Envelope #14: How to get your point or idea across to “non-engineers”

Good morning! This is Back of the Envelope – a weekly newsletter to help you sharpen your structural engineering chops in 5 minutes or less.

In today’s email, I am going to share three frameworks on ‘how to get your point or idea across to non-technical key stakeholders’ (e.g., architects or owners).

I learned these recently from Episode 56 of the Structural Engineering Podcast (which I highly recommend checking out – hosts Max and Zach are both practicing structural engineers; they do a fantastic job dissecting various aspects of the profession on each episode).

In Episode 56, they interviewed a communication expert, Melissa Marshall (whose mission is to help level up the way scientists and engineers communicate with decision-making stakeholders).

Here are the three main frameworks:

1/ Move from “speaker-center” to “audience center”

2/ Filtering the technical details

3/ Tell the “so what”

Let’s dive in!

(Estimated read time = 3 minutes and 26 seconds)

Why is “getting your point across” important?

First of all, you might be wondering – why is this important?

Because if we don’t do this right…

  • We risk clients not taking the appropriate or necessary actions

  • We risk not being able to justify our fees

  • We risk being undervalued by our clients

For example, say that you are asked to check out an old and potentially seismically deficient building. After briefly studying the structure, you decided that the best course of action is to conduct a formal seismic evaluation by following ASCE 41.

But if you can’t communicate and get your point across on why that’s needed, the client will have a hard time deciding whether they should follow through.

Or, if they do go through with the evaluation, they might not think your effort is worth the money.

On the other hand, if you can communicate this well, they will be more than happy to pay the appropriate fees. They will do so because they know that it is in their best interest to find out how safe their building is (and if unsafe, what can they do about it).

With that said, here are the frameworks.

Framework #1: move from speaker-center to audience-center

Being a “speaker-centered speaker” is our default mode. We tend to talk as if we are talking to a copy of ourselves or someone like us.

The better approach is to move to become an “audience-centered speaker.”

Basically, as you present your solution or proposal or whatever, ask yourself constantly: “what is important to my audience, and what makes sense to them.”

In other words: “of all the things I’ve done or will be doing, what matters to the person I am talking to?”

For example, say that you’ll be doing a dynamic analysis with diaphragms modeled as semi-rigid, and you are trying to justify the higher fee.

In this case, what matters to the client? Is it the potential construction cost savings? Accuracy? Easier to get through certain plan checks?

Whatever it is, try to figure out why or what matters to them… which leads to the 2nd framework.

Framework #2: filtering the technical details

Sometimes we get carried away talking about the technical details, and we lose track of whether the listener can comprehend.

Then by the end of our “rambling,” we asked if there were any questions – and the answers were usually “no.”

According to Melissa, “Typically, when there aren’t any questions, it doesn’t mean you are incredibly thorough. It actually means that people don’t understand what you said.” 😢

For example, when discussing your proposal/scope, if you started talking about the definition of a flexible diaphragm and the average drift etc., you can see how their eyes may start to glaze over.

So the key is to filter out some technical jargon and narrow it down to only things you think are important for your audience.

Framework #3: tell the “so what”

Lastly, Melissa recommends that we shall be “relentless on relevance.” In other words, tell them the “so what” and “why this matters.”

A typical communicator would say: “This is what we found, and this is what we are suggesting.”

A great communicator: “This is what we found, and this is what we are suggesting, AND here is why it matters.

We often miss the last part because we don’t want to feel we are talking down to the person by making something obvious. Meanwhile, the person is unsure whether they understand what we are implying. And then, the meeting ends without a clear direction or next step.

For example, say that you’ve completed a seismic evaluation of an old building and have discovered several deficiencies. You presented your findings to the owner but didn’t elaborate on “why it matters.”

The owner is then left not really sure whether he needs to do something about it or not.

So to recap:

1/ Move from “speaker-center” to “audience center”

2/ Filtering the technical details

3/ Tell the “so what”

And that’s it for now. (By the way, there are other related nuggets in the episode that I highly recommend checking out)

Let me know what you think of the framework and I'd be interested to hear any related personal experience/examples if you have any.

Alrighty, enjoy the rest of your week!

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