As engineers we have our own language, terminology and special buzzwords, yet we are often unsuccessful at communicating the most important points of our work to others. We do many great things to solve problems and manage hazards, yet our final message is often lost in translation of engineering jargon into plain English.

19-09-17

Starting at our schooldays we learn mathematics and the sciences and then expand this knowledge at university, and then further throughout our careers. Throughout this time we develop a “technical” language that is fuelled by our technical comprehension. We can read technical drawings, datasheets and charts as a result of our technical language skills. However, we often forget how long it actually took us to develop that fluency.

Communication in engineering

As a common theme, engineering communications will always have a technical theme. We can’t live without technical content so we must find a way for others to be brought into the conversation. Whilst the language of engineering can be confusing or too technical for many non-engineers, likewise it can be equally hard to understand for other engineers, since there are many sub-dialects/accents. Have you ever tried talking electrical systems with a structural engineer, or instrumentation with a civil engineer? If so, you will understand the difficulty.

We write reports, calculations, specifications and of course generate drawings, which have their own symbology and engineering code in themselves. These are typically very factual and focus on specific aspects of a sometimes very large picture. We present to clients, staff or peers, conduct lectures for students, and present as expert witnesses. While presenting, body language such as gestures, facial expressions, tone and volume of voice, and posture can assist to reinforce a message – or it can easily establish the wrong message.

Maintaining relaxed body language is important for productive verbal communications. When facilitating design reviews and HAZOPs, I have often seen that engineers take criticism of the design personally and, when describing the systems, they start off in a defensive position. This tends to lead to a less productive HAZOP as it is more like combat than design progression. I have also seen the opposite, where engineers who are keen to share their work see it as an opportunity to fly the flag. These sessions have been more beneficial to project teams, as there is a collaborative communication mechanism in place.

Recognise your audience

One thing that took a long time to understand and really appreciate is that not everyone in the audience is like me (quite un-engineeringly astute of me!). The average person you communicate with does not think like you or even like being talked to in the same way. In order to help frame the best way to communicate with an audience, it is useful to reflect on a few things:

  • Why are you doing this? What is your message?
  • Who is your target audience? How important is your message to the audience?
  • What benefit will the audience get from your communication?
  • What is the audience’s background (technical, non-technical, public, assessors, peers, employers)?
  • What does your audience already know about the subject?

Careful consideration of the audience and its expectations will help you to choose the appropriate communication type and level of technical detail and complexity to engage this audience. Failure to consider the audience may have a negative effect and cause the audience to feel bored, confused, patronised, frustrated or – in extreme cases – all of these.

In the past few years I have undertaken land use planning expert witness roles for clients, and during this process of engaging with lawyers, council authorities and the general public, my written and oral communications skills have been seriously challenged. This role truly requires a combination of all the communication types: knowledge sharing with other parties in the written form, verbal engagement with members of the public, and cross examination by barristers. I learnt a lot during preparation for cross examination by legal counsels as, after several weeks of legal engagement, I was provided with feedback: apparently I had an annoying habit of hesitating and repeating the question. After reflecting on this feedback, I realised I had a severe case of technical snobbery. I was in complete shock that, as a knowledgeable person, anyone would ask me such simple questions, and repetition of the question was my expression of astonishment. My hesitance looked like I did not know the answer to the question and therefore undermined the technical explanation I was trying to convey.

With this feedback on board I realised I needed to take the (basic) questions on board, control my non-verbal communication, and take everyone on the same technical journey that came so naturally to me.

Acknowledging different comprehension styles

People are all different, so it is logical that they gain understanding in different ways. A simple way to understand comprehension style is to consider analogies provided to us from research on learning. A learning style is the way a person prefers to concentrate, store and remember new information. There are three different learning styles: visual, auditory and kineasthetic. While most people prefer one of these learning styles, some have a mixed and evenly-balanced blend of all three. 

...............
To assist in keeping any audience engaged, you should acknowledge and accommodate different learning styles
...............

A visual learner benefits from seeing what they need to learn and remember. They prefer maps, flowcharts, demonstrations and pictures, and are stimulated by visual effects such as colour coding and variations in text size or style. Visual learners think in pictures and can create a visual file in their brain to retain information and retrieve this when necessary.

An auditory learner prefers to listen and comprehend. Auditory learners prefer to receive spoken instructions and will be stimulated when they engage in conversation about a topic, ask or answer questions or if they record themselves reviewing material and then listen to it. Auditory learners think in words rather than pictures and are generally good at speaking and presenting.

Kinaesthetic learners remember and process information through physical experience. They prefer to touch, feel and learn things hands-on and will be best able to perform a new task by going ahead and trying it out. Engineers who are kinaesthetic learners may do so by completing a calculation, participating in a science lab, or tinkering with modelling software.

To assist in keeping any audience engaged, you should acknowledge and accommodate different learning styles. Where possible, aim to cater for all three learning preferences: provide pictures for the visual learners, allow discussion for the auditory learners, and provide an opportunity to practise and explore for the kineasthetic learners.

Bringing it all together

Given all of the preceding information, we need to move outside our technical bubble and improve how we share our understanding. Consider the following thought-provokers as you start any communication:

What’s the news?

This question provides the opportunity to focus the mind after the core technical task and identify the salient points. So, what is the news? For me simply, the news summarises the highlights and important outcomes that can be used by others. The news should always be linked back to the purpose and objective of the engineering, otherwise what really was the point? 

Form for forum

Your form of communication should be in harmony with the forum in which the message is being received. Communicating with members of the public and customers should be very different to communicating with engineering teams. Consider the audience and make it relevant to them. Be mindful of different learning styles and cater for them. All of this will improve engagement and help you get your message across.

Illustrate the point

Consideration of analogies, examples or comparisons can bridge the technical gap back to a common point of understanding for all parties. When explaining concepts use simple words and provide perspective as, for example, not everyone understands how big an offshore platform or chemical plant is. 

Key messages

Try and keep the key messages to a minimum, and the communicated information as concise as possible. Understanding your audience can help to limit unnecessary discussion or “waffle” around key messages. If a report does not get to the point or is disjointed in flow, the reader will quickly feel alienated and the message will be lost.

And finally, in all communication types, it is important to remember that practice makes perfect! Just as with engineering fundamentals, we practise, understand and reiterate. With practice, effective communication will come naturally.


Thanks to supporting author Olivia Brace, senior process consultant at Advisian.

Steve Cooper

Steve is a chartered chemical engineer with over 20 years of experience in the offshore oil and gas and onshore petrochemical industries. His specialist fields of competence include concept selection, safety engineering, formal safety assessments, risk assessments and computer consequence modelling of hydrocarbon and toxic chemicals. His excellent knowledge of toxic, flammable and combustible hazardous materials stands out when looking for inherently safe solutions.