I work with engineers and techies all the time. Many of them are brilliant men and woman or highly practical individuals who solve the problems of the industrial and IT worlds. Their know-how and skill are worthy of great respect.

Their downfall, though, can be not having much reality on the comprehension level of their audience. Many lose readers or audience members in a sentence or two by engaging in a discussion of complexities that only a handful of their peers could follow.

They typically know their own field inside out. Maybe a few hundred others in the world are immersed in the intricacies of aerodynamics, optics, Java programming or Artificial Intelligence. So why only write or talk at that level and only for those people? Yet that appears to be the norm.

Such people are one of the reasons I have a career. I can talk to them. I have almost become a translator. I take the complexity and bring it down a few notches so that a larger audience can appreciate it. Without an intermediary, though, their own writings and presentations can miss the mark.

What do to about it?

First tip: Avoid Engineer-ese and Tech Speak

This is probably the most common fault. Here are a couple of examples:

I went to Palm Springs and rode up the cable car to Mount San Jacinto. It is a true marvel of the modern world. An engineer presented a short video to explain it. He began by saying he would only talk in simple terms and avoid engineering jargon. His “simple” explanation started out with the term “flywheel.” (a flywheel is a heavy rotating wheel used in various types of machinery). He’d lost the audience at once. The moral of the story is to avoid using vocabulary that limits understanding. While technical articles and press releases will use some terminology, don’t overdo it, and be sure to define acronyms.

Another example: I had a client that produced computer chips. Its announcements and writing were all about the fine points of chip performance, wafer size, and esoteric fabrication concepts. They sent their announcements far and wide, yet few could ever understand them. Their press releases were written for about 10 highly specialized media outlets. They needed to be rewritten and simplified before going out beyond that zone.

I heard another speaker on a webinar recently who clearly knew his software inside out. He tossed out technical details by the bucketful in every sentence. It was difficult to follow. Impossible for all but those who lived and breathed his product. His talk was fine if he only wanted to preach to the choir. But he missed the boat if anyone happened upon the webinar who was interested in his product but knew little about it.

 Avoid Formulas and Code

I have been to bookstores many times and tried to find a 101-level book on engineering. Just about everything starts at an easy pace with a couple of fundamentals. But within two pages, the authors are throwing formulas at you. There is no surer way to lose an audience that to speak in formulas. In IT, the same thing happens with lines of code. If you must include a formula or code, put it in a sidebar and refer to it in the article itself. That way, those interested can refer to it and the rest can skip it without it inhibiting their reading of the story.

Understand the Viewpoint of the Listener or Reader

The viewpoint of many of those I deal with is that of an expert or tech guru. As such, they know far more about it than anyone else. However, they often become stuck in that viewpoint, and can drop out of communication with the layman.

Take a moment to think about what the average person or the intended audience really knows about the field. Try to isolate the most important points as opposed to the minutia. Those tiny details might fascinate you, but the rest of the world is either quickly lost or doesn’t know enough to be interested.

The best approach is to write a story or deliver a talk that can be understood by a wider audience than an inner circle or enlightened ones. Practice by trying to explain something about your field to family members or non-technical staff at the office. All you need to do is leave them with something that makes sense to them, however basic it might be. Don’t try to deliver a Ph.D level education in 30 seconds. If you can’t manage that, you are likely to miss in front of most of your audiences and in your writing.

The moral of the story is that an article or a technical presentation is a communication. The reason an expert is writing or delivering it is that others don’t know. Why write or say something that confuses them further. Assume the viewpoint of your audience and write something they can follow.

Drew Robb