Special to the San Jose Mercury News
Engineers and Scientists Find They Have to Write Persuasively
By Susan Almazol
Technical professionals must always write clearly and concisely. Increasingly, they must also write persuasively. “The technical part was easy. Writing it persuasively was the hard part,” complained the engineer who had just finished a report for a major client.
As they advance to positions of greater responsibility, engineers and scientists discover that emails, letters, and reports must not just lay out the facts but also present and support the writer’s conclusions.
“I can’t just present data and say ‘here it is.’ I’m expected to take a clear stand,” says Bill Brandmeyer, a staff engineer for International Business Machines Corp. in San Jose. “I analyze and verify that a product is performing to customer expectations. Consequently, I need to be persuasive in my viewpoint on whether the product is in fact performing as expected.”
Regina Tachkov, a senior systems software programmer at Datachecker Systems in Santa Clara, says about a fifth of her design documents involve persuasion. “When I’m trying to be persuasive, I present alternatives and comparisons to show an algorithm is better.”
The challenge is how to be persuasive while maintaining both the integrity of the data and the dignity of technical writing style. No one wants a heavy-handed, Madison Avenue approach.
Fortunately, there are many ways to enhance the credibility of a document without compromising the data or the writer’s style.
1. Don’t neglect to plan.
Planning is a key step that technical professionals probably include automatically in their technical work but may neglect in their writing. Writers need to think about the intended recipients of any document.
“Analyzing your audience is very important in technical writing, especially in persuasion,” says Zareh Baghdasarian, a software design engineer for Hewlett-Packard Co. in Cupertino. “For example, managers don’t have time to read. They look for certain key facts. It doesn’t matter if you have lots of other facts. Your document will fail to persuade if these certain key facts are missing.”
Dave Reisenauer, a senior associate engineer for IBM in San Jose, agrees: “In my documents, management is interested in the answer to the question, ‘What is this going to save us monthly?‘ The technical staff is more interested in the answer to, ‘What will this save me each time?‘
“You can run through the numbers. But your document isn’t going to be as persuasive without giving them the interpretation that is meaningful to the reader,” Reisenauer says.
2. Choose an organizing strategy.
Frequently and to their detriment, technical documents are organized chronologically. First, the problem is stated. Then the methodology is explained. The results are discussed. Finally, conclusions are drawn and recommendations are made.
This organization is logical but may not be persuasive. Readers want to know the conclusions and recommendations first and then be filled in on the details.
For example, one chemist recently had to explain in writing the steps he was taking to prevent a serious problem from recurring. He began with a discussion of the problem, then described its consequences in detail before outlining his solution.
Fortunately, he enrolled in a writing workshop before sending the memo to his manager. During the workshop, he was persuaded that it would be better not to begin by reminding his manager of the problem. Instead, he began with his recommendations, followed by a very brief summary of the problem.
3. Don’t neglect appearance.
Many technical professionals chuckle when asked about the piles of documents on their desks and in email folders. They know that among the “must read” piles, there is one pile that they may get to one day.
If that one day ever comes, they may discover that all the documents in this pile have something in common: They look like a chore to read, with paragraphs that run nearly a page or 60-word sentences or non-existent margins.
A very simple lesson to learn in persuasive writing is to use visual tools to keep a document out of the “someday” pile.
Divide a long document into two parts: an executive summary followed by attachments with very technical details. This makes the document appear easier to read and encourages prompt reading.
Use section headings to break up text into smaller, easy-to-read units. Headings can be persuasively written: not just “Conclusions,” for example, but “Advantages of the Proposed Design.” This strategy helps emphasize the writer’s line of reasoning.
Emphasize a key statement in a one-sentence paragraph. This is especially useful after a fairly long explanation to ensure that the conclusion is not lost in a large block of text.
Highlight important facts in a vertical list. Readers process facts faster when they are displayed vertically instead of in the traditional horizontal List, with the items separated by semicolons.
Go easy on boldface, italics and different fonts. They can backfire by calling attention to themselves rather than to the ideas.
4. Choose words carefully.
The right words and phrases can make a document more persuasive without making it sound like a commercial. Here are four reminders.
First, descriptive words can guide readers to the intended interpretation. A feature can be described as “complicated” or “sophisticated.” The latter sounds more attractive.
Second, personal pronouns can be used strategically. The use of “I” tends to personalize statements. “We” and “you,” on the other hand, include the readers. For example, “I think that…” is weaker than “we should…” if the writer wants readers to accept responsibility for an action.
Third, positive phrasing can help writers represent their companies effectively. One engineer initially wrote to a customer: “Here is the description that you requested. It is out of date because a new function was added.”
In revising the letter, he wrote instead: “Here is the description that you requested. But I have some good news for you. Since the brochure was printed, we have added a new function.”
Fourth, transitional words help readers understand your line of reasoning. A biochemist, for example, found herself trying to explain a long list of experimental results. Using transitions like “as expected” and “unfortunately” helped her quickly highlight the good and bad news she had to report.