Attorneys and medical doctors train to interact with the public. Why not engineers?
By Rosemarie D. Wesson
Recently I was at an event where someone asked my job responsibilities as a program director at the National Science Foundation. In my usual engineer’s lingo, I replied that I manage the Chemical and Biological Separations Program and provide funding for fundamental research in the area of Separations.
As the questioner’s eyes glazed over, I knew I needed to regroup.
I recalled previous discussions about being able to communicate the details of an idea or one’s profession in the time span of an elevator ride, i.e., developing an “elevator speech.” If you can spark someone’s interest in 30 seconds, the span of a typical elevator ride, then the conversation may continue.
I then said the program I manage funds universities to perform research in areas such as removing impurities from water and separating DNA from blood. I looked into my questioner’s eyes and saw a glimmer of recognition. I continued and said that one researcher in particular was investigating how to use natural cactus “sap” to provide clean drinking water in rural areas. At this point the individual was able to relate to the description and began to ask questions regarding the research.
For the future’s sake, it’s important we make the most of every opportunity to convey the difference engineering makes in people’s lives. This means learning to speak concisely to maximize that next elevator ride or holiday party.
Some scientists and engineers have discovered and mastered this technique. I’m sure you can think of professors or colleagues who appear to have a natural ability to relate to the general public. But not everyone is a natural Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson. In fact, neither are they. It takes practice.
Scientists and engineers are trained in technical writing for professional journals. We receive accolades for the number of papers and the journals in which these papers are published. We are taught to make comprehensive but concise technical presentations to our peers. We become experts at “preaching to the choir.” However, how often are we trained to write for or speak to the general public? How many times have we observed a renowned scientist or engineer and felt uncomfortable with how he or she interacted with the general public? How difficult is it to explain our profession to our neighbors?
Imagine if rather than referring to you as “some kind of engineer,” your neighbor said you were a chemical engineer responsible for replacing glass baby bottles with safe, unbreakable plastic alternatives. Or that you were a mechanical engineer responsible for developing electric vehicles.
This is where discovering an elevator speech detailing your job comes in.
For engineers and scientists, training to communicate with the public is as important as any other type of training. Attorneys and medical doctors are trained to do so. Why not engineers? How often have we visited a physician and found him or her unable to tell us in layman’s terms the reason for our ailments? I suspect rarely. If an attorney cannot speak directly to his or her client in language that the client understands, the attorney will not be successful.
Training of engineers to learn to relate to the general public and to discover elevator speeches should be a part of the undergraduate and graduate student experience. Within existing courses, faculty could encourage not only the mastery of technical writing and presentation skills but also the incorporation of everyday communication skills appropriate for the general public.
For those of us no longer in school, there are other resources out there. The National Academy of Engineering has free, research-based advice in Messaging for Engineering. The American Association for the Advancement of Science offers an online tool kit for engineers and scientists.* The Web is full of materials and opportunities like this.
So, tell me. What’s your elevator speech?
Rosemarie D. Wesson, Ph.D., P.E., is a program director in the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Engineering and an adjunct professor of chemical engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park.