Handbook of Communication and Social Interaction Skills

By John O. Greene; Brant R. Burleson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 10
INFORMING AND EXPLAINING SKILLS: THEORY
AND RESEARCH ON INFORMATIVE
COMMUNICATION
Katherine E. Rowan, Ph. D.
Department of Communication, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia

Poor informative and explanatory skills are costly. In 1999, failure to communicate the difference between pounds and newtons cost NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter mission. When the spacecraft was entering the Martian atmosphere, Lockheed Martin engineers sent the orbiter's final navigation information to JPL in Pasadena using the English measurement “pounds” of force. But JPL had programmed its computers to calculate orbital navigation parameters and thruster firings using the metric “newtons” of force. The JPL group assumed the spacecraft's orbiting instructions had been calculated using the metric system. Neither group saw this problem, and inaccurate trajectory commands were sent to the spacecraft.

As a consequence of this informative communication error, the Mars Climate Orbiter, rather than achieving its proper orbit around the Red Planet, flew too close to the planet's surface and disintegrated in the Martian atmosphere (NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 1999; Perlman, 1999).1

Back on Earth, informative and explanatory communication skills have profound effects on the quality of daily life—for good and for ill. In this information era, 5 of the 10 fastest growing careers are computer related, and the typical large business is “information-based” (Andrews & Herschel, 1996). In classrooms, explanatory textbook passages having certain research-identified features help students learn, whereas textbook passages lacking these features are less likely to increase learning (e.g., Mautone & Mayer, 2001; Mayer & Chandler, 2001). Good informing and explaining in medical contexts is linked to increased use of recommended screening procedures for cancer and other diseases (e.g., Davis, Berkel, Arnold, Nandy, Jackson, & Murphy, 1996; Wright, 1997; Yancey, Tanjasiri, Klein, & Tunder, 1995). In

____________________
1
The San Francisco Chronicle headline, available in Perlman (1999), gives the wrong name for the spacecraft that disintegrated. The spacecraft that disintegrated was the Mars Climate Orbiter; its sister craft was the Mars Polar Lander (Hardin, 1999).

-403-

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