Watching our words: Be precise, know your audience

(Note: an edited version of this column appeared in EE Times, December 28, 2006)

We know that it's often difficult to engineers to communicate with non-technical audiences. In our world, ordinary words have unique meanings, acronyms abound, and barely comprehensible utterances, such as “nonmonotonic”, roll off our tongues easily while the listener's word-recognition brain zone flashes “huh?”

To add to the challenge, our language is, by necessity, very fluid and dynamic, just as our technology and society are. Even if a non-technical person used to understand a phrase, we're continually redefining and morphing them into new ones. Today's “portable” widget is tomorrow's heavy, awkward dinosaur (how's that luggable Osborne PC?). And I won't even delve into the differences between burn in, burn out, burn up, and burn down!

But the problem is not just with technical terms hitting non-technical audiences. As our knowledge becomes more specialized, even conversations among professionals who used to be able to communicate smoothly become challenging. Think of the simple word “buffer”: it can mean internal hardware registers, a memory allocation in software, or an analog amplifier which isolates and boosts signals. Is an “off-line” supply one that is not working, or one that is connected to the ac mains?

This confusion goes beyond our extreme reliance on acronyms, which often are only understood by those in the inner circle. Sure, you can have an acronym guide in the article, but what about in conversation? And what about those dreadful stacked acronyms, where a new one engulfs an existing one, such as ASPI, the Advanced SCSI Programming Interface?

The first time a clerk asked me “can I swipe your card?” my instinctive reaction was to grab his hand and say “don't your dare!” And when someone recently asked for my “alias”, I almost gave a wise-guy answer and asked if he thought I was a criminal with my picture on the wall at the local post office.

Even such routine terms such as “maximum” and “minimum” can cause confusion for our audience. Back in the day when I was with analog applications, we'd often get calls from users who were confused about data sheet specifications. When the data sheet notes that the op amp output is “stable with output capacitance of 1000 pF (minimum)” does that mean you have to put at least 1000 pF on the output for stable operation? No, it means that the op amp is guaranteed to be stable with an output capacitance up toat least 1000 pF, and it might even be stable with more.

The lesson here for all of us is simple and obvious: think in terms of your audience and their frame of reference, not yours. Words and phrases change their meaning and implication when we are not paying close attention, going off on a tangent or even in opposite direction. When James Joyce was asked why he made up words–weren't there enough already in the dictionary?–he responded that yes, there were enough words, but that they weren't the right ones. We're often in a similar bind.

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