Study of Communication Genres
By Ashley Adams, Brittany Baird, Melissa Bowman, Nicholas Carney, Meagan Clifft, Evan Dalton, Ryan Hodges, Matthew Jones, Allison King, Brandon Massengill, Katie Medley, Gabrielle Morse, Kaitlyn Norem, Bradley Seaton, Kyle Sullivan, and Lee Thurman (selected and compiled by Mary Ryba Knepper)
What Do Professionals Write and Speak? Our Quest to Find Out
A favorite networking questions is, “So what do you do?” To fulfill a class assignment in English 360, Technical and Professional Communication, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, we asked a more specific question through interviews with professionals in our areas of interest (Attachment A): “What and how do you communicate, in writing and in presentations?” We also asked about the frequency and importance of each genre to develop a conceptual “topography” in which height signified importance and breadth, frequency. This analogy created a concrete image of an intangible reality, which we represented as a two-dimensional mountain range.
Our curiosity was grounded in self-interest: We wanted to have the advantage of preparation by knowing what to expect if we followed the same professional route as the interviewees and to use that preparation as a résumé-builder. Some of us aspire to technical communication as a profession, but most of us will be applying what we learn about communication to advance another type of career.
We also saw ourselves developing a larger body of knowledge about genres of technical and professional communication to illustrate a given of our information age: Every line of work requires communication skills, and the more proficient we become in writing and speaking, the more successful we will be in contributing to our enterprise and to society. Our quest differed from that of professional technical communicators in that we sought to define the type, purpose, frequency, and importance of various communication tasks, whereas technical communication professionals—a broad generalization here—pursue new knowledge and competence in the craft of communication and their efficient application within a professional context.
Craft and content are, of course, a perfect combination. To that end, we became acquainted in another assignment with the Society for Technical Communication to learn about needs and trends so that we can enrich our understanding of how information is managed as an asset and resource. As working professionals in other areas, we will take with us—as a career possibility within a profession—an appreciation of “single sourcing,” “content management,” “levels of edit,” writing “superstructures,” and “writing for an audience,” leveraging our knowledge of communication to serve our specialized content.
Professional Areas We Investigated
Our interviews included professionals from diverse areas: an agriculture and natural resources professor who worked as a lawyer in commercial real estate; an analytical lab supervisor at a chemical company; an anesthesiologist; an Army pilot and aviation maintenance officer; a ballet studio owner and teacher; a certified public accountant; a development director; an editor of a university publication; an elementary school teacher; an engineering professor; a gas station/convenience store owner; a high school English teacher; a lawyer; a mathematics professor; an ophthalmologist; and a proposal writer for government contracts. The following is a brief overview of findings from each interview.
Agriculture and Natural Resources Professor Commenting on Being a Lawyer in Commercial Real Estate
Being a lawyer is “all about words.” Writing-intensive classes helped prepare this legal professional for his career. He uses standard reference guides for style and sources such as the Bluebook for legal citation rules and guidelines. He recommends that prospective lawyers become skilled in presentation skills, which are critical in the practice of certain kinds of law.
The Commercial Real Estate Lawyer’s Topography
Written formal documents, such as leases: Very frequent; most important
Written informal documents, such as notes to the file: Frequent; most important
Phone calls, to a wide variety of people: Very frequent; important
Dictation: Less frequent than phone calls; more important than phone calls
Person to person: Meetings with clients and other attorneys internal and external to the firm: Infrequent, given the cost; less important
Analytical Lab at a Chemical Company: A Production Team Manager, a Principal Technologist, and a Lab Analyst
The manager and technologist emphasized the critical importance of communication in the lab to ensure safety, quality, and transfer of knowledge. The production team manager said communication skills are essential for him to lead and encourage his team effectively and to relay information from management. He meets regularly with management and interacts regularly with customers and other areas of the plant. The manager and technologist receive communication and leadership training from the corporation. Their easier communication tasks are written; training and disciplinary actions are more difficult.
The Team Manager’s Topography
Email, written to a broad audience, including management, crews, other managers, customers, and technicians to relay information, such as meeting notifications, forwarding attached documents, and responding to customer questions: Very frequent—daily; varying importance
Phone calls, provide status or test results to production and customers: Very frequent; important
Meetings and presentations, provide information through PowerPoint to varied audiences, demonstrations, and exhibits: Weekly and ad hoc meetings; important for information transfer
Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs), provide a record of specific information to customers, the quality assurance group, the legal team, and federal auditors, such as lot numbers, instruments, methods, and audits to comply with regulations and guidelines for food-and-drug-grade products: Frequency varies depending on production supply and customer demand; extremely important
The Principal Technologist’s Topography
Administrative documents, used to guide processes and techniques, including version and revision numbers, scope of work, procedure, and responsible persons: Varied frequency; highly important
Test methods and standard operating procedures (SOPs), written for customers and analysts, indicating a revision or adding new methods and procedures, for inclusion in a Test Method Preparation Manual: More frequent than for newer documents; highly important
Temporary work instructions (TWIs), offering training on temporary changes in instrumentation or methods: Varied frequency; varied importance
Telephone, email, and teleconference, solve problems and relay information to customers and the quality assurance group about texts and methods: Daily frequency; varied importance
Training, offered one-on-one to analysts to teach or clarify new or modified methods and procedures: Infrequent with varied importance
The Analyst’s Topography
Email, responds to notices and offering information: Very frequent, daily; relatively low importance
Lab reporting software, reports lab results to production, customers, and management: Daily frequency; very important to enter correct data
Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs). The same as for the team manager
Sample worksheet, used to record test data and results: Daily; almost as important as the cGMPs
The key communication task of an anesthesiologist is keeping records of patients’ procedures before, during, and after the event. An anesthesiologist follows the Anesthesia Information Management System and uses his or her own approach to creating patient reports. The interviewee completed writing courses in college and medical school, but expertise came with experience. Requisite to medical reporting is consistency so that information is immediately clear and available.
The Anesthesiologist’s Topography
Preoperative Reports, collect important information from patients before surgery begins, such as allergies, “nothing by mouth” requirement to reduce the risk of vomiting and other complications, and patient preferences to reduce stress or embarrassment, such as a request to replace dentures immediately after surgery: High frequency because a report is needed with every patient; most important because it prevents potential problems during surgery
Intra-operative Reports, a form used to record procedural information, which includes a place for open comments: Needed with every patient; almost as important as the preoperative report
Postoperative Reports, guide nurses’ care after the operation and reinforces important information from the other two reports and is as effective as the other two reports allow it to be: Needed with every patient; also important
Oral Communication, occurs “in the moment” and supplements written communication to maintain smooth interaction among personnel: High frequency; very important
Research: Journal Articles and Conferences, keep professionals abreast of innovations and responses to issues: Frequent; important
Army Pilot and Aviation Maintenance Officer
This interviewee is a Chief Warrant Officer Five in the United States Army and serves as a pilot and aviation maintenance officer. He is responsible for all maintenance of the aircraft assigned to him to ensure its integrity and the crew’s safety. He stated that “clear and effective communication is essential” to his profession. If duties and expectations are not communicated clearly, a mission could fail. The most challenging medium is video conferencing: The technology can fail, and participants tend to talk over each other. His best preparation was from literature classes in school and military training in writing as defined in the Army’s style guide, which promotes active voice and action-oriented writing.
Army Pilot and Aviation Maintenance Officer’s Topography
Email, used daily for a variety of purposes with a variety of audiences, such as inquiries, responses to inquiries, and directions, with full attention to military courtesies based on rank, often over 50 emails a day: Very frequent; a “critical communication” tool
Employee evaluations, written according to Army format and style by this commissioned officer for noncommissioned officers on the team for a senior reviewer’s information, to evaluate a person’s performance and to provide feedback on ways to improve, including character, technical skills, contributions, and potential: Semiannual review; extremely important evaluation tool.
PowerPoint presentations, used to brief command channels on routine work and specific events, including bullet points, graphs, and charts: Four days a week by various personnel, not just this officer; highly important to keep upper commands informed
Maintenance contracts, provide a statement of work between the Army and outside contractors, which conforms to an Army standard for format and style: Used every time the Army hires a new contractor, reviewed quarterly; essential to the Army’s maintenance of equipment
Ballet Studio Owner
This ballet teacher and studio owner said that communication is extremely important in every aspect of her work: teaching students, explaining schedules and expectations to them; documenting all aspects of the business to the Board of Trust and directors; and interacting with the media. She is an active speaker at a variety of venues—civic, social, academic, and professional, as well as at performances, welcoming the audience and introducing dances. One of the most challenging communication tasks is teleconferences with her professional association because the number of people convening is large and they do not have the advantage of face-to-face interaction. She learned on the job how to communicate, and her experience performing helped her with stage presence. She also had to learn how to write a press release on the job. She prepares presentations by developing outlines and practicing.
Ballet Studio Owner’s Topography
Scheduling documentation, published for dancers and their parents to apprise them of weekly schedules: Posted, with sometimes daily changes; extremely important
Press releases, used to announce performances and ticket information: Once a month, on average; very important
Association documentation, compiled from monthly reports about performances, scholarships, awards for the membership: Monthly meeting reports compiled for semiannual meetings; very important to stay organized
Reports to the Board of Trustees, used to inform members of the company’s activity and presented in person to answer questions: Once a month; very important
Certified Public Accountant
Certified public accountants (CPAs) engage in a wide variety of communication tasks. A requisite of communication is meticulous attention to detail. This CPA sends important information to clients via ground mail, and occasionally by email. Given the amount of detail required, his biggest challenge is writing financial planning proposals for current and prospective clients. These proposals must reflect high quality work at reasonable rates. He occasionally presents on a professional topic to the public. He learned communication skills primarily on the job and from other jobs where he interacted with the public.
Certified Public Accountant’s Topography
Proposals: The least frequent; the most important for growing a business
Letters, typically request a specific action of clients, who are quite familiar with the content: Low frequency; very important
Presentations, used as a means of reaching a potential clientele: Infrequent; important for marketing
Instant messaging, reserved for communication with coworkers to confirm a person is available, clarify a point, or ask a question: Less frequent than email; important
Email, with a wide variety of purposes, such as detailed financial data and meeting requests; sent to former, current, and potential clients, and coworkers: Most frequent; less important, typically, than letters
Development Director at a State University
Communication is everything for a development director. This development director writes articles for magazines and brochures; personal letters; PowerPoint presentations on estate planning, tax-wise gifts, and other topics; and legal documents, using the language of trusts, endowments, gift agreements, and bequests. He must educate, inspire, and motivate an audience to take action. His training included writing classes in English and journalism; business and law; military leadership and communication training in the service; and most important, experience.
Development Director’s Topography
Letters, used to speak directly to potential donors about giving; can include legal information and financial illustrations; often formal and sometimes informal: Daily; extremely important
Articles, inform potential donors about the benefits of donating by providing educational materials in concise, attractive, easy-to-read formats for older readers: Monthly; extremely important
Brochures, inform potential donors in a concise way about all aspects of giving from an educational and motivational perspective, printed on high contrast, dull paper for readability: Yearly; extremely important
Proposals, demonstrate to donors using legal terminology how the university will use their gifts: Weekly, extremely important
Editor of a University Press
An editor of a university press described his communication tasks as primarily coordinating with authors to ensure a quality, accurate text and with the press’s editorial board to persuade them to accept a book for publication. The editor has a creative writing background with experience in publishing at another university.
Editor of a University ‘s Topography
Report to the Board, informs the board about projects to convince them to accept the book for publication: Three times a year; very important
Book Publishing Agreement, brings a book under contract and delineates terms of the contract, including exclusive rights to publish the book: Very frequent, 40–50 times a year; very important
Guide for Authors, provides authors with instructions on preparing their book for publication, including styling pictures and gaining permission for copyrights: Very frequent, 40–50 times a year as an accompaniment to the Book Publishing Agreement; important
Letter to Authors, informs the author as a courtesy that the book design is complete and provides marketing information: Very frequent, 40–50 times a year; not important
Elementary School Teacher
Communication is a key element in teaching, written and oral. A teacher has many audiences and purposes: teaching students, managing the classroom, and interacting with parents, students, colleagues, and administration. This elementary teacher uses electronic media to present her lessons: an active board, overhead projector, and the Internet. Her list of communication genres is extensive.
The biggest communication challenge is keeping parents informed. She uses email, phone calls, and written behavior reports that students take home every day.
Elementary School Teacher’s Topographies
Because an elementary teacher writes so many documents, this summary includes three topographies.
Individual evaluation performance, a formal assessment from a psychologist’s observation sent to school administrators, psychologists, and parents that lists students’ areas for improvement: Written when needed; highly important
S-TEAM, a formative assessment provided upon request to the administration and available to parents and teachers: Four times per year; moderately important
Parent conference form, used in conference with parents to update them on their children’s progress, available to other teachers and administrators: Four times a year with individual parents and twice a year with a group of parents; moderately important
Lesson plans, 7 daily, list learning objectives and schedules to identify state performance indicators and the pace of the curriculum being taught, available to teachers and school administrators: Daily; more than moderately important
Discipline referral, formal and legal documentation, which explains inappropriate behavior to parents and administrators; copies go to the teacher, parent, and administrator: On an as-needed basis; middle importance
Accident report, documents an injury that occurs on school grounds; copies go to school administration, nurses, and parents: Ad hoc basis; middle importance
Daily agendas for students, used to inform parents about assignments and expectations: Daily; above middle importance
Running record for math and reading, tracks a student’s test scores in each subject: Yearly; high importance
Weekly newsletter, keeps parents informed on and involved in school activities, including schedules: Weekly; highest importance
Grade level planning, verbal or written comments to keeps colleagues synchronized on dates, projects, curriculum, students’ progress: Weekly; moderately high importance
Email, covers varied subjects to supplement other reports to parents, teachers, and administration: As needed, typically biweekly; middle importance
Teacher observations, record observations to rate teachers on academic performance and mastery to help teachers develop: Six times a year; higher importance
Agricultural and Biological Engineering Professor
Communication is an essential skill for a professor, who teaches and publishes. This professor considers teaching the hardest of all communication tasks because of the diversity of students and no chance to revise a lecture the way one can revise a document before an audience encounters it. This professor learned to communicate through a speech class and experience. He follows the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers style guide for publication, and other standard references.
Agricultural and Biological Engineering Professor’s Topography
Lectures: The most frequent; the most important in fulfilling an academic role
Manuscripts, published in scholarly journals for the engineering community; more abbreviated than a research paper: Two to three papers a year; very important
Research papers, usually published in standard research format for use within the state by professionals who already have some understanding of the content and who are interested in more detail: Low frequency, e.g., every three years; lower importance
Textbook: Infrequent; low importance to an academic career
Gas Station/Convenience Store Owner
Strong communication serves this small business owner in keeping employees working toward the same goals. The most frequent communication is daily interaction with employees. The most difficult communication he performs is in disciplining an employee or letting a person go. Company-wide communication, a rare event, concerns big topics, such as introducing a new product line or a distressing matter. College courses helped develop his ability to communicate as did experience. This small business owner noted that an error in communication can have a greater negative effect on his company than it might in a larger corporation, which can muster resources elsewhere to meet a need or fill a gap. He also noted how meticulous planning and hiring quality managers are requisite to success.
Gas Station/Convenience Store Owner’s Topography
Company policy manual, provides employees with directions and expectations, the company’s history, mission statement, emergency procedures, dress code, benefits, pay policies, hygiene, and legal procedures: Yearly update; very important to all employees
Employee evaluations, show employees their strengths and areas for improvement, including attitude, promptness, job performance, teamwork, and customer service: Semiannual; important
Manager evaluations, help managers in each department stay on track with company goals related to food prices, labor costs, sales, and cost and sales: End of each week; very important
Daily balance sheet, an Excel spreadsheet that shows debits and credits compared with a balance to ensure that sales of gasoline and products are moving in a positive direction with accurate transactions and no cash shortages: Daily; very important to ensure inventory is not stolen or wasted
High School English Teacher
Communication to this interviewee is a job requisite, not just in disseminating correct information but in being clear on expectations with both students and parents and in exercising discretion and respect in dealing with parents. Her best preparation for communicating on the job was her internships and mentoring she received on the job.
High School English Teacher’s Topography
Pacing guide, created for students and parents to clarify expectations: Daily reference; very important
Parent letter, helps engage parents by explaining course goals and activities: Once at the beginning of the year and as needed thereafter; very important
Rules and expectations, inform students and parents of boundaries and goals: Referred to daily; very important
Recommendation, written in support of student seeking employment: About 20 per year; important
Lawyer in Estate Planning and Trial
This lawyer illustrated the importance of communication to her profession by quoting President Abraham Lincoln: “The only things lawyers have to sell are their words.” A lawyer’s focus is to protect the client. Every type of communication contains facts and applicable law. The challenge is to “structure communication to prevail.” Legal documents follow tight guidelines and formats, as illustrated in the Bluebook. All English and presentation classes help prepare lawyers, and the best preparation for this lawyer was a legal research and writing class in law school.
Pleadings, formal court documents assigned a tracking number by the court that give notice of a claim in three parts: (a) the complaint, or petition, which starts the lawsuit; (b) the answer to the complaint; and (c) the motion, which develops the lawsuit: Frequent use; extremely important
Instruments, used to protect a client’s interests and declare legal rights, such as contracts, deeds, wills, and trusts, and presented in a standard, defined format: Most frequent; extremely important in protecting clients’ rights
Correspondence, used to resolve issues without going to trial: Not frequent because a majority of cases cannot be solved by correspondence; important
Oral communication, in court, characterized by an opening and closing; typically presented to a court, judge, and jury, particularly in asking for pretrial resolution, requiring the lawyer to be highly persuasive with the judge: Quite frequent with this lawyer; very important
Communication is central to the work of a university professor. This interviewee cited research papers as the most challenging, with some papers requiring years of research to complete. Papers conform to the style guides of the publications to which they are submitted and to a consistent notation scheme the author imposes. Papers receive a thorough vetting through a refereeing process to ensure the integrity and quality of the paper. Authors respond to the comments and submit a revised manuscript. They often present their findings at conferences. While not as significant as the research paper, shorter papers on topics such as definitions, theorems, proofs, notes on notation, and the like contribute to the field. Another contribution is the review in which authors summarize and evaluate others’ work. Some professors write problems for courses they teach to supplement a textbook. Email provides an avenue for quick responses for a variety of purposes.
Mathematics Professor’s Topography
Research papers, present scholarly work: Annually or biannually; extremely important
Presentations, used to present papers and interact with colleagues: Annually or biannually; important
Short research papers, contribute in a broad way to the body of knowledge: Four per year; moderately important
Reviews, keep scholars current: Fifteen to twenty per year; less important than research papers
Lecture notes, provide course content: A dozen a year; important
Email, written for a variety of purposes: Daily; less important
The interviewee is an ophthalmic technician who describes communication as the most important aspect of his job. Most of his communication is oral, but a portion is email. He needs to interview patients and convey their symptoms and questions accurately and completely to the doctors. Conversely, he needs to interpret medical information for patients. Furthermore, as a manager, he needs to talk with coworkers on work status, office efficiencies, and procedural updates. He also trains staff on topics related to the structure of the eye or on specific problems and treatments. The biggest challenge is correcting a coworker who is doing something incorrectly. Communication with his supervisor comprises semiannual performance reviews in addition to other, more frequent conversations about office business.
Communicating with patients and doctors: Very frequent; most important
Communicating with colleagues: Less frequent; very important
Communicating with his supervisor: Least frequent; very important
Email: Less frequent; important
Proposal Writer for Government Contracts
The interviewee works for a company that serves clients worldwide in trade compliance and security-related services, including commodity classification, training, compliance audits, technical documents, and export management systems. Government projects focus on software and training for many areas affecting international interaction.
Proposal Writer’s Topography
Technical responses, usually the first step in winning a government contract involving team management for US government employees in foreign countries; include an action plan for completing a job and cost estimate: Very frequent, several a week; highly important
Deliverables, describe the physical items clients receive if they award the contract; often attached to a technical response: Very frequent; highly important
Statements of work, submitted after the company has won a contract; outline a work plan: As frequent as the company wins contracts; highly important
Best and final offer (BAFO), asked of preferred venders who have quoted a higher-than-acceptable estimate and can now redefine their objectives and costs, usually adjusted by 10–15%: Not often; very important
So what did we learn? The common theme in this study was that, whether oral or written, communication is central to every profession we investigated. We also learned that most professionals learned how to communicate on the job; coursework helped, but the real learning occurred in situ, ideally with a mentor, often by imitation or trial and error. Professionals were all able to ascribe importance and frequency to the various genres. Importance was a function of context.
The value of the exercise was to deepen our appreciation of what a given profession entails in a practical, explicit way related to the study of communication. While one is never fully prepared for that next endeavor, the assignment opened the door a little wider, allowing a clearer view before we cross the threshold.