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No. 2735:
Technical Communication

Today, bringing ideas to life. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Great ideas speak for themselves. Or do they? If you build a better mousetrap, will the world beat a path to your door? Inventors will quickly tell you there's a lot more to success than having a good idea. It's necessary to communicate why it's a good idea.

That's sometimes difficult in highly technical disciplines, and understandably so. Physicist Richard Feynman, a very good communicator, once commented that 'If I could explain [my work in quantum electrodynamics] to the average person, I wouldn't have been worth the Nobel Prize.' That's okay for physicists. But when the technical world collides with the business world, the time honored answer 'because' doesn't cut it. Employers are quick to point out that one of the most important skills they look for in technical people is the ability to communicate. Many would say it's the most important skill, and one of the hardest to find.

Why is communication so hard for so many technical people, especially those just out of school? For one thing, a technical education requires immersion in all things technical. There's a lot to learn and only so much time to learn it. Surrounded by like-minded individuals, it's easy for students to embrace the notion that everyone thinks the same way they do.

retro black and white picture of students

Technical people are trained to be precise. When asked, 'Will this solution work?' by a manager, it's natural to provide a detailed examination of all possibilities. Sometimes that's absolutely appropriate. But if the question is 'Will this device sharpen my pencil?' a simple yes or no is the correct response, even though it's not rigorous. That's a difficult lesson for technical students to learn.

retro balck and white picture of lab students

To this day, I continually fight qualifying my statements. Should I say, 'that's a difficult lesson,' straight and to the point, or should I say, 'that's frequently a difficult lesson,' more precise but more verbose. Adding qualifiers to every statement is annoying. Well, most of the time. For most people. When it's not done with finesse.

Sadly, some technical people view imprecision as a sign of weakness, diminishing their reputation in the eyes of their peers. Technical people can't ignore the decorum of their trade any more than journalists, lawyers, and other professionals can ignore their own unwritten rules. Still, the ability to communicate beyond a tight-knit circle is especially important for the technically trained in an increasingly technical world.

Breaking the chains of technical jargon can be a challenge. That's why universities strive to train fully rounded students. Great ideas don't always speak for themselves. They count on us to speak for them. 

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

For a related episode, see RHETORIC.

The quotation from Richard Feynman was taken from the Web site: Accessed August 9, 2011.

All pictures are from the Flickr Website and were made publically available by the Duke University Yearbook.

This episode was first aired on August 11th, 2011