Sunday, August 10, 2008

Communication breakdown

I'm with Eva at a working session in Montreal for the weekend. It's one of those "attendees can bring their wife" meetings. For this one I am "the wife". It's not the first time and isn't likely to be the last. It's a good sign (for me and for the profession) that every year more of "the wives" are husbands.

As a result of being in Montreal, I've been reading the Globe and Mail each morning. Yesterday's edition had a story on accepting certain common misspellings as allowable spelling variants in university level work. The original article by Ken Smith, a criminology lecturer at Bucks New University, was published in The Times Higher Education edition. Mr. Smith is "fed up with correcting my students' atrocious spelling". His recommendation is to pick twenty or so commonly misspelled words and make those misspellings acceptable spelling variations.

I'm not going to accuse Mr. Smith of crimes against the English language in this blog, what with its misspellings, excessive parenthetical phrasing and technical jargon. Still, I have mixed feelings about his comments. On one hand, Mr. Smith teaches Criminology, not English. I can appreciate the fact that he is reluctant to take time from Criminology and allocate it to spelling. If a student's paper demonstrates a remarkable understanding of the criminal mind, but is filled with spelling errors, should the student lose a point, ten points or one hundred? On the other hand, the specific examples Mr. Smith gives are all errors that any spell checker would catch. I'm not sure if submitting a criminology paper with the word "judgement" is bad typing, bad spelling or bad spell checking, but it certainly is lazy. It's one thing to spell a word wrong and another to refuse to correct the spelling once it is brought to your attention (along with four optional spellings).

I would prefer that the education system inject the notion of effective communications once some basic level of spelling, grammar and vocabulary has been reached. Communications are effective if, at the end of the exchange, the receiver understands the information the sender wished to convey and nothing else. Effective communications are contextual sensitive to the receiver, the message, the situation and the medium. They may or may not be in the Queen's English.

Let me give you an example. About a year ago, an issue was raised to our Director of Finance. I had a vested interest in the outcome and took extra time to produce a well-planned, well-crafted, highly informative email on a subject. Unfortunately, the decision was made prior to me sending the email. Good vocabulary? Yes. Good spelling? Yup. Good grammar? Ya sure ya betcha. Effectively communicated? Uh, not so much.

This is why arguments over allowing text messaging shorthand (txtspk) in formal coursework deliverables drives me absolutely nuts. R U crazy? Of course it shouldn't be allowed. Within that context, txtspk is completely insensitive to the situation, medium and the recipient. Students taught effective communications skills would know this. For the record, it isn't just kids and their text messaging either. Does this email seem familiar to any of you business professionals?


I'm TDY to the SF office for a month. Ken needs the GL report ASAP with YTD, QTD and MTD summary. Would you handel this and give me a ring when it's done?

If you've worked in corporate American in the last 40 years you most likely know what Tami is asking. This informal note is effective because it's contextual sensitive to the business environment. Tami's use of undefined initials, the misspelling of handle and the lack of a formal closing doesn't take away from the effectiveness, in this context. Tami isn't likely to use the same language in her memo to the Vice President of Marketing summarizing her finding during her temporary duty assignment (TDY) in San Francisco (SF). The situation is different and she would adjust her communication style accordingly.

Let me toss out a few thoughts for your consideration:
  1. Students need know how to communicate effectively and be given the opportunity to demonstrate effectiveness in different settings. What might generally be considered good writing or good speaking may not make for effective communication in all situations. Further, broader acceptance of communications technologies may force refinement in their usage. For instance, text messaging does require its "own" language, but you might need variants for you roommate and your CEO (yes, you will be text messaging your boss in the near future).
  2. School is one of the few places where students practice formal communications. Not to contradict #1, but some assignments should be very formal. Don't wimp out and let them use text messaging shorthand for those projects (unless, of course, it's a study of text messaging).
  3. Don't forget about graphical communication skills. Everyone asks for good written and oral skill, completely forgetting how valuable graphical representations can be in communicating information. Flow charts, data models, bar graphs and maps are all extremely effective tools when done properly.
  4. Email seems a particularly tricky beast because it replaces both formal and information paper communication as well as informal oral communication. As a result, it is easy for a casual, perhaps even sloppy style from an email about tomorrow's team lunch to bleed over into the email to your new sales prospect.
I just hope I didn't mispell anything in this post. ;-)

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lgrt said...

This is a great post and hits the nail on the head. A key for individuals to learn is what is the most appropriate way to communicate a specific idea to the intended audience.

I picked a technical career thinking in my youth that I would be excluded from all that communication nonsense. Boy was I wrong...

I've made a career out of translating techno-speak into business terms for CFO types. I've discovered that if you make it clear to an eighth grader, use little words and put in a few excel charts with color graphs, you will be able to make your point with the VPs. That same presentation will get me thrown out of the Tech Brown bag every time.

BTW: thx f/ the EDS reminder & !grading my comments.