rest is perspiration (work).

There are some items that perhaps professionals have no control over, such as selective hearing, willingness to accept the message being conveyed, and/or sensitivity of the audience. Within what is feasible, however, the application of some of the tips presented, mixed with technical expertise, critical thinking and teamwork, favors effective communication.

Do you have an effective communication tip or story to share? Send your comments to civilconnection@cenews.com.


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