Over the years, I have had many opportunities to chat with students—from late elementary grades through undergraduate and graduate levels—especially those interested in the sciences.
One of the most frequent questions went something like this: “I am interested in [insert any science or technical topic here]. What courses are most important for me to take?”
My response has always been: “The most important courses you will ever take are language—English—and communication skills courses.”
Here is my rationale. First most people will find a technical vocation or other profession through the natural progression of growing up and learning and the courses for those paths of interest will be clear—physics, chemistry, math, biology, etc.
But it does NOT matter what a person’s profession is, that profession has to be practiced within a community of other people, some are other professionals, some are either customers or clients or simply family members and friends.
To succeed in any field of endeavor these days, it is important—even critical—to be able to communicate clearly, intelligently, and in a manner that is audience-aware. That is, you have to speak and write clearly, accurately, grammatically, and appropriately for your audience.
“Clearly” means your thoughts are well organized to tell a story from beginning to end so that your “audience” will be able to follow your logic. It also means using words correctly—precise vocabulary.
“Accurately” suggests that your facts and conclusions are not only based on sound science or reasoning, but that the language expresses precisely the message you wish to convey.
“Grammar” exists to provide a communications framework. A properly constructed framework strengthens your message, and helps ensure that your “audience” will understand the message as you intend it.
A message is “appropriate” when it takes into account the audience’s level of understanding. That does not mean “talking down” to us mere mortals, but simply crafting the message in a manner that the audience will understand—it is informative in a manner that the audience can use. To me the word “sharing” is over used these days, but an “appropriate” message is one that shares insights into the topic. Note that key technical terms are often necessary, but make their meanings clear.
In college, we used to write so that we could impress our professors with our language—the big impressive words that we could use. In life and in business communications are often better achieved by using direct, simple language. In writing, trying to sound erudite can get in the way of the reader getting the message you really want to covey.
It takes practice and effort to write simply and clearly!