How best to communicate?

I have previously referred you to Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity. Repeatedly doing the same thing is not misguided if it provides the desired results. However, if we want to improve, avoid complacency or respond to changing circumstances then we need to review the process. It was with this in mind that last month I tried something a little different. It wasn’t anything too radical and it may have made little difference to your reading of this column, but as the saying goes: ‘variety is the spice of life’. There is a more serious dimension to this: how best to communicate ideas with all the different means and technologies at our disposal. Although I have adapted to new technologies, I still have inbuilt preferences and biases based on my upbringing and experiences. I was disappointed to find that presentations given at a recent conference were only available in video format and that no written paper, other than the abstract, was available. There are a number of factors at play here. I understand that a large part of communication is through body language and that watching a video of the speaker will provide this. Conversely, a written paper permits a quick appraisal, while also allowing a more detailed consideration of the information provided. This, along with a lot of other similar instances, leads to a recurring question, the title of this column: “How best to communicate?”.

In a recent interview in The Observer, neuroscientist David Eagleman was asked if we would be able to communicate in the future just by thinking. His answer was that communication is a multi-step process and that thoughts are a jumble of half-sentences and words and unconnected random ideas. These need to be refined to provide coherent communication. What wasn’t mentioned in the answer was the presence and impact of feelings and emotions. Words and images are required to make sense of it all.

Notes on Grief, a book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, highlights the inadequacy of language for expressing such a raw emotion. Yet the only way to make sense of ideas, thoughts and emotions is to try to communicate them to others or to yourself. Trying to verbalise what you are thinking through talking to someone or writing a diary or journal can lead you to an understanding of your experience.

Recording, ordering and making sense of our thoughts are the precursor to good communication. Luckily, help is at hand. I find mind maps to be particularly useful in getting thoughts and ideas down on a single page. Unlike a written note, which tends to be linear, a mind map allows the ideas to radiate out from the central topic and better mimics how we think. No particular order is needed because once on the map they can be viewed, assessed, moved and grouped. Relationships between the different branches can be annotated and images inserted for enhancement and emphasis. They can be used for the generation of ideas, preparing a presentation, problem-solving and report planning. I used a map to plan this article. There are many mind mapping software packages available to buy or as open source. Another beneficial type of software that I have started to use is Microsoft OneNote or equivalent. The labelled, tabbed pages and the removal of the need to save individual files allows information to be readily stored, collated and recalled.

In NDT there is a need to communicate with operators about how they should perform a particular inspection. This tends to be a written procedure and is generally structured as it always has been. Would it be worth revisiting this and incorporating the latest good practice and feedback from the operators who apply them? Operators in turn, once they have applied the inspection, are required to report the results. Again, these reports are often on proforma record sheets. Are you operators provided with the tools and knowledge you need to order your thoughts and to solve the problems thrown up by the signals? Are you given the necessary training and feedback to write the inspection reports to the required standard? You may instinctively answer ‘Yes’ to all of these questions. Even so, it may be profitable to take a little time out to order your thoughts on these topics. You may identify beneficial improvements.

Once we have completed these first steps of screening our thoughts and feelings, we then need to review the best medium for conveying our message to the target audience today, be that verbally or through the written word, diagrams, images, videos, art or any appropriate combination of these. I will discuss this next month.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Jacobs or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX, UK. Fax: +44 (0)1604 438301; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

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