Ever wondered how your required college composition courses will benefit you once you’re in the “real world”? Ever wondered how important reading and writing skills are to engineers, artists, marketing experts, nurses, and entrepreneurs? I’ve started this series, Real Talk, to give professionals in a variety of industries a chance to share why reading and writing are so critical to what they do.
Describe your job.
I work for the City of Seattle in their Department of Transportation (known as SDOT). I am the manager of Transit Service and Strategy, which is part of a larger division called Transit and Mobility. I oversee a team of six people who focus on a variety of areas including city investment in bus service, street improvements that support buses moving more quickly through the city and policy issues that influence how the transit operates in Seattle.
What kind of reading and writing do you do on an everyday basis?
On a daily basis, most of my reading and writing is reviewing the work of others, including responses to constituents, memos to key decision makers and reports. I also occasionally read cover letters and resumes when we hire new people. Like most people, I do a fair amount of communication via email, primarily to our agency partners and higher level management. I strive not to be lazy when in composing my emails since how you write is a reflection on you.
What kinds of reading and writing skills are key in your field?
One of the most important aspects in reading and writing is being able to understand and process technical information into plain language. In the transportation industry, we have thousands of acronyms and often use jargon that only makes sense to other professionals. Being able to simplify and communicate more technical topics to the general public and key decision makers is essential to communicating what your agency is trying to accomplish and for dinner parties too. Part of this is also knowing what level of detail to provide to what audiences, which takes practice but is essential to communicating at multiple levels of an agency.
For example, when the city implements transit projects such as a transit queue jump, most people won’t understand what that means. Now, if I say that to a traffic engineer, they will immediately understand, but the general public won’t. If I am communicating with the public or key decision makers, using simple language is best. The better way to communicate “transit queue jump” is to say “we’re installing a traffic signal that gives buses a green light before the rest of traffic.” Yes, it’s more words, but simplifies the idea.
Why are these skills important to being successful in your work?
These skills are important because often technical experts can really get into the details of a project or proposal. By communicating in plain language, it makes it more likely that both decision makers and the public can connect with what your project is and what the benefits are. Communicating clearly is half the battle when trying to get decisions from management or buy-in from the public. Being able to synthesize a project into a few key but relatable ideas can really help build support for a project.
What advice do you have for students, particularly college students in first- and second-year writing courses?
One of the skills that has benefited me the most is my career is the ability to understand complex ideas and put them into easy to understand language. This skill makes it easier for me communicate with engineers, planners, managers and elected officials in my field. I recommend practicing this in your daily life and in your writing when you can.
Being able to read and understand complex ideas and turning those into simple sound bites for decision-makers, upper management and the public makes you more relatable and builds trust. It is also great for resume and cover letter writing. I am more likely to look at three bullet points about work experience or a project you work on than several paragraphs. Communicating in simple language also has the added benefit of being able to communicate more successfully with a wide range of people beyond just your friends, family and significant others.