Where art thou, writers?

Oct 21, 2019

Sadly, fewer and fewer of us are interested in developing writing, speaking, or other communication skills as a significant professional goal.

You may not be thinking much of it at the moment, but what you and I are doing right now is rather atypical. I’m a scientist who’s writing from scratch – and much more impressively, you’re taking the time to read about a topic that isn’t strictly technical in content. I point this out only because those of us in the professional practice of science and engineering are not exactly known for our wellspring of communication skills. And let’s face it, we’ve chosen to pursue fields which involve the analysis of problems that aren’t easily communicated in common narrative prose.

Unfortunately, this often leaves us in neglect of three very important audiences: our clients, the related industries with which we must collaborate, and the public in general. To all of these, we must be able to show the value in what we do, or we risk lessening our impact toward the greater good. Despite the emergence of multiple new technologies which have turned the nature of communications on its head over the past 20 years, there is still an absolute need for someone, somewhere, to make sense of what we do and put it down in writing for others to understand.

Sadly, fewer and fewer of us are interested in developing writing, speaking, or other communication skills as a significant professional goal.

At the university level, the lack of focus on communications is already plainly evident. Most science and engineering graduates report having had little to no writing experience at all in college. Perhaps most distressingly, many will cite their lack of interest in communications as one of the reasons they chose their field of study. But this is precisely the opposite of what our profession needs. Given the increasing complexity of our disciplines, we require professionals who can face an audience and clearly relate the need for technical solutions to our society’s greatest challenges. If those people fail to appear, we need not ponder such a scenario for too long to see its potential danger. So, how can we as AEC firm owners, managers, and mentors work to correct this?

  • Find strengths and adapt. Your top field technician who can’t write a coherent sentence at age 30 isn’t going to become a gifted author anytime soon, so don’t kill yourself trying. Instead, find how he or she can shine in another way. Perhaps they’re effective verbally in front of a crowd, or in smaller networking environments where they can discuss project concepts comfortably. Even social media in its various forms can prove a productive environment for those who might describe themselves as communication-challenged.
  • Encourage originality. We all tend to rely heavily on templates and boilerplate, and for good reason. They wrap our methods and findings into efficient, consistent deliverables. However, adhering strictly to boilerplate over time risks stifling the development of critical analytical writing skills. To counteract this “template syndrome,” find opportunities in which your staff can be challenged to explain difficult concepts through narrative or even graphical means. Even if it’s just a low-stress internal discussion, you may discover some unexpected natural talents.
  • Reading is still fundamental. Remember how I congratulated you at the onset for reading this article? OK, that was cheap. But it had a point: professionals who continue to read and remain willing to learn are, unsurprisingly, the best communicators. They appreciate and understand the value of new and useful information, and tend to acquire more advanced skills, such as presentation sequence and narrative simplification, that make our disciplines palatable to others.
  • Keep it personal. There is no more important means of stewardship in our industry than the ability to engage with a stakeholder and conduct a professional, productive conversation. How are you cultivating this skill in your staff? Something as simple as a weekly project progress report to their peers can develop this ability in a junior staffer. Low-stakes client interactions, such as phone calls in which good news is to be offered, can be delegated to employees who need practice in conveying technical concepts to a non-technical person.

Although the means will continue to evolve, the need for effective communicators in the AEC industries will remain of utmost importance, and we truly must meet this challenge. Those that can make meaningful connections, turn heads, and inspire audiences will emerge as the successful leaders of our fields for generations to come.

David Coyne is a principal and the COO of Liberty Environmental, Inc., which provides environmental consulting and engineering services to clients across the United States. Coyne can be reached at dcoyne@libertyenviro.com.

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