Not quite shooting from the hip

Not quite shooting from the hip

Most of us can relate to meeting someone new and having them ask what we do.  If we’re lucky, the person has a technical background and can understand some or maybe all of what we do.  If we’re not lucky, we have to think of ways to explain things that someone without a technical background can understand…and even that doesn’t work well, sometimes.

In the past week, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about some of my research.  While I consider this a good thing, I had two realizations.  First, while I am good at explaining things, I realized that, as a teacher, I often have time to develop explanations before I go to class.  It’s much harder when I’m faced with a misunderstanding and only have a short time to figure out how to rectify it.  Second, it’s really surprising how much people’s perceptions can differ from your own when they’re not knee-deep in the research.

I am always impressed by people who can speak about their work and quickly adapt to people’s differing levels of understanding.  It is a skill in its own right, and I think those that have developed it are going to be perceived as better engineers simply because of their ability to communicate well.  I personally find that while I feel like I understand a concept very well, it’s hard to come up with a very quick explanation that isn’t overly simplistic yet gets the main point across.  The less time I have to do this, the harder it becomes and I sometimes feel like I’m shooting from the hip rather than developing a coherent explanation.

Do you have this skill?  Have you taken time to develop it?  Or do you ever find yourself trying to explain things and finding that you can’t always address the situation as well as you’d like?


You’re right, it’s difficult to communicate with people who have backgrounds that are different that yours – especially when it’s the technology / layperson gap. Sometimes giving examples that relate your technology to an everyday experience can work. Sometimes you’ve got to get them to visualize without resorting to an exaggerated Sci-Fi show or video game. I try to keep my sentences short and use small words. I’m not demeaning them – I’m trying not to overwhelm them. Then be prepared to clarify yourself after the results are published. You’ll get better with practice.

The late Bob Pease told a similar story about how he left Philbrick (or a company with a similar name) because an arrogant VP told Bob that he was stupid because he couldn’t explain technical terms to the VP’s understanding. It proved to be Philbrick’s loss as they folded while Bob’s new employer (National Semiconductor) flourished. If you read Bob’s columns in EDN magazine then you know he could communicate. Probably he got better at it over time. Don’t make it your own responsibility to compensate for others’ ignorance. If they are reporting or managing technical projects then they need to do some homework too.

Hi, sorry only found this blog today, but felt I have to comment here…

I have a degree in Aerospace Engineering and am currently working as a “support engineer” for a small company making portable (battery powered) equipment. The part of my job I enjoy the most is training the customer in the use of the equipment. This involves explaining the (admittedly simple) equipment to people who don’t typically have English as their first language. I try to talk to them as I would talk to a 10-11 year old – short words, short sentences, massive over-simplification. If they understand, they ask more questions and I can develop the answers. This means that I can judge their English level and their technical understanding at the same time and adjust the courses accordingly. (When doing the layperson-technical “translation”, if you start too difficult, very few people will ever admit to not understanding you, but if you start too simple, the layperson gets the chance to “show off” by demonstrating they have better knowledge/understanding than you gave them credit for….!!) I have never yet been criticised for this approach, and on a number of occasions have been complimented on it, maybe it could work for you?

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