The tech is great, but what’s it good for?

I’m listening to one of The Great Courses on “Becoming a Great Essayist” to help improve my skill set. One of the more important things the professor has shared so far is the need for the essayist to make his or her observations on the world relevant to the reader. Otherwise, the writing is just a self-indulgent exercise for the writer.

The questions one doesn’t ask

This problem often comes up in technology-focused companies and organizations. Not to pick on my friends at NASA too much, but this can be a frequent problem among aerospace engineers (the folks we frequently misname “rocket scientists”). My first work at NASA was writing conference papers for the Ares Launch Vehicles, part of the Constellation Program that was going to send human beings to the “Moon, Mars, and Beyond.”

If you talked to the various element managers–boosters, engines, core stage, etc.–each of them could proudly share the performance characteristics of their particular part of the rocket, how it functioned, and how it did things better for the overall system. So far, so good. But eventually I’d move up through the system and get to the point where I’d ask, “What is the program good for?” and the conversation would uncomfortably stop. Apparently one did not ask that sort of question. It was obvious, wasn’t it?

My family members have not been particularly big space enthusiasts, and I spent much of my adolescence and young adulthood trying to explain to them why space exploration was worth doing. They were taxpayers, after all, and they had a say or a stake in how their money was being spent. So I came into the space business as a true believer, but one who had spent a lot of time justifying my support.

I recall having that conversation with one engineer who was one of THE experts on Big, Beautiful Rockets, and after some embarrassed squirming, he finally came out with, “Because the rocket will help get us closer to the stars.” He then added, “But you can’t say that in what you’re writing.” Which was true, because sending people to the stars was and is not NASA policy. That was why he worked on rockets, though, and it helped me narrow down the questions I needed to ask.

To his credit, my customer heard me out and tasked me to do some research and writing on why going to the Moon, Mars, etc., was a good idea and, more to the point, a good use of taxpayer dollars. That sort of content eventually made it into some outreach pieces, so my poking did some good, even if the program was eventually canceled.

Are you admiring the widget or planning to sell it?

I’ve worked in other technical environments besides the rocket-building section of NASA. In each one I’ve usually asked variations of these questions:

  • Who is our audience?
  • What do they care about?
  • How does Cool Widget X advance/improve what our audience cares about?

It all boils down to the “So what?” of a piece of writing, whether that piece of writing is a blog, a bit of marketing copy, or a letter to an elected official. The other variation of this is asking for the WIIFM (“What’s In It For Me?”) for the audience.

The risk for any organization is to become so enamored of the features of their particular widget, software, or idea that the benefits become lost in the noise. Or they are taken as self-evident. This is why branding and strategic communication matter in an organization. While the bulk of the organization might be focused on the doing–the what and how–there must always be at least one or two individuals who keep their eye on the ball regarding who the customer is and why they should care about what the organization is doing

The features of a given technology are obvious. The benefits are not obvious for the end user, the general public, or bill-paying customer; and those audiences do not always overlap. I recall asking a scientist a feature/benefit question about a telescope he was advocating (I was helping him write a proposal). He restated a couple of different ways that it would be capable of visibility over a specific spectral range. Not being an astrophysicist, the benefit was lost on me. I asked, stupidly, “Is that good? What will it enable the telescope to do?” That last question probably saved me because he said, “It helps us see more of the universe.” Aha! I could work with that.

Helping techies articulate product benefits

The bottom line with this sort of work is that engineers are often task-focused. They know what they need to accomplish and how to go about it. It sometimes takes open-ended questions to get responses from them to help them sell a product. These include:

  • Who do you define as the end users/customers? Are there multiple types of customers?
  • What are the customer’s priorities?
  • What are the customer’s key measures of performance?
  • How is this product better than what’s been done before (based on the aforementioned performance measures)?
  • What tasks/outcomes will the new tech/widget/product allow your customer do that they have not been able to do previously?

Don’t be surprised if you get some push-back on these types of questions. Engineers often look down on marketing (the practice or the people) as “fluffy,” unconnected to reality, or worse, unethical. They also don’t like to over-promise on performance. Check out Dilbert if you ever need examples of these attitudes. You can win over those reluctant audiences by not over-promising, merely sticking to the technology as they’re designing it. The goal is to sell the product, which keeps everyone doing their job. At the very least, your feature/benefit discussion should help answer that ever-important question: “Why should your audience care?”

About Bart Leahy

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