Introduction to Industrial Engineering

By Jane M. Fraser

Chapter 11

Business related skills

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11.3 Communication skills

Every time I talk with people who hire engineering graduates, they mention the need for engineers to be able to communicate effectively. Communication skills include listening, as well as speaking and writing. They often mention the need for communication skills in small and large groups, with people at different levels of the organization, and in an international setting. By stressing those skills, in addition to quantitative and analytical engineering skills, employers are saying that you must be able to communicate your conclusions clearly.

I reviewed openings for IEs at and found employers looking for the following qualifications:

In this section I give some advice on how to write well and how to give a presentation.

How to write well

One important skill an engineering student must learn is how to present and defend a conclusion in written form.

This section is a guide for writing papers that have a high chance of meeting the standards I use for grading. To write a good paper, you must (1) have enough good content worth writing about, (2) organize that content into a thesis statement and a logical defense of the thesis, and (3) make sure that the details of every paragraph, sentence, and word are correct. In this paper, I will explain each of these components in more detail. I will also discuss the importance of giving credit to others.


To write a paper, one must have something worthwhile to say.

Creating good content is hard work. I find that the most important tools I use are blank paper and pen (to brainstorm), and then scissors and tape (to organize). First, I brainstorm ideas, writing down all thoughts that come to my mind. I review the ideas that I have written down already to see if they lead to new thoughts. This brainstorming may take place over several days, even several weeks and involves a lot of thought. Second, I take these ideas and cut them into pieces of paper, one idea on each piece of paper. Finally, I use a large table to organize my pieces into a coherent whole. This organizational step may take some time and can be very hard work. After I have completed the organization, I tape the pieces of paper together in the order I will write about them, and then use them to compose a first draft.

Unfortunately, if I think your paper doesn't have enough content, I just can't say much. I sometimes write: “I think you can push these ideas further” and then I try to ask some specific questions to help you do more brainstorming.


The classic advice on how to organize a paper is: “Tell them what you’ll tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them.” You will find that classic advice in this section.

The points I look for in organization include:

Very early in the paper (usually in the first or second paragraph), state your thesis and give a roadmap to the reader. You might say:

"In this paper I will argue that.... [state thesis]. To support this thesis, I will first argue that.... Then I.... and finally I...”

This paragraph can be almost a mini-version of the whole paper. More sophisticated approaches can still accomplish the purpose of giving a roadmap without following this rigid formula. Your initial paragraph shouldn't say only what topics the paper will address; it should state the conclusions and state the argument.

A technical paper should not be a mystery story. If I have finished the first paragraph of your paper and don't know what the thesis is, I am usually concerned that you do not have a clear thesis statement. Ask yourself: What conclusion am I defending in this paper?

Here are some examples of thesis statements:

Sometimes you may find that you do not know what your thesis is until after you write a first draft of your paper. If you find yourself writing, often at the end of the paper, a sentence where you feel you have finally said what you are trying to say, then consider moving that sentence to the start of your paper as your thesis and reorganizing your paper so that it defends that thesis.

After stating your thesis, your paper should present a logical argument defending your thesis. Writing a logical defense of a thesis is like writing a proof of a theorem; one states the theorem first (the thesis) and then proceeds in a logical step-by-step fashion to prove the theorem.

The defense of your thesis can take many forms. You can present any evidence in support of your thesis including quotes from other sources and examples that illustrate your thesis.

The final paragraph of your paper should repeat the thesis of the paper. While it can also extend the argument, the final paragraph should be basically a summary of what was in the paper.


Each paragraph, like your whole paper, should state and defend a thesis, actually a subthesis. The subthesis should, of course, be part of the overall argument that supports your thesis. I am deliberately not saying that your paragraph should have what is called a “topic sentence,” because the sentence should not just state the topic of the paragraph, but should state the subthesis that is being defended in this paragraph. Usually, this sentence should be the first one in the paragraph. (I think you will find that the first sentence of this paragraph is the subthesis sentence for this paragraph and that every sentence in the rest of this paragraph supports it.)

Connect sentences with words like “therefore” or “because” to show your argument in support of your thesis. A series of true statements is not a logical argument; such true statements require explicit logic to connect them into an argument. You may know that you mean that one sentence implies the next sentence, but your reader will follow your logic better if you state that logic.

Each paragraph should be about one concept. If I think you have put too many unrelated concepts in one paragraph, I will draw lines to indicate where I think the paragraph changed topic and suggest that separate paragraphs may be better or suggest that you indicate why all these ideas belong in one paragraph: what is the unifying idea?

Each paragraph should support the overall thesis. A paragraph can be well written and interesting, but should be deleted if it does not support the thesis of the paper.

A paper should have no spelling or grammatical errors. "Comments I often write on student papers" (gelow) shows some details of word usage and grammar. For each, I show an example of the error and how to fix the error. The book The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White (first published in 1935, and republished many times since), is an excellent handbook with other examples like the ones in "Comments I often write on student papers."

Getting all these details correct requires many rewrites of a paper. Word processors make it easy for us to check our spelling, check our grammar, move paragraphs and sentences around, and print new drafts. This paper, for example, has gone through a large number of drafts, easily over twenty. I find that I usually need to put aside a paper for a few days so I can come back to it with a fresh look. I also try to find someone to read and comment on my paper.

Giving credit

Always give credit to others for their ideas. If you quote a source directly, use quote marks and give the complete citation. If you do not quote the source directly, but still use ideas from the source, cite the source and make clear which ideas are from the source and which ideas are yours. Figures taken from a source should have the source shown in the figure legend. If you have obtained useful ideas in conversation with someone, cite, for example, “H. Carrasco, personal communication.”

Using someone else's ideas without giving credit is plagiarism, which is academic misconduct as well as professional misconduct. While claiming credit for someone's ideas may give a person a temporary advantage, I believe that being generous in crediting others is a strategy that will pay off in the long run. Besides, giving credit to others is simply the right thing to do.


The ability to present a clear written argument in support of your conclusions will be very important to you in your career. A good paper requires attention to content, organization, and details. I have described the features I look for in a paper for my classes.

Comments I often write on student papers

  1. The word “data” is plural.
    Example: Good data are important in making good decisions.
  2. Make a list of items parallel; they should all be the same grammatical form.
    Example of error: My decision making process involves deciding I have a problem, define the problem, gather information, analyzing information, and decide.
    Example fixed: My decision making process involves deciding I have a problem, defining the problem, gathering information, analyzing information, and deciding.
  3. Avoid indefinite referents.
    Example of error: I take a long time to make decisions. I do this because I am risk averse. [“this” is the indefinite referent in this sentence. This what?]
    Example fixed: I take a long time to make decisions. I take a long time because I am risk averse.
  4. Connect your sentences to show your logic and to write more succinctly. Use few, but carefully selected words.
    Example of error: I take a long time to make decisions. I take a long time because I am risk averse.
    Example fixed: I take a long time to make decisions because I am risk averse.
  5. Avoid the passive tense.
    Example of error: After I define the problem, information is gathered. [The passive tense leaves unclear who is doing the action, for example, who gathered the information.]
    Example fixed: After I define the problem, I gather information.
  6. Pick a voice (for example, “I,” “one,” or “you”) and use it consistently. If a student switches voice, I write in the margin: You have switched voices from “you” to “I.” Sometimes such changes in voice will work, but usually it is better to pick one voice and stick to it.
  7. Avoid constructing sentences that start with “It is...” and avoid overly complicated sentence construction.
    Example of error: It is assumed that the decision to be made is one with serious consequences.
    Example fixed: I assume the decision to be made has serious consequences.
  8. Don't use more words than you need.
    Example of error: Next, the decision-maker is faced with a difficult decision.
    Example fixed: Next, the decision-maker faces a difficult decision.
  9. Avoid misplaced modifiers.
    Example of error: Questioning what to do next, my parents could provide some advice.
    Example fixed: Questioning what to do next, I turned to my parents for some advice.
  10. Don't overuse quote marks. They should only be used when (1) you are referring to a word or (2) you are quoting someone.
    Example: The word “content” is ambiguous because it has several meanings.
    Example: As my mother often said: “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
    Don't use quote marks because you haven't found quite the right word; search harder for a better word.
  11. Pick a word and use it consistently. Unlike literary writing, technical writing does not improve with variation in words.
    Example of error: The decision had several possible consequences. Each possible outcome had several features. These attributes included the cost, the time spent, and the quality of product received.
    Example fixed: The decision had several possible consequences, each of which could be described by three features: cost, time spent, and quality of product received.
    The rest of the paper should use the words “decision,” “consequences,” and “features,” consistently.
  12. The word “thing” is usually too imprecise for technical writing.
    Example of error: I considered three things in making my decision.
    Example fixed: I considered three issues in making my decision.

How to give a good presentation

Giving a good presentation requires a lot of preparation.

Most professional presentations now use PowerPoint. You should also consider using a handout.

"Death by PowerPoint" is a popular topic on the web. I believe these links have good advice: