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Structural Solutions: Nuggets of Wisdom for Engineers Young and Old, Part 2: Communication Is Key

Douglas Fitzpatrick on August 7, 2017 - in Articles, Column

In my previous column, I mentioned the Direct Connect session for students that happens each year at the NASCC conference. My company has attended the session for several years now; not for recruiting necessarily, but to share our small-firm perspective. In this issue, I’ll continue my list of sage advice for students with hopes of providing a useful nugget or two that helps with readers’ careers.

The No. 1 Quality to Master

Although I didn’t start with this topic last issue, communication unequivocally ranks at the top of my list of qualities to master. The communication world is very different today from when I started engineering. Back then, it was an unwritten rule (at least at our house) that you didn’t call anyone before 10 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m., unless there was an emergency.

Today, people communicate constantly, all hours of the day or night—you can see it on the timestamps of their posts. Some of the content is important; most of it is useless and trivial. Some of it is long-winded; most of it is short—Twitter being a perfect example. And to generate that volume of chatter, we’ve resorted to shortcuts, abbreviations and emoticons. To say as much as you can, you have to dumb it down to the fewest number of characters possible.

Engineering Is Exacting

Those of us in engineering, however, have to live in a different world. Our business is an exacting one, and shortcuts and abbreviations don’t have a place in the way we talk with our clients, write reports, and convey information on our drawings. The information we share has very specific meaning and must be written or spoken in a way that’s accurate and clear to the listener, with no room for misinterpretation.

One way to accomplish clear communication is to try to eliminate the use of vague terms (e.g., “that,” “them,” “it,” “her,” “he,” etc.), so listeners or readers are less likely to become confused, particularly in a lengthy or complicated story. If you’re listening to someone and find yourself confused and not following who did what, you can usually trace it back to the misuse of vague words.

Most of the information we have to share on a daily basis is technical and complex. It’s important that our audience understand what we’re actually trying to say without having to concentrate on the delivery. Use of vague words is confusing and runs the risk of misunderstood information. We need to make it easy for readers and listeners to focus on the technical part of the discussion. If that means “over using” real names or locations, then that’s what we need to do to make sure our point is clear. There’s no worse lie than a truth misunderstood by those who hear it.

Sweat the Details

Our communication also needs to be grammatically correct. Many times, when something happens is just as important as what happens. If we can’t communicate time correctly (verb tenses, in particular), it’s easy for listeners to misinterpret the sequence of events. At the very least, it’s confusing; at worst, it changes the meaning of the communication.

Spell check, spell check, spell check! Almost all the software we use today has a spell checker—there isn’t any excuse to send something out with a spelling mistake, and it’s a pet peeve of mine in our office. Personally, I think it reflects negatively on us when drawings or narratives leave the office with spelling mistakes. Put yourself in the shoes of the client: if these guys can’t even spell correctly, what makes me think they can do the engineering correctly?

Finally, communication needs to be concise. That’s typically not a problem with engineers, but we still need to keep it in mind. No one wants to hear about a technical issue in the form of a War and Peace novel. We don’t need to embellish with a lot of colorful adjectives or flowery descriptions. In the words of Detective Joe Friday from Dragnet: “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Key Communication Skills

Be grammatically correct

• Eliminate ambiguous words

• Spell check

• Be concise

• Work at it

Communication isn’t limited to written form; we routinely have to discuss structural problems or opportunities with our clients. From time to time, you may have to make a “presentation” to peers. Each of these events requires effective communication skills.

Developing strong communication skills typically doesn’t come easily to engineers. However, being an engineer isn’t an excuse for poor communication. It takes work to master communication skills as well as a continual commitment to getting it right. Believe it or not, I have found reading to be a great way to improve my communication skills.

Good communication is an ever-improving process. Look back through your written communication one more time before sending, with the ear of the recipient in mind. Be sure that the order of events is concise, and the reader or listener can clearly tell who is involved every step of the way. If you have the time, compose a rough draft and then come back to it later; even as early as the next morning. Rereading with a “fresh set of eyes” can greatly help with delivery.

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About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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