Divergence and Convergence, Educating with Integrity: Proceedings of the 7th Annual JALT Pan-SIG Conference.
May. 10 - 11, 2008. Kyoto, Japan: Doshisha University Shinmachi Campus. (pp. 52 - 59)
A systematic approach to writing EFL self-study books for engineers
by Michihiro Hirai (Kanagawa University)
In writing two self-study EFL books for Japanese engineers (one on technical presentations and the other on meetings), the author emulated the process of product development in terms of four basic phases: market environment analysis, design, production, and quality assurance. Central to success, either in writing a practical book or in developing a new product, is differentiation, which is one of the key criteria in defining value for the market. Thus, in market environment analysis, the author first studied the strengths and weaknesses of existing self-study books, thereby identifying the possible areas of differentiation: content, ease of use, and readability, which were then carefully addressed in the design phase. In content, the author’s decades-long experience as a technical coordinator in an export project brought a real-life flavor to the model situations and presentation. Ease of use was enhanced by quick-access indexes and tables sorting model sentences according to grammatical structures and engineering-specific situations. Readability was achieved by inserting relevant and intriguing episodes. In production, a spreadsheet-based table of contents made the actual writing process more visible and manageable. This article concludes by suggesting this approach is conducive to writing publishable books that meet the market’s needs.
Keywords: material writing, professional communication, technical presentation, technical meeting, self-study materials
As the world economy becomes increasingly global, there is a growing need to raise the levels of English skills among corporate employees in many countries. Those who need to use English at work are increasing not only in number but also in variety, encompassing many professions usually considered outside the conventional scope of business, such as research, engineering, and accounting. For example, engineers often need to read and write email, draft manuals, attend meetings, and give presentations in English. Compared with the plethora of books on general English, and those on business English to a lesser extent, the range of texts on technical English has long been notably limited.
"Compared with the plethora of books on general English, and those on business English to a lesser extent, the range of texts on technical English has long been notably limited."
One obvious reason for this paucity of technical English books is the limited size of the expected readership. Another conceivable reason is the way foreign languages are treated in Japan. In most cases, foreign languages are taught as independent academic fields in their own right general or literary perspectives, rather than from practical or professional perspectives. As a result, a great chasm exists between the language community (teachers as well as students) and the science and engineering community. Most English scholars and teachers, whose primary interest and expertise lie either in linguistics or literature, tend to shy away from teaching technical English or creating materials about this topic. Likewise, very few Japanese scientists and engineers are proficient enough to teach English, let alone write materials on or in that language. What is missing here is a balanced combination of language skills and technical knowledge. Indeed, it is hard to find individuals who possess both in sufficient degrees, mainly because of the way the two groups of subjects are taught.
At the request of a publisher specializing in books for scientists and engineers, the author recently wrote two self-study books in English: one on technical presentations (Hirai, 2006) and the other on technical meetings (Hirai and Kurdyla, 2004). This paper describes the important considerations and actions taken in writing those works.
Affinity between a Writing Process and an Engineering Project
While putting together ideas on what to write and how to organize them at the very start, the author realized that the goal of writing a book for publication is fundamentally akin to developing a product: there must be some value delivered to the market. If a book or a product does not have any value to offer end consumers, it is doomed to fail. For books and products alike, value depends very much on novelty, in other words creating something that is different from the competition. In the author’s view, a book which does not offer anything new would be of little value. Thus, the author pondered over how to differentiate the new book (product) from similar ones already on the market. This is a typical, yet very fundamental question engineers have to ask themselves before launching any development project.
With the goal of delivering value, one should first analyze the market and its environment: who the targeted readers or users are, what they expect, who else is offering similar products, and so on. Then, based on the results of this analysis, one should draw up specifications, namely, what features the new book or product should have to be competitive, which is the key part of the design process. Once the specifications are spelled out, one needs to actually flesh them out in concrete words, or in the form of detailed coding in the case of software development. This is the production phase. Finally, once the prototype is complete, one should test and verify it against the specifications as well as expected standards of quality, which is an essential part of quality assurance.
All in all, the author likened the book-writing process to that of product development and broke it down into four phases: market environment analysis, design, writing (production), and quality assurance, as shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Affinity between book writing and project development
||Questions to be asked
||Actions to be undertaken
|Market environment analysis
||Value of a new book?
|Market environment analysis
||Features of the book?
How will it stand out?
||Drawing up of specifications
||What to/not to write?
How to handle legal issues?
Intellectual property check
Product liability check
||How to ensure quality?
Debugging & testing
Since the two books the author has written differ in content and format, the remainder of this paper discusses the writing process for each, particularly the market environment analysis and design phases.
Part 1: How the Practical Guide to English Presentation for Engineers was written
Phase One - Market Environment Analysis
According to Hofer and Schendel (1978), the term “market environment analysis” refers to the intelligence gathering and analysis activities required for formulating a business strategy. Of these, two are particularly significant also in publishing a practical book: needs analysis and competitive analysis.
The author started giving technical presentations in English in the early 1980s, when his employer was expanding its export business. In those years, however, practically no books on English presentations were available in Japan. The need for reliable help in this field had long been neglected until around the turn of the century, when finally a few books on English presentations started appearing on the shelves of major bookstores. The author attributes this slow response partly to the then small community of Japanese businesspeople who needed to give presentations in international situations. It now appears this market need is gradually receiving the proper attention it deserves. Appendix A lists some of the books on English presentations that were available in Japan as of August 2006, when the author started writing one himself.
A closer look at such books, however, revealed that most of them deal with general business presentations. Naturally, they cover such common fundamentals as how to greet audiences, how to organize presentations, and how to handle questions in general terms, but fall short of teaching technically minded audiences how to describe technical visuals or how to explain the internal workings of complex systems. Since these are areas that most Japanese engineers have trouble with, there was a great need for a book that would give useful tips and pinpoint typical mistakes in these areas.
As in any product development project, it is critically important to know your competition. Thus, before shaping the outline of the new book, the author conducted a quick survey of the books listed in Appendix A, which were mostly written for general business audiences. Then he evaluated them with regard to a number of aspects such as content, ease of use, and readability, as summarized in Table 2.
These aspects, in which the author found some room for improvement, were subsequently dealt with during the next phase: design, and will be discussed in detail shortly.
Table 2. A competitive analysis of six EFL texts on technical presentations (abridged)
Text ratings by author
|E = excellent; G = good; F = fair; IS = insufficient; &bsp; NC = not covered
G1 good, but insufficient in terms of technical expressions. G2 goof, but overly technical
* = potential areas of differentiation for a new book
|FN = #1 in Appendix A YN = #2 in Appendix A FS = #4 in Appendix A
JC = #8 in Appendix A KC = #10 in Appendix A YH = #12 in Appendix A
Phase Two – Design
Feature List for Specifications
In place of a formal specification document, which is required in developing many commercial products, the author created a list of features (points of market appeal) that the new book should have. The list covered most of the items listed in Table 2 and served two purposes: first as the product specifications and second as a sales flier for promotion, which defines the characteristics of the product and highlights the points where it will excel. The remainder of this section discusses how these features, which are essentially summarized in Table 2, were implemented category by category.
Let us consider how this text book differs from others on the market in terms of (1) content, (2) ease of use, and (3) readability.
Differentiation of content was achieved in a number ways. A critical review of rules and tips was offered. A selected list of relevant expressions, an insight into differences between presenting and writing were also included in the text along with a sample presentation. For example, while most books emphasized the “keeping it short and simple” (the so-called KISS guidelines) for presentations, the author had held reservations about this. One day he came across an article by a renowned American business consultant (Karten, 1988) which supported his view. In this article, she confessed her own mistake of strictly adhering to the KISS guidelines. She had always told businesspeople not to offer too much information on one slide. One day, however, after giving a presentation to a group of IT professionals, she was surprised to hear the audience complain that she had not given them enough information. She realized that people in certain professions would prefer ample information, particularly in text form, rather than attend a presentation full of pictures that is easy to follow but thin on content. The author therefore included this anecdote, which had long passed unnoticed outside the IT community, as a counterpoint to the KISS rule.
Further, while most of the books in Appendix A listed a number of tips for creating attractive slides and delivering impressive presentations, they tended to lack an engineering point of view and often failed to address the typical problems Japanese engineers are likely to encounter, as mentioned in the Needs Analysis section of this paper. Capitalizing on his decades-long experience as a design engineer, the author tried to fill this gap.
As for useful expressions, one area not covered by any of the books surveyed was how to express one’s limitations. For example, engineers sometimes need to make it clear to the audience that they do not represent their company on business matters, but none of the books taught how to handle such situations. Likewise, while many of the books listed model expressions to explain what a visual is all about, they fell short of dividing them into groups by grammar or usage patterns that were easy to study and memorize. Again, these weaknesses were appropriately addressed by the new book.
"[the] differences between writing and presenting. . .[are] overlooked by most existing books"
Another point the author included for unique added value was some insight into differences between writing and presenting, which were overlooked by most existing books. While both genres deal with how to convey information and how to get messages across, the two are different in many important aspects, such as the sequence of listing items. For example, writers are often advised to present sequentially from the most important to the least important point. In some presentations, however, this sequence may not work; in fact, the reverse often is more effective. By starting with the least valuable bit of information and proceeding toward the most valuable, as in a countdown show, one can keep the audience’s attention till the very end. One should also note that, because oral communication is inherently volatile, what is said at the end of a presentation tends to stay longer with the audience.
There are other differences between written and spoken genres, as examined by Leech and Svartvik (2003) and Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad and Finegan (1999). Some lexical items and grammatical structures are more preferred in speech than in written text, and vice versa, because of differences in register, formality, timing (real-time or not), and other factors. In consideration of the sequential and also volatile nature of the presentation, the author provided some focused tips on making the speech easier to follow, at the sacrifice of stylistic beauty advocated in writing. An example is a sentence showing the correspondence of two sets of items, such as “We substitute 3.4, 2.1, and 11.7 for parameters X, Y, and Z, respectively,” which often appears in written texts. When spoken, however, this kind of listing presents some burden on the listeners. In presentations, therefore, it would be easier on the ear to say, “We substitute 3.4 for parameter X, 2.1 for Y, and 11.7 for Z.” Furthermore, sentences starting with “There is (are)” or “It is … that,” which are sometimes deprecated in writing, may be easier to understand in presentations. The author sheds light on these differences to alleviate widespread confusion among English learners.
The final significant method of differentiation in content was the inclusion of a sample presentation. Of the books surveyed, only a few included a model presentation, and even when they did, it tended to be either simplistic or unrealistic. The author therefore created and inserted a sample presentation based on the real-life applications of a GPS-enabled mobile phone in the hope that it would help readers create their own presentations in future real-life situations.
(2) Ease of use
Ease of use, which encompasses information accessibility, is one of the key factors determining the usefulness of a self-study or reference book. While it is straightforward to list useful expressions and important rules, it takes some careful thinking to arrange such a list in an easy-to-use and easy-to-access format. To do this well,
insight into when and where such expressions are actually used is needed. Engineers often need to describe mechanisms or explain processes in technical terms, and create slides in the form of diagrams, tables, and pictures. Thus, greater value was provided by sorting vocabulary and sample sentences into groups for a variety of typical situations such as explaining trends in a graph. Also, a 1-page, quick reference table (index) for each section of a presentation (listing one model sentence for each sub-situation) was provided to help the readers quickly retrieve proven expressions without going through the entire book.
Although practical books are generally not very entertaining by nature, it is worthwhile trying to make them enjoyable by inserting episodes and humorous remarks where appropriate. Incidentally, this point is also true of successful presentations: telling a joke is often an effective way of grabbing and keeping the audience's attention. The author drew upon episodes he had encountered or had heard about during his numerous presentation tours and inserted them into the new book in the form of sidebars.
Part 2: How the Practical Guide to English Technical Meetings was written
Phase One - Market Environment Analysis
"[There is a] widespread misperception that . . . meetings do not require anything more than general conversation skills."
The author started attending and chairing technical meetings in English in the late 1970s, when his company launched a major export project.
The dearth of books on how to conduct meetings (and especially technical meetings) was noted. While businesspeople in general are likely to have more opportunities to attend meetings than to give presentations, this difference in the number of publications still remains strikingly large. This probably stems from the widespread misperception that, unlike presentations, meetings do not require anything more than general conversation skills. Yet the author felt a need for a self-study book which compiles a number of tips on navigating and moderating discussions as well as useful expressions in meetings.
Because of the scarcity of books on meetings conducted in English, the author was unable to conduct a market survey as extensive as with the book on presentations. Instead, he evaluated the very few self-study books on English business meetings that were available at the time (in 2003). Table 3 summarizes the results of the evaluation with respect to content and ease of use.
Table 3. Competitive analysis of a EFL text on technical meetings by the author
EVL = Overall book ratings
|E = excellent; G = good; F = fair; IS = insufficient; NC = not covered
G = good F = fair NA = not applicable
* = potential areas of differentiation for a new book
|DIF = Possible areas of differentiation
|* = positive merit noted
Phase Two – Design & Differentiation
Let us compare this book in terms of two of the previous criteria used to analyze the former book.
In regard to content, differentiation was designed in several ways, for example, by providing useful phrases as well as tips that are more relevant to engineers, presenting a series of model situations arranged as a drama-like story, and proposing a set of formats that facilitate minutes-taking.
The two books surveyed did cover typical situations in ordinary business meetings, but did not include model sentences and phrases used in technical discussions (e.g., how to describe figures and diagrams, and how to explain the internal workings of a system). As with the book on technical presentations, the author included a large number of sentences and phrases useful in such engineering situations, as well as those for expressing limitations in responsibility and language skills. Also, as the author found many of the model sentences included in existing books a little too long and complex to memorize, he limited his model sentences to more manageable lengths.
Most self-study books, both on presentations and meetings, listed a number of model sentences, which were often randomly selected or composed without coherency. In the belief that a coherent thread will keep the readers more interested and focused, which will in turn help them memorize model sentences and phrases, the author created a drama-like story of a product development project, along which a series of model situations evolved.
Finally, based on his own experience, the author proposed a format for the agenda and another for the minutes, which would make it easier to organize a meeting and to take the minutes of a meeting. The former, which lists all the topics and their related documents (handouts) in a compact table, would give all the attendees a bird’s-eye view of the planned discussions. The latter, which advocates simplified sentence structures, would relieve the minutes-taker of the onerous task of paying too much attention to grammar and composing elegant sentences.
(2) Ease of use
As with the book on technical presentations, the author introduced several mechanisms to enhance accessibility and ease of use. First, he provided three glossaries: set phrases, snappy expressions, and an ordinary index, so that the readers can easily determine, for example, which phrases are worth memorizing. Second, the author provided several tables summarizing sentence patterns for explanation, sorting out verb–object collocations, and listing useful words for writing the minutes.
Phase Three – Production
In writing a book of this kind, which should offer a rich collection of useful expressions, one needs to draw primarily on one’s own repertoire. From the late 1970s to the late 1990s, the author held a unique position at his company which involved numerous opportunities to give technical presentations and participate in meetings in English, and he accumulated a number of snappy expressions and practical tips. To arrange them in a structured manner, the author created a detailed table of contents using a spreadsheet, which turned out to be very effective as entries can be easily added, deleted, and moved around.
One of the areas that demand special attention in the production phase is intellectual property. As in engineering, the writer creates intellectual property (copyright) and also should take care not to infringe on others’ rights.
Books on a foreign language inevitably list sample sentences. It should be noted that even though a single sentence is generally not protected by copyright, a collection of sentences could be, if there is originality in the way they are arranged. Writers should therefore make sure that none of their text substantially resembles, however unintentionally, the text in any other book.
Phase Four – Quality Assurance
Unlike engineering, book writing usually does not have an institutionalized mechanism of feedback. To ensure the quality of English, the author availed himself of the proofreading services offered by experienced native speakers of English.
The author likened the goal and process of writing a practical book to those of developing a new product. First and foremost, there must be some value delivered to the market. The basic workflow is also similar in that, to be successful, both require careful market environment analysis, well-thought-out design, and quality assurance.
In writing self-study books on English presentations and meetings for Japanese engineers, the author first analyzed market needs and studied the competition, by evaluating existing books on the subjects. The analysis of their strengths and weaknesses led to the identification of several areas of differentiation: content, ease of use, and readability. A list of features addressing them, which would be used in sales promotion, served as the specifications, and various means of differentiation were implemented accordingly in the design stage.
In terms of content, the author added caveats against some commonly held rules and guidelines, provided an insight into differences between writing and presenting, and included a sample presentation and a coherent series of model situations. To enhance ease of use, the author prepared various quick reference lists of model sentences and grammatical patterns sorted according to situation.
In summary, applying an engineering approach to writing a book ensures that the market needs are properly addressed and value is delivered with proven quality.
For the book on technical presentations, the author thanks Mr. Stephen Park of the Hitachi Institute of Management Development for reviewing the draft and providing valuable insights into presentation style. For the book on technical meetings, the author expresses his appreciation for the valuable advice and proofreading services offered by the co-author Mr. Francis Kurdyla, president of F. J. Kurdyla and Associates Co., Ltd.
Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. (1999). Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education.
Hirai, M. (2006). Enjiniia no tame no eigo purezenteeshon chou-kokufuku tekisuto [Practical Guide to English Presentation for Engineers]. Tokyo: Ohmsha.
Hirai, M. & Kurdyla, F. (2004). Enjiniia no tame no eikaiwa chou-kokufuku tekisuto – jissen! tekunikaru miitingu [Practical Guide to English Technical Meetings: The Way It Really Happens]. Tokyo: Ohmsha.
Hofer, C. W. & Schendel, D. (1978). Strategy Formulation: Analytical Concepts. St. Paul, MN: West.
Karten, N. (1988). Ignore what I said before. Computerworld, 23, October 17, 1988 (p. 23).