Talk like an Engineer

  • October 3, 2016

Ahoy Matey!

Did you celebrate Monday, September 19th, International Talk Like a Pirate Day? Do you ever wish that we had an International Talk Like an Engineer Day where we got free Krispy Kreme or special deals at Dutch Bros. just for talking like we do every day?

Our profession is full of technical jargon, slang, acronyms, and phrases that can mean something to us but will cause the mere mortals’ (non-engineering types like our spouses) eyes to glaze over. A great way to stall a party conversation is to start spouting engineering facts or project specifics. Nothing goes over quite as well as discussing the technical merits of waste water treatment over the dinner table.

So why do we do this job and how can we communicate better?

Let’s first look at the why…We spent many years in grade school, likely excelling in math and science. On to high school where we found that higher level math and sciences like Physics were challenging and intriguing. Then we continued that love of all things tech-minded into college where subjects like Calculus, Differential Equations, Statics, Dynamics or Fluids kept us interested and opened our minds to all things engineering. Some of us even enjoyed the ‘weed-out’ class on Electrical Fundamentals.

With all of the fun and challenging classes for engineering, who wants to take those required writing classes? Maybe we should have paid a little more attention when our third grade teacher was telling us about the fine arts of sentence structure, conjugating verbs, and when to use those punctuation marks.

Lucky for us we can still learn. There are many guidelines, rules, and tools that can help us communicate our deep, technical engineering thoughts in an understandable way. Here are some ideas to use when crafting your communications.

  • Know the Audience – Write or speak what you need to say so it can be understood by the group you are addressing.
  • Most readers will remember a maximum of 3 main ideas. Keep your messages simple and concise.
  • Craft your work – Your first draft may be long and wordy. Second draft should always be shorter. Use tools like the Flesch Reading Ease in Word to help you build your document so it is easy and fun to read.
  • Rule of Thirds – Some guides for writing suggest 1/3 graphics, 1/3 words, and 1/3 nothing. There is a place for white space.
  • Long, wordy documents can indicate that you don’t know what you are talking about. (I guess I should be done now)
  • Big words and long sentences don’t make you look smart. They can be intimidating or confusing. Make the message as human as possible. Write it like you would say it.
  • Don’t overuse default words – How many unique solutions are there? What is quality? Use descriptions, statistics, and words to paint a picture for the reader.
  • Don’t misuse punctuation – “Let’s eat Grandpa” or “Let’s eat, Grandpa”. Use it when you need it. But don’t overuse it either.
  • Leave the text shortcuts to messaging – BRB, LOL, NM
  • Proofread – Have your document proofread by someone else. If you wrote it, your mind is trained to skip over the mistakes and someone else will find things that you think are perfectly clear but make no sense to them.

It is easy to think about all of these things when you are writing a proposal document or letter. What about email? We are so used to replying quickly that we many times forget to reread what we write. Spell checker can only do so much: ‘There over their’ is correct using the spell check in Word but ‘they’re over there’ is really what you want to say.

So, to finally wrap this up (see point above about long wordy documents): keep it simple, keep it short, proofread, and make it fun to read but make sure your message gets communicated.


About the Author: Gregg Scholz

Gregg is the President of R&W Engineering and has been in the engineering field for over 30 years.  He may or may not have been accused of glazing eyes over.

  • October 3, 2016