Speaking Upper-Level Geek

As I noted earlier this week, I was rapporteur at the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop (TVIW), taking notes for the benefit of the organizers and (as a nice side-benefit) myself, as I find the idea of deep-space travel fascinating.

Did I learn anything from the two-day experience? Yes.

Conference Content

On the technical side of things, we have a long, long way to go before we’re able to approach anything like the Starship Enterprise, even one that went slower than the speed of light. We haven’t even gotten very far into our own solar system yet, so we’ve got to learn a few things first. Second, a lot of the technologies that would enable humanity to travel to other stars is incredibly powerful–so powerful that a lot of them would qualify as weapons of mass destruction if put in the wrong hands. Which ones are the right hands? Your guess is as good as mine, but it might not hurt to start building Starfleet Academy now to start instilling a little logic and discipline into the human race.

Lessons for the Technical Communicator

From a professional perspective, a high-level conference like this is an excellent opportunity to observe technical communications in action before a live audience. For instance, were these folks talking about science or science fiction in their presentations? I would make the case that (for the most part) they were talking about science and technology rather than science fiction, even if the science or technology hasn’t been discovered yet. Regardless of what you want to call it, the content was still technical in nature and required a certain acquaintance with (or interest in) the subject matter to be fully appreciated. And if the ugly truth be told, I didn’t get all of it myself–liked most of it, but that doesn’t mean I understood it.

For instance, I am utterly lost when people start speaking in or displaying equations. As my boss puts it, “You’re actually a good systems engineer, you just have a math deficiency.” Using that same logic, some of the engineers in my company would make good writers if they didn’t have grammatical or stylistic deficiencies. No, when it comes to advanced mathematics, calculus, and statistics, I am nearly helpless, hopeless, and bored, and I’m happy to leave that stuff to the professionals.

That doesn’t mean I can get away from equations forever. The “good” news about the mathematically challenged tech writer is that equations are human expressions, not entirely esoteric, alien objects. They are human constructions meant to convey a particular real-world process or value in terms understandable to other humans. They are, in fact, sentences with subjects, verbs, objects, and outcomes, and if you leave something out of them or write them incorrectly, just as with the written or spoken word, the result is often gibberish. However, if you’re really lucky, you can get a subject matter expert to explain what an equation is doing or describing. You still might not be able to do the math (“Do not attempt this at home, we are professionals”), but you can at least explain its function in non-mathematical terms. Zero Point Frontiers has at least one engineer–a computer programming genius, for the most part–who has the patience and vocabulary to translate mathematical operators into practical expressions for the layman. And thank goodness, because I’m not exactly wired for eigenvectors and the like.

Unfortunately, sometimes a conference speaker does not always take the time to explain the math to the English majors in the room. In such situations, I’m forced to write notes about the words around the equations in the hopes of getting a clue. It can be done, but I end up with a two-Advil headache at the end of the day.

This is also a lesson for science communicators, even mathematicians: if you are speaking about complex technical subjects to lay audiences or audiences where you are uncertain of their familiarity with your subject matter, it is best to keep the number of equations in your presentation to a minimum unless you’re willing to take the time to explain them. Okay, shame on us for not knowing this stuff, but really: not everyone has an abiding interest in or passion for those complex squiggles that look like hieroglyphics. Of course, I can send an engineer running for cover by discussing Shakespeare, sentence proofreading, or worse, diagramming, but I try not to do so. 

As usual, it comes down to your audience and their interests and needs. You could discuss the various mathematics of your theory in all their elaborate detail, or you could show a couple equations and then focus your attention on what those equations mean to your audience. The ones who are really into the math will ask you more in the hallway afterward. I’ve gone on and on about this, and perhaps I’m being ungracious. Only two of the multi-dozen speakers over the two days used equations extensively, and one of them was a very kind Italian gentlemen who was speaking in a second language (or third, if you include the eigenvectors). The other was American and probably should have known better. If I understood the Signore Maccone, he was trying to use mathematical expressions to explain what types of creatures we are to alien races (he works with SETI). The other gentleman might have been trying to explain how to use mathematical expressions as a way of improving our ability to receive signals from alien races. The math and the technology just soared over my head at about warp 9.

Another challenge for the non-scientific audience is to understand the implications of a particular result. If you are unfamiliar with a subject, then having someone tell you A+B+C+D doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to know what E will be–or why it matters. While it might sound corny or condescending, it is not giving things away or spoiling anyone’s surprise to explain to them that “If you get E, the world’s going to be destroyed,” or something equally direct.

So if you find yourself attending a high-level, tech-heavy conference, dare to be the one who asks, “What does your conclusion mean in layman’s terms?” You might not be the only one who wants/needs to know, and that sort of question puts the responsibility for communicating back on the person who wants to share something important. It might be important, but if it’s not communicated effectively, how will we ever know?

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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