Understanding How to Communicate Effectively

MPM requires students to produce a capstone report that helps them write and present more effectively, skills that can ultimately be differentiators in the job market.

In 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger was supposed to have a six-day mission that included deploying a large communications satellite and having the first teacher in space to conduct lessons for children. Seventy-three seconds after launch, millions of people watched on television as the spaceship turned into a fireball, killing all seven passengers onboard. 

Seventeen years later, the Space Shuttle Columbia also met a tragic fate, disintegrating during re-entry into orbit, also killing all seven people on board. 

Official investigations after each incident found a common theme that ultimately played a role in both crashes: ineffective communication.  

To be truly effective, communication must convey clearly and unambiguously the seriousness and urgency of a given issue in a manner that can be simultaneously understood and not misunderstood. 

Whether it's a disaster in space or a disagreement in a marriage, ineffective or poor communication is a common problem across society, particularly in the worlds of engineering and architecture, according to Professor Raymond Krizek, director of Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Project Management (MPM) program.  

"When people discuss a problem or present an idea, they choose words that sound good," Krizek said, "but what often happens is they end up saying one thing but meaning something else."

To help MPM students navigate this communication conundrum, Krizek and his MPM colleagues require that every MPM student write and orally present a capstone report as a condition for graduation. Students are expected to pick a topic of interest to them, write a 20-30 page report on the topic, and then make a 30-minute presentation of the content to a committee.

This report is not a master's thesis and does not require that level of original research.

"Students should think of this as a communication exercise," Krizek said. "The content in the report is not intended to be publishable in journals or at conferences. That's not the goal. The goal is to help our students become better at organizing and presenting information clearly and effectively." 

To assist in satisfying this requirement, students are paired with a personal mentor experienced in communications who serves as an advisor to help develop the content and structure the sentences, as well as prepare the final presentation slides. These mentors help the students make sure that the report flows properly and tells the story the way it should be told. 

"We're not looking to produce Pulitzer Prize-winning writers here," Krizek said. "What we want is to instill in the students a modicum of self-confidence and to help them become five to 10 percent better than they were when they started the report. If they're able to clearly communicate the content of their report, both in writing and orally, with proper support and good structure, we are satisfied that our goal has been achieved.”

One important tip Krizek always shares with MPM students working on their capstone report is to pay attention to the finer details of their project. Although he doesn't want them to get bogged down in minutiae, he does want them to clearly understand how "the little things" like misspellings, improper punctuation, and unclear statements can sometimes be the difference between winning or losing a project bid.  

"Details are often what makes or breaks the impression you give," Krizek said. "When you compete in the 'real world,' many of your competitors will be comparable to you in their educational background and experience, as well as the companies they represent. The unambiguous manner in which you communicate the details of your presentation completely and correctly may be the only differentiating factor."

McCormick News Article