How Technical Communication Can Impact Climate Change

Room 42 is where practitioners and academics meet to share knowledge about breaking research. In this episode, Sean Williams explains the critical role that technical communication, working at the edge of marketing, public relations and science communication, plays in environmental action.

Airdate: February 23, 2022

Season 2 Episode 17 | 50 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:11.330] – Liz Fraley

And greetings, everyone. Welcome to Room 42. I’m Liz Fraley from Single-Sourcing Solutions, I’m your moderator. This is Janice Summers from TC Camp, she’s our interviewer. And welcome to Sean Williams, today’s guest in Room 42. Sean Williams, PhD, is a professor and chair of the Technical Communication and Information Design [TCID] Department at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.

[00:00:29.940] – Liz Fraley

TCID is the only standalone technical communication department in Colorado, and currently partners with major companies on projects ranging from user experience design, to cybersecurity research, to designing professional development courses in engineering writing. His research has taken many forms over the years, beginning with information architecture and complex web environments to social media and technology startups and user experience design in 3D virtual reality.

[00:00:57.250] – Liz Fraley

Most recently, his work is focused on user experience design in environmental communication, where his central focus is understanding how to best communicate science to drive personal conservation behaviors and public policy changes. His new book, Technical Communication for Environmental Action, is due out in the fall of this year. I hope that date is still on. Yes?

[00:01:20.740] – Sean Williams

It is.

[00:01:22.230] – Liz Fraley

Excellent. He’s going to investigate—he is already investigating the question in detail and presents essays from twelve notable scholars who write about the intersection of environmental communication, science, and social justice.

[00:01:34.570] – Liz Fraley

In addition to this work in the academic sector, he’s been a founder or cofounder of four technology startup companies, he has consulted extensively with industry clients on a range of projects that include electronic healthcare records, internet redesign, corporate training design, and usability assessments of mobile security software.

[00:01:53.810] – Liz Fraley

Today, he’s here to help us in answering the question, “How does technical communication connect issues of social justice, environmental justice with respect to how we use, allocate, and access water in particular?” Welcome.

[00:02:08.610] – Sean Williams

Wow. That’s quite an introduction.

[00:02:11.310] – Janice Summers

I’m winded just listening to it. How do you find the time?

[00:02:14.670] – Liz Fraley

I get better. I know, right?

[00:02:17.910] – Sean Williams

Sometimes I wonder. I’m tired a lot. I think.

[00:02:20.740] – Janice Summers

I can see why.

[00:02:23.970] – Sean Williams

It’s been great. I’ve had a great career doing a lot of different things, and I’ve been really fortunate to work with a lot of really good people. And I think, Liz, the response to—or Janice, the response to “How do you do all that?”, is just surround yourself with really awesome people and you trust them to do good work. While maybe I can take credit for a lot of that stuff and the publications and so on, there’s a whole lot of people who contributed. So it’s not just me.

[00:02:54.150] – Janice Summers

It takes a village, right?

[00:02:54.150] – Sean Williams

It does. Absolutely, it does.

[00:02:57.020] – Janice Summers

Yeah. So let’s talk about water conservation and technical communications and how that ties together.

[00:03:06.450] – Sean Williams

Sure. Actually, just yesterday, in fact, I submitted a report to Colorado Springs Utilities. Colorado Springs Utilities is working on something called direct potable reuse. Direct potable reuse is basically recycled water. And in Southern California, for example, we need to do it in most of the Southwest. And what we did was, they did a program, an outreach program about communicating the science of DPR (direct portable reuse).

[00:03:40.180] – Sean Williams

And what we did is we studied, we designed and studied the impact of different materials pre and post, so people would come, they would tour our pilot plant, they would interact with some materials, and we changed those up and we would see what would happen. And so the core there is how do we take this science, because it is very technical, and it’s proven science of recycling water, to help demonstrate and persuade people that it’s safe? Because there’s a certain yuck factor.

[00:04:18.230] – Sean Williams

People in Southern California, it failed because they used this phrase “toilet to tap.” That’s bad communication and so obviously, we didn’t do that. That’s a very concrete example, and so we did surveys, we did qualitative analysis or commentary on the different communication pieces that we had, and then that now is generating the next iteration of how Colorado Springs Utilities is going to communicate about direct potable reuse. And so that’s one concrete example where tech comm can work with, in this case a public utility, to drive conservation behaviors in the general public.

[00:05:01.570] – Janice Summers

Right. Because understanding the end user, the customer, is the cornerstone, and technical communication is the advocate for the end user, the learner. So understanding their motivation. Go ahead.

[00:05:18.100] – Sean Williams

I was going to say one of the challenges that we have had in this project is Colorado Springs is a very diverse community, and there are lots of folks who don’t trust anything that comes from the public sector.

[00:05:32.960] – Janice Summers


[00:05:34.630] – Sean Williams

And one of our challenges moving ahead is, how do we interact with and how do we engage different populations? We have a huge military population, for example, who are a lot of times suspicious of government. How do we interact with them? We have a huge Hispanic population, and how do we interact with them?

[00:05:56.060] – Sean Williams

We have a Korean population. How do we interact with them? Because everybody thinks about Flint, Michigan, whenever we’re talking about water, and they think, “Oh, well, the people who are in disadvantaged communities are going to get this recycled water while the people up on the west side of Colorado Springs are going to get the good stuff.”

[00:06:12.690] – Janice Summers


[00:06:13.410] – Sean Williams

Which is, of course, not true. It’s all the same system. And that’s a challenge for us, is how do we communicate to those diverse audiences, because it’s something that everybody in the community needs to be engaged with and how do we do that? Yes, we need to design for different types of audiences, not just the college-educated professional engineer types, to understand this stuff.

[00:06:40.060] – Janice Summers

Right. You have to have several different campaigns, so you get other cultures involved in creating or help pitching, how do you do that?

[00:06:50.010] – Sean Williams

Say that one more time?

[00:06:50.680] – Janice Summers

Because there’s very different, culturally different groups, right?

[00:06:55.870] – Sean Williams

One of the things that we’re looking at actually worked in San Antonio—not San Antonio, in El Paso. So El Paso, Texas, they’re going to be doing full-scale recycled water in 2025. And what they’ve done that was really successful is that they basically deputized their employees, and trained them and mentored those employees and sent those employees out into the community because the population of folks who work in El Paso and the water utility there represent the community.

[00:07:29.620] – Janice Summers


[00:07:30.620] – Sean Williams

And so rather than sending out people from the utility to talk at people, these are folks who are working in their own community. And at least in El Paso, that seems to have been effective. And so I think that’s something that I’m talking with Colorado Springs about.

[00:07:51.470] – Janice Summers

Well, and I can see how there would be a lot more trust. Because these are people, sure, they work for the utility but they’re members of that community; they live in that community and they understand that community. So that third factor in technical communication, that third most important factor is believability and trust. They have that, right?

[00:08:12.970] – Sean Williams

Right. And trust, when you’re talking about something as fundamental as water, is absolutely central. And a challenge that’s happened here, not just in Colorado Springs but in Colorado more generally, is that we’ve done a really good job with conservation. And folks don’t yet believe that there’s a problem because, you know, I can go to my kitchen and I can turn on my tap and the water is still there.

[00:08:47.670] – Sean Williams

And so it’s not a real problem. Part of the trust-building is helping people to understand that this is a 20 year horizon, and most of us don’t think about a problem 20 years in the future. And in order to make this real, we have to build infrastructure. There’s a long timeframe on this and just persuading people that, in fact, there is a problem.

[00:09:18.470] – Janice Summers

That’s so true. That’s one of the biggest challenges, anything social justice or environmental is helping people understand that, yes, you can turn on your light switch and you get electricity, you can drive your car, but these are limited resources that we need to protect and conserve and how to build that in people so they understand the need for action is now.

[00:09:41.390] – Sean Williams

Interestingly, to bring the book in a little bit, there are actually two chapters in this book that talk about this issue. One is about flood insurance in the coastal part of Virginia. This author is talking about how do you… It’s the opposite problem that we have here in the west because they have too much water and sea rise and sea level rise.

[00:10:08.060] – Sean Williams

And so how do you persuade people to purchase flood insurance to protect their homes or to rebuild their homes and to create more resilient communities? And that chapter is about something, it’s as mundane as how do you design the web-based system to make these complex flood tables that the federal government and FEMA put out comprehensible to average people so that they can see that they can go online and there’s a calculator.

[00:10:38.780] – Sean Williams

It’s like, oh, if I live in this neighborhood and I have this type of a house, then my flood insurance rates are going to be X. And that’s a really simple thing conceptually to do, but technically it was very difficult and there was a lot of very complex information that went into building the system.

[00:10:58.190] – Sean Williams

So it’s the same kind of a problem where you’re building a system or building a communication product to build trust, to drive action that’s ultimately going to help people. But actually, what you’re doing is you’re helping them see there is actually something you need to do. Another chapter is actually about the Midwest, in Iowa and large scale agriculture. And the exigence there was a little bit easier because the water table was—the rivers are being polluted by chemical runoff from farms.

[00:11:33.230] – Janice Summers

From the farms. Yeah.

[00:11:34.520] – Sean Williams

And it’s an interesting chapter because when we hear about environmental justice and when we think about environmental action, we often don’t think about Midwestern farmers. We think about fires in California or floods in the Carolinas or drought in Colorado. But in fact, the Midwest and Midwestern farmers are facing the same issues.

[00:12:07.610] – Sean Williams

All of our issues are different, but the issues of climate and climate justice or environmental justice are just as relevant for them. And so how do farm cooperatives work with, for example, water utilities to clean the water so that the water doesn’t go down, so the chemicals don’t get go downstream, and there were some lawsuits. And so this particular chapter was talking about how technical communicators can get involved in the process of agricultural communication.

[00:12:39.000] – Sean Williams

So things like the agricultural field day, something that was completely new to me. I’m not from a farm community. This is literally inviting people to the field, to a field and education of farmers about better techniques and better ways that they can work in their field. And there was a project called STRIPS [Science-Based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips], for example, and STRIPS is taking parts of your farmable land and making it, restoring it to the natural environment.

[00:13:14.340] – Sean Williams

Because what happens then is the natural vegetation more in low-lying areas and more swampy areas, the vegetation absorbs the chemicals so it doesn’t run off. And so as a consequence, you don’t have to remediate the soil.

[00:13:33.050] – Liz Fraley


[00:13:34.320] – Sean Williams

And what was interesting in that particular chapter is the farmers we’re talking about, this is the best part of their farm now because they have these vegetation strips, these natural vegetation prairie strips all throughout out their farm, and it’s not just row crop farming. So anyway, the point is, demonstrating to people that there is a problem is a challenge, and until there’s a fire in your neighborhood or a flood on your street, it’s difficult to do that.

[00:14:05.870] – Janice Summers

That’s true. When we’re comfortable, it’s hard for us to understand that there’s a problem. Unfortunately, some people are faced with that discomfort and that disaster that wakes them up.

[00:14:20.030] – Sean Williams

Yes. Sorry?

[00:14:26.590] – Liz Fraley

Something just about the agricultural field day—and I assume there are like community action groups and nonprofits all involved in all of these kinds of programs, right?

[00:14:40.390] – Sean Williams


[00:14:41.030] – Liz Fraley

Some time ago we had Erin Carlson from West Virginia talk about going to technical communicators and especially those who are new or want to expand their portfolio to go to these volunteer groups and volunteer services to a group that doesn’t even know they need it. This seems like a great place to go. And you found another one.

[00:15:01.730] – Sean Williams

It is. And of course, the challenge is that farming communities in particular, they’re pretty tight. How do you penetrate that? And so what this particular article is talking about is as a technical communicator, if you seek to begin working in that environment, you have to understand the role of the radio shows, the role of the maps, the role of these agricultural field days.

[00:15:30.150] – Sean Williams

You have to understand how the agricultural community works because that’s different from the tech sector; they’re not the same. And the community of agriculture and farmers in the Midwest is really well established. And to work into that environment requires understanding the context and the local wisdom and the local practices. And that I think also is a key feature.

[00:16:06.720] – Sean Williams

Again, talking about the book, one of the key themes in the book is local knowledge and the value of local knowledge, because a lot of times in technical communication, like with what I’m doing here in Colorado Springs, is communicating the science of recycled water. But a lot of times, the science doesn’t matter. It’s the story or it’s the community, or it’s local practices, or it’s indigenous knowledge.

[00:16:57.410] – Sean Williams

And if we think about just in our own practical experience, your embodied knowledge where you live, you know that it’s really cold because your nose starts to run. You don’t know that it’s 34 degrees, but you know that it’s pretty cold. Right. And the importance of that type of local knowledge and not subordinating it to scientific knowledge and having it be an equal partner is really essential because there’s a lot of people who know a lot of stuff.

[00:17:21.170] – Janice Summers

They don’t necessarily speak it in a scientific way.

[00:17:23.960] – Sean Williams


[00:17:26.510] – Liz Fraley

They don’t know how to talk to the other side nearly as well. That communication is stilted, and almost, people get offended on both sides.

[00:17:34.710] – Sean Williams

Correct. I think one of the chapters in this book that I hope everybody reads, the first chapter, by an Inuit scholar, now at Virginia Tech, Cana Uluak Itchuaqiyaq. She makes a really, really good case. She has these tables where she’ll lay out, “Okay, in our language, if we don’t greet people by saying, ‘It’s cold,’ we’ll say, ‘It’s so cold that my breath froze,’ or ‘I can hear my breath freezing,’ or… There are all of these different phrases.

[00:18:15.150] – Sean Williams

Or she’s talking about ice and going hunting on ice and the types of ice. And if a type of ice can hold a snowmobile, a sled and two riders and a seal, then that’s safe ice. They don’t know that it’s four or six inches or what type of ice it is, but you can quantify that. And so the science can come in and drill a core and they can say that this is this type of ice. But the local knowledges can look at the ice, can jump on the ice and know that it’s safe ice. It’s like, yes, I know that this is safe ice. I don’t need to drill a core to tell me that it’s safe ice.

[00:19:01.300] – Sean Williams

And so that’s a very specific example. But that whole chapter is about the importance of local knowledge and how local knowledge needs to collaborate or coordinate or be equal to scientific knowledge.

[00:19:13.910] – Janice Summers

Right. And it’s like you have to do a translation or running translation, coming from not the science perspective, but from the local knowledge perspective. Because you can say, “This is safe ice.” So in the native language, they all understand safe ice, they know what that means. And you can then translate into what the scientific version of it is.

[00:19:34.520] – Janice Summers

It means that it’s 24 inches deep, and then you can go on with whatever you need to convey the message, but I think you need to start with a local knowledge person speaking in that local language, because that embraces them and pulls them in and lets them know you understand them.

[00:19:50.610] – Sean Williams

And one of the things that supposedly we all do in tech comm is we think about the users of the audiences first.

[00:19:56.870] – Janice Summers

Right, that’s our goal. That’s our goal.

[00:20:00.360] – Sean Williams

That’s our goal. And if we’re genuinely doing that, then it makes a lot of sense to talk to the people, the farmers, or the Inuit peoples, or the firefighters, or whoever. It’s like, what do you know, what do you know about this topic? How can we help you achieve your goals? Because a lot of times, again, I’ll come back to recycled water in Colorado Springs.

[00:20:35.150] – Sean Williams

When we talk to people in the community, it’s not valued, it’s not something that people care about. So on one hand, because people don’t care about it, or it’s not something that’s part of their consciousness, it’s not a problem that they think needs to be solved so it’s circling back. And so maybe we should be asking, “What is the problem, Colorado Springs citizens, that you think we should solve with water?”

[00:21:00.450] – Sean Williams

And so as I’m talking through this, I’m thinking maybe I should talk to my folks at Colorado Springs Utilities and see if they can—

[00:21:09.750] – Janice Summers

Treat people like the farmers.

[00:21:12.330] – Sean Williams

What do you want us to solve? Of course, people will say, “We want the water to be cheap and good,” but beyond that, who knows? But that’s a corollary to local knowledges is what are the problems that, you, person in the world, need to have solved? Because I can come in, I can say, “Oh, we need to solve this and this.” But maybe those things aren’t problems that you care about or are meaningful to you, so you’re not going to be interested if I solve those problems.

[00:21:52.530] – Janice Summers

Right. Because my problem is I just want to make sure I’ve got a cheap water bill. That’s all I’m focused on. If my water bill is not going up, I’m fine. So if that’s my problem, then you know that, okay, well, to communicate the necessity of this or the importance of or the significance, is that I need to communicate this in a way that they understand that it’s going to be holding their costs low. So I know we can get around all this other stuff, but we need to lead with lowering your costs or keeping your costs low, and this is how we plan to solve it. So that’s kind of what you’re saying.

[00:22:31.610] – Sean Williams

And the quality of the water.

[00:22:35.010] – Janice Summers

Well, yes. But if I’m just assuming quality’s going to be there.

[00:22:39.600] – Sean Williams

Right, because there are standards. Speaking about environmental justice issues and water in particular, one of the challenges also is legislation. Policy hasn’t caught up. When we’re thinking about recycled water, there are two types of recycled water, for those of you out in the world who are interested. There’s indirect potable reuse, and there’s [direct] potable reuse.

[00:23:03.810] – Sean Williams

Indirect potable reuse is already quite extensively used. And so basically, wastewater comes in, it’s treated, it’s discharged, it’s cleaned to a standard that’s higher than any river stream that it’s discharged into. It’s almost potable again. It’s released into a stream, it flows three miles down a stream, it’s pulled out again, treated for drinking water, and it’s put back into the system. That’s indirect.

[00:23:30.380] – Janice Summers


[00:23:31.950] – Sean Williams

And then direct potable is when the wastewater comes in, it’s treated to drinking water standards and then reintroduced into the system.

[00:23:42.090] – Janice Summers

Without having to rewild the water.

[00:23:44.440] – Sean Williams

Exactly, rewild the water. And people are okay with the wild water, even though-

[00:23:49.920] – Janice Summers

Isn’t that funny?

[00:23:50.950] – Sean Williams

Even though it’s dirtier after it flows down the river then when it was released into the river, so it’s an interesting thing. But they’re pulling it out of a stream, so somehow that makes it better. And anybody who’s ever spent a lot of time outside—I’m a mountaineer and so I spend a lot of time up in these mountains and in the woods, and water can be pretty nasty in the wild.

[00:24:13.330] – Janice Summers

Yes. When you’re in the wild, you see what goes into that water sometimes.

[00:24:17.880] – Sean Williams

Right. I was in South America once and in Peru, and you’ve got to be really careful because there’s a lot of farm activity that’s upstream and there’s crypto, there’s a bacterium that can get into the water, that’s pretty nasty. Anyway, back to what I was going to say, that has to do with policy and regulations.

[00:24:40.920] – Sean Williams

So indirect potable reuse is more acceptable because states and local governments have introduced policies, regulations to make sure that that water is clean, because the Clean Water Act, Federal Clean Water Act ensures the water coming out of a wastewater treatment plant is treated to a certain standard, and then the water going back into the system is treated to a certain standard. So it’s easier in that way.

[00:25:11.830] – Sean Williams

But the legislation and the policy for direct potable reuse doesn’t exist in most states. In Colorado, for example, one of the challenges is persuading state legislators that we need to create regulation and policy on this water or on direct potable reuse water so that we can then implement DPR or recycled water processes and procedures. But without the regulation, you can’t really do it except at a pilot scale. If it’s regulated…

[00:25:52.350] – Sean Williams

This is the irony, right? If it’s regulated, people will think, okay, then it’s better, even though it’s already federally regulated. In any drinking water that’s federally regulated, it has to be treated to the certain standard coming out of a plant. So whether it’s direct potable or indirect potable water, it’s always going to come out of the plant to the same standard.

[00:26:16.050] – Sean Williams

But local water legislation that’s governed by states hasn’t caught up yet with moving the water from the wastewater system back into the potable water system, and that’s a local issue. Florida is dealing with the same issue. Texas has kind of solved it. Texas is a little bit more of a wild, wild west. No pun intended. On things that can happen there, I have a conversation I’m really excited about next week with Singapore. Singapore has been doing this for 20 years, direct potable reuse.

[00:26:57.000] – Janice Summers

Direct potable water? Yeah.

[00:27:00.670] – Sean Williams

So the crazy thing is that the science is there and the science is old. In fact, the analogy that in El Paso, going back to El Paso again, the story that they’ve told in El Paso that persuaded people to that this is okay, is it’s exactly the same technology that bottled water companies use to treat water.

[00:27:27.710] – Janice Summers

I was going to say earlier when you were talking about the stream, I’m like, because I think about a lot of the bottled water companies and they kind of mislead people because they show pictures of the stream with running water. So it gives that connection that, oh, it’s safe as a stream water.

[00:27:42.350] – Sean Williams


[00:27:42.850] – Janice Summers

Which is fresh from the stream. Those of us who have gone out into the wild, we know fresh from the stream, no, that’s not so good.

[00:27:51.450] – Sean Williams

Right. Okay. There’s a question over there. Have I ever encountered someone using living machine technology as a sewage treatment option? I don’t know what that is, so I’m going to say no. Thanks for the question. Living machine technology… So are we talking about bio-organisms introduced to wastewater treatment?

[00:28:15.369] – Janice Summers


[00:28:15.540] – Sean Williams

The bio-organisms are usually introduced into wastewater, and if you go to…I encourage everybody to go to a wastewater treatment plant because it’s super cool. Because there’s mechanical treatment where solids are stripped off, and then there’s bio-organisms that are introduced to the water. There’s aeration, there’s chemical treatments. All of that works. Partly it depends upon, in my understanding, is that the wastewater and use of bio-organisms that eat basically other organisms or bad organisms in the water, that’s a big part of sewage treatment.

[00:29:06.790] – Sean Williams

I know that it is here in Colorado Springs, but I think that’s a standard practice. But aeration, sunlight, ozone, chemical treatment, mechanical treatment, I think all of those things get used. All those things get used in wastewater treatment to restore wastewater. We like to use “wastewater,” not “sewage.” Wastewater is a kinder word.

[00:29:30.930] – Janice Summers

It’s much more friendly to say “wastewater.”

[00:29:34.650] – Sean Williams

I’m not sure I’m answering your question. But maybe my takeaway from the experience is that the bio-organisms are part of a larger complex system that’s required to treat wastewater. That’s my big takeaway from that.

[00:29:55.760] – Janice Summers

Well, and bio-organisms are used a lot in cleanup projects as well.

[00:29:59.660] – Sean Williams


[00:30:00.340] – Janice Summers

All kinds of different things. Oil spills, all kinds of things. Bio-organisms are the preferred thing to use. But the whole thing here is, back to communicating to people, how are they going to go from sewage/wastewater to embracing it as something I can drink? Nice, fresh, clean glass of water. And the role that technical communication or technical communicators can play in that.

[00:30:28.320] – Janice Summers

And water is one example. There’s I’m sure other examples of environmental things that technical communicators can be involved in and trying to bridge that gap between science, because the science is really, really important but I think it’s lost on a lot of people. Because when you think about the things that the average person has to care about, how much do they value the science, do they have time to really understand the science?

[00:31:00.250] – Sean Williams

And I think one of the challenges that we face now is there’s a certain mistrust of science in the United States.

[00:31:09.190] – Janice Summers

There’s a mistrust of a lot of things… Science, yeah.

[00:31:13.150] – Sean Williams

Expertise, right?

[00:31:14.680] – Janice Summers

Yeah. Legislators, there’s a mistrust of big business, big corporations.

[00:31:21.190] – Sean Williams

This is a big challenge because if we think about vaccinations, like polio, the science is solid. And people back whenever polio—back in the ’40s, ’50s. I don’t remember.

[00:31:42.490] – Janice Summers

Yeah, I think it was late ’40s, maybe early ’50s.

[00:31:46.970] – Sean Williams

People didn’t question the science of that. And it’s interesting, and I don’t know yet how technical communicators can intervene in the mistrust to restore trust for science, for expertise. That’s a complex issue because—

[00:32:08.490] – Janice Summers

It is complex.

[00:32:10.010] – Sean Williams

I would like to believe that as effective communicators, let me go Greek on you guys for just a minute here and become a professor. A million years ago, Aristotle was talking about this concept of good, and what does good communication or good rhetoric mean. And it has two senses. There’s good in the sense that it’s effective, it’s expedient, it’s doing what it needs to do, it’s accomplishing its end.

[00:32:41.030] – Sean Williams

The other aspect of good is it’s making the world a better place, or at minimum, it’s not introducing harm. And so in that frame, the communication that we deliver should be expedient, should be effective, but it also needs to be good. And the good is determined by a moral compass or how does it impact a certain community or what’s in the best interest of people?

[00:33:10.200] – Sean Williams

And I’m not sure that as technical communication faculty, especially, we spend enough time on that second piece of the good, of the moral imperative, or what’s upright or the ethical piece.

[00:33:28.570] – Sean Williams

And consequently, I think that as our students—and feel free, those of you out in there in the world to criticize me for this statement—but I’m sure that as we turn people out into the world, they’re not as engaged in the ethical thinking about “Is this really going to help the world and make it a better place?”

[00:33:48.320] – Sean Williams

Consequently, when someone says, “What it is that you do?”, we say, “We write policies, procedures, manuals, documents. We communicate science so that people can understand it, so people can solve their problems or use it for their specific purposes.” But we leave off that second half. We leave off that piece where we say for the good of the community so that somebody can accomplish their goals, so that their life is better.

[00:34:18.350] – Sean Williams

And I think that’s a challenge for us as technical communicators and especially as faculty to add that second piece. So we create effective communications so people can solve their problems, so the world is better. It’s an entire system. And if we think about a lot of the criticisms that are leveled against technical communication, like my own institution in Colorado, University of Colorado…One of my colleagues in a meeting, in front of 100 people said, “Your discipline belongs in high school, Sean. You have a PhD in plumbing.”

[00:35:00.110] – Sean Williams

Notwithstanding the insult that that implies for people who work using their hands and saying that they’re somehow they’re less. Notwithstanding that, the insult was intended to say, “All you do is you’re a tool jockey. All you know how to do is to make typefaces pretty.”

[00:35:19.910] – Sean Williams

And in that particular meeting, I was shocked that somebody would say that, but I think that that’s the extreme case, because we, or I, are not making a strong enough connection between the moral, the social and ethical impact of what effective communication is and does. That was a long political thing that has nothing to do with water, exactly. I’m not sure how it got there.

[00:35:53.720] – Janice Summers

Honestly, it does, though. It’s very important. It does because that is looking out for the better of society. Science is not going to do anything without the technical communicator there to bridge that gap for them. That should be really evident because you can go blah, blah with all the science you want, but unless you know how to communicate it effectively, no one’s going to listen.

[00:36:17.510] – Sean Williams

And I think not just communicate it effectively, but communicate about why it’s good, why it’s effective, and the “so what.” And so one of my challenges for my own students is thinking about what is the impact of the world or in the world of these things that you create. So if you’re working in a UX environment and somebody is asking you to work on a web platform that is driving usage of nutraceuticals.

[00:36:58.770] – Sean Williams

I have a student right now who’s doing an internship on this. We had this conversation yesterday, and she said, “So all you’re asking me to do is to communicate the science. I’m not sure that that’s going to help them as a business.” And so I said to the student, “As you’re thinking about how you’re helping the business grow (because she’s communicating and helping them develop materials), I want you also to think about what the impact is going to be if that business grows.”

[00:37:28.410] – Sean Williams

If that business grows, are those nutraceuticals good? I don’t know. I’m not saying that they’re not. And this is something that I think a lot of us need to think about in terms of what it is that we’re doing. One of my moral dilemmas working in Colorado, is that there’s a lot of defense industry here.

[00:37:48.770] – Sean Williams

Tons and tons and tons and tons of defense industry. Space Force is here. I can’t say that with a straight face. So Space Force is headquartered here in Colorado Springs, and a lot of our students, a lot of technical communicators here, write and work in companies that deal with weapons—not weapons of mass destruction, but huge weapons.

[00:38:14.090] – Liz Fraley


[00:38:15.290] – Sean Williams

And I have a little bit of a, on one hand, it’s like, the technology is super cool. I mean, some of the stuff, it’s really awesome stuff. But on the other hand, how is it contributing to making the world a better place? And the argument, of course, when I talk to those folks like at L3Harris or Raytheon or Boeing is, well, we’re securing the United States and American interests.

[00:38:46.470] – Sean Williams

America is safer. And oh, P.S.: we’re ensuring that things don’t hit the International Space Station because of all this stuff flying around. Again, the question is, thinking as a technical communicator, not just about communicating the science, but also thinking about the “so what,” what is the impact in the world?

[00:39:09.510] – Sean Williams

And then thinking about connecting that with, who are my users? What’s the local knowledge? What are their questions? How does the science work with that? And how can I tell stories? How can we tell stories about this stuff that we’re talking about? And another one of the chapters, actually several of the chapters in the book, to return to that, actually use narrative methods.

[00:39:36.540] – Sean Williams

And so as researchers in technical communication, as a faculty member, narrative methods are a new thing because we want to be more scientific. And so if people are telling us stories that’s not really scientific and that’s not really quality research. But if we think about the power of a narrative or a power of a story, we can learn a lot of things from the story.

[00:40:02.050] – Janice Summers

Well, it’s interesting that you’re bringing this up because the narrative is not anything new, but we’re now returning to the narrative to understand its impact on cognitive processing and believability. Because stories are very impacting, that’s why we learn stories at a very young age. Parables are nothing new for us, but now I’m thinking different terms. So this is, again, back to the way to technically communicate something through the narrative.

[00:40:34.310] – Sean Williams

And this is a challenge, right? Because can you imagine what a software manual might look like if it was written as a narrative?

[00:40:45.350] – Liz Fraley

I’ve seen a few.

[00:40:46.740] – Janice Summers

Well, you can’t apply it to everything.

[00:40:52.790] – Sean Williams

You’re right.

[00:40:52.790] – Janice Summers

It’s a tool that should be used appropriately. You can’t apply that to everyone.

[00:40:56.680] – Sean Williams

Right. It’s funny sometimes to think about, or somebody in Space Force who’s working on some system reading a story about something, I don’t know.

[00:41:10.910] – Janice Summers

A car repair manual and you’re trying to check out your tire pressure, but it’s told to you in a parable.

[00:41:16.430] – Sean Williams

Well, you bring up something that’s interesting. And I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Car Talk. It’s an old NPR [National Public Radio] show. It’s now in reruns. But think about those guys, right? And how much knowledge and wisdom they had about cars. And think about how they would run through a diagnosis and how they would teach people what the problem might be.

[00:41:44.280] – Janice Summers

Right, troubleshoot.

[00:41:47.210] – Sean Williams

It was entertaining, but it was also highly effective. I mean, it was a little bit… Might have taken a long time to get there, and part of it was entertainment. But think about it in terms of medicine. And one of my friends who’s a medical doctor, Chris, he said, “We don’t spend enough time in medical school learning how to understand stories.” I said, “What do you mean, Chris?” He said, “Well, patients come to me and they describe what’s wrong with them in story.”

[00:42:15.100] – Janice Summers

In a story.

[00:42:15.800] – Sean Williams

“And so part of my job as a medical doctor is picking out the salient details for diagnosis and then telling them a story again about how to change the behavior to treat diabetes or whatever.” And he said, “So part of my job (his job as a doctor) is telling stories back to people after I’ve interpreted their stories.” So we’re dealing with scientific knowledge. And so I wonder how technical communicators can think about using stories.

[00:42:51.050] – Janice Summers


[00:42:51.980] – Sean Williams

And especially if we’re talking about things like environmental justice, environmental action.

[00:42:59.930] – Janice Summers

And I think that field, I think environmental justice, environmental action is really rich, fertile ground for storytelling. Maybe I’m biased, but I think more than any other discipline, I think that area is more fertile ground for storytelling. Because it’s really important to tell those stories to the people that are going to understand and interpret the stories in their language, in their cultural language.

[00:43:28.390] – Sean Williams

Right. Thanks everyone for sticking around. I apologize for arriving late. I lost the link. So that’s on me, the professor.

[00:43:39.470] – Liz Fraley

No, I should have sent it.

[00:43:41.530] – Sean Williams

So I apologize for that. The challenge also with stories, though, is thinking about not making them sensational. Let’s think about media, and I’m not going to jump on the “let’s criticize media” bandwagon.

[00:44:02.010] – Sean Williams

All right. So somebody’s house—we had a fire here in Boulder, Colorado a month ago or so. And so this little fire started, little wildfire started, huge winds came up and burned down neighborhoods in Boulder, like what happened in Northern California a few years ago. And that’s a terrible tragedy. Lots of people were devastated by that.

[00:44:29.270] – Sean Williams

And what we have to be careful of is making the story so good that it becomes abusive of the people who are suffering. And again, coming back to ethics and the ethical imperative of technical communication, yes, I can create a story that’s going to have a really strong impact on people, and I can do that by sensationalizing one victim, one survivor. But is that really the best choice? Is that what I should be doing? And again, we can talk about whether broadcast media are doing that or sensationalizing people suffering for benefit.

[00:45:20.340] – Janice Summers


[00:45:21.140] – Sean Williams

I hope that technical communicators don’t.

[00:45:23.260] – Janice Summers

And there’s the whole thing about sensationalism and desensitizing people, that’s a slippery slope. I agree with you.

[00:45:33.810] – Sean Williams

It is. So how do you create impact, but do it in a way that’s rational, that is controlled? And you might be able to intuit a little bit by my personality. I’m a pretty energetic person—

[00:45:54.570] – Janice Summers

You think?

[00:45:54.570] – Sean Williams

Yeah. So it’s easy for me in a setting like when I’m in classes or when I’m talking to friends or I’m talking to people that I work with out in the industry, to get very passionate about this and get on my high horse about ethics and all this. But then at the same time, part of our job as technical communicators is to get stuff done. And we have to think about that, too, not just the ethical imperatives, because we can paralyze ourselves. Anyway, is there a question over here?

[00:46:35.480] – Liz Fraley

Funny. Honestly, the best keynote I ever saw at a conference was an ethicist from Emory at the AMWA [American Medical Writers Association], at the medical writers conference. And he was talking about it’s really important that we are ethical and we communicate because some of the science is right on the edge, and it’s important, and it’s going to change the world, how we deal with it and see it in the future. So, yeah, I think ethics a key.

[00:46:58.470] – Sean Williams

I want to thank Paul for bringing up the word empathy in the chat, because that’s key. And actually, in my own program here in Colorado, University of Colorado, we actually now have a required course. We don’t call it “Empathy.” We call it 4060, it’s Diverse Perspectives, but it’s an empathy class. It’s an empathy and emotional intelligence class.

[00:47:25.370] – Sean Williams

And we spend a lot of time connecting that to UX, to ethics, because as you say, it all starts with empathy. And if we don’t understand as effective communicators, the people who are out there, and we don’t understand what the impact could be of what we do, then maybe we’re not good people.

[00:47:52.050] – Janice Summers

Well, I think part of one of the skillsets to practice and always be learning as a technical communicator is empathic skills. And it’s one of those things that it might not come naturally to everybody but always studying and researching and learning about empathy and empathic skills, I think is important.

[00:48:21.890] – Sean Williams

And I think that it’s increasingly important.

[00:48:23.990] – Janice Summers

Yeah. I think as things become, like you said, more charged and that sensationalism and the mistrust and distrust out there, I think that really is like a big, huge red flashing light for all of us in professional and technical communication to pay extra attention to our skills and empathy. And to help pull that into the science community, into the business community, and wherever you are because ethics is an interesting argument.

[00:48:59.120] – Janice Summers

And you have companies that have different flavors of ethics. It’s ethical from their business perspective, from the business that they’re in. So I think that that’s the one thing when you pull in empathy into that factor, and then you apply to the ethics of that business, and then you can help propel things and move things forward toward more compassionate, toward society as a whole.

[00:49:26.690] – Liz Fraley

This has been amazing.

[00:49:28.000] – Janice Summers

Great conversation.

[00:49:29.710] – Liz Fraley

We should just keep going, I think.

[00:49:31.780] – Janice Summers

Yes, I so enjoy talking to you and I appreciate you coming.

[00:49:35.820] – Sean Williams

Invite me back.

[00:49:38.030] – Liz Fraley

I already got an idea for something.

[00:49:40.690] – Janice Summers

Right, exactly. Yeah, no, definitely. I always reserve the right to bring you back.

[00:49:46.430] – Liz Fraley

And we’ll post a link to your book once it’s available on the show page. So everybody, be sure to get there when it comes in October. Yeah?

[00:49:55.420] – Janice Summers


[00:49:55.420] – Sean Williams


[00:49:56.450] – Janice Summers

We’ll have the live link on your show page.

[00:49:58.780] – Liz Fraley

I know. I want that chapter. There’s two chapters, three or four chapters. I don’t know, I want the whole thing, actually.

[00:50:04.810] – Janice Summers

I want the whole book.

[00:50:05.600] – Liz Fraley

I know.

[00:50:05.710] – Janice Summers

I’m looking forward to it. And I really appreciate your time with us today.

[00:50:12.780] – Liz Fraley


[00:50:13.160] – Janice Summers

I know you are tremendously busy.

[00:50:15.350] – Sean Williams

I appreciate the invitation. Thanks to everybody out there in cyberland for tuning in.

[00:50:20.710] – Janice Summers

Yes. Thanks, everybody. Until next week.

[00:50:21.970] – Liz Fraley

Thanks, everyone.

[00:50:23.570] – Janice Summers

Take care.

In this episode

Sean D. Williams, PhD, is Professor and Chair of the Technical Communication and Information Design (TCID) department at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. TCID is the only stand-alone technical communication department in Colorado, and currently partners with major companies on projects ranging from user experience design to cybersecurity research to designing professional development courses in engineering writing.

Sean’s research has taken many forms over the years, beginning with information architecture in complex web environments to social media in technology start-ups and user experience design for 3D virtual reality. Most recently, his work focuses on user experience design in environmental communication, where his central focus is understanding how best to communicate science to drive personal conservation behaviors and public policy changes. His new book, Technical Communication for Environmental Action, (SUNY Press) due out in fall of 2022 investigates this question in detail and presents essays from 12 notable scholars who write about the intersections of environmental communication, science, and social justice.
In addition to his work in the academic sector, Sean has been a founder or co-founder of four technology start-up companies, and he has consulted extensively with industry clients on a range of projects that include electronic health care records, intranet redesign, corporate training design, and usability assessments of mobile cybersecurity software.

In this episode, Sean will discuss his recent research with water companies to describe the critical role that technical communication can play for environmental action and how technical communication might work at the edge of marketing, public relations and science communication. He will also reflect on recent advances in technical communication that connect issues of social justice and environmental justice, specifically with respect to how we use, allocate, and access water.




Research Gate:

Books and articles that Sean recommends:

  • Williams, S.D. (2022) Technical Communication for Environmental Action. SUNY (forthcoming)
  • Williams, S.D. (2021). “From Domination of the Environment to Stewardship: A Historical Look at Denver Water’s Public Communication 1933-2018.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication.
  • Walwema, J. (2020). Rhetoric and Cape Town’s Campaign to Defeat Day Zero. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication
  • Szabo, S., & Webster, J. (2020). Perceived Greenwashing: The Effects of Green Marketing on Environmental and Product Perceptions. Journal of Business Ethics, 1-21.
  • Mitchell, S. L., & Clark, M. (2020). Telling a different story: How nonprofit organizations reveal strategic purpose through storytelling. Psychology & Marketing.
  • Liang, Y., Henderson, L. K., & Kee, K. F. (2018). Running out of water! Developing a message typology and evaluating message effects on attitude toward water conservation. Environmental Communication12(4), 541-557.
  • Lakoff, G. (2010). Why it matters how we frame the environment. Environmental communication4(1), 70-81.
  • Hervé-Bazin, C. (2015). Bringing water challenges to target groups: French water utilities within the European legislative context. Regions and Cohesion5(2), 1-25.

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