There is a division in society, between those with technical knowledge and those without. Engineers spend much of their time communicating with one another, often using technical shorthand and taking for granted a mutual understanding of basic principles, which creates a barrier between themselves and the wider public.
This leads to unwelcome consequences. In the UK particularly, the value of engineering as a means of wealth creation has been persistently underestimated; the contribution made by technology to everyday life, convenience and living standards is equally overlooked. Faced with huge global challenges, such as climate change and population growth, the world’s governments, and the public who elect them, would be better equipped to choose appropriate action if the available options were presented more clearly.
Engineers have been saying for years that vehicle emissions legislation was too divorced from reality but, as professionals, have wearily knuckled down to the job of ensuring their products complied with the required standards. Suddenly the public has awoken to the discrepancy and been shocked to discover that real world emissions are so much worse than artificial test figures, and feels the government has been misleading voters about its environmental achievements. Leaving aside the VW scandal, there is a wider public perception, however unjustified, that engineers have been complicit in hiding the true figures.
Even in business, the failure of general management to grasp the significance of complex arguments put by company engineers sometimes leads to non-optimal, or just plain wrong, decisions about technical strategy or investment. How does a non-specialist company director judge whether his staff just want the ‘latest toys to play with’ or are requesting tools that would provide a key competitive advantage?
Good technical communication could have helped in all these cases. Unfortunately, the best engineers are usually too busy engineering to explain everything in simple terms to an outsider, and the best writers often have insufficient technical knowledge to adequately distil the salient points from a complex technical briefing.
The skilled technical writer can act like a prism, converging the disparate threads of a complicated technical description into a focused message, readily understood by a non-technical audience. One of the best examples of this is the time-worn phrase ‘suck, squeeze, bang, blow’ used to succinctly describe the intricacies of the four-stroke combustion cycle.
Effective communication resonates with the target audience. Too few writers combine the wide range of skills necessary to achieve this. Having gained the depth of understanding needed to appreciate the subject, the breadth of experience required to put it into context, and a vocabulary wide enough to convey the subtle nuances, they lack the humility to ‘dumb down’ their terminology to an appropriate level. The challenge is not to convey how clever they are, but to get the message across to the widest readership without ‘losing anything in the translation’.
Successful technical communication rarely brings plaudits, beyond the appreciation of an editor who can run the copy with minimal alteration. The irony of good technical writing is that the better you are, the less visible you become. When the reader says ‘this is easy to understand; anybody could write this stuff’ you know you’ve done your job well.