“Throughout my career in analytics I have often heard, ‘Technical people may not always communicate well so don’t expect it of them.’ I usually think back to how that was not an option at Rice. Each semester, every single one of my engineering courses included a large project that required a detailed presentation and an extensive paper; this was in addition to the typical problems sets, quizzes, and exams,” said Rice University environmental engineering alumna Bridgette Bennett.
“Yes, we had stand-alone communication and rhetorical writing courses, but Rice’s engineering program set the high standard that effectively communicating your ideas in a structured way is just as important as the technical work itself.”
Across each of her technical roles like SAP consulting, financial analysis for an environmental engineering firm, and most recently financial data management for a cloud-based software company, she has been fortunate to work with solution-driven minds. She said, “Engineers and analysts solve problems, and it is a real journey of logic to start with a problem and arrive at an optimal solution. How do we find the right way to tell that story to convey details the audience relates to, is influenced by, or finds value in?
Striving to be clean, clear, and concise
She has learned to synthesize information based on her audience; a skill she says has helped her tremendously in her career. She’s received compliments on her writing or communication style from all levels of management, leading to invitations to overhaul and modernize existing documentation, present at conferences, or provide communication guidance to those early in their careers.
Bennett’s rule of thumb for sharing project details is to give an audience enough to pique their attention, connect each topic to the next, and keep the story flowing; if they want to know more, they will ask. And the goal is to get them to ask for more.
“We’ve all been communicating in an omnichannel for a while now – via emails, messaging, presentation decks, documents, videos, and in many other visual ways. The human brain reacts well to material that is clean, clear, and concise. My ability to create a clear flow and link concepts to each other throughout the story keeps the audience engaged and on the same page.
“Some of the people in your audience might feel unengaged or left behind when they hear too many technical concepts or abstract ideas without good analogies or relatable points. If you need to include a technical point, reorient the audience in the talk by showing where you are in the flow rather than letting them zone out,” said Bennett.
Data is at the center of it all
Bennett shares that complex data has been integral to each one of her roles since the beginning of her career and it often influences how she partners with teams.
“Working with data is so collaborative – it is just as much training and enablement as it is databases and digits. Massive business decisions are made based on insights drawn from data-rich analyses. But as useful as data can be, it is still daunting or may feel like an abstract idea to many people. My goal is to make data — which is so integrated into our jobs — as insightful and easy as possible.”
Recognizing her analyses and models may not be intuitive to her stakeholders, Bennett works hard to build trust by engaging them in discussions and ensuring her communication matches their business needs.
“There is a lot of flexibility and empathy that goes into the relationships my teams build with our business partners. Whether I am writing an instruction manual for a financial model I’ve built for another team to manage or I’m setting expectations for teams to submit clean data changes based on best practices with some concrete examples, the message only lands well if I communicate it well,” said Bennett.“I see good communication as much of an asset as, say, optimizing a dataset or a model.”
During her MBA summer internship, Bennett’s persuasive writing skills led to an unexpected email response: a side project in software documentation. When her new mentor offered to teach her what she needed to know and bring her up to speed, Bennett became a contract technical writer.
Turning developer details into end user documentation
“The deliverables that we produced were intended to be used for anything from government grant funding applications to technical overviews of new pilot software. I had to be convincing about the long-term benefits that would garner funding, but also ensure I captured the deep technical details,” said Bennett.
She worked on the side project after completing a full day at her summer internship, then also continued her contributions from Germany when she returned to wrap up her MBA at the Technical University of Freiberg.
Bennett said, “That contract work required heavy organization skills, deep literary research, and collaboration with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. If the developers had their way, our documents would have been 500 pages long, so I had to discern what they were trying to convey and what they wanted the end user to know and translate that into the right story.
“I also became more familiar with content management strategies because we wanted the documentation to be scalable and repeatable – over and over again – which requires good structure. It was an intense project for my first introduction to technical writing for software, but it was also my first taste of remote work and I quickly realized that is how I work best.”
She advises Rice students and alumni interested in technical writing to look for managers and teams who view strong communication as a key component of their project’s success. “If you enjoy writing, watch for opportunities where it is not just a nice to have fringe skill, but incorporated into your everyday work and performance. Technical writing can be a core part of your job as much as analytics or any other technical career path.”