William Heins

The canons of rhetoric—invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery—are the elements of speech through which a speaker conveys their message to an audience. These canons, however, produce three other elements of speech: detail, clarity, and elegance. The balance among them is fundamental to public speaking as all are necessary for a speaker to achieve their purpose: conveying a message to an audience. One area of practice to which this balance applies in a unique way is the presentation of technical information. The informative nature of technical communication often leads technical speakers to prioritize detail over clarity, leading to an unclear message. Since a speaker’s purpose revolves around message and audience, a clear message should be a speaker’s central and constant focus, and the inclusion of detail should be tailored to the various properties of a speaker’s message and audience. But for technical and non-technical audiences, a clear message is the ultimate goal. As Professor McGarrity states, if after a speech the audience can recall the main message and key points, “that’s a win.” Technical speakers therefore must approach communication with an unnatural mindset, focusing on broader conclusions rather than fine details. This idea is sometimes ignored even by experienced communicators, speaking to the cliché that common knowledge is not common practice.

To understand the way in which the canons of rhetoric produce these three elements of a speech, consider the following metaphor. Imagine a sheet of paper showing a thought web of the speaker’s intended message. As the speaker communicates their ideas, listeners attempt to arrange them into their own understanding of the topic, analyzing and validating the speaker’s claims. Speech is thus the lens through which listeners view the speaker’s intended message. The delivered message and its corresponding detail, clarity, and elegance are determined by this lens, crafted by the speaker. So just as the focal point of the lens must be on the paper to produce a clear image, the focal point of the speech must be on the message. The speaker’s choices shift the lens backward and forward, with imbalances shifting the focal point away from the intended message and creating a blurred image. An imbalance of detail therefore blurs the clarity of a speech. A lack of detail creates an incomplete understanding of message while an excess of detail shifts focus away from the message and towards the supporting details.

Technical communicators are notorious for prioritizing detail over clarity. They are naturally drawn to detail given its importance in technical fields, and many technical speakers will stress the importance of detail in conveying their message. Yet, although it is true technical detail is important—it is detail which fuels development of technology—the broader conclusions drawn from detail are often more important in application. Such conclusions drive the broader decisions made by technical professionals and are often the intended message. For this reason, technical speakers must approach communication in a manner opposite to their habitual thinking, prioritizing conclusion over detail. Technical speakers are also drawn to detail because they often see a certain elegance in it, feeling it is important in understanding the beauty of an idea. Detail is artistic style for the technical speaker. They therefore attempt to create elegance through the addition of detail, hoping the beauty of the underlying scientific concepts will add elegance to their speech. However, this has several downfalls. For one, non-technical audiences which do not share the same passion for or understanding of technical ideas will not appreciate detail as elegance, leaving the speech without it. But more importantly, technical speakers will focus on the beauty of technical detail rather than the conclusions it supports. Since such conclusions are often the intended message, technical speakers often fail to convey their message in an attempt to incorporate elegance. The technical speaker’s draw to detail therefore provides several avenues for loss of clarity and message.

In practice, this takes many forms. One very common case is the improper reporting of data. Technical speakers will often provide listeners with an excess of data reported in difficult-to-read forms to preserve detail. Large data tables, numerous graphs, and lists of equations are examples. However, such an excess of detail dilutes the speaker’s message and undermines its clarity. Instead, technical speakers should report data in concise, easy-to-read forms which only exhibit its broad conclusions. Line graphs with color-coded lines, pie charts, and bar charts are examples. Technical speakers often feel such forms of data reporting fail to convey the detailed correlations within the data and thus fail to convey a complete message. But since the broad conclusions drawn from data, not the detailed correlations within, are often a technical speaker’s intended message, such forms of data which exclude detail and highlight conclusions focus listeners’ attention on and clarify the intended message. However, perhaps the most recognized form of clarity loss in technical communication is an excess of jargon (uncommon, profession-specific words). To technical speakers, jargon contains deep, conceptual meaning which provides necessary detail. However, technical speakers may have other motivations for incorporating jargon in speeches. To incorporate elegance, speakers may focus on the beauty of the ideas it describes instead of the intended message, relying on the apparent elegance of the jargon to add elegance to the speech. To educate listeners on the subject matter, speakers may define and explain jargon’s conceptual meaning. Technical speakers who enjoy teaching the subject matter or have a passion for it are especially prone to doing this in excess. Speakers may also use an excess of jargon to establish credibility, using audiences’ low familiarity with jargon to emphasize a greater knowledge in the subject. However, for non-technical audiences especially, an excess of jargon shifts listeners’ focus from understanding the intended message to understanding the jargon, even when provided definitions. Listeners may feel unable to understand the topic and thus the speaker’s message, causing the audience to lose interest. The apparent elegance and conceptual meaning of the jargon will go unappreciated, and the speaker could develop a condescending reputation if the audience perceives the speaker’s inclusion of jargon as an attempt to undermine the audience. An excess of jargon therefore damages a speaker’s message in many ways. Educating listeners and establishing credibility using jargon can be useful in technical communication, but only if the message remains clear and the audience respects the speaker. For technical audiences, the use of jargon serves a greater purpose due to the audience’s ability to appreciate the jargon’s elegance, conceptual meaning, and indication of speaker expertise. However, the technical backgrounds of audiences form a spectrum, and the ideal use of jargon is controlled by the message and the audience specific to the speech.

It is thus important for technical speakers to maintain a clear message by focusing on broad conclusions over fine details, considering both their message and audience. The canons of rhetoric produce three necessary elements of speech which are in constant balance with one another: detail, clarity, and elegance. This balance transcends the technical speaker and applies to the general communicator. Yet, as in any field, one’s greatest strengths can also pose the greatest challenges. Technical speakers’ unique attention to detail is an invaluable skill in their fields, but it often leads to a stronger focus on detail instead of key points. Such key points are broader conclusions which are often the foundation of the intended message and more important in application. Technical speakers’ tendency to prioritize detail thus introduces several avenues for the loss of clarity and message. This draw to detail is fueled by its importance in technical fields as well as its ability to act as artistic style for technical speakers, and it can be a challenge which manifests itself in a variety of settings from brainstorm and design discussions, managing projects, and communicating among teams. In reporting data, use of concise, easy-to-read forms of data which focus on the overall conclusions instead of the detailed correlations in the data overcome this challenge to achieve a clear message. In addition, the use of jargon can be used to convey message by utilizing its deep, conceptual meaning, to incorporate elegance, to educate listeners, or to establish credibility, but there are several avenues through which jargon can undermine a speaker’s clarity and message. Ultimately, the best use of jargon and best balance between detail and clarity must be determined by considering the unique message and audience, asking questions regarding the technical background of and the importance of the subject to the audience. A level of “predictive empathy,” or prediction of the audience’s reaction to a speaker’s message, is therefore needed in designing a speech. Since prioritizing broad conclusions over fine details is unnatural for many technical speakers, it is important for technical speakers to remind themselves of this idea when preparing for speeches. A great way to remind oneself of important notes when preparing for speeches is to create a written record of such notes learned from classes, research, speaking experience, etc. This allows a speaker to grow over time by reflecting after a speech, recording the lessons learned, recalling these lessons in preparation for the next speech, and using them in future speeches. Knowing oneself as a speaker through self-reflection is a necessary step in growth for all speakers.