Answer the questions or question the answers?

Sometimes I drive my students mad. And I do it on purpose too. You see, instead of giving them answers to their questions, I give them more questions. I’ll give you an example.wrong_question_header

Student: “Please, Bob, should this trade-off table be included in the text or should I move it to the appendix?”

Bob: “Well, that depends. Who do you suppose will be reading it?”

Student: “Why, you are, I guess! I don’t know.”

Bob: “Would you agree maybe, that I am unlikely to read the professional technical reports that you will be writing after your graduation? Would you also agree then, that there must be somebody else who will be reading them, and that it would be wise to figure out who they are?”

Student: “Yeah but you are reading this one and there must be a proper place to put this table. Can’t you just tell us where it is?”

Bob: “Let me put it this way. Why did you make this table in the first place? What do you want your readers to do with it?

Student: “Well, we want them to be able to check whether the argumentation represented in the trade-off table is valid, so that they will understand and accept our choice for the best concept.” (I admit they don’t usually put it quite like this.)

Bob: “Okay. That accounts for its wonderful level of detail. And who would that be doing this checking?”

Student: “That’s easy. Engineers of course!”

Bob: “Excellent! Remind me, what kind of report are you writing again?”

Student: “A management report.”

Bob: “Ah. And do you maybe remember what we discussed during last week’s lesson on presentation skills?”

Student: “Yes, we discussed how there are several different ways to present scores in an oral presentation.”

Bob: “For example?”

Student: “You can give the actual scores, you can use symbols, like pluses and minuses. And colour codes, like red is bad and green is good.”

Bob: “And what might be the reason for the differences between these presentations?”

Student: “That way you can vary the amount of detail depending on your audience’s expertise and needs.”

Bob: “And?”

Student: “You can give them your interpretation of the scores this way.”
questions roadsign

Bob: “Brilliant! So how do you think this strategy might be applied in our present situation, considering that you are writing mainly for a manager who just wants to know the outcome of your trade-off and present this to her team?”

Student: “Ah! You mean that we might put this highly detailed version in the appendix for specialists, so they can check our results, and present a low-tech version for the project managers in the body of the report?”

Bob: “Wow!”

Student: “Why did you not just tell us what you wanted?”

Bob: “What would you have learned?”

Three, no four ways the Spanish Inquisition will help you write better headings than this one.

 

the-spanish-inquisition

 

I bet you were not expecting me to use the Spanish Inquisition to help you write better headings. Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition and I’m guessing that it got your attention, or you would not have read this far. The Spanish Inquisition have several ways to help you improve your headings. Amongst their weaponry are such diverse elements as:

Fear

Fear the reaction of your readers. Counting your arguments is a good and powerful way to dia1bring a point across, but these days everybody’s doing it and readers are starting to be really annoyed with yet another heading like, “Seven reasons why you should take up running”, “Five reasons why you should not eat bread”, “Three ways to improve your sales”, “Ten reasons why running is bad for you”, “Six reasons why you should avoid annoying your readers with boring headings”.

Surprise

Surprise your readers with a more interesting kind of heading. kirk-surprisedSomething they were not expecting. You want to be read? Be different. Stand out from the crowd. Do something new. Boldly combine ideas that no one has combined before.

Ruthless efficiency

Use as few words as you can, but no fewer than you need. Headings are important because readers use them as a selection instrument. Am I going to read this blog post or not, is what they’re asking themselves, and if they don’t understand the heading they won’t read your post. Or your technical report. Or your scientific paper. So KISS: Keep It Short and Simple.

Fanatical devotion

Do not stop revising until you’ve got the perfect heading. This can take a long time. Consider leaving it alone for a couple of days if you’re not satisfied yet. Don’t throw away previous versions, you may want to revert back to them later on. Personally, I wrote approximately 20 headings for this post before I decided on this one and I still have them somewhere.

Nice red uniforms

If you are writing for a newspaper or a weblog you can do pretty much whatever you want with your headings (and even here we see a lot of people stealing and copying each other’s ideas, which is boring and which is why am writing this post). At work, uniformity may be expected more often (Look! We’ve been doing it like this for ages so it must be a good idea!). And even if we know that it’s the heading that stands out from the rest that will catch people’s eye, not all your headings can always be spectacularly different from the ones written by your colleagues. Some of you have company templates that you have to use and often a particular style is prescribed. But even if you have to do what everybody else is doing and they make you wear that uniform, at least try to make it a red one.

comfy-chair

Writers who fail to take this advice seriously will be considered blasphemers and will be poked with soft cushions, with all the stuffing at one end. And if they don’t confess their blasphemy they will have to sit in a comfy chair until teatime.

Spoiler Alert!

Why bottom lines should be headlines.

What would your readers say if you put the conclusion of your report in its title?

A: Booh! Spoiler alert!

B: Aha!

I have asked that question in my writing groups for years and every time a few of my students answer ‘A’. Apparently they think that argumentation should come before conclusion. And of course it does – when you are doing the research and the designing. But does that mean that you should keep your conclusions secret until your reader has read the rest of the report? I think not!

Mind you: I am not talking about scientific papers or essays here. But your report should give the most efficient representation of your conclusions and argumentation possible, and that means that your reader should be able to see what your main conclusion is. Immediately. On the front page.

A title like: “An investigation into algae as an energy source” forces your poor readers to find the Summary or the Conclusion section and read until they come to the relevant bit, which they will find annoying. You don’t want your readers to find you annoying. Really. It’s bad for business.

Instead, write something like: “Three reasons why algae will never replace fossile fuel”, or: “Why algae are likely to be the biofuel of the future”. If you want (you do), you can combine them into a title and a subtitle (or primary and secondary, if you are American) like this:

Three reasons why algae will replace fossile fuel within five years.

An investigation into algae as an energy source.

Or:

Algare are not an acceptable alternative for fossile fuel.

Research shows algae are too slow to grow, expensive and inefficient.

I have said this in previous posts, but you may not (yet) have read them all (you should). People who read technical reports professionally don’t have a lot of time to read. Do them a favour: don’t waste their time by keeping your main findings a secret.

“Pass the parcel” writing exercise

It has been a long time since I wrote something about writing. This will not do. Here is a lovely creative writing exercise I did with my technical report-writing group last week.

  1. Make groups of four or five; tell everyone to find a pen and a sheet of paper (no laptops or books or anything like that, just a sheet of paper).
  2. Give them half a sentence to write. I gave them “This morning, when I was coming to class …”, but it could be anything you like of course.
  3. Tell them they get thee minutes to write as fast as they can, continuing from the half-sentence you gave them. Don’t let them think, make them write! “Punch those keys!” (from the movie Finding Forrester, which is about an aspiring writer, co-starring Sean Connery).
  4. When the three minutes are up, tell your students to stop – don’t let them finish their sentences – and to pass their writing product to the next person in the subgroup, so that everybody gets somebody else’s product. Give them 10 seconds to read and then ask them to continue the story, again for three minutes.
  5. Keep doing this until each student gets their own story  (i.e. the one they started) back, and give them two minutes to wrap it up. Don’t give them more than 10 seconds to read during the changeovers.

To make it more difficult – and a lot more fun – you can add small assignments like: your next sentence contains an elephant or the next paragraph contains a five-syllable word. I usually make these up on the spot, but if you are a better organized language teacher than I am, and chances are that you are, you can make them use the passive voice only, or the gerund, or the idioms they were supposed to have studied (one per sentence), whatever floats your boat. But don’t overdo this, it will kill the fun.

It is important that you put the pressure on. Don’t give them time to think, they have to write as fast as they can.

Every time I do this exercise with my students, the room buzzes with energy and the results are invariably hilarious. But have they learned anything? Well, if it’s only that they perform better under pressure than they thought, that would be enough. But also …

  • Writing can be fun.
  • Writing does not have to be difficult and you can do it anywhere. I used this game once to resuscitate a birthday party that was on the brink of death.
  • Anyone can write. And that includes technologists like my students, not only linguists.
  • You don’t have to leave the writing of your group assignments to someone else.

Paul Kuijer was the teacher at “d’Witte Leli” who  taught me this exercise back in 1982. I still have it somewhere in my archive. Thank you, Paul.

Section Intoductions: Tell Your Readers What to Expect

When you divide your text into subsections you will have to make your reader understand what you are doing and what you are doing it for. This means that all sections at first and second level that you split up into subsections get an introduction.

Third level sections  usually don’t get an introduction as they are not split up. You would get a fourth level, which is really too much of a good thing. The example below shows a first level section that is subdivided into two second level sections in which two systems are compared. Notice that Chapter 3.1 is not split up into fragments and therefore does not have an introduction.

Please bear in mind that in reality you would never call them system A and B. Give them names that explains how they are different form each other.


Chapter 3: Comparison: System B performs better than system A

Now that we have established that system A and system B both yield satisfactory results, it is time to see which system meets the requirements best. Chapter 3.1 shows how both systems compare on durability and maintainability, chapter 3.2 will show how they cope in extreme situations.

3.1: Both systems are durable and easily maintainable

According to Johnson (2015), System A was found to be extremely durable. Even after 15 years of non-stop service the accuracy remained …. This was confirmed in several experiments (e.g. Post 2011, Williams 2012). System B, likewise, has proved to be ….

Maintenance of both systems was different only in minor aspects. System A requires slightly more time for …., but his is negligible because …

3.2: System B is more reliable under extreme conditions

Even though both systems function similarly under most circumstances, some remarkable differences came to light when we tested them in extreme temperatures. Both systems were used to measure X at 12 different temperatures and it was here where system B proved to be … Chapter 3.2.1 will first show the results of …., chapter 3.2.2 describes …

3.2.1: Low temperatures

Our measurements show that at temperatures below 100K, system A started to show …. This means that an extra insulation …., which will lead to ….

3.2.2: High temperatures

The last two measurements, at 500 and 600K respectively, show a marked difference ….

3.3: Conclusion: system B will be more reliable in future deployments

In the current situation, system A and B will both work equally well, as the temperatures at which they are used are moderate. However, as the situations, and with these the temperatures at which the systems will be subjected, will become more extreme in the next 3 or 4 years ….

(Do you see, by the way, how all the headings together form a kind of summary?)

Communicate Technology

Helping students to write and present technical reports.

Welcome!

This blog was initially created to help my students at Delft University of Technology write and present better technical reports. It turns out that a lot of people who are not my students are reading my posts too. Cool! I hope you find what you need and that you enjoy reading my blog.

What do you mean with “better technical reports”, you may ask. Better means: more geared to your readers’ needs and wishes.  So, all we need to do is find out who your readers and listeners are, find out what they need and wish and then find ways to deliver.

Easy? Hardly. The tricky thing about professional reports is that they are all read by several different people who all have different expectations from the same report. The fact that the reports that we write deal with technology adds an extra layer of challenges to this.

Presentations also, are usually attended by mixed audiences. Some people will be experts in your field, some will not. Some people will expect pictures, some people will expect numbers. And it’s you job to decide on a good mix.

In this blog  I will post anecdotes, examples, exercises and ideas dealing with writing and presenting  about technology. Please feel free to leave comments and questions.

Punch those keys!