Be understood -

Be understood


“BBC English please!” said a recent immigrant to the United States when confronted with some of our garbled American accents. If only there were such a phrase that applied to embedded systems programming jargon. Jim explains why it's worth your while to speak plain English, not tech-speak.

We've all been there. You call customer service because your TV or DVD player is busted. Or your car is making funny noises so you call the dealer. The service agent tells you something along the lines of, “the auxiliary framistan is out of alignment so we'll do a cold-check and give you the 2.47 and set out the dyno-tuner. Fifty bucks, please.” The $50 part is the only bit that makes any sense to most of us.

Okay, so the service technician knows more about the gadget and its problems than I do. Congratulations. But he's talking to me now, not a colleague steeped in the arcane jargon of his trade. He's talking to mortals, to customers, to normal people. As customers we shouldn't have to understand all of the terminology.

Yet how often are we guilty of the same thing? C'mon, haven't we all pulled some marketing dweeb's leg by spewing technical jargon at him? Haven't we all bluffed our way through interminable management meetings by describing, in profound detail, why our project is so technically elegant? And didn't we blame them for not understanding? Hey, if they don't have engineering degrees, heck with 'em.

When I was in high school (about the time the Earth was cooling) my English teacher taught us it is the speaker's responsibility to be heard. If you don't speak loudly enough, it's not your listener's fault. Speak up. Having a deaf family member reinforced this lesson; it's my own fault if I don't make sure I've been understood. The same lesson applies to writing or any communication. The writer/speaker has the burden of being understandable to his audience, not the other way around.

Most of us wouldn't travel to Zimbabwe, Japan, France, or fill-in-the-blank country and expect to be understood. We'd either study a bit of the language first or resign ourselves to hand signals and smiles.

Engineers, speak to your managers in a language they understand. Oftentimes, that's no problem because they're engineers, too. But if not, don't be condescending just because they're not engineers. How annoying is it when some bozo gives you gobbledygook that's no help at all?

If you're preparing for a big project review meeting—or worse, an investors' meeting—prepare ahead of time. Don't just throw together some existing PowerPoint slides and call it good. You and your staff should make a conscious effort to tell your story in a way your audience understands. It's not talking down to them. You wouldn't talk down to your brain surgeon just because she doesn't also have an advanced EE degree. (At least, you wouldn't do it more than once.) It's just a matter of different areas of expertise. Yeah, it's fun to tease the marketing pukes, but where does that get you? You feel good for an afternoon but then your project loses its funding because no one understood why it was actually useful. And remember, there's a difference between useful and cool.

Make yourself understood and you may soon find yourself invaluable within the company. Ninth century king Charlemagne said, “To know another language is to have a second soul.” Nobody's asking for a second language here. Just use the existing one(s) more flexibly.

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