Writing to People Who Don't Understand Dilbert
Engineers understand life in equations, formulas and algorithms. The following list of thinking points (variables) should be examined (defined) prior to putting something into writing (solving the equation):
- The quality of any communication is directly proportional to how well you know who you are communicating with. Take time to study the “receiver” of your communication. Learn their background, education, experience, etc.
- Put yourself in the “ears” of the listener. Pretend that the person is right there with you, and then just “talk on paper.”
- Picture your receiver as a human being who deserves dignity and respect.
- Learn “plain English” all over again. While in college most engineers spent a lot of time hanging out with techno-speaking people. They tended to lose the good old English grammar that they learned in their early education years.
- When engineers start communicating technical issues, they go into a techno-mode of communication because that’s the only language in which they know how to communicate these topics. However, when they are asked, “What do you do for a living?” or their friends want to know what project they’re currently working on, they should use it as an opportunity to explain technical topics to non-technical people.
- Most of an engineer’s communication is actually to non-technical people. The ones who created their jobs are usually non-technical people. Keeping or enhancing their position is highly dependent on being able to effectively communicate with these non-techy types.
- Engineers tend to deal with highly technical subjects that utilize many multi-syllable words. To simplify communication on the technical level, they use slang shortcuts or acronyms. Most engineers actually converse in these terms because they innately have to be efficient in every thing they do—they’re just born that way! These shortcuts enhance that efficiency. Don’t uphold the techno-uppity attitude that just because someone can’t speak the “secret code language,” they are stupid. (There’s a BIG difference between stupidity and ignorance.)
- Don’t talk down to non-technical people. They will pick up this tone immediately. If engineers don’t consider them at least their peers intellectually, this “downspeak” tone will come through in their communication.
- Don’t use long sentences—some grammar checking software can help with this. Check the “Gunning Fog Index” (an option in most grammar checkers) to determine if your writing is too difficult to understand.
- Even though most of their communication is actually trying to “inform” the receiver of technical information, engineers need to make a decision; are they really sending a request to have their information considered in an important decision that will ultimately affect everyone’s work?
AIDA to the RescueUse the AIDA letter form for a request:
Attention—clear, simple, concise.
Information—as needed. Highly technical is okay here.
Desire—the information above presented in an abstract or summary in layman’s terms.
Action—clear, concise, decisive options with a recommendation.
The Shortened Checklist
- 1. Consider your listener to be intelligent.
2. Listen to your communication in the reader’s frame of reference.
3. Explain technical information in laymen’s terms.
4. Don’t talk down to the recipient.
5. Use a grammar checker to help enhance understanding and eliminate confusion.
6. Use the AIDA form of letter-writing.