Communicating as an Engineer

Types of Communication

The list below represents some of the most common communication types you'll use. Typically, content and organization distinguish each of these. However, you'll find variations on these types in both academia and in industry. For example, one instructor might identify the written results of a lab test as a Lab Report, while another instructor might call it a Project Report. Always check with your instructor or company policy to know what type is expected and what to include.

Design Reviews

Often, mechanical engineers participate in writing Design Reviews with design teams. Design Reviews serve as a way for teams to communicate their progress and concerns about a design. Typically, a design team includes various experts. For example, a team designing a product might involve marketing and manufacturing experts, as well as industrial, mechanical, and electrical engineers. Writing a review allows all parties to input and critique ideas before production begins. For instance, electrical engineers may have specific requirements or criteria to meet before they can attach circuitry to a mechanical component. Design Reviews are a good way for everyone involved in a design to formalize his/her concerns.

Graphics

Graphics provide illustrated information to readers. In general, graphics are designed to make it easier for readers to understand your ideas. Deciding when to insert a graphic depends on the information you need to convey. For example, as you're writing, you find yourself struggling to describe a complex concept. Fitting your description within a few paragraphs is impossible, so you decide to create a graphic. Often, graphics are useful when concepts, designs, or processes are too complex or cumbersome to describe in written or oral form.

Poster Sessions

As an engineer, you'll participate in Poster Sessions during conferences and group meetings. A Poster Session allows you to display and discuss your work on a project or the results of your research. These sessions are popular in both academia and industry.

Inspections

Engineers typically write Inspections after evaluating an artifact and making assessments. For example, an engineer might inspect the condition of a bridge or pavement and then assess what repairs need to be completed. Often, regulatory agencies require that engineers inspect artifacts within specific time intervals.

The audience for Inspection documents is the people who need to resolve the issues presented in the assessments--a bridge Inspection is most likely delivered to the bridge authority managers. Inspections usually contain numerous photographs depicting an artifact to help the audience visualize an artifact's condition. When writing Inspections, engineers present their observations, not their recommendations. Decision-making is left to the audience.

Presentations

Mechanical engineers give Presentations when they work on projects and Proposals. Often, professional Presentations require you to verbally and graphically present preliminary designs to colleagues. On the other hand, if you attend technical meetings or academic conferences, you'll discover that engineers use Poster Sessions to present research and other technical information.

Lab Reports

Lab work is an important part of every engineer's training. During a lab test or experiment, you participate in a "hands-on" experience that no textbook or lecture can provide. Writing a Lab Report requires you to reflect on these experiences.

Engineers write Lab Reports to describe their work in labs. As an engineer, even if you don’t work in a lab, you might read and evaluate Lab Reports written by other engineers. Knowing what information to expect and how it should be presented can help you evaluate such reports.

Lab Reports are factual presentations of test or experiment results completed in a lab or simulation. Typically, Lab Reports discuss procedures as well as describe the details of a test or experiment. As a student, you'll write Lab Reports not only for a passing grade, but to learn from the observations you make. As an engineer in industry, you'll read many Lab Reports. Whether or not you write Lab Reports in industry depends on the company you work for and your position there.

The purpose of a lab report is to present the work completed in a lab test or experiment. This information may be used in several different ways. For instance, a lab report may explain why certain materials reacted the way they did. Or, perhaps someone will use the data from the report to make a decision about which material to use in a design or project. In this case, you may have to argue, based on your results, why a particular material is better than another. When documenting your lab work, always consider how someone will use the information.

As a student, it may seem as though your instructor is your audience. However, this may not always be the case. Your instructor may ask you to write for someone else, such as a peer in your class or a fellow engineer. Always check to see whom your audience is. This is important because you may need to explain a lab in more or less detail, depending on your audience. For instance, your audience may already know the procedures you used; therefore, you don’t need to explain these. On the other hand, your audience may be unfamiliar with the lab, and you might need to describe the lab set up, the equipment you used, and every procedure you followed.

How you develop a Lab Report depends on why you are writing the report (purpose) and who will read it (audience). Typically, a Lab Report includes specific information relating to the work done in a lab. This might include:

Project Notebooks

As an engineer, you should always keep a Project Notebook, containing notes of all your work. The Project Notebook provides a convenient place to keep track both of what you think about and the work you do on lengthy projects.

Letters, Memos, E-mail

You might assume that as an engineer, you won't have to write business letters, memos or e-mail. This assumption is wrong! Any college instructor will tell you that these skills are necessary in industry. Every project you work on will demand that you communicate with other engineers and clients about your ideas and research.

Proposals

Engineers write Proposals to present a topic to be researched or to suggest a plan of action. Typically, consulting engineers send Proposals to other companies in order to get work. The Proposal then works to convince its recipient that a particular engineer or firm is the right choice for the job.

Narrative Writing

As an engineer, much of the writing you do is not specifically essay or creative writing, such as the writing you might do for a composition or poetry class. However, Narrative Writing is useful for explaining concepts or depicting situations that might otherwise be difficult to understand.

Narrative Writing involves telling a story. Typically, this writing is not accepted in the technical writing found in most engineering publications and in industry. Readers, specifically other engineers, expect what they read to deliver information in a straightforward way without comparisons or anecdotes. However, Narrative Writing can help readers visualize a concept or design in specific situations.

Public Meetings

As a civil engineer, you'll attend and conduct many Public Meetings. Since much of the engineering work you'll do centers around planning and decision-making, people, both politicians and citizens, want to know how you're spending their tax dollars. These meetings require strong presentation skills due to diverse audiences and situations.

The purpose of a Public Meeting is to communicate what plans or decisions are being made on a project. Typically, the information engineers convey at a Public Meeting is objective so that unbiased decisions can be made. A Public Meeting's purpose can change, however, depending on the audience and the situation.

A Public Meeting's audience can range anywhere from city council members to citizens. When presenting to any of these, engineers always consider what their audience already knows about a topic and what they expect to find out about a topic. They are also informed about how an audience feels towards a topic.

For example, homeowners living near a busy intersection are complaining about noise and traffic congestion. The city has plans to widen the streets at this intersection, thus welcoming even more traffic according to the homeowners. Civil engineers would discuss the city's plans to both city officials and homeowners. Obviously, they can expect support from city officials since they initiated the plan. The homeowners, on the other hand, are likely to be angry and have much to say against the proposal. The engineers' job, as presenters, is to cater to both audiences. They can justify why the streets need to be widened and how the noise and heavy traffic problems might be solved. They must present objective information to aid in decision making.

Operating Procedures

Engineers write Operating Procedures to ensure that the artifacts they create are properly utilized and maintained. Operating Procedures require a specific type of writing for a particular audience.

Civil engineers write Operating Procedures for different types of artifacts. These artifacts include single pieces of equipment, such as a pump, and more complex equipment, such as reservoir or wastewater treatment plant. Whenever engineers write Operating Procedures, they consider who will need to understand the information they provide.

The purpose of Operating Procedures is to instruct technicians and other equipment operators how to operate and maintain equipment. Operating Procedures are similar to VCR instruction manuals that inform you about how to operate the equipment.

The typical audience for Operating Procedures is the technicians who operate equipment. This audience varies, depending on the type of equipment and how detailed the procedures need to be. For example, some technicians are high school graduates who have been through training programs, while others have college degrees or various levels of technical knowledge. This audience then determines how engineers write the procedures and the language they use.

Operating Procedures combine technical writing with writing for not-so-technical audiences. For instance, instead of writing, "Turn knob B' 30 degrees counter-clockwise," an engineer may write, "Rotate the green knob to the left as far as it will turn."

Deciding between which of these two procedures to write depends on which the audience is more likely to understand and how familiar the audience is with the equipment. Consider a VCR instruction manual. The manual doesn't assume that you know the electrical terms for every component. Instead, the manual's goal is to familiarize you with how to operate the equipment on a non-technical level in a language that you can understand. Engineers write Operating Procedures in much the same way.

Engineering Reports

Just about every engineering project requires engineers to produce numerous reports. Some situations require only one report while others demand several reports to communicate work progress. The number of reports written typically depends on the type of project and who funds the project.

Engineers write Progress Reports to communicate the status of their work or when they reach a milestone. Typically, consulting engineers produce these reports; however, other engineers might write them as well. The main purpose of this document is to inform funding agencies, mangers, and co-workers of problems or changes regarding a project. Often, changes can affect schedules and even budgets.

A Progress Report can be as informal as a quick e-mail or as formal as a bound report. Its format generally includes information such as project background, the work completed, the work currently being completed, and the work to be completed. It also states any problems and presents suggested solutions either already implemented or to be implemented. The details in a Progress Report depend on who the audience is. For example, a client may be more concerned about the financial status whereas a supervisor may care more about when the work will be completed. An audience analysis is necessary to determine what details to include.

Policy Statements

Policy Statements are regulatory documents that help ensure safety. Unlike Specifications and Codes that guide engineers as they create designs, Policy Statements are more concerned with specific procedures and operating decisions. As a student, you may not write Policy Statements, but as an engineer, many projects will require you to produce Policy Statements.

Policy Statements are crucial in every day operating procedures, and they also play a large role in emergency situations. As an engineer entering the field, you probably won't write Policy Statements. However, as you advance into management positions, you're more likely to produce such documentation.

Policy Statements are specific procedures that help ensure safety for operations. Often engineers write these documents as manuals and divide them according to specific areas of responsibility. For example, at a wastewater treatment plant, the procedures may be to bolt all large items to the floor and to keep the premises free of clutter at all times, i.e. no ladders left in the open.

Policy Statements also inform readers of specific design limitations and what actions to take should limitations be surpassed. For example, A storm hits a city and the amount of incoming wastewater surpasses the amount that can be treated by the wastewater system. Operators can then refer to a policy that states how much water can be treated in a given time and what course of action they should take.

The audience for Policy Statements varies, depending on different situations. Often, operators read these documents to inform themselves about equipment or operations. However, government officials or city engineers responsible for operations are also likely to read Policy Statements.

Specifications and Codes

As an engineer, it's likely that you'll read countless Codes and possibly write many Specifications. Depending on your position as a civil engineer, you may even be involved in creating Codes for other engineers to use.

When engineers develop designs for their projects, they consider many issues. In particular, civil engineers have to follow a strict set of restrictions known as Codes. These Codes help them write the Specifications needed for a specific design. Since many engineers develop public artifacts, they also have to consider how a design's appearance appeals to citizens.

Specifications are what engineers write after reviewing the Codes affecting their projects. Codes are regulatory sets of rules, so Specifications "specify" the work that will be completed in order to comply with specific Codes. Engineers must take Codes into account because these prescriptive rules assist them in meeting the minimum performance standards necessary for health and safety.

For example, in Colorado a foundation has to be at least 48 inches below the ground's surface. This is a Code. Engineers designing a particular project must then write the Specifications to follow this Code. So, they might state that the soil should be placed within a density range of x to y and that the moisture content is A to B. These are the Specifications.

Codes are mainly read by:

Typically, citizens don't read Codes. Instead, citizens see the results of Codes in the artifacts designed by civil engineers.

Technicians read Specifications to help them maintain equipment. Since most technians don't have an engineering background, they don't understand technical engineering terminology. However, technicians are familiar with the equipment and tools necessary for maintenance.

At the same time, when engineers write , they can't assume any background knowledge. That is, they don't assume a technician is familiar with the way equipment reacts, etc. Instead of writing "Carefully remove the end cap," an enginner needs to consider that the pressure behind the cap could explode if the cap isn't removed properly. Specifications must be very specific and detailed.

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