Life Lessons from an Engineer #7

An example of a bad graph, as voted by Business Insider as one of the 27 worst charts of all time.

Hang on a second what does that graph mean again? Why are your axes scaled that way? How did you measure this data?

As a graduate engineer these questions were all too common during my early meetings with senior staff. I recall working on a defence project (details redacted!!! :)) and presenting my findings to the chief engineer each week. In one particular meeting I presented measurements from several permanent magnets on a slide.

To me it was blindingly obvious what the data meant, as I had spent the past few days immersed in it. However, to others it was a minefield of data with unconventional colours and too many plots resulting in information overload!

After a few hours with the chief engineer I finally got my point across, at the expense of wasting triple the time and causing much confusion in the process. This was one of those turning points in my career where I sought to avoid this moment in the future. The root cause of the confusing slide was my inability to communicate clearly. Although I was pushed to deliver these results quickly, I needed to improve my dissemination of the results and present my findings more clearly.

This is a very common issue faced by people throughout their careers. I find it is particularly prevalent in technical jobs where we can often get lost in the detail. So in this article, I have summarised the strategies I use to communicate effectively. These apply to both technical and non-technical aspects of a job, and I can personally vouch for their efficacy.

Effective Strategies

  1. Clarify, clarify, clarify!

If you want to ensure you deliver the correct information, make sure you clarify up front what it is your customer wants. Your customer could be internal (i.e. your boss or colleague) or external (i.e. supplier or client). In both cases the same rule applies. My advice would be to get as much information as you can upfront, in terms of what is expected, in what format, and by what date etc. The usual who, what, why, when, where and how approach will work well here.

Remember no question is stupid! In fact most people will appreciate that you ask for clarification upfront to save time later on during the process. The benefit to you is that you spend less time being confused during the task as you are clear on what is expected from you.

2. Weekly Reports

Another tip I learnt along the way while working for a large company was the art of weekly reports. These were submitted each week before 12pm on a Friday to your line manager, who collated the inputs from his team to report to their line manager, and so on and so forth! The typical format was a SOFT report, with the acronym spelling Successes, Opportunities, Failures and Threats from the week.

I found this method useful, not only for updating my line manager on my weekly tasks, but also as a way for me to review my progress between each week. Again these initiatives work well when an organisation is already bought into it, but there is no harm in you introducing this in a new company or with a new manager. I am sure they will appreciate your idea and welcome it if you give them a trial for a few weeks.

3. Multiple Times & Multiple Ways

I once read a business book (the name escapes me now!) where the author spoke about his experience in leading teams, and how important it is to communicate multiple times and in multiple ways. He found this technique useful to ensure that everyone in his team understood the message, as it is surprising how often this isn’t the case, especially in larger multi-disciplinary teams.

I have used this technique a few times when I have lead smaller teams throughout my career and I have found it invaluable. A example that comes to mind is repeating a message about performance reviews, via email and in person throughout the week. Obviously it is important not to be too pedantic in repetition, as this may come across as badgering, but temper your response based on your knowledge of your team and the individuals within it.

4. Short reports

I started doing these when working for a start-up company in London to keep my colleagues up-to-date with R&D tasks. I chose a simple format, whereby I would write 2 pages as an interim report with the salient points, and a longer (more formal) report to close out a task. The interim reports served as useful fodder for meetings, and helped everyone to be on the same page from the beginning. In both cases, these frequent reports encouraged peer review, which is invaluable across the scientific community, and serves to encourage debate and constructive feedback.

5. Presentations

We have all suffered death by powerpoint, whether it was a company wide update, technical presentation or interview candidate. But there is another way I tell you!

Yes you can avoid this common problem! The aim is to deliver more value in your presentation, than the reader could otherwise glean from reading your slides after the event. If there is no difference then you have failed in your presentation!

I am sure that like me you have been on a presentation course or taken advice from others. But a few tips won’t hurt!

  1. Use images instead of text — this is easier to absorb and is less of a distraction for your audience. Text is useful for emphasising a point but should not read like a report on your slides

Take-Aways

Communication is vital to any business! As engineers and scientists we often overlook this simple fact and our message can get lost in translation or diluted through our communication medium. I definitely found this during my early career, and have adapted my own methods and strategies to overcome these pitfalls. In a world where remote working has lead to geographically disparate teams, it is vital now more than ever to ensure that we are communicating effectively.

I hope these tips prove useful for you. And I would be keen to hear your own in the comment section below! :)

Thanks for reading.

Take Care and Kind Regards,

Dipendra

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