This chapter aims to help you understand the value of clear, concise, complete, correct, coherent, and courteous communication by exploring the costs of poor communication from various vantage points. It emphasizes that communication choices can affect reader perception, job prospects, financial wellbeing, safety, and professional advancement.
Varieties and Ramifications of Poor Communication
Written communication in English follows certain rules and guidelines, and these help a writer produce text in line with established conventions. Eagerness to apply these rules and guidelines reveals a great deal about a writer’s professionalism, attention to detail, and level of literacy in a reader’s eyes. In other words, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, word choice, style, and other writing qualities can communicate far more than correctness; they can also contribute to perceptions of a writer. These observations also apply to organizations and companies that produce written communication: readers may form opinions of the entities based solely on the quality of their written communication.
As textbook writer Last (2019, pp. 23-24) so aptly articulates, deviations from the rules and conventions of written communication can lead to substantial costs, both in terms of monetary expenditures and lost reputation. She elaborates that writing gaffes, such as inefficient or unclear emails, incomplete or otherwise sloppy instructions, poorly designed reports, and confusing memos and letters, result in workplace inefficiencies and monetary repercussions that are sometimes difficult to pinpoint but that nevertheless have far-ranging effects beyond document pages. In extreme cases, poorly written documents can lead to property damage, physical injury, and even death, so the stakes surrounding effective communication are quite high.
Plagiarism is another writing issue that is associated with substantial costs, both in academia and in the workplace, due to its harmful nature: it constitutes intellectual property theft, obfuscates the true origin of information, and misrepresents a writer’s actual skill set. To be clear, plagiarism can lead to failing grades, expulsion, damaging notes on transcripts, withdrawal of diplomas, firing, and damaged career prospects.
Plagiarism can take a number of forms, and as a college student and ethical technical communicator, it is your responsibility to recognize and avoid all of them. The following list, adapted from NorQuest College Library (2020, “Common Examples of Plagiarism”) under a CC-BY-NC license, identifies some of the most common varieties. Read the definitions for the types of plagiarism and identify what can be done to avoid these situations. Be prepared to discuss your ideas in class.
- Word-for-Word Plagiarism – No Quotation Marks:Using another’s text word for word without enclosing it in quotation marks. Even if the writer provides a citation, this situation still constitutes plagiarism: although the original source may be cited, the omission of quotation marks leads readers to incorrectly assume the writer has produced the text.
- Word-for-Word Plagiarism – No Citation:Copying another’s text, enclosing it in quotation marks, but failing to cite the source. Although quotation marks indicate the text is from another source, readers cannot determine its origin without a citation and reference.
- Paraphrasing or Summarizing – No Citation: Paraphrasing or summarizing a text without citing and referencing its source. This situation leads the reader to believe the paraphrased or summarized ideas are the writer’s own.
- Paraphrasing – Find and Replace:Substituting a few words in the original source with synonyms without significantly changing the writing style. Even if the original source is cited and referenced, this situation represents inadequate paraphrasing.
- Self-Plagiarism:Presenting your own previous work as new work. In other words, submitting a paper used for one class in a different class without making major changes to it or indicating its origin.
- Group Collusion:(1) Copying another person’s work or having another person complete the work for you, and then presenting it as your own; or (2) allowing someone else to copy your work and present it as his or her own; or (3) collaborating with others on a project without official approval, and then submitting all or part of the work as your own original individual work.
- Patch Working:Producing writing that consists mostly of others’ ideas, with little original thought or content, while including proper citations and references for sources.
Case Studies of Poor Communication
To help you better understand the real-world costs of poor communication, we will now explore a series of case studies. A case study “[investigates] a particular person, group, or event in depth for the purpose of drawing a larger conclusion from the analysis” (Horkoff, 2015, p. 16). n pairs or small groups, examine each case and complete the following tasks:
- Define the rhetorical situation: Who is communicating to whom about what, how, and why? What was the goal of communication in each case?
- Identify the communication error (for example, poor task or audience analysis, use of inappropriate language or style, poor organization or formatting, or something else).
- Explain what costs/losses were incurred by the error.
- Identify possible solutions or strategies that would have prevented the problem and what benefits would be gotten from implementing solutions or preventing the problem.
- Present your group’s findings in a brief, informal presentation to the class.
Case 1: The Promising Chemist Who Buried His Results
Bruce, a research chemist for a major petrochemical company, wrote a dense report about new compounds he had synthesized in the laboratory from oil refinery by-products. The bulk of the report consisted of tables listing their chemical and physical properties, diagrams of their molecular structure, chemical formulas, and computer printouts of toxicity tests. Buried at the end of the report was a casual speculation that one of the compounds might be a particularly effective insecticide.
Seven years later, the same oil company launched a major research program to find more effective but environmentally safe insecticides. After six months of research, someone uncovered Bruce’s report and his toxicity tests. A few hours of further testing confirmed that one of Bruce’s compounds was the safe, economical insecticide the company had been looking for. By that point, Bruce had left the company because he felt that the importance of his research was not appreciated.
Case 2: The Unaccepted Proposal for a Current Regulator
The Acme Electric Company worked day and night to develop a new current regulator designed to cut the electric power consumption in aluminum plants by 35 percent. The company knew that although the competition was fierce, its regulator could be produced for less money, was more reliable, and worked more efficiently than the competitors’ products.
The company’s owner, eager to capture the market, somewhat hastily composed a 120-page proposal for three major aluminum manufacturers, recommending that its regulators be installed at all company plants. He devoted the first 87 pages of the proposal to the mathematical theory and engineering design behind his new regulator, and the next 32 pages to descriptions of the new assembly line he planned to set up to produce regulators quickly. Buried in an appendix were the test results that compared his regulator’s performance with present models along with a poorly drawn graph that showed how much the dollar savings would be.
Acme Electric did not get the contracts, despite having the best product. Six months later, the company filed for bankruptcy.
Case 3: The Instruction Manual that Scared Customers Away
As one of the first to enter the field of office automation, Sagatec Software had built a reputation for designing high-quality and user-friendly database and accounting programs for businesses. When the company decided to enter the word-processing market, its engineers designed an effective, versatile, and powerful program that Sagatec felt sure would outperform any competitor.
To be sure that its new word-processing program was accurately documented, Sagatec asked the senior program designer to supervise the writing of an instruction manual. The result was an accurate and precise description of every detail of the program’s operation.
When Sagatec began marketing its new word processor, cries for help flooded in from office workers who were so confused by the massive manual that they could not even figure out how to get started. Then several business journals reviewed the program and judged it excessively complicated and difficult to learn. After an impressive start, sales of the new word processing program plummeted.
Sagatec eventually released a new, clearly written training guide that led users through introductory exercises in a stepped fashion and told them how to find commands quickly. The rewrite cost Sagatec $350,000, a year’s lead in the market, and its reputation for producing easy-to-use business software.
Case 4: One Garbled Memo—26 Baffled Phone Calls
Joanne supervised 36 professionals in six city libraries. To cut the cost of unnecessary overtime, she issued the following one-sentence memo to her staff:
When workloads increase to a level requiring hours in excess of an employee’s regular duty assignment, and when such work is estimated to require a full shift of eight (8) hours or more on two (2) or more consecutive days, even though unscheduled days intervene, an employee’s tour of duty shall be altered so as to include the hours when such work must be done, unless an adverse impact would result from such employee’s absence from his previously scheduled assignment.
After the 36 copies were sent out, Joanne’s office received 26 phone calls asking what the memo meant. It took a week to clarify the new policy.
Case 5: The Real Consequences of Faulty Engineering Communication
In 1986, the spaceship Challenger exploded, and a failure of communication was partially responsible for that disaster. An O-ring problem, or “the failure of a rubber seal in the solid rocket booster,” meant the shuttle’s construction was flawed (Winsor, 1988, p. 102). From early 1984 until 1985, the O-ring problem was noticed but was dismissed or not taken seriously. In July 1985, Roger Boisjoly, an engineer who worked for Morton Thiokol International (MTI), the contracting firm overseeing the solid rocket boosters, sent a memo to MTI’s vice president of engineering stating the O-ring problem was serious: “It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action … to solve the problem … then we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch pad facilities” (The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, 1986, p. 788). MTI engineer Brian Russell wrote an August 9 letter as a follow-up to Boisjoly’s memo. In it he stated, “If the primary seal were to fail from … 330-660 milliseconds the chance of the second seal holding is small. This is a direct result of the o-ring’s slow response compared to the metal case segments as the joint rotates” (The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, 1986, p. 1569). Russell’s memo does not provide any interpretation of the situation, and as such, “did not communicate its intent [as] is shown by the fact that the people who read it were uncertain about what it meant” (Winsor, 1998, p. 105). The important information in the Russell memo, which is quoted above, was buried in the letter after such reassurances as, “MTI has no reason to suspect that the primary seal would ever fail after pressure equilibrium is reached” (The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, 1986, p. 1569). The Challenger launch was delayed because of the O-ring problem, but on January 28, 1986, the shuttle launched. Then it exploded.
Case Study Wrap-Up
Consider your responses to the following questions, and share those responses with the class.
- What themes are common in the cases?
- How do these themes relate to expectations for your writing assignments?
Homework: Prepare for a Seminar Discussion about the Consequences of Writing Mistakes
To prepare for a seminar about the consequences of writing mistakes, read the following articles for homework: “How Not to Die Using a Neti Pot” (DiSalvo, 2012), “Why Typos and Spelling Mistakes Don’t Really Matter” (Kellaway, 2014), and “The Commas that Cost Companies Millions” (Stokel-Walker, 2018). References for these publications are listed at the end of this chapter. In addition, read one assigned article about writing errors; your instructor will split the class into groups and will indicate which additional article you should read. Bring printed copies of the articles you read to your next class, and be prepared to discuss them.
Group 1: Boland, J., & Queen, R. (2016, April 19). Why grammar mistakes in a short email could make some people judge you. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/why-grammar-mistakes-in-a-short-email-could-make-some-people-judge-you-57168
Group 2: Colasimone, D. (2016, June 10). Adidas shamed over misspelling of Colombia in Copa America advertising campaign. Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-06-09/adidas-shamed-over-misspelling-of-colombia-in-ad-campaign/7495702
Group 3: Conner, C. (2013, March 11). Report: How grammar influences your income. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/cherylsnappconner/2013/03/11/report-how-grammar-influences-your-income/#adcc2c213dd3
Group 4: Mullinax, A.B. (2019, March 22). Why am I not getting a second interview [LinkedIn post]. LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-am-i-getting-second-interview-ashley-bowen-mullinax?trk=portfolio_article-card_title
Group 5: Wright, M. (2018, October 12). Secretary of state issues correction for voter information pamphlet. Bozeman Daily Chronicle. https://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/news/secretary-of-state-issues-correction-for-voter-information-pamphlet/article_686ba9a3-5c94-5450-86b3-be7afda2f5a8.html
Seminar Discussion: Consequences of Writing Mistakes
You were asked to read the following articles for homework: “How Not to Die Using a Neti Pot” (DiSalvo, 2012), “Why Typos and Spelling Mistakes Don’t Really Matter” (Kellaway, 2014), “The Commas that Cost Companies Millions” (Stokel-Walker, 2018), and one assigned article about writing errors. Please take out those articles.
Seminar Instructions: Work for 20 minutes with classmates who read the same assigned article to develop answers to questions and decide how you will communicate those points to your classmates who read other articles. Assume one of the following roles when collaborating with your group to keep the workload equitable and complete tasks on time.
- — Time Keeper/Facilitator: You are responsible for getting started on time and for moving the discussion forward so the group can cover everything needed in the time given.
- — Record Keeper: You are responsible for taking notes on the issues discussed and for reporting the results of the group’s discussion/work to the whole class.
- — Chair: You are responsible for ensuring that all team members perform their tasks, for soliciting input, and for encouraging a positive and productive work approach.
- — Equal Opportunities Monitor: You are responsible for ensuring that everyone is able to participate and for checking for alternative ideas.
Refer to the readings when needed when discussing answers to the following questions, and be prepared to discuss your responses with the whole class during seminar plenary.
- What are the main points of your group’s assigned article?
- What does your group think of these points, and why?
- How does your assigned article relate to the three articles the whole class read: “How Not to Die Using a Neti Pot” (DiSalvo, 2012), “Why Typos and Spelling Mistakes Don’t Really Matter” (Kellaway, 2014), and “The Commas that Cost Companies Millions” (Stokel-Walker, 2018)?
- What are the various consequences of writing mistakes according to the sources you read?
Seminar Wrap-Up: To draw the seminar to a close, share your responses to the following questions with the class.
- How are the perspectives from the articles similar, and how do they differ?
- What is your opinion of the articles you read, and why?
- How are the articles and today’s seminar discussion relevant to your work in this writing class?
- How are the articles and today’s seminar discussion relevant to the course outcomes for this class? Check the outcomes for the course if necessary.
Homework: Email Your Instructor about the Seminar Texts and Discussion
Compose an email message to your instructor in which you address the following questions.
- What did you find to be the most interesting, thought-provoking, or unusual idea(s) presented in the texts you read?
- What can you take away from the seminar from the perspective of a professional in training?
Use standard conventions for professional emails when completing this task, and cite and reference any outside sources of information you use. For help with formatting and composing a clear message, consult the “Writing Electronic Correspondence” chapter of this textbook and the following handout, which is adapted from Vos (2018).
Boland, J., & Queen, R. (2016, April 19). Why grammar mistakes in a short email could make some people judge you. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/why-grammar-mistakes-in-a-short-email-could-make-some-people-judge-you-57168
Colasimone, D. (2016, June 10). Adidas shamed over misspelling of Colombia in Copa America advertising campaign. Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-06-09/adidas-shamed-over-misspelling-of-colombia-in-ad-campaign/7495702
Conner, C. (2013, March 11). Report: How grammar influences your income. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/cherylsnappconner/2013/03/11/report-how-grammar-influences-your-income/#adcc2c213dd3
DiSalvo, D. (2012, August 27). How not to die using a Neti pot. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2012/08/27/how-not-to-die-using-a-neti-pot/#21e1c1fc0ea9
Horkoff, T. (2015). Writing for success 1st Canadian edition. BCcampus Open Education. https://opentextbc.ca/writingforsuccess/
Kellaway, L. (2014, November 3). Why typos and spelling mistakes don’t really matter. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-29529578
Last, Suzan (2019). Technical writing essentials: introduction to professional communication in the technical fields. License: CC-BY-SA-3.0. Retrieved from https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/
Mullinax, A.B. (2019, March 22). Why am I not getting a second interview [LinkedIn post]. LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-am-i-getting-second-interview-ashley-bowen-mullinax?trk=portfolio_article-card_title
NorQuest College Library. (2020). Prevent plagiarism: More resources & activities. License: CC-BY-NC. Retrieved from https://libguides.norquest.ca/plagiarism/plagiarism_activities
Powell, T. (2019). Ethics in technical communication. In T. Reardon, T. Powell, J. Arnett, M. Logan, & C. Race, Open technical communication (Chapter 3). Kennesaw State University, Faculty Bookshelf, 36. License: CC-BY. https://digitalcommons.kennesaw.edu/facbooks/36/
The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. (1986). Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger accident: Report to the President (Vols. 4-5). https://books.google.com/books?id=VxpdndYqtYUC&pg
Stokel-Walker, C. (2018, July 23). The commas that cost companies millions. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20180723-the-commas-that-cost-companies-millions
Vos, L. (2018). Sentence building and punctuation made simple. Student Academic Success Services, Queen’s University. License: CC-BY-NC-SA 2.5. http://sass.queensu.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Sentence-Building.pdf
Winsor, D.A. (1988). Communication failures contributing to the Challenger accident: An example for technical communicators. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 31(3), 101-107. DOI: 10.1109/47.7814
Wright, M. (2018, October 12). Secretary of state issues correction for voter information pamphlet. Bozeman Daily Chronicle. https://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/news/secretary-of-state-issues-correction-for-voter-information-pamphlet/article_686ba9a3-5c94-5450-86b3-be7afda2f5a8.html