How to Write About Technical Topics Effectively

The idea for this post about how to write about technical topics effectively came from my podcast interview with Dr. Baruch Fischhoff, Howard Heinz University Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in both the Department of Social and Decision Sciences and the Department of Engineering and Public Policy (see episode 11 at http://scienceofsuccess.libsyn.com/podcast). In preparing for the interview, I read his paper titled “Non-persuasive Communication about Matters of Greatest Urgency: Climate Change” in which Dr. Fischhoff explains that when scientists succumb to the temptation of advocacy in their communication, this erodes their credibility (see https://www.cmu.edu/fischhoff/pdf). This post explores how scientists can produce written communications that are effective in producing desired outcomes.

When scientists succumb to the temptation of advocacy in their communication, this erodes their credibility.

Valerie Patrick

It is important for technical people to learn how to write about technical topics effectively to the public and in a way that does not erode their credibility. Technical people are in the business of developing new technology, making technical discoveries, and applying technical expertise to address challenges. These technical activities carry risks and rewards. Ineffective written communications about new technology and technical discoveries help to polarize the public. That is, when the written communication on a technical topic is ineffective, then the reader is left with trusting the scientists or not. Those lobbying against a new technology or technical discovery have become adept at harnessing fear to turn people against the new technology or technical discovery. Those who do not want to succumb to this “fear mongering” will do the research to test the often false accusations of those lobbying against the new technology or technical discovery. Going back to the topic of climate change, reports that chronicle the types of “doomsday” impacts that may result from the unchecked accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere are not working to mobilize the public to reduce the use of fossil fuels. This post explores why fear does not provide the basis for effective technical communication, why it takes a team to produce effective technical communication, and a recipe for effective technical communication.

The first topic is why fear does not provide the basis for effective technical communication. Admittedly, fear does work to get someone’s attention in the short-term because we have evolved to pay attention to things that threaten our immediate survival. However, our increased understanding of how fear works has led to the manipulation of fear in society. In his book, The Science of Fear (see http://www.goodreads.com/324210), Daniel Gardner writes the following: “There are three basic components at work: the brain, the media, and the many individuals and organizations with an interest in stoking fears. Wire these three components together in a loop and we have the circuitry of fear.” Gardner explains that fear resides in our unconscious brain that he calls “gut” and that we cannot turn off our unconscious brain. Gardner quotes Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences and Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, on why humans are so susceptible to fear: “People are not accustomed to thinking hard and are often content to trust a plausible judgment that quickly comes to mind.” The media and organizations have taken advantage of this human tendency to trust our gut. While gut is good for our survival, gut is not always right, especially when it comes to assessing risk. In his book, Social Intelligence (see http://www.danielgoleman.info/topics/social-intelligence/), Daniel Goleman refers to our unconscious brain as the “low road” and our conscious brain as the “high road.” Goleman explains that the tighter the grip of the “low road,” the more difficult it is to access the “high road” and bring reason to assess the cause of fear. Goleman also cites the research that shows how fear is the enemy to learning and creativity.

Fear is irrational by definition because its origin is in our unconscious, reptilian brain rather than in our conscious, thinking brain. Therefore, the use of fear as a basis for technical communication is counter-productive. In Fischhoff’s paper referenced above (see https://www.cmu.edu/pdf), Fischhoff explains that the norms of the scientific community include the identification of sources of uncertainty, the consideration of all data whether it supports the hypothesis or not, and the revision of hypotheses based on new findings. In contrast, when fear is used to persuade people, sources of uncertainty are not discussed and the focus is on selecting data that supports the case that is being made. The use of fear as a basis for technical communication, therefore, undermines the credibility of the scientist because the scientist is not following the norms needed to support the scientist’s role as an arbiter of truth. Fear may work in a technical communication to get people’s attention in the short-term; however, longer-term, when fact-checking identifies data left out, the credibility of scientists to be arbiters of truth is damaged. Scientists can choose to be effective communicators of risk by helping to shut down those who would manipulate the emotion of fear to their own ends and helping people live their life from a more realistic perspective so they can make truly informed choices.

Fear may work in a technical communication to get people’s attention in the short-term; however, longer-term, when fact-checking identifies data left out, the credibility of scientists to be arbiters of truth is damaged.

Valerie Patrick

The second topic is why it takes a team to produce effective technical communication. When an author does not communicate what we need to know to make rational and informed choices, then the author has an agenda whether or not they are conscious of it. Rather than leaving it up to the reader to put the topic in perspective by asking good questions and doing the due diligence to seek answers, an author can choose to do this work for the readers. Now that would be an effective technical communication! In fact, Baruch Fischhoff describes effective technical communication as follows: “Effective science communications inform people about the benefits, risks, and other costs of their decisions, thereby allowing them to make sound choices” (see http://www.pnas.org/content). Technical people generally do not have the skills needed to produce effective technical communications on their own.

When an author does not communicate what we need to know to make rational and informed choices, then the author has an agenda whether or not they are conscious of it.

Valerie Patrick

Technical people generally feel that the public needs to be educated about their new technology, new technical discovery, or application of technology to address a challenge. However, science education is about the audience listening to the subject-matter expert while effective technical communication is about the subject-matter expert listening to the needs of the audience. Dr. Fischhoff writes about four human tendencies that get in the way of communicating effectively (see Fischhoff, B., “Communicating About the risks of Terrorism,” American Psychologist, 2011, Vol. 66, pp. 520-531). One is the tendency to believe that we communicate better than we actually do in terms of getting our intended message across. A second is unknowingly lacking empathy for others’ situations and information needs. A third is misinterpreting historical events, also known as hindsight bias. Hindsight bias is the tendency to see an event that has already occurred as more predictable than it actually was and Dr. Fischhoff has done an elegant set of experiments to demonstrate this tendency (Fischhoff, B., “Hindsight ≠ Foresight: The Effect of Outcome Knowledge on Judgement Under Uncertainty,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 1975, Vol. 1, pp. 288-299). The fourth tendency is to underestimate the public’s ability to learn and make decisions. All four of these tendencies get in the way of technical people being willing to invest up-front time to understand the types of decisions their audience needs to make and the accompanying information they need in order to assess benefits, risks, and costs to make informed decisions.

The good news is there is help available for technical people to overcome these natural tendencies to do this type of up-front assessment. For example, decision scientists are trained in how to determine the types of decisions that people need to make relevant to a given topic and how to determine the information people need to assess benefits, risks, and costs pertaining to the topic. In addition, behavioral scientists are trained in the factors that influence human behavior in response to different types of communications and actions. Behavioral scientists understand what types of human behavior are predictable and what types of human behavior are not predictable. For the types of behaviors that are not predictable, tactics to achieve desired outcomes need to be tested to assess if the desired outcome will be produced. Finally, communication specialists understand how the style of writing and content impacts the likelihood that the communication will be read by the targeted audience(s). This means that a technical person is much more likely to produce effective technical communications by working with experts in decision science, behavioral science, and communications.

The third topic is the recipe for effective technical communication. Dr. Fischhoff describes this recipe as follows (see http://www.pnas.org/content): “scientifically sound science communication demands expertise from multiple disciplines, including (a) subject matter scientists, to get the facts right; (b) decision scientists, to identify the right facts, so that they are not missed or buried; (c) social and behavioral scientists, to formulate and evaluate communications, and (d) communication practitioners, to create trusted channels among the parties.” One ingredient missing from this recipe that Dr. Fischhoff mentioned in the podcast show is the need for a leader to insure all perspectives are heard and that all perspectives weigh in to all revisions of the document to preserve the integrity of content from all perspectives. By using a team for an important technical communication, the technical person avoids the tendency of exaggerating the ability to communicate effectively to others which is also known as the curse of knowledge. The curse of knowledge is the idea that the more knowledge you have on a topic, the more difficult it is for you to communicate effectively about that topic to the less knowledgeable. In fact, a team of the relevant technical experts, decision scientist, relevant behavioral experts, and a communication specialist will help purge the curse of knowledge across the team members. Let’s stop fooling ourselves into believing we can find the right written words to convince people of action needed to address technical challenges. When public action is urgently needed to address a technical challenge, then invest in the team approach needed to create effective written technical communications for the public.

Contact Fulcrum Connection LLC if you need support on the team approach to effective technical communications (valerie.patrick@fulcrumconnection.com or 412-742-9675; ask about our first-time client offer.) Fulcrum Connection LLC provides training, coaching, and professional facilitation services using structured and proven processes and tools to help technical business professionals take novel approaches to strategy development, innovation, and problem solving. Fulcrum’s expertise is the people engagement part of technical project management.

Sign up for Fulcrum Connection’s Quadrant II newsletter to receive a free white paper on five ways to improve creativity for innovation (https://fulcrumconnection.com) and stay up-to-date on Fulcrum Connection’s blog posts, podcasts, new product offerings, and new service offerings. Plus, get a copy of findings from a recent social skills survey by adding your input here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/r/PWRZ6GX. You can also get added insights on social skills for the workplace by listening to the Science of Success Podcast on i-Tunes (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast) or Stitcher Radio and leave a review. To learn more, please contact Valerie Patrick at Fulcrum Connection LLC (412-742-9675 or valerie.patrick@fulcrumconnection.com).

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