Don’t be such an Engineer?

I just finished reading Dr. Randy Olson’s Don’t be Such a Scientist.  It is a good read and I think one that most scientists and engineers need to read, but I am not sure how to use it.

Olson’s underlying premise is that communicating science needs more than accurate facts dispensed in a confused flurry of powerpoint slides or in a formulaic technical paper.  Rather that scientists need to take a page from Hollywood’s book and appeal more to the heart or gut of their audience.  He advocates a mantra of arouse and fulfill, meaning that you need to first interest your audience and then fulfill that interest with your information.

The issue is the way scientists and engineers think makes it difficult for them to do the arousal bit.  This leads to his main topics: Don’t be so cerebral; Don’t be so liberal minded, Don’t be such a poor storyteller; Don’t be so unlikable; and Be the voice of Science.  These chapters are filled with good observations from his life that is half in the academic world and half in the world of film making in Hollywood.  His anecdotes are illustrative and interesting, and many of the examples he gives from science gatherings are easily seen also at many engineering conferences I have attended: presentations that are unfocused, boring, and confusing.  Yet they possess good, accurate, and important information.  But what use is that if nobody is listening or remembering what was said?

As a film maker, Olson has come to conclusions about presenting science to the populace and he supports them by looking at films like An Inconvenient Truth and To Hot Not to Handle, another global warming film by the same producer, but one that was made with more substance than style, rather than Truth which was more style than substance.  Guess which made more money, affected the public more, and got Gore a Nobel?

I haven’t seen Olson’s movies, Flock of Dodos and Sizzle, but it is interesting to read about him making them and finally understanding that he needed to drop the scientist’s voice inside him (to some extent) and instead go for the heart and gut.  Naturally the scientists hated his Sizzle, but by all accounts most other people liked it.

I think the issue here is balance, and Olson talks about it when he advocates scientists being bilingual; one voice for the science audience, one for the public.  The trouble I see here is that he assumes that scientists and engineers are capable of learning that second language.  I don’t think most of us are.  I think that is why there aren’t many Carl Sagans or Neil Degrasse Tysons.  It is rare to be a good scientist or engineer AND a great communicator to the public.  The book is good at pointing out why scientists aren’t all that successful in communicating and stirring up interest in the public, but I don’t think it is very realistic in the idea that those scientists can change.

Case in point, in a recent interview by Skepticality, Olson himself seemed to slip into the scientist-speak and went on and on until my interest waned.  I think most of us in the technical world are a bit dyed in the wool and it is hard for us to learn to speak to people’s hearts or guts.  It is certainly hard for us to learn to do it well.  It wasn’t answered in the interview, but I think Swoopy’s comment about finding good communicators and teaching them science has merit.  At least to help out in the communication of science.

As for us engineers, I think it would be good to take some of Olson’s suggestions on the road and stir things up.  We should be telling good stories about our fields to help support the technical information.  We should think about other media and how to use it to get our message across.  And we should realize that we are humans and we need to lighten up a little bit.

But, of course, we still need to be technically right, complete, and valid.  Tough balance?

What do you think?


3 thoughts on “Don’t be such an Engineer?”

  1. It’s nice to see that there are other engineers out there who are willing to admit our profession’s communication shortcomings. I completely agree with you. I can’t tell you how many talks I have been to that, while potentially useful, are the most boring thing to watch….. ever. And if it is boring to me, someone who works in the field, I can’t imagine how boring it is to engineers in other fields and lay-people in general.

    One of the reasons I think I appreciate the engineer communication issue is because I did a lot of lab tours and presentations to high school and even elementary students while doing my Ph.D. You simply can’t promote engineering to kids with PowerPoint slides and equations. And you can’t talk down to them either….. then they just start tuning you out. I think engineers should make more of a personal choice to communicate with the public in general and with kids specifically. Practice makes perfect.

    During my undergrad I took courses in technical communication – but never in actual communication… and I assume that is the case for most engineers. I am a firm believer that we as a profession need to receive more communication training. But then, like you said, I am not sure how well people who gravitate to engineering will assimilate that knowledge.


    1. Thanks for your comment. I wish there was some solution or even a strategy towards a solution. In my organization the poor communication habits are fostered through endless powerpoint presentations and I watch as young engineers either fold and follow suit, or go elsewhere to do real engineering. Wish I could break that pattern.


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