Communication in the storm water industry
Perhaps my most valuable lesson in communication came during my college senior design project. Everyone was looking forward to doing some real engineering through our capstone project of “designing” a few high-profile projects happening around the city—an airport expansion, realignment of a major interstate and infrastructure improvements for a global medical research company. However, this project was not traditional. The entire class was surprised to find a group of architects and planners waiting for us at the design studio the first day of the semester. We were put in groups representing each discipline. Each of us had different industry lingo, thought processes and problem-solving approaches.
As I recently reflected on this experience, I started to consider how communication in the storm water industry is very similar. The world of storm water management is probably one of the most communication-complex industries because of the diversity of professions. It is not uncommon to work with design engineers, environmental scientists, conservationists, academia, owners and developers, elected officials, and members of the general public. Add architects, landscape architects, planners, and aquatic biologists to this mix and there is sure to be confusion when trying to convey a condensed, cohesive message about the importance of storm water management.
Each of the professions can be very different in preferred communication styles and critical thinking approaches. Each discipline requires a unique education track with different desired skill sets and problem-solving approaches. In our day-to-day job responsibilities, it is easy to become accustomed to working with other like-minded professionals and routinely using our industry jargon without second thought. However, as we participate in stakeholder groups developing new regulations, give presentations to diverse audiences, or attend public meetings to present sensitive projects, specific communication and messaging are necessary to leave the audience with a lasting impression and accomplish the targeted goals.
As we all carry our torches forward to protect our precious water resources, here are a few communication reminders for meaningful conversations:
- Be aware of other’s backgrounds. Engineers, architects, planners and environmental scientists all have important contributions to program and project development, but all have very different knowledge bases.
- Be mindful of differences in vocabulary and meanings. Several storm water terms cross professions, but may have different interpretations. This may especially be true when using acronyms.
- Remember key messaging. As professionals in a highly technical field, we are great at information gathering and distribution, and quite frankly, overwhelming an audience with data. We need to remember a few important points about key messaging. Any key message should answer three main questions:
- What information do you want your audience to know?
- What information does your audience want to know?
- What information is your audience most likely to misunderstand or not fully understand?
- Select the right tactic for delivery. Everyone receives information in a variety of ways, depending on factors such as work environment, impressionism and even generational differences. Although email may be easier for you, it probably is not the most appropriate avenue for someone who is in the field all day with little time in front of a computer. Some information is better explained visually through graphics, rather than written or spoken words. Research has shown different generations have different preferred communication styles.
While we all spend countless hours to improve water quality, let’s make sure we take the time to have meaningful conversations, as well.