By Ann Glumac

When my six-year-old nephew asked his dad why days get longer in the spring, his father answered by describing the vast solar system, the role of the sun at the center, the planets, the earth’s elliptical rotation around it, the tilt of the earth at various times of the year, etc. etc. etc.

After several minutes of astronomical education, my nephew said:  “You might be right, Dad. But to a kid, it’s just blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.”

This family anecdote provides more than a good laugh; it also offers a great lesson in communication:

Sometimes the more you know, the more difficult it is to communicate what you know.

Technical experts: Listen Up!

Experts, especially technical experts  – engineers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, etc. – frequently find communicating with non-experts especially hard.

Why is that?

Experts know every last detail about very complicated topics; in fact, they understand their topics precisely because of those details.  When communicating, they can be very reluctant to leave out something important.

Technical experts also use very precise terms and abbreviations  to communicate among themselves; terms that can become jargon to a non-technical audience.

For this and other treasons, unfortunately, technical experts who try to communicate everything they know on a topic can lead mere mortal audiences to a conclusion very similar to my nephew’s: “You might be right, but to us, it’s just blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.”

News Flash: The goal of communication is not the one-sided dissemination of information

To avoid the “blah blah blahs,” remember that communication is a joint effort, one in which the communicator and the audience work together to achieve a common understanding of a given topic.

That is the goal of communication: A common understanding of the topic.

Technical experts — really, all communicators — need to come to terms with the notion that their non-technical audiences will never know as much about the topic, that the audience members do not want to know as much and that they don’t need to know as much.

Technical communicators need to try to determine what the audience is interested in knowing and the most basic, understandable way to convey the information. This is not “dumbing down” a presentation, as one of my (technical) clients once suggested; it is serving the goal of creating a common understanding of the topic.

So while it may be critically important to a bridge engineer, the audience listening to a presentation on a new bridge doesn’t need to know the difference between a camelback truss and a castelated girder; all the audience needs to know — in layman’s terms — is why the bridge will be safe to cross twice a day.

All my six-year old nephew needed to know was that the earth gets more sunlight as summer approaches; the astronomy lesson could wait a few years.

The High Points:

  • The goal of all communication is a common understanding of a given topic.
  • Communication is a two-way process – not the one-sided dissemination of information.
  • Communicators should consider their audience’s need for information and type of information.

Feel free to share some of your lessons in communication below; I’d especially love to hear the experiences of folks giving technical presentations to non-technical audiences.

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