Forbes published a great article by Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd last November. In the article, he gives nine tips for communicating science to non-scientists. This list is also excellent advice for any scientist or engineer who wants to be more effective working in industry.
If you are a scientist or engineer who is pursuing a career in the private sector, your career success will depend greatly on how effectively you can communicate with a wide variety of people that have little or no technical background. Unfortunately, too many of us retain the research-based habits that we developed in graduate school, and continue to communicate as though we are speaking to peers in our research group. This may feel comfortable and familiar, but it is not effective and will prevent us from reaching our full career potential.
The top four tips from Dr Shepherd’s list that are most important in a product development environment are these:
1. Know your Audience
In graduate school it’s easy to get used to the fact that everyone around you has a very similar background and training. Whether speaking to a professor, a fellow student, or a peer at an academic conference, your audience generally has a pretty good background in the science and tools behind the work you are discussing.
When you transition to a career in the private sector, this is rarely the case. Inside the company you work with people from sales and marketing, finance, and operations people. Even if some of these people began their careers with technical degrees, engineering is no longer their primary focus. Think about what their work goals might be, and begin to see problems from their perspective, based on what their roles require them to deliver.
Outside the company you may work with people who are your suppliers or your customers. Again, even if these people have a technical background, they will almost certainly not be familiar with the details of the technology you are providing. Develop a habit of thinking about why your customer might be interested in your product. What benefit do you provide, and how can you communicate around these points, rather than the technology details?
2. Don’t use jargon
Using technical jargon makes it hard for those outside your technical discipline to understand you. It is essentially a form of language barrier, so think of it as a second language or dialect you speak, and when working with people outside your engineering team, speak in the common dialect. Pay attention to terms that you use on a daily basis that are specific to a technical crowd. Most acronyms fall into this category. Acronyms save time when communicating with your technical peers, but they are not recommended for communication with a broader audience.
One thing those of us with advance degrees need to be aware of; we have a tendency to want to appear highly educated. After spending so much time in school, it’s natural to want that investment to be evident in our daily interactions, and using complex descriptions and technical jargon is very tempting. I strongly suggest you identify and eliminate this tendency. Make sure your academic investment is evident in the quality of your work, rather than in confused looks from your coworkers.
3. Get to the point
This is the biggest complaint I get from managers in industry about their brightest engineers. They are frequently frustrated by excessive detail and ambiguous answers from their brilliant technical staff. We scientists and engineers are trained in graduate school to give lots of detail to support our position, so that our claims can withstand a thorough peer review. We are trained to continue gathering data until we are certain of the results. No MS or PhD candidate wants to stand up in front of their committee at their thesis defense without sufficient data to fully back up their conclusions. This is how research works, but this is not how product development works.
Effective leaders in industry know that quick action is required for a company to remain profitable, so they need clear communication from their technical team members. They also need them to be brave enough to make recommendations regarding the best technical approach, sometimes without enough data to be absolutely certain. Business is a game, and taking enough time for the engineering team to be certain may allow a competitor to take the lead, or it may simply be too expensive. Quick action requires a quick decision. Gather enough data to make a recommendation quickly, and then communicate your conclusion clearly so the team can move forward. If someone wants more detail, they will ask, but that generally comes after understanding the bottom-line recommendation first.
The ‘Styles of communication’ graphic reproduced here from Dr Shepherd’s article is a great illustration of two very different communication methods. The approach described on the left side of the diagram is the approach scientists and engineers are trained to follow. The approach on the right side describes a better approach for communication with the public, but is also the most effective approach for communicating in an industry environment.
4. Use analogies and metaphors
Analogies and metaphors are great ways to help people who aren’t familiar with the technical details understand what you are talking about. For many years I’ve used the guideline “Would my grandparents understand what I’m describing?” to help me keep my message suitable for a broad audience. I figure that if they would understand what I’m talking about, so will most other people. I’ve found that analogies and metaphors are a great way to achieve this goal.
I used to work for a company that sold combustion diagnostic systems to be installed on large industrial furnaces at refinery, steel, and power generation facilities. These systems used laser spectroscopy to measure furnace gas temperatures and oxygen and carbon monoxide concentrations inside the furnace. In my job I spent a lot of time working with the customers to help them understand the value that our equipment could bring to their plant operation.
Our technology was new to these industries, and so very few of my customers were familiar with what laser spectroscopy was, much less how it worked. This led to a fair amount of skepticism about our products, particularly among the maintenance and operations teams. I found several analogies that were helpful for getting past the skepticism, allowing us to have a productive discussion about improving their furnace operation.
One such analogy was to compare our system to the pulse oximeter, which measures the differential absorption of multiple wavelengths of light to determine blood oxygen concentration. These devices are commonly used in hospitals, so most people have seen one in operation. Although the oximeter and our combustion diagnostic system were very different in both architecture and application, this comparison allowed them to see that the idea of measuring oxygen concentrations with laser light was not so new after all.
Better communication results in higher productivity
The cost of poor communication in a product development environment is high. Throughout my career I’ve seen more lost productivity due to communication issues than from technical issues. Communication problems are made worse when scientists and engineers carry communication habits they acquired in academia into their careers in industry. If we practice the four habits I’ve outlined here, communication with our coworkers and our customers will be much improved. Better communication will result in greater contribution to the success of our company, and that is the key to accelerating career growth!
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