Expression and articulation is the foundation of effective engineering communications – however each term relates to the creative process differently. Expression is the spark, bringing to the surface something that lives within. Articulation is then fine-tuning that concept so it can be communicated effectively. Across all disciplinary fields, and especially in engineering, the ability to cohesively express and articulate complex ideas is an invaluable skill fundamental to the success of any group or individual venture.
Expression. Articulation. Communication.
In conversation, articulation and expression are two words often used interchangeably. However each carries its own specific meaning, and being able to make this distinction will enhance the ways in which a working engineer can communicate information. Jonathan Feist, chief editor of the Berklee Press, clears up the confusion between the two terms quite nicely: “Expression means bringing something that’s inside of you out… Articulation means crafting a communication object.” That initial burst of creativity at the onset of a new idea brings an overwhelming desire to express it, in words or on paper, so that the idea exists externally, no longer a mere passing thought. This jumble, assembled with such fervor that it is often incomprehensible, must then be picked and combed into something useful. The author will sift through and articulate his thoughts into a medium that his audience can digest, optimizing the person-to-person communication channel.
Let’s contextualize this with something more concrete: one of my favorite things to do is write songs. The songwriting process is a lot like the engineering process – you start with a vision, you experiment until you have a working prototype, and then you debug that prototype until you feel comfortable releasing it for public or private consumption. Thus expression followed by articulation. Most musicians feel comfortable with the former, but it’s the latter that sets the standard for good songwriting. The idea for a new song popped into my head during a run, and I wanted to get it out while it was still fresh, so I pulled out my laptop and recorded clips for reference as I worked through the chorus:
You can hear me senselessly meandering through ukulele chords, trying to find a harmonic sequence that best expresses the feeling I had, getting my ideas out of my head and onto “tape”. You can hear me mumbling, grasping for a melody that carries the correct meaning. You can hear my “working prototype” later that evening after I’d had some time to think about it. It’s a mess! The ideas are all there, but I wouldn’t exactly describe it as listenable. It takes a lot of fine-tuning to articulate an idea in the form of a song – something that other people can understand and learn from. After one toasty summer afternoon, this is I came up with:
Notice how there is now a clear song structure. The lyrics set up the context and follow through with a singular message. The chords and the melody bring some physicality to those lyrics, directing the listener through the moods of the song via sound. The ornamental hand claps and glockenspiel add a certain charm. Every sound you hear contributes something towards conveying the message of the song as clearly as possible. This is the difference between expression and articulation.
Importance of Effective Communication in the Engineering Workplace
Successful engineering projects require transparent and effective communication. Most endeavors involve the cohesion of multiple engineering disciplines. There is an inherent risk in having different-minded people working on separate components of the same end-product. Practicing effective communication through articulation and expression within and in-between departments will minimize this risk. It can be shown on a consistent basis that there is a correlation between effective communication and engineering productivity. For example one of the communication challenges that engineers face is problem definition. Project management information systems (PMIS) are a new way in which engineers can be organized and transparent about the problems they face. In a recent empirical study, researchers found that the use of PMIS measurably improved project efficiency, planning, and performance (Raymond 219). Clear and purposeful communication, however, is not restricted to digital channels.
Doumont emphasizes the importance of writing for the intended audience. Decisions about the document’s content, language, and structure are guided by the specific needs of the reader. Eliminating noise clears up the meaning of the text. Active verbs, short phrasing, and careful word choice will help keep the reader focused. Effective formatting reinforces structure without distracting the reader form the content. The document should then be proofread to improve readability. Ultimately, a successful written document begins with expressing the intended content eloquently, sifting through the noise and using clean language to articulate ideas with precision.
In Presentation and in Meetings
Arranging a compelling presentation parallels the same thought process behind writing effective documents, however Doumont brings to light specific issues that surround person-to-person interaction. The nuances of the speaking voice deserve special attention. Modulating tone, or pitch, conveys information to the listener that the words alone cannot. The rate of speech should be kept at a fluid and coherent speed. Using the full range of speaking volume reinforces the dynamic nature of the content. Quick changes in volume recapture the attention of the audience. Body language conveys a lot of information to the audience as well. It’s important to reduce visual noise by keeping the lower body firmly positioned and limiting upper-body movement to purposeful expressions. Eye contact demands the audience’s attention. Facial expressions convey additional emotion. These skills are applicable to audiences of all sizes – from a large presentation to a conversation with a co-worker.
Informal communication is an important factor in improving overall performance of a team of engineers. In the digital age, despite an increased reliance on technology, it is essential to continue to foster brief informal face-to-face communication between workers. One naturalistic study observed the types of informal interactions that took place in a typical work week by collecting as much audio and video data of the office as possible during that week. They found that most of the interactions were brief and that frequency was related to brevity and inversely related to formality (Whittaker 135). It was also found that these types of interactions were less likely to occur out-of-office, which points to the fact that geographic proximity greatly affects the types of informal communication that occur (Whittaker 135). Along those lines, another study spearheaded by T.J. Allen also looked at geographic proximity as a factor in a micro sense by investigating the relationship between office layout and the level of communication within the office itself. The study found that the radical new open office layout significantly increased communication in the engineering firm, however could not find a correlation between that increased communication and office productivity during the time of the study.
Good communication is essential to those in leadership roles. A study published in The Academy of Management Journal explores the different types of communication between workplace supervisors and their subordinates. The study categorizes communication into five types: task-oriented, performance-oriented, career-oriented, responsiveness, and personal. The subjects came from two separate organizations, each with slightly different demographics. They were asked to complete a survey about interactions with their supervisor, as well as their job satisfaction, performance and commitment to the organization. The questionnaire was intended to establish supervisors’ initiation of structure as well as consideration of employees and how those communication factors related to the outcome factors of the employee. Interestingly enough, the study found a correlation between improved employee performance and greater consideration towards the employee by the supervisor. Consideration behavior also contributed to a higher level of commitment from the employee to the organization. There was also a correlation between employee satisfaction and supervisor structure initiation. Supervisors that were better communicators as leaders showed a greater level of performance from their employees. Therefore, the power of articulation and expression in the workplace cannot be underestimated. However small the impact may seem at the individual level, the summation of the difference in productivity is far from negligible in a large organization.
Application to Senior Project
Much like a real-world engineering firm, the Orange Team is splitting up its senior project tasks based on the skills and expertise of the individuals in our group. Each person is working on one or two modular components of the system, and the expectation is that the system will come together as a whole at the end of the spring semester. This requires communicating the specs at the interface of each module so that each system works together nicely. When one of us has a new idea, that person must articulate that idea as clearly as possible for the concept to sink in with the other group members. A project-saving idea could go ignored if not expressed in an accessible manner. Furthermore, we must be thorough in communicating and aligning our schedules so as to optimize the time we each spend working on the project.
- Allen, T.J. & Gerstberger, P.G. (1973). A Field Experiment To Improve Communications In A Product Engineering Department: The Non-Territorial Office. MIT Dspace URI: http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/1866.
- Doumont, Jean-Luc. Trees, maps, and theorems: Effective communication for rational minds. Belgium: Principae, 2009. OCLC WorldCat Permalink: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/310459903
- Feist, Jonathan (2007, Dec. 24). Expression vs. Articulation. Retrieved from Berklee Music: http://jonathanfeist.berkleemusicblogs.com/2007/12/24/expression-vs-articulation/
- Penley, L. E. & Hawkins, B (Jun. 1985). Studying Interpersonal Communication in Organizations: A Leadership Application. The Academy of Management Journal 28(2), 309-326. JSTOR Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/256203
- Raymond, L. & Bergeron, F. (2008). Project management information systems: An empirical study of their impact on project managers and project success. International Journal of Project Management 26, 213-220. Retrieved from http://www.francoisbergeron.ca/recherche/
- Whittaker, S., Frohlich, D. & Daly-Jones, O. (1994, Apr. 24). Informal workplace communication: what is it like and how might we support it?. Human Factors in Computing Systems, 131- 137. DOI: 10.1145/191666.191726
Additional Sources / Recommended Reading
- Winsor, D.A. (1990, Feb. 1). Engineering Writing/Writing Engineering. College Composition and Communication 41 (1). JSTOR Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/357883
- sites.tufts.edu > Electrical and Computer Engineering Design Handbook > Articles > 4. Communications And Life Skills > Expression and Articulation
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