Communication, the human race has been attempting it for thousands of years. Whither it’s art, music, writing, movies, even this website, it’s all a form of communication. With that much practice, you would think we’d be better at it.
Honestly, I don’t know why we aren’t better at it but I think the problem exists because no two of us think exactly the same. We have different backgrounds, different genetics and different experiences. Each post I write is a struggle for balance, I want it to be something that makes you think but doesn’t drag you so far into the weeds that you vow never to visit my site again.
My current job as a Systems Engineer is all about communication, how the customer and I can agree on just what he wants and giving him exactly what he asks for. I don’t know about you but I find requirements documents to be extremely boring, with little or no entertainment value, much like reading the phone book. Still, just like the phone book, there’s a lot of value in dull and boring.
Suppose my customer wants a blue box. Have you ever tried to document a color? What shade of blue? How intense a blue? Flat or gloss? Fortunately, we don’t have to go to Lowes to match paint samples, we specify the paint using a color coordinate system. To get the right shade of blue, I write something like, “The paint shall be a bright blue, having coordinates of 0.65,0.6 on a CIE 1931 xy chromaticity diagram.”
There’s more because I still have to define how reflective the paint surface is (glossy) and how close I have to come to the desired color because paint is not always cooperative as it dries but I can tell you’re already bored and thinking about ditching me to watch a YouTube video.
It’s time to discuss YouTube videos anyway, I hate them. It’s nothing personal. I’m constantly amazed by the amount of talent and effort that goes into putting most of them together but I don’t find them optimized for information extraction and I’m irritated by the clunky way the information is presented.
I’m told this is a generational thing. I was raised at a time when TV was just starting to take over our lives and books were all I had. Give me a book or a manual and I can usually find and extract the pertinent data quickly. Give me a YouTube video and I start by turning down the annoying music that seems to be required for all videos. Then I’m fast forwarding and backtracking to find the 30 seconds of information that I’m looking for. I also get to turn the sound back up in case I actually found the spot. After two or three videos, I’m worn out and annoyed.
You’re right, this is a personal issue but it makes a significant point. When you attempt to communicate, it’s the way your audience wants their information presented that’s important. Your message will go unheard if you don’t consider your audience. YouTube is a success because there’s a very limited number of people that learn the way I do.
Let me give you another example. Today my wife went out Christmas shopping and came back with a specialty bread called a panettone. This was significant to her because the evening before we had watched Paul Hollywood of Great British Bakeoff fame make one. Unfortunately, just prior to showing me the bread, my wife handed me her phone and told me it wasn’t working. Do any of you think I even noticed the bread when she showed it to me? I had a non-functional phone to fix and problems take priority over everything else. Had she shown me the bread first, my reaction would have been far different.
Presenting to your audience seems like an obvious strategy but all of us know a number of very smart engineers that have difficulty grasping that concept, myself included. Think about the last time you listened to an engineer give a presentation, odds are you had trouble staying awake, much less managed to care about what he was saying. Accountants want to know the bottom line, manufacturing wants to know how to build it, customers want to know what it can do for them and yet, nine times out of ten, the engineer will tell you in excruciating detail about the technology behind the design. Absolutely fascinating stuff, if you’re another engineer.
Different backgrounds, different personalities, different sexes, different generations, maybe the surprise is not how poorly we communicate but that we manage convey any complex thoughts at all. Here’s where I should give you the golden rule of writing, that one rule that will make you a master at communication so can talk to anyone but before my wife starts laughing hysterically when I profess great powers of communication, I’ll quickly admit I don’t have that secret.
I have managed to come up with a few guidelines that I try to use;
Get their attention quickly. Even with a captive audience you have less than 30 seconds before they tune you out and reach for their cellphone or go the next blog.
Know your audience. When I describe a design concept to engineers, I never have to discuss appearance only function. On the other hand, when I talk to my Mother-in-law, I need to describe appearance first. Otherwise she’s ignoring me while trying to visualize the appearance.
Relate to your audience, make it clear how it’s important to them. Trust me, accountants don’t care if it’s second generation or eighth generation technology. They want to know how much it costs and what’s the projected rate of return.
Emotion is a powerful communication tool but very tricky. if I show too much emotion while presenting to engineers, they think I’m in sales. If I show too little while presenting to business development folks, they think I’m an engineer and continue to believe good ideas never come from engineers only business development.
Try to have fun. I know, it relates to the situation, to the tolerance of your audience and to showing emotion but people relate better when you’re comfortable in your message.
Force your audience to get involved. In case you don’t know, that’s why so many websites have popups. Your audience is the reason you’re trying to communicate. If they’re ignoring you, you’re only shouting into the wind. When I write a blog and get no views, I know I’ve wasted my breath.
There you have it, my guidelines for effective communication. Unfortunately, I’m not always as clear as I would like, so I encourage any of you to add to my list (hint, I’m trying to get my audience involved).
As a finale, my last message for 2015;
Well Said! Communication can be very tricky for everyone, not just engineers.
Hey……while I appreciate the thought and effort that went into the blog I was hoping to see a photo of the bread!! Just sayin’