I am the daughter of a trained mechanical engineer who has spent his entire career in the power generation industry. I am the wife of a trained computer and network engineer who has spent his working life on computers/networks and their related issues. I also work for a software company, spending my working day among programmers and hard-core techies. If there is one thing I know it is this: they have their own languages, and it’s not an easy language for the uninitiated to pick up.
Not only do they have their own languages, they have their own communication style. For instance, programmers have told me “We aren’t allowed to talk to the customers”, and I can’t say I fault the logic behind that prohibition. I learned very quickly that if you want a quick answer to a question, never go to a programmer; you’ll spend the next hour deep in the weeds trying to tease out an answer that may or may not be the answer to your question. Engineers as well have their own style, which I can describe as almost Vulcan-like. It’s precise, to the point, and squarely based in logic. The difference in communication does present a problem when you are dealing with end users, or with the general public.
Making what you do relevant to others outside of your field is no small act; it really requires an entirely different set of communication skills. Communications Professor Melissa Marshall gave a TED Talk in 2012 where she disclosed that Penn State had started offering communication classes specifically for engineers as an acknowledgement of the reality that engineers needed to learn how to communicate with non-engineers. In Talk Nerdy To Me, she was quick to point out that making what you do relevant to others is key.
I agree with Melissa that communication needs to improve between SME’s and everyone else, and I applaud her and others like her for addressing those issues with the engineers, scientists and other hard sciences to try and improve communication on that side. But that takes time…time which in some cases (for example climate change) we may not have.
That’s where translators like me come in. It is not easy to bridge the gap between the SMEs and the general public. A normal communications person cannot effectively translate if they don’t understand the hard science or hard technical side behind it. You must have the aptitude for both, and my decades of communicating with the public and with academics/SMEs puts me in the ideal position to bridge these gaps.
The ability to translate communication across these areas is an under-appreciated skill in the modern world. It is a skill that every employer wants according to their job postings, but a skill that is often not given the weight it deserves in the hiring process where hard technical skills are given more emphasis. That presents a communication challenge to people like me to make what we do relevant; luckily we are the perfect people for the job.