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How Poorly Written Emails Cause Disasters And Cost Lives: 5 Questions For Carolyn Boiarsky

by on November 6, 2016

As a communications expert, I’m obsessed by what makes for effective communications. So I was both surprised and delighted to discover a new book that looks at miscommunication. Risk Communication and Miscommunicationanalyses some famous disasters, such as the Columbia Shuttle explosion and the Horizon BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. The author highlights how engineers, scientists and technical experts’ poorly written emails, memos and PowerPoint slides created chains of bad decisions that resulted in catastrophes.

If technical experts would read this book and apply its principles, they could prevent future disasters and save lives. I interviewed the author, Carolyn Boiarsky, a professor of English at Purdue University Northwest-Calumet Campus, to find out more about her research:

Question 1: What was the role of miscommunication in the Columbia Shuttle disaster?

Answer: There were two major situations in which miscommunication occurred. The first occurred when an engineer offsite wrote a rambling email to the engineers who had been working 24/7 to figure out to what extent the tile had damaged the shuttle. The engineer came very close to figuring out what had probably happened but because he rambled on about personal issues at the beginning of the message, the engineers did not read it.

The second error occurred when the engineers were reporting their findings to NASA in a PowerPoint presentation. The mathematical model they had used to determine the extent of the damage was invalid for damage that was as large as this was but the engineers only indicated this at the bottom of the slide where few people would notice it.

Question 2: What was in an engineer’s email that led to the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico?

Answer: One of the engineers on the rig wrote an email to his manager who was on land basically crying for help in making some controversial decisions about closing off the well. The manager responded to the engineer by indicating that he was going dancing that evening and would be in touch with the engineer the following day. The message from the engineer on the rig rambled, including personal information, so that the tone appeared to be a whine rather than a request for an immediate decision. The writer needed to recognize the reader’s psychological context: he had been receiving emails related to problems on the rig for several weeks. This one did not appear different from the others. In addition, the tone and rambling style of the writer’s message was similar to messages found on social media. Thus. the reader’s response was similar to one he might have written in response to a message on social media; he failed to recognize the difference. The engineer on the rig either needed to indicate at the very beginning of the message that this problem was different from the others, that the consequences could be more disastrous, and that the reader’s response was needed immediately or he needed to speak directly to the person via telephone rather than rely on electronic media to convey his message.

Question 3: After analyzing these fatal miscommunications, what’s your advice to scientists, engineers and other technical experts for communicating effectively?

Answer: All messages need to be reader-based. In other words, think of how the reader will read the message. A good rule of thumb is to start off immediately by (1) stating the purpose for the message, (2) providing a one-sentence summary of what the e-mail is about and (3) indicate the number of requests to which you need a response.

Question 4: Can you give an example from your book where technical experts communicated well and prevented a disaster?

Answer: When the Mississippi River was rising in 2011, the Army Corps of Engineers in the Kansas District Office realized that the Morganza Floodway might need to be opened to prevent flooding in New Orleans. If that were the case, the residents on the land that would be flooded when the Spillway opened would need to be evacuated along with any livestock. They would also need to remove all hazardous materials and waste that could leak into the water. The Corps recognized that potentially the action could anger the residents for being uprooted and frustrate them in terms of knowing when and how they would know that they would need to move.

To remind residents that they had been warned about the possibility of their land being flooded when they acquired their property as well as to alleviate residents’ anxiety over being uprooted and to motivate them to evacuate, if necessary, the Corps wrote two letters. The first, sent annually in January, reminded residents of their contract with the government that included their possible need to evacuate the area should there be a need to open the Floodway. The second was sent in late spring and got to the point immediately – their land might be flooded if the Mississippi River continued to rise. The letter provided residents with instructions on what to do and how they would be notified if the Floodway had to be opened. The letter also indicated that the damage they would sustain should they decide to remain would be considerable.

Question 5: What can corporations, governments, and other decision-making bodies do to improve the quality of their internal communications?

Answer: For managers:
1. Provide a safety-conscious environment.
2. Ensure a non-threatening environment so that problems can be discussed without fear of retaliation.
3. Provide complete explanations of potential or actual problems.

For Writers
1. Always think of how your readers’ will read your message and write accordingly.
2. Focus on a single purpose for each message.
3. Include information readers not only want but may also need.
4. Provide the most important information in the first paragraph.

Carolyn Boiarsky, professor of English at Purdue University Northwest-Calumet Campus, specializes in technical communication. She’s the author of 3 books on communication, including  Risk Communication and Miscommunication: Case Studies in Science, Technology, Engineering Government and Community Organizations.

Tim Ward is the co-owner of Intermedia Communications Training and co-author of The Master Communicator’s Handbook – a resource for experts and thought leaders seeking to create meaningful change.

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