Mission Possible: Turning Engineers into Effective Communicators
Among the questions we often get from industrial companies such as utilities and those in energy, chemicals and technology is this one: “We have engineers who are very capable of identifying critically needed, capital-intensive projects at our facility. But they can’t seem to effectively communicate the rationale and details for those projects to plant or corporate management in a clear, concise, compelling manner. In other words, they have good ideas but can’t sell them. Can you help them become better communicators?”
Our answer? You bet we can! Communication is a skill, and skills can be taught, learned and applied.
The stereotype of engineers and other technically trained individuals is well known: They’re nerds. They are uncomfortable around other people. You’ll find them holed up in a lab or workshop – probably staring at a computer screen. They dress funny and wear pocket protectors. And so on. Over the years, we’ve worked with enough engineers to question the accuracy of that stereotype.
That said, we have observed that many engineers have a communication style that often works against them. Here are three of the most common communication problems . . . and how to correct them:
1. Failing to connect
Typically, engineers and other left-brain thinkers are not well acquainted with how critical it is to establish a human connection in order to communicate more effectively. Engineers are trained to approach communication from the vantage point of, “Let’s get to the facts, and the facts will carry the day.” There’s a tendency to believe that messages sent go directly to the logical side of the recipient’s brain. But that isn’t the way it works. Messages must first pass through the brain’s emotional gate. In other words, before you can reach someone on an intellectual level, you must first connect with them on an emotional level. Before an audience will listen to, hear, understand and act on what you said, it must see you as credible, believable, trustworthy, even likeable.
Years ago, this writer was at a public meeting being held after an accidental chemical release occurred at a nearby plant. A woman in the audience stood up to say that she believed that two miscarriages she suffered resulted from the plant’s emissions over the years. The plant manager responded by citing a Johns Hopkins University study that showed no connection between the plant’s emissions and any ill effects on human health. What he should have done was express empathy for her situation, and then talk about the science.
- The better you understand your audience – who they are, why they’re there, their knowledge of your subject and their interest in it, their information needs and wants, etc. – the better you can connect with them.
- Use face-to-face meetings for high-stakes presentations, especially where persuasion is involved..
- Be sure your presentation goes beyond analytical content (e.g., data, facts, examples, etc.). Include emotional content (e.g., analogies and stories – two very powerful change agents).
- Avoid overuse of PowerPoint. Limit its use to pie charts, bar graphs, flow diagrams, pictures and occasional “word” slides. Remember, you are the message; no visual can compete with the ability of a human being to connect with the audience. Your visuals should support your presentation, not be your presentation.
Don’t ignore your “delivery” skills. Eye contact, high energy, gestures and the like help you connect with the audience.
Most professions, especially highly specialized fields such as science and engineering, have their own language. People in those professions use that language with ease, but the rest of us are left scratching our heads. One sure-fire way to lose an audience (or get it to ignore your idea) is to confuse them.
- Gear your communication to the level of sophistication of the audience – remembering that there’s been an erosion of scientific and mathematical literacy in this country.
- Regardless of your audience’s level of expertise, you’ll do well to eliminate or explain jargon.
- “Doing simple” requires a tremendous amount of thought and effort, but the audience will thank you for it.
3. Not Being Brief
Audiences rarely complain because a presentation was too short. Some presentations fail because the speaker tries to say too much. Authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath call this “the curse of knowledge” – wanting to share everything you know. Engineers are especially guilty of this – in part, because they are logical, sequential thinkers. They can’t bear leaving out all the details.
- Technical talks are not the same as technical papers. Don’t dwell on detail. Hit the key points.
- Even though your subject matter is technical, you are still talking to human beings – people who get bored, even during serious, important presentations. Keep your presentations fast-paced and brief.
- When presenting to executives – especially to top execs – remember this: They have limited time, short attention spans and are quick studies.
Conventional wisdom has it that engineers are sub-par communicators, but are analytical, strategic thinkers. If that’s so, what makes them good thinkers can also make them better communicators, because effective communication is about approaching communication strategically.
At the Ammerman Experience, we believe that communication training for engineers can help even the most technically-minded people communicate clearly and concisely. Get in touch with us to find out how we can help.