Engineer Meets World (and We Have a Little Communication Problem)

Sept. 19, 2012
Engineers and technologists have a reputation, not always deserved, of being poor communicators – both written and verbal. Here's why we often have an information impedance mismatch and some things we can do about it.

My first IEEE meeting was an eye opener – I got to watch a dozen or so very bright, solid engineers give some really crummy presentations. Except for a couple of presentations that were apparently slapped together mainly to justify a trip to New York, the core intellectual content was great – if you could stay alert long enough.

Several of the guys (in those days almost all the engineers were guys) would stand with their back to the audience and talk to the screen. Or rather they would read, line by line, the literal math statements and text. Actually that kind of worked because they were partially blocking the view of the screen and we couldn't read the slides anyway.

Then there were the presenters that were only about halfway through their three dozen or more slides before the moderator gave them the five-minute warning. At that point they would begin reading the slides at about 56,000 baud, making the rest of the presentation even less understandable.

That was years ago and a lot of work has gone into improving the quality of engineering presentations and technical communications in general. We have Power Point, not acetate, so we can add sound, movement, a rainbow of colors, special effects. But all that razzamatazz won't make up for the skills of the presenter. Of course, those have been worked on also. Many companies use consultant-run public speaking classes or encourage participation in local Rotary Club speaking opportunities.

Still, we as engineers and technologists have a reputation, not always deserved, of being poor communicators – both written and verbal. That's why, sometimes, we're kept in the cubicles to let tech writers and the marketing department take over.

Here's a thought: Traditionally, electric utilities have been managed by engineers. That may partially explain why our industry is frequently criticized for not communicating well with customers. We did the technical parts of the job very well; we missed on helping ratepayers know why we were doing it.

It's All in Our Heads

The human brain (as my daughter, who teaches neuroscience, can tell you at great length) is incredibly complex and incompletely (even poorly) understood. The upper outer covering, the cerebral cortex, has two distinct hemispheres and looks sort of like a shelled walnut. The two hemispheres communicate with each other through a thick cable of nerve fibers. But "split brain" studies show that each hemisphere can operate somewhat independently, even when the connection between them has been severed by trauma.

To oversimplify a bit, the left hemisphere processes speech, mathematical reasoning, writing to-do lists – things that are sequential, step by step. The left brain builds the whole by connecting the parts. And that's the way we learn math, physics, and other engineering sciences. We start with simple concepts and equations and move systematically to complex concepts. Starting with Newton's Laws of motion we can eventually progress through classical mechanics and statistical methods and end up in quantum mechanics.

In contrast, the right brain starts with the whole and works down to the details. It doesn't stay on a linear track, one logical step at a time. It sees the forest, and then the trees. A sculptor uses his right brain to visualize a finished statue when he/she looks at a block of marble. Without detailed (left-brained) calculations the artist will, over weeks and months, chip away and end up with the finished, detailed piece of art. The sculptor started with the whole and progressed to the parts.

We are designed so that, unless brain-injured, all of us have access to both hemispheres. But because of various factors - genetics, training and habit - some folks depend significantly more on one side than the other. Engineers, scientists and other technologists seem to be more left-brained – detail oriented, sequential.

Of course, artists, poets, philosophers tend to be more right brain dominant. But I'll bet you a dime to a donut that even the general public is more right-brained oriented than the average engineer.

And that's where we, as engineers, scientists and technologists, can have a communication disconnect with most of the world. Rather than appreciate the differences, we tend to consider our more right-brained friends as 'air-heads' and they think of us as 'nerds' or worse.

Ironically, many of us don't communicate well with each other either.

Upgrade the Software

You can work on being a little more right-brained. There are even courses for engineers to retrain their thinking process.

Over the years I've been moderately successful in changing how I approach problem solving and perception. For example, in an attempt to see the world more like my wife does I had my colors done about twenty years ago (ask a middle aged lady if you don't know what I'm talking about). I also tried exercises to develop right-brain perception (like pencil drawing from upside down photos). I play several musical instruments and, even though I read music notation well, I go to jams where I learn new tunes by ear (a right-brain task). With all this I've seen changes in myself. I'm an effective communicator with diverse audiences and I enjoy the challenge.

For most of us a lot of these changes probably just come with age and experience, if you want to change, but you can speed up the process. Here are a few practical suggestions that can help, both in formal presentations and over coffee:

Make Your Personality Part of the Message - To put a twist on an old saw, a lecture occurs when information flows from the notes of the speaker to the notes of the student without passing through the mind (or personality) of either one. That's the route to snoozeville. You know your material better than anyone else and if you're not excited about it, why should they be? You can add color and credibility to black and white science, not through your multi-media slides, but by just being yourself. You may not be a Steve Martin but you've got some sides to you that only your best friends see. Let 'em out! Unless they might get you fired or arrested.

If you can arrange it, when presenting slides, put the screen to one side and put yourself in the center so that you are the focus. If you need notes, go ahead and use a lectern. Otherwise, try to be extemporaneous and informal. Don't pace. Keep your hands out of your pockets. Look at your audience. It's okay if you stutter or correct yourself once in a while. You're human, not a robot.

Just be YOU.

Don't Present the Material as a Detective Story – Unless you enjoy seeing people leave early "to catch a plane", put at least an interesting, non-jargony summary of the conclusions, the big picture, up front so folks know where you are headed. You may remember with pride the detailed, clever journey that led to success. Your audience wants to know where you ended up. Save the bragging for your lucky spouse.

Aim at the Technical Level of Your Audience - Be it a friend at the bar, or professionals. If anything, try to make things simpler than you usually do. You can always get more complex when answering questions, but you won't get people to listen after you lose them. They won't think you're super smart – they just won't think about you at all.

Maybe the bottom line is this: Your job is to enable folks to enjoy the experience of hearing your message, be fascinated with the topic and want to come back for more. That means you need to tailor your presentation to fit their learning mode, not your comfort zone. Aim toward being the Carl Sagan of your specialty!

About the Editor

Paul earned his B.S. and an M.S. in electrical engineering from the University of California-Berkeley and is a registered professional engineer. He has worked in the energy industry for more than 25 years, developing and implementing advanced energy technologies. As research director for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. he pioneered methodologies used in the design, maintenance and control of energy delivery systems. As a consultant he has provided guidance to utilities and the vendor community, nationally and internationally. Email him with comments: [email protected]

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