Making Technical Subjects Engaging for General Audiences

I’ve often joked that my primary job has been “translating Engineerish into English,” at least when I worked primarily for engineers. Today’s entry came from a friend who suggested I talk about “Connecting to an audience [that] might not be technologically proficient but is insanely interested in the topics you write about.” So, to honor that request, let’s get started.

I should explain that this friend reads my writing primarily in its public forms: this blog and my reporting on Spaceflight InsiderSFI assumes a certain familiarity with the space business, I confess, though we also write at about a 12th grade level so that suitably motivated/interested members of the public can understand what we’re saying.

Avoid jargon

Wow, I hate the phrase “dumbing it down.” What that means in an engineer’s mind is that you are using a more pedestrian or common (dare I say Anglo-Saxon) phrase rather than some complicated Latin-derived formulation. Examples include:

super-cold (-423 degrees Fahrenheit) vs. cryogenic
highest point of an ascent/orbit vs apogee
engine vs. propulsion system
closest point of an orbit to the sun vs. perihelion

Okay, yes: the second set of phrases is more technically accurate. However, if you are writing for a general-public office, they might not encounter cryogenic or apogee in their daily lives. Do you want to inform your audience or do you want to lose them?

Here’s the thing: politicians are people. Politicians make many of the decisions that affect space-related activities. And while we might lament the fact, most of them in these United States are lawyers, not scientists or engineers. They are not likely to care if they’re spending money on a propulsion system (which includes the turbopumps, nozzle, and all the plumbing related thereto) or an “engine.” What they will care about is what does the widget do? Which brings me to my next point…

Talk about outcomes rather than statistics

Rockets (“Launch vehicles!” I can hear someone complain) are chock-full of statistics: temperatures, pressures, pounds of force (or newtons) generated, pounds/kilograms of propellant consumed per minute, revolutions per minute made by the pumps, vibration frequencies, and so forth.

Engineers love that stuff. The general public, by and large, doesn’t care.

This is how you end up talking about the engines pouring flames out of the rocket instead of the propulsion system generating thrust by the expulsion of combusted propellant gases.

And once the rocket makes all the fire and smoke and gets into space, you can talk about how much payload it’s capable of lifting (15,000 pounds, etc.), which is just a number to most people. Fifteen thousand pounds doesn’t mean much to people who don’t work in the trucking industry. However, a full-grown African elephant can weigh 15,000 pounds, so that’s usually a decent marker–and people have seen an elephant. They get it: it’s big, and it’s heavy. Or, if they’re not wildlife fans, you can compare the weight to something they might be familiar with, like a Ford F-150 pickup truck, most of which can run around 4,000 pounds or two U.S. tons. (1,814 kilograms for my friends outside the U.S.). So instead of expressing a rocket’s throw weight–a low-key term for payload performance–in elephants you could express it in pickup trucks.

Likewise, you could say that a spacecraft’s payload capability can launch a 4,000-pound payload 140 million miles (225 million kilometers) away from Earth, or you could just say that it could launch a robot weighing as much as a pickup truck to Mars. Again, the focus is on an outcome: doing something tangible and understandable with the technology: objects, places, names.

The idea being, you want to make the numbers or statistics relatable to your readers’ daily experience.

Keep the style active-voice and brief

My typical example of this is “She moved the magnet” vs. “the magnet was moved.” Scientific and engineering writing tends to be passive-voice, where you add a form of the word “to be” before the actual verb.

He operated the machine
Dr. Hough wrote the paper
NASA launched the rocket
The rocket flew to Mars

The machine was operated by him.
The paper was written by Dr. Hough.
The rocket was launched by NASA.
The rocket was launched on a trans-Mars injection trajectory.

A couple of things should stand out here:

  • The sentences are shorter.
  • The action feels more immediate.
  • The shorter sentences are more interesting.

“Active voice” really means moving the verb as close to the subject as possible. Passive voice really means you want to avoid showing action of any sort. Mind you, there are some bureaucratic reasons people do this, such as avoiding accepting blame (“Mistakes were made” from the Reagan administration always stuck out in my mind). However, if  you’re telling a story, you want to be able to show action as much as possible. Lacking a person who’s acting, you want to focus on the action, however interpreted. And the way you highlight that action is by not burying your verbs.

Talk about meaning and impact

People living in Florida–or people who don’t pay attention to the space business–often don’t pay attention to the latest launch from Cape Canaveral. And, in truth, after 60+ years of space activities, rocket launches and satellites have actually become routine. How, then, do you make a technical activity interesting?

This comes down to the “hook” for a story, and it’s how news organizations have been paying the bills for over 200 years. It boils down to the difference(s) made by the activity:

  • Was someone (or many someones) hurt? (“If it bleeds, it leads,” or so says a reporter buddy of mine.)
  • Was something new/good accomplished?
  • Does the activity result in some capability that wasn’t possible before?
  • Why should I (the reader) care?
  • What are the long-term implications? (“If Country X builds a reactor, they will be much closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon.”)

Perhaps the final line of the story–I like to use quotations where possible–can express the overall meaning or reaction to the activity or event. You’re trying to get your readers to think about what comes next and to want to learn more.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to Making Technical Subjects Engaging for General Audiences

  1. Bill Petrie says:

    Love this post, Bart! As someone who loves tech but, at times, struggles with the nuances of reading about it, this post spoke directly to me. Keep on writing my friend – you have a gift that needs to be shared!

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