What if I told you that the key to effective communication lies in following just three simple rules? I’ve found that the following three rules tend to correct the majority of engineering communication problems, and indicate when I consume information:
I haven’t seen these rules elsewhere, so let’s expand on each. I’m going to use the Spiral v-Meme value taxonomy to apply each rule on many value levels.
1) Relevancy — to the audience. Indicators of relevance depend on audience and include one or more (if not all) of the following:
- Story/fable approach (“…and that’s why we no longer eat the berries with red dots.” Works great with kids.) Really, this works with all audiences and you should consider it as the default.
- Authority/intimidation approach (“There will be a quiz tomorrow over your reading assignment.” Works with older kids and students still treated like kids.)
- Rule approach via lists work well when trying to communicate sophisticated steps, think cookbooks here (“evin LOL cats hav rulzs!” The rules for Wile E. & Road Runner are another example. Repetition helps effectiveness.)
- Performance/logical approach (“$__ million is spent every year on ____ with efficiencies less than __% of possible. Works for college students and business minded folks.)
- Communal/humanitarian approach (“We’re borrowing from the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP.” Basically for things that are difficult to quantify such as ecosystem harm, happiness, etc. Works for community minded individuals.)
- System approach (If done carefully, integrates all of the above, in carefully timed order, and appeals to most.)
Don’t underestimate the role of novelty in relevance. Having a new and original way to catch our attention via one of the above approaches is very important. We’ll immediately tune out if we think we’ve seen/heard it before.
2) Credibility — to the audience. Indicators of credibility again depend on audience. Extending from the numbers above:
- Story/fable approach for kids is most credible from a trusted family member, friend, or someone family or friend trusts.
- Authority/intimidation is most credible from someone known to have the power to deliver on the promise.
- Rule approach is most credible from organizations with delegated responsibility to set rules/standards, and the organization is likely cited. Many seeking credibility on this level are turned away by my above reference to LOL catz.
- Performance/logical approach is most credible when specific (quantified and testable), efficient (omits useless words and does not obfuscate (use complex words when a simple word suffices), contextual (gives us the info we need, when we need it), and confident (avoids passivity and has a polished delivery). Basically if you can pull off the example referenced in the performance meme above, and add the most relevant citation to the end, you’ve got it.
- Communal/humanitarian approach is most credible when sincere time is allocated from a group with the foundational experience necessary to make it happen.
- System level approach is most credible when all of the above are incorporated in appropriate balance and timed for persistence and efficacy.
The primary value of engineers is credibility. Anybody can say anything. Engineers traditionally have value because we quantify importance with referenceable statistics.
3) Efficiency — to the audience. Omit useless words. Omit useless words. Omit useless words. Professor Strunk, infamous for “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White, used to pound on the chalkboard that this simple phrase — omit useless words — was the single most effective rule for improving writing. He became so efficient with wordage that he noticed his students were left wanting more, so he would repeat himself — Omit useless words. Omit useless words. Omit useless words. But think about it. Nearly all of our writing issues are the result of excessive wordage, from comma errors to passive and pompous prose. Write the core point you are trying to make, then minimize the number of words it takes to make it, without losing the core point. i.e., What is the point (verb), what is it being applied to/topic (noun), and what is happening to it (verb)? Sound familiar? See John run.
Example 1: Pressure transducers were used to measure the inlet and outlet pressures from the pump. Pressure transducers measure the pump inlet and outlet pressures. Pressure transducers measure pump pressures.
Example 2: Lastly, the motor rpm was measured using a tachometer mounted to the pump shaft. A tachometer mounted to the pump shaft measures the motor RPM. A tachometer measures motor speed.
Example 3: Using these measured variables coupled with ASME test procedures for centrifugal pumps, the head loss vs. flow rate curves were determined along with the system curve. We use ASME test procedures to create head loss vs. flow rate and system curves.
Next, how do you make your documents skimmable? Do a Google image search on “eye tracking heat maps”. You’ll see a classic shape of the letter F appear similar to the one below. We are bombarded by so much information we skim to find what is relevant, credible, and efficient. What would someone take away from your document if they only scanned the section headings? Hopefully not just “Introduction, Background, Theory, Experiment, and Conclusions”. (Hint: Introduction: Why empathy for your audience matters) What if someone only scanned the lists, figures, and jumped to the conclusions? Make sure they cannot miss the essential points you need them to take away.
In the end, every moment someone is reading your content, instead of everything else on the web, is a gift. Make sure your communication is relevant, credible, and efficient — because the person spending the most time on it will be you.