Leaks and tweets - modern communications

Materials World magazine
2 Feb 2011

Among the barrage of diplomatic tittle-tattle and other more serious revelations to emerge from Wikileaks, there are clear lessons to be learnt. In the days before email, texts, tweets and blogs, most of us could express an opinion, verbally at least, without it coming back to haunt us. Conversations can be misunderstood and taken out of context, but at least the unrecorded spoken word can be denied. Nowadays, unless you only communicate on handwritten parchment, anything you put in writing is forever on record, potentially for all the world to read. No longer ‘act in haste, repent at leisure’, more like ‘click in haste, regret forever’.

Given how easily a throwaway comment can be reported completely out of context (as the BP engineer who described the Macondo well as a ‘nightmare’ would no doubt agree), it surprises me that both Government and private sector organisations do not invest a great deal more in developing the written communication skills of their staff. This is especially true of formal report writing, which is fast disappearing as the internet generation relies on PowerPoint as the reporting format of choice. Many people think a report has to be a lengthy, academic tome but I disagree – a simple summary and recommendation will often suffice. As Albert Einstein once said, ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’.

The UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence requires that engineers communicate in English with others at all levels, including competence in the preparation of letters, documents and reports. Yet surprisingly, this is not a skill usually taught at school or university. It is ironic that much of what students learn on science and engineering courses will never be used in their working lives, while they are not taught the one, essential skill that we use every day.

There is no short cut or easy way to better writing. We learn most by practice and repetition, by considering the advice of colleagues and reading the work of others. If I could offer a single piece of advice, it would be to always read back, review and reflect before sending. You never know who might end up reading it.