The language of non-engineers

July 7, 2009


AKA: Answer the question!

The following was submitted by a prominent radio engineer who asked that his name be withheld.


I recently posed a question to a collected group of broadcast engineers; a skilled and knowledgeable group of broadcast engineers. The question was a simple yes/no type asking about a personal preference. The answers I got simply floored me. I discovered that this was a microcosm of how we communicate and, by extension shape the way engineers are perceived. How we, as process-oriented, technical people make it difficult on ourselves to work within a goal-oriented world.

One of the biggest complaints I hear from broadcast engineers is that their non-engineering co-workers either don't understand, don't listen, don't consult them, or just don't communicate with the engineering staff at all. Hearing the answers I got to a very simple question it became evident why, as a group, we may have no choice but to expect that treatment. At least until we learn to communicate better. We often invite the bad treatment simply through the way we communicate.

The question I asked was similar to this: "Would you like it if I gave you a piece of candy?" I needed a simple yes/no answer reflecting a personal preference. Nothing else. Instead of a "Yes" or "No, thank you" here are the type of answers I got:

  • "Candy is full of sugar"
  • "Candy tastes good"
  • "I don't want candy if it means you will take away my crackers"
  • "Candy was invented by the ancient Egyptians"
  • "I once had a piece of candy that I did not like. You're insensitive for offering it to me.
  • "I don't eat it and think no one else should either"
  • "I heard that people put razor blades in candy"
  • "I used to meet my friends at the local dry goods emporium where the proprietor would give us all a piece of candy"
  • "The Guilderese word for candy is the same as their word for cow dung"
  • "By giving away candy you might get more friends."
  • "I only like one type of candy. If you don't have that kind you are not a nice person."
  • "Candy causes your teeth to fall out"
  • "Candy is made by mixing sugar with artificial sweeteners and other ingredients"
  • "I had a girlfriend once named Candy"
  • "I live on Candy Lane"
  • "I want Candy" was done by both The Strangeloves and Bow Wow Wow"
  • "Candy makes you fat. Are you saying I'm fat?"
  • "My neighborhood decorates for Christmas every year with candy canes"
  • "How did much the candy cost you?"
  • "My doctor gives me candy after she gives me a shot"
  • "I have a stash of candy in my desk drawer"
  • "Where did you buy the candy?"
  • "There is no word in Cherokee for Candy"
  • "If eat candy I WILL DIE because I'm a diabetic! Shame on YOU!"
  • "Candy used to cost a nickel"
  • "Medicine sometimes tastes like candy"
  • "Candy in literature is a metaphor for evil"
  • "The gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel, a Grimm Brothers fairy tale from the mid 19th century and was one of several European tales in which children outwit an ogre into whose hands they have fallen, was covered with candy."
  • "Candy might be expensive, so if it will ultimately cause me to give you more money, I do not support the idea, however if on balance you can get the candy for free then I will grudgingly accept a piece."
  • "There was a song by 10,000 Maniacs called Candy Everybody Wants"
  • "A German word for candy is Suessigkeiten"

    Again; I needed a simple yes/no answer reflecting a personal preference. I either had already answered the issues of cost, supply, distribution or would address the issues in turn. I simply wanted to know if everyone wanted candy.

    Notice that in all these responses, not one really answered the question? No one told me what HE wanted...by answering a simple YES or NO. Those few answers that might have exhibited a preference required interpretation to derive the answer: You said "Candy Tastes Good"...so I guess that means "Yes, thank you."



  • AKA: Answer the question!

    This sort of communication may not seem out of the ordinary for us, but it certainly alienates those we support and work with. People learn that they cannot expect answers from us. That we more often don't answer the question and, even worse, begin delving into unrelated topics or, worse yet, intrude upon issues that are not our concern. I'm sure you've all heard "When I ask him for the time, he tells me how to build a clock." Well that's what we generally do. That's maddening.

    It's also dangerous. Imagine being on trial and speaking for the defense was a broadcast engineer:

    Prosecutor: Did you see the defendant, George steal a TV on January 16?

    Broadcast Engineer: I was fishing in my boat on January 16, 2008 but I was home on January 16, 2007. I was parasailing in the Bahamas January 16, 2006. George took lots of televisions when he was young. My birthday is January 17 and last year he gave me a great flat-screen TV as a present.

    Prosecutor: Your honor, the prosecution rests.

    Picture the defense attorney with his head in his hands...His case completely lost. The chance of providing a vigorous defense? Gone. If guilty, the hope of engendering jury sympathy and getting sentenced to treatment, not prison? Out the window. All because of someone who, "in the interest of being helpful" not only didn't answer the question, provided irrelevant, ruinous information, and completely flushed the defense's case. There's not a self-respecting defense attorney who would put such a person on the stand....would you want this sort of person speaking on your behalf if you stood accused? This is often the way we communicate to colleagues.

    How about this:

    Radio Program Director: Can we get a remote shot from the gas station on 3rd and State?

    Broadcast Engineer: That location has very bad parking and no place to set up tables or traffic flow. It's not a good place for our audience because I usually don't hear our station on radios in the area. Most of the people in the area seem to like country music which is played by the competitors. We have a hard time getting electrical power for our inflatable and there's so much traffic the cars are basically stopped there during rush hour and can't get to see us.

    Radio Program Director (remembering why he hates to come back to the shop): Whooookay....But can we get a remote shot from the location?

    Broadcast Engineer (annoyed): Why would you want to do a remote shot from there? I just told you all the reasons it's a bad location.

    At what point did the broadcast engineer actually answer the question? Did he (she) ever? Or did he just start rendering an unsolicited opinion completely unrelated to engineering? The opinions on traffic flow, parking, electrical, etc. might be very valid...but they are completely unrelated to the question and basically outside the engineer's responsibility. Commenting on marketing, audience sampling, promotions, programming.

    How about if the conversation happened this way?

    Radio Program Director: Can we get a remote shot from the gas station on 3rd and State?

    Broadcast Engineer: Sure. We can make that shot. That location has some technical challenges. Tell me what you've got in mind.

    Radio Program Director (liking the chance to get someone else to support his idea): You know how traffic gets so snarled up there? I want to put one of the morning show there when people are stopped, give them some Dunkin Donuts coffee and get all those people to tune their stations to us... To give us a try. I want the morning show to put some of the drivers on the air and see if we can get people behind fixing that intersection, too.

    Broadcast Engineer (thinking how this could be done): Hmm. It's going to be a challenge but let me see what we can do. It sounds like you need visibility. The inflatable might be a problem. Are banners OK?

    Radio Program Director (beginning to think this might happen): Banners are OK....just lots of them. Thanks. Need to see if Sales can get Dunkin Donuts to help. I'll get back to you.

    How do you think that exchange did? Which one presented a "customer service" perspective?

    How many times, in meetings with station staff do you just see people just glaze over when you start speaking. If you've never noticed it, watch carefully during the next meeting. You might be surprised. Once you've noticed it, instead of going right to "they don't understand", try and evaluate how your communication contributes to the behavior. Do you get to the point? Do you even have a point? Does the information you are relating have a direct and easy-to-describe impact on the listeners? Does it directly apply to the questions on the table? Are you listening to the others and seeking to answer their questions or are you just trying to dispense information? Are you working to hear what your colleague is asking and then asking them questions that allow you to share related information? That's being a team player!

    Once you think carefully not about what you are saying; but what others are hearing...and how it applies to them, you'll undoubtedly remain quiet much more...but rest assured that once your colleagues become accustomed to your new way of communicating; you will have people hanging on your every word...instead of glazing over. Then you can really communicate!



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