Clear communication is one of the employability skills often highlighted as a differentiator by employers, and is also a useful tool for students to master.
Moreover, as the engineering and technology sectors have a language all of their own, both can be accused of being too full of technical terms and jargon that can easily bamboozle and lose a listener.
“Many engineers are able to express themselves in a way that is readily understood by colleagues who have similar expertise, but are much less good at expressing themselves in way that will be understood by non-experts,” says Keith Wilson, technical author and co-founder of Fresh Public Relations.
Wilson, who is a qualified engineer and has worked in the electrical industry since 1966, adds that while some specialists have exceptional qualities in their own field that may compensate for poor communication skills, even these gifted individuals will have an easier and more productive professional life if they can learn to communicate more effectively.
What, why and to whom?
There are three key considerations that can be applied to any communication, whether addressing one person or a roomful of people: consider what your message is; what you want to achieve from the communication; and to whom it is aimed. So start by gathering all of the information you need to formulate the message you want to get across.
If presenting a new idea to your boss, for instance, make sure you have evidence to back up what you are saying. Then have in mind what you want the outcome of the communication to be such as the opportunity to pitch to the next level.
Crucially, make sure you have tailored your message to suit the audience: don’t talk down or patronise them but make sure they understand why what you are saying is significant to them.
“The best way to make sure a message is compelling is to match it to the needs of the target audience – don’t dazzle them with science, tell them something that will help them,” says Wilson.
“As an engineer you may be really excited about the technology you’ve used in developing a new gizmo, but what the audience wants to know is how your gizmo will make their lives easier, solve their problems and save them money. It’s the same if you’re pitching a new project idea to an internal management team.”
Use technology wisely
There is far more technology available to communicate messages than ever before but it must be used appropriately. The spoken and written word is often still be the most powerful way to get your message across but it may be that employing the use of PowerPoint or perhaps a short video will aid your audience’s understanding but ensure they enhance your message not diminish it.
“Video and animation can be useful for product demonstrations but a shaky video shot on a mobile phone won’t cut it,” says Wilson. “PowerPoint presentations can be an excellent tool but always bear in mind if they are badly produced, they can be an instant turn-off.”
Email and text messaging as well as the social and professional networks have all expanded the range of media available for us to communicate in our daily lives but once again must be used appropriately.
“Are senior specifying engineers, for example, likely to be Twitter enthusiasts?” says Wilson.
Things to avoid
Wilson reckons that in his experience of more than 25 years of working with engineering clients to produce technical and marketing material, by far the most common mistake is unnecessary complexity.
He suggests this isn’t surprising given most of us have gone through an education system that requires us to produce essays, reports and papers that impress tutors and examiners.
He advises leaving behind the writing to impress approach. Once written review your communication and weed out not only jargon but overlong sentences that will confuse and may cause you to ramble when delivering it. Peppering it with too many ideas and concepts can also cloud people’s mind and ultimately dilute the message.
Avoid being over-simplistic but keep in mind that clarity of message is everything.
“When you have something you want to communicate, whatever medium you choose, your aim must always be to inform and excite,” says Wilson. “Of course, if you succeed in informing and exciting, you’ll automatically impress your audience without even trying.”