There was a time when engineers could work within companies and have minimal (or even bad) communication skills. While it is not necessarily important for engineers to become great public speakers or authors, it is increasingly important for them to possess effective communication skills. Here's why.
Engineers Need to Sell
Engineers do not necessarily need to become card-carrying sales people, however, they do need to be able to sell their ideas. In interactive discussions with technical and management team members, or even with clients, it is necessary to present your story well. Doing so helps convince others of the merit of your "case," and furthermore, builds confidence in your perspective as a professional. It is about relationship building; an engineer who can prepare and deliver a clear, concise, and believable message will come across well.
Engineers Need to Capture User and Client Insights for Specification Documents
Often in the aerospace and government contracting worlds, product requirements and needs are clearly, and often completely, defined in specifications and requirements documents. In the commercial, industrial, and consumer product worlds, this is often not the case, and engineers need to alone or with a diverse team, meet with prospective or current clients to extract the opportunities and needs. In such situations, engineers will often be communicating with others who do not share their perspective and technical competence. Extracting information requires good listening skills and the ability to translate what is heard into technical requirements.
Engineers Need to Create Clear Written Content
Engineers must craft clear, concise written documents, emails, and presentation materials to be effective at their jobs. Be careful not to use jargon and technical terminology, especially if the receiver of the information is not a technically oriented person. The engineer needs to step into the mindset of the audience/readers and write in a form that gets to the point quickly and speaks in a language that is readily understood by the audience.
Engineers Need to Use the Best Method of Communication -- from "Slack" to "Face to Face"
A common stereotype of engineers is that they do not like to communicate and prefer to sit at their desks and just do their work, without human interaction. If any part of this stereotype is true, then the engineer must be careful to use appropriate forms of communication for the situation. There are plenty of options for electronic communication -- from texting to Slack to email and many other social media forms. However, when dealing with sensitive information or when there is a chance of misinterpretation, then the best form of communication is a face-to-face discussion. The best way to deliver a hard-to-understand or painful message is to do it face-to-face or via phone/video conference. If there is any reluctance to tell the story face-to-face, avoid retreating into electronic forms where the intent can be easily misconstrued or delivered from a protected distance. The harder the message is to deliver, the more likely it needs to be delivered in person. In so doing, the messaging is less likely to include impersonal or emotional messages and instead, mutual understanding can be enhanced by body language and voice intonation.
Engineers Need to Present in Front of Groups
As an engineer advances, either in-line or into management, it will increasingly be important to them to be able to present ideas in front of an audience. Often, engineers have difficulty with such venues. Anxiety and tension are natural. There are educational opportunities to help build presentation skills (this is a broad enough subject for another day). This being said, the only way to get more comfortable with presenting in front of audiences is to do it, and as often as possible. With practice, the anxiety may not disappear but certainly can become manageable.
Another tip for these sorts of presentations is to speak in a language that can be well understood and avoid using technical jargon or assuming a high level of technical competence -- and your presentation will be better received by the audience.
In conclusion, it is important in the course of an engineer's career to develop effective communications skills. Even if an engineer remains in an advanced, individual contributing role, it is necessary to know how and what to communicate and to be able to astutely choose the right means of communication. While these skills may not be natural to most engineers, they are skills that can be learned. It may be true that few of us will become the great orators of the world but with practice and attention, engineers can improve their communication skills.
Mitch Maiman is the president and co-founder of Intelligent Product Solutions (IPS), building on a vision of delivering a new model for software and hardware product development that integrates the full spectrum of design and engineering disciplines as a single-source solution.