Tips to help engineers better communicate their ideas to non-technical professionals

Posted by Oliver Hogue on 12/02/2015

Engineers tackle the greatest challenges in science, technology and environment. However, while many engineers enjoy networking and sharing ideas and knowledge, every great communicator in the industry is surrounded by scores of engineers that have struggled to engage with audiences because of ineffective communication skills.

Such characterisation is, of course, certainly not true of all engineers. However, the reality is that communicating effectively about complex information is hard. Especially when only a small number of people are really blessed with the ability to communicate in a way that we all can all understand.

The good news is that all engineers can improve their communication skills. Student engineers are already learning effective communication skills in science and engineering degrees in Australia.

Why are communication skills important for engineers?

Engineers who don't communicate effectively are holding themselves back professionally. Those who do communicate effectively advance their careers much quicker.

One expert even feels that the need for engineers and scientists to engage with the wider community has never been greater, citing the lack of a community consensus on climate change as one example where engineers and scientists can do more.

Engineers communicate with a wide range of people

Every day, engineers are required to communicate with managers, colleagues and those that report to them. They may also communicate with clients, investors, local communities, government officials and company boards. How engineers do this can have a dramatic impact on their work and career because ineffective communication can reduce productivity and limit innovation. It can also reduce the likelihood of investment from a client in a new technology or slow the progress of construction due to protests by a worried local community.

Communicating with clients

Working with clients can be a very challenging. The most common complaint from clients is the over use of complex language, terminology and jargon by engineers, which leads to confusion. Skilled communicators, on the other hand, have the ability to take complex issues and explain them in clear and easily understood topics.

When communicating with clients it is important to know that most don’t want to know the full technical details behind a solution anyway. They are often more concerned with the end results. That means: get to the point and show how you have met the client’s objectives quickly – especially if the client wants a quick resolution.

But before doing so, make sure you understand the client’s communication needs. Clients are people and that means they don’t all want to be communicated with in exactly the same way. If they want the details or background then provide it to them. Or, if they are more interested in the relationship then take the time to learn more about them personally. An engineer’s client communication goal should be to adopt the approach that works for the client, not the one the engineer prefers.

Communicating with local communities

Confused, lied to and intimidated, no matter how unintentional, is how residents on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales felt after communicating with a large engineering company that recently delivered major electricity projects in the area.

At the other end of the communication performance scale is the best practice communication of Australian engineering companies recognised at the annual Golden Target Awards – the highest level of awards for communication practice in Australia. There are also member associations such as IAP2 that help engineers and organisations better engage in meaningful conversations with the public. At the heart of organisations like IAP2 are core values based on two-way communication and integrity.

In the mining industry, acceptance of companies and their operations within local communities has given rise to the term, ‘Social Licence to Operate’ (SLO). The central idea of SLO is that companies must develop good relationships with communities based on principles such as mutual respect, open and ongoing communication, honesty, and plain disclosure of information.

Communicating with government

The reliance of some government organisations on rigid structure and process makes it a very difficult, drawn out communication process at times between engineers, companies and public sector agencies. Government officials have also been accused by some of spending too much time administering processes and not enough time on the things that really matter.

However, committing to such lengthy and process-orientated communication activities is usually the only option for engineers and companies that wish to deliver the multimillion-dollar projects made available by government. As communicators and technical experts, engineers must respect all stakeholders, but in particular the rules and processes of governments because companies need them ‘on side’ if they are to successfully deliver the very projects and services they exist for.

Communicating with managers

Managers are often very busy people – juggling the normal demands of projects with the leadership responsibilities of the people that report to them. So, one of the best things an engineer can do for a manager is to respect their time when communicating. That means keeping the communication brief, to the point and clear, and avoiding jargon or rambling. The quicker an engineer makes a clear point, the less time they waste and the more likely they are to get what they need.

Ongoing and open communication between employees and managers also helps to keep professional objectives clear, projects focused and potential workplace conflicts from getting out of hand. When managers and employees, in both formal and informal settings, regularly discuss expectations and issues all team members have a better understanding of the status of the work relationship.

How do the best engineers communicate?

The ability to communicate clearly and effectively is a core characteristic of great engineers and scientists. English physicist Professor Brian Cox is a great example of someone blessed with the ability to communicate dense and complex information in a way that we all can all understand. The best engineers present complex information in a clear, concise and persuasive manner, and in a context that is suited to the audience’s needs.

Know the audience

To communicate successfully, an engineer must first understand whom they are speaking to, so the content can be adapted to suit them. That means understanding the audience’s background, knowledge and interests irrespective of whether the audience is one person, a team, a workshop, or a room full of people. The communication needs of clients, communities and managers, may be similar in some ways, but in many others, they will be different and not the same for each person.

Simplify and show relevance

Contrary to belief, complex information can be clearly communicated without compromising the quality of an idea or ‘dumbing’ it down. The key is to simplify the message by avoiding vague language and ensuring relevance. It’s how Al Gore got the world to talk about global climate change.

Because it is difficult to keep an audience interested that doesn’t understand why a topic is important to them, create connections and show relevance between what you are talking about and the everyday lives and experiences of the audience.

Use examples and analogies

Examples help an audience to engage with complex information, while analogies are another powerful tool in communication, as engineers can attach complex technical ideas to concepts that audiences already understand. The use of diagrams and photos also help to communicate large amounts of information clearly and effectively.

Check your body language

The impact of an engineer’s delivery style is almost as equally as important as the quality of the content being communicated. In face-to-face communication situations avoid mannerisms that show uncertainty, for example, slumped shoulders, shaky voice or lack of eye contact. These signs all show a lack of confidence, so it’s likely you are communicating ineffectively.

Overcome nerves by holding your head up, offering plenty of eye contact and pronouncing words loudly and clearly. Energy and enthusiasm are a must when communicating because they build confidence and improve your delivery and effectiveness of a message – audiences always connect with passionate speakers.

Stop talking and start listening

One of the other key factors in effective communication for engineers is listening. Many successful engineering leaders and entrepreneurs credit their success to effective listening skills, which is not surprising when you consider that good listening skills lead to better client satisfaction, greater productivity, fewer mistakes and increased sharing of information, which promotes innovation and creativity.

But listening requires focus. It is more than just hearing. Listening is paying attention not only to the story, but how it is told, the use of language and voice, and how the other person uses his or her body.

Seek feedback on your communication style

Getting feedback from colleagues, managers and sometimes clients on how well your communication style is working will give you a benchmark from which to start improving. It also provides others with the opportunity to clarify and highlight any issues that might need addressing with your communication. Armed with this knowledge, you can better aim for direct, positive and effective communication.

Case study: Advice for engineers from communication expert

Communication teacher and specialist in speaking skills for engineering students, Melissa Marshall says great communication from scientists and engineers is desperately needed in order to change the world.

Melissa says engineers can do this by showing others why science is relevant to them. And when you're describing your science, beware of jargon, she says, because jargon is a barrier to the understanding of ideas. Science can be clearly communicated without compromising the ideas.

Examples, stories and analogies are also things to consider. These ways engage and excite people about your content. And when presenting your work, drop the bullet points, she says. Bullets kill, and they will kill your presentation because these types of slides rely too much on the language area of our brain and cause us to become overwhelmed.

Melissa, rather appropriately, has summarised her thoughts on effective communication for engineers with an equation: Take your science, subtract your bullet points and your jargon, divide by relevance (meaning share what's relevant to the audience), and multiply it by the passion that you have for this incredible work that you're doing. That is going to equal incredible interactions that are full of understanding.

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