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Spotlight

Matt Vassar

Lecturer, School of Engineering Technical Communication Program
BA ’07, MA ’08
Story originally published on Mar 2018
You probably knew a kid like me in high school.

I was the guy who sat quietly in the corner and didn’t interact with anyone. For reasons I can’t recall, I decided to take a debate class in high school. Surprisingly, I was good at it and also enjoyed it. The experience was a turning point in my life; it brought me out of my shell and sparked a passion for helping others find their voice.

While doing my undergraduate work at Stanford, I built a debate program from scratch at a local high school. Within two years, we were competitive at the international level and had a student named as the best speaker in the English-speaking world. After completing my undergraduate degree at Stanford in religious studies, I decided to stay to do a master’s in communication. My research focused on voice interfaces and cars. I was looking at how cars and drivers could communicate to make the driving experience safer and more enjoyable. In this work, I straddled engineering, social sciences and cognitive and experimental psychology. As a graduate student, I was approached by someone in the Technical Communication Program (TCP) who said, “You teach machines and complex systems how to communicate with people. How about teaching people how to communicate about complex systems?” I was actually stunned by this question. I didn’t know such work existed and it sounded like the perfect fit for me. And so here I am today, a lecturer in the Technical Communication Program within the Stanford School of Engineering. I teach public speaking courses for engineers, although we also get students from across campus who are looking to improve their public speaking skills.

Here’s what I’ve come to know about engineering and communications. Engineering students generate brilliant ideas. But that’s only half the battle. I love telling the story of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Barbara McClintock. She received the prize in 1983, which is wonderful, except for one thing: She published her work in the 1940s! There was a 40-year gap between when she published and when she was able to finally explain her work so that she could be recognized for it. For 40 years people said, “Wow, she’s brilliant. What did she say again?” I experience this with many students. I know within seconds of talking to them that they are brilliant, but I don’t understand what they’re saying. In today’s multidisciplinary world we no longer have the luxury of interacting solely with people who share our specific area of expertise. To take brilliant ideas and research beyond the lab or classroom, it’s essential to be able to communicate effectively with others. It’s a passion of mine to help students learn to do that.

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