Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Communication skills - some tips

It is often noticed that most of the technocrats struggle with the language and their communication skills. As long as the discussion is limited to the technical terms and concepts, they do very well. but when it comes to translating the technology to day to day lives, it makes a lot of difference! Issues such as requirements not being translated to the proper design or implementation is not validated according to the requirements do happen. One way to avoid this is improve on the soft skills of the team - communication skills plays very important role in here.

The communication can be written as well as oral - the communication if it is oral and face to face, it much easier to make next person understand what you mean or vice-versa. When it goes to telephonic conversation, you have more problems! And if you go for written it can become even worse!

I have observed this happening with my teams in past as well as in present and so helping each one of them understand few things hat are very important in written communication. Based on my reading, earlier experience, i am putting down few important tips below...

What is more important in the written communication?
  • Wordiness (“loose, baggy sentences”)
  • Weak verbs / ponderous nouns / strings of prepositional phrases
  • Tone / meaning
  • Plain talk
  • Misplaced modifiers
  • Structure
  • Commas
  • Plagarism

Wordiness (“loose, baggy sentences”) is very important!

According to Strunk & White quote - one must omit needless words.

For example -
“Frankly, I am sick and tired of corporate indifference.” - here either sick or tired will do.
Think very hard about the use of “very.” - What is the real difference between “important” and “very important?”

Take a paragraph you’ve written and cut it the bone. Understand which words in a sentence have meaning? Which are the filler?

“As you are an expert in this field, and are no doubt interested in the contents of this paper, may I kindly request that you referee it?”

This can be very well put as - “Please apply your expertise to referee this relevant paper.”

It is so simple and neat, isn't it?

Weak verbs (lifeless verbs) / ponderous nouns

Now lets consider these sentences below -

1. He was the winner! - this is OK
2. He won! - this is better!

1. The ball went to center field. - this is OK
2. The ball sailed to center field. - this is better!

1. She is quick. - this is OK
2. She moves quickly. - this is better!

1. Extracellular matrix is generated by endothelial cells. - this is OK
2. Endothelial cells generate extracellular matrix. - this is better!

Nouns ending in tion, ment, ence, etc. are heavy.

1. The stability and quality of our financial performance will be developed through the profitable execution of our existing business, as well as the acquisition or development of new businesses. - this is OK
2. We will improve our financial performance not only by executing our existing business moreprofitably but by acquiring or developing new businesses. - this is better!

Tone, meaning Value content over tone.

The examples below explain themselves -

“Don’t use that tone with me.” - this instantly conveys tone

“I believe Bill’s Hamlet is the high point in English literature. - this is too informal!

"Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome." - this is a good quote, but not appropriate for funeral!

Remember -
  • Adopt the tone appropriate to the occasion.
  • Know your audience
  • Be sincere (be yourself).
  • Engage the audience -- make them care.

Plain talk (from “The Art of Plain Talk”)

Write things that convey your meaning in plain English.
  • Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched
  • Prefer the concrete word to the abstract
  • Prefer the single word to the circumlocution
  • Prefer the short word to the long
These rules in order of merit--the last is the least.
There are many exceptions to these “rules”

Circumlocution: the use of an unnecessarily large number of words to express an idea

Misplaced modifiers

Another most important thing to make note of is - misplaced modifiers. See below examples.

For sale. Antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large drawers

Fur coats made for ladies from their own skin.

Enraged cow injures farmer with ax.

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.

Word order is important for meaning.


In English the structure is - Subject -- verb -- object

1. The boy bounced the ball.

2. “People for whom the nuclei of atoms are as real as the bacon and eggs they have for breakfast are exceedingly rare.” => revised to “People for whom the nuclei of atoms are as real as their breakfast bacon and eggs are exceedingly rare.”


They are the most common punctuation mark and the most troublesome.

Only four places where they’re needed (aside from dates, addresses etc)
  • Before conjunctions joining independent clauses (before “and, but, for, nor, yet, so…”) (links 2 parts of a sentence)
  • Between adjacent, important, descriptive, parallel items
  • Around parenthetical, but potentially important, elements
  • In sequences where you need to prevent misreading

Some very important tricks as suggested by "Buddy D. Ratner"
  1. Intermix short and longer sentences.
  2. Be careful with very long sentences (though sometimes they’re needed).
  3. Revise, revise, revise. Wait a few days and re-read -- you’ll find much to revise.
  4. Say it out loud. Does it sound like you’re in conversation with a friend?
  5. In the right place and time, humor is great. In the wrong place, a disaster!
Tips for Better Writing picked from -

  1. Talk through your topic. Type the way you speak. You can edit and refocus the piece later.
  2. If you think you can't think of anything to write, put your fingers on the keyboard and type the first thing that comes into your head. Keep typing and keep thinking. Once you see a couple of paragraphs on the page, your anxiety will fade.
  3. Don't worry about spelling and grammar when you start out. Fix it later. Get your thoughts down first.
  4. Try to say what you're saying in the simplest way.
  5. Talk to the computer--see how your words sound when you say them out loud. If you were speaking them to your neighbor, would they understand?
  6. If you want to be a better writer, READ. Not just books on writing, but magazines, websites, newspapers, newsletters--everything you can get your hands on written for the industry and topics you're writing about.
  7. Once you get a couple of paragraphs or pages, clean up grammar. Spell check frequently. It is found that changing the font on the paragraphs you are satisfied with gives you a sense of accomplishment as you work through editing your work.
  8. If you always screw up Their and There, or Here and Hear, or Affect and Effect, read Strunk & White and learn the rules by heart. Everyone has a few words they have trouble with. Learn yours and learn to use them the right way.
  9. Practice writing every day.
  10. Check with your local universities and community organizations for workshops on writing.
  11. Proofread your copy even if spell check says there are no errors.
  12. Have someone else read your work, and offer to proof for them too.
  13. Use templates to get you started.
  14. Scan business writing books and manuals for a format you like, or develop your own, and use it each time you have to write.
  15. Never ever ever ever send an mail when you are angry or tired. You can't unsend them.
  16. Keep your emails brief. Most people check out after the first paragraph. Your boss probably checks out after the subject line.
Good Writing Techniques (these are funny, but they make you think!) by Frank L. Visco
  1. Avoid alliteration. Always.
  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
  3. Avoid cliches like the plague--they're old hat.
  4. Employ the vernacular.
  5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
  6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
  7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
  8. Contractions aren't necessary.
  9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
  10. One should never generalize.
  11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."
  12. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
  13. Profanity sucks.
  14. Don't be redundant; don't use more words than necessary. It's highly superfluous.
  15. Be more or less specific.
  16. Understatement always is best.
  17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
  18. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
  19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
  20. The passive voice is to be avoided.
  21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
  22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
  23. Who needs rhetorical questions?


To avoid plagiarism, you must give credit whenever you use another person's idea, opinion, or theory; any facts, statistics, graphs, drawings--any pieces of information--that are not common knowledge; quotations of another person's actual spoken or written words; or paraphrase of another person's spoken or written words.

Refer -

Why is plagarism so offensive?
  • it’s illegal
  • it robs others
  • you gain no real benefit from it

And so let me mention it here that this write up is based on following reading -

“Line by Line” Claire Cook
“The Art of Plain Talk” Rudolf Flesch
“Power language” Jeffrey McQuain
“American Tongue and Cheek” Jim Quinn
“The Elements of Style” Strunk and White
“The Engineer's Toolbox” Buddy D. Ratner's presentation on written communication skills
“The Internet” - just search for tips, you will get many!