Every engineering project involves a myriad stories. TryIng to reduce them into a digestible form for public or reader consumption is no easy task. To explain and convey all the detail and effort that went into a magnificent project like the Schreyer-winning Canada Line (page 20) is next to impossible. No matter the size of the project, I’m sure the engineers who write the descriptions must struggle and sweat when putting their entries together.
While processing entries for the Canadian Consulting Engineering awards over the past decade or so, I have seen many excellent write-ups. Some entries, however, have left me (and probably the jurors) baffled. I have seen entries where the project engineers got so caught up in explaining the background (geography, history of the problem, client consortia, etc.), and how they tested various technical solutions (pilot and bench studies, different configurations, etc.), that they forgot to explain what solution they actually did build in the end. The most pertinent information was as deeply buried as the sewage treatment plant the text failed to describe.
Assuming that “engineers are not writers,” some firms will hand over the task of writing up a project to a marketing person. This sometimes produces a different problem. The entry looks gorgeous from a graphic point of view, but the engineers have been too distant from the submission so there is not enough technical detail for the jurors to appreciate its worth.
What’s the answer? I don’t profess to know how firms could write the ideal award-winning entry. However, given the criteria of these awards, entries do need to point out clearly and early in the text what makes the project techncally stand out from similar projects of its type.
That means that you have to include technical information. but it also means using plain language and explaining your terms. the jurors are deliberately selected from a diverse range of backgrounds, so as a water treatment engineer or a building HVAC specialist, you have to climb out of your own skin to find terminology that is accessible to engineers from other disciplines. it’s a similar difficulty when engineers have to communicate with the public -something they increasingly have to do for environmental assessments.
The trick is to draw out only the most unusual and innovative aspects of your project. and it requires finding ways to explain specialized technologies and terms without dumbing them down to a meaningless level. Terms like “penstock bifurcation,” “nanofiltration vs. ultrafiltration,” or “displacement ventilation” don’t mean an awful lot to most people. but it’s alright to use such specialized terms sparingly as long as you explain them first. using acronyms just makes things worse.
Simplifying ideas and being selective about what information you pass on goes against the grain of an engineer who has been taught to be thorough about every little detail. But that is what communication is all about -finding a way to organize the complex messages your brain has stored in order to convey them to a person whose brain resides in a very different complex world to yours.