Lecture: The MIT Guide, Ch. 7 & 15

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. If you have any questions whatsoever about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

Chapter 7: Design for Page and Screen

Reports vs. Manuscripts vs. School Papers

As might be expected from a textbook focused on workplace-based writing, you’ve almost certainly noticed that The MIT Guide‘s discussion of developing print/page-based document standards is geared towards reports, particularly when it discusses issues such as designing for two-page spread layouts, bindings, and the like. As Bazerman discusses in our other reading for this week, different genres have different conventions and expectations, which means that different genres will also have different formatting conventions, expectations, and requirements. A report you prepare as a consultant, a NSF grant proposal, a term paper, and a manuscript submitted to a journal are all governed by different genre formatting conventions.

This said, a number of design principles apply regardless of genre. For instance:

  • Style Guide: Whether you’re preparing a one-page rèsumè, a 35-page honors thesis, or a collaboratively authored NSF grant, you want to maintain a consistent style. While we don’t need to develop a style guide such as found on page. 92 of The MIT Guide for most of our in-school writing, we make (or have given to us) formatting decisions whenever we write for the page (or screen). Formatting decisions should be made for readability, and they should be consistently applied throughout the document. Modern word processors (as opposed to text editors) allow you to create your own style guide for a project, which can be quite useful for making global formatting changes should you decide to change the look of your 2nd-level headings. The article “Style Basics in Word” explains how to use styles in Word. Even if you use a different word processor, if you’re not familiar with this feature, take a glance at this document and then look for instructions specific to your tool of choice.
  • Typography: As The MIT Guide notes, in print documents serif fonts are more readable than sans-serif fonts, so use a serif font for your text. A good design principle is to contrast different elements, so when you use a serif font for the body text, use a sans-serif font for your title and headings. For online documents, the opposite used to be true and the wisdom was to use sans-serif fonts for body text and serif fonts for titles and headings; however, as screen resolutions have vastly improved from even 5 years ago, using serif fonts for body text in online documents is becoming standard.
  • Headings: Headers are powerful tools for guiding readers and improving readability. A good, descriptive header offering a summary of what’s to come prepares readers for what they about to read. As you read magazine articles, web sites, text books, journal articles, and the like, start paying attention to the use of headings to get a sense of how they are used.
  • White Space: White space is another tool that improves readability as well as add visual appeal. Don’t fear it.

Ch. 15: Oral Presentations

The Spoken vs. the Written Word

As The MIT Guide explains (and as Bazerman explained in our Week 1 reading “The Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing”), the spoken word and the written word are different, and we need to treat them differently. While readers can often follow well-written complex, dense writing full of subordinate clauses and a number of important issues packed into a few paragraphs, few listeners will be able to follow such text read aloud.

An oral presentation should not seek to cover the entirety of a complex issue. It should, instead, focus on a few key issues. While you shouldn’t intentionally leave out crucial information from your talk, not covering everything in detail is a good way to promote discussion either in a question and answer period or informally after your talk.  What is crucial in this context is dependent upon what you’re covering in your 12-minute talk rather than what is crucial to the 100-page report your talk draws from.

As you draft your talk, speak it outloud. It should, as long-time writing teacher Peter Elbow argues, it should sound good to the ear and feel good on the tongue. For an excellent, readable introduction to the interplay between speaking and writing, see Peter Elbow’s Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. While the whole book is worthwhile, Part One will provide a good overview.

Frames and Structure

Organize your talk around a series of conceptual frames (see The MIT Guide pp. 239-242) and let your audience know what those frames are and how they fit together at the start of your talk, and then let your audience know where you are in your talk as you move through them.

Visuals

Less is more. Densely packed text on a slide just makes the slide difficult to read. Pages 246-249 show examples of effective slides. (Note that the design principles covered in Ch. 7 apply here.) Large quotes or text-intensive information should be shared via handout or placed online for people to download after your talk if they’re interested in learning more.

Rehearsing

Whether you’re reading from a written text, talking from slides, or speaking extemporaneously, practice, practice, practice. And listen to yourself; if that means recording yourself, record yourself so that you can hear how your talk sounds. Talk your friends and family into listening to you and ask them to give you feedback not just on whether or they could follow your talk but on your pacing, your inflection, your physical mannerisms, etc.