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Engineers can have a greater impact.

Updated: May 19

In the bustling village hall, I reviewed proposals at my desk in the Engineering Department. I was the Assistant Village Engineer in Franklin Park, a suburb of Chicago, and published a Request for Proposals (RFP) to improve an older residential area. The project area was built in the 1950s and was one of the older neighborhoods in town. It needed everything: new roads, watermain, sanitary sewers, and drainage. As one of three staff members on the review committee, I had until the end of the week to review the twelve proposals and enter my scores into the spreadsheet. Little did I know that this day would change my perspective on my job as an engineer. 



Each proposal was more painfully bland than the last, riddled with jargon and formulaic phrasing regurgitated from generic templates. Each started with something like: We are pleased to provide this proposal for the above-referenced project. We have provided all of the required information in this proposal. One after another, all sounding and looking the same.


Then, I started reading the final proposal and, at that moment, something awakened within me. This proposal was different. Looking back, it wasn’t the best proposal, but it opened my mind to the possibility of writing differently. It included vivid descriptions of the project's complexities and observations from the field visit such as existing manholes with severe deterioration, requiring rehabilitation or complete replacement. The author understood our needs as a community, proposing an alternative pricing methodology to allow us more flexibility during construction.


As I devoured every word, I knew this was the work of an engineer, not a marketing department. And this engineer grasped that true expertise transcends the realm of calculations and analytics. Rather than following the status quo, he took the time to understand our needs as a community. It made me wonder why we as engineers sacrifice clarity for complexity.


We do not have to play into the stereotypes of the nerds on “The Big Bang Theory.” This proposal, written by an engineer, proved that engineers can communicate their thoughts clearly through writing. In my over twenty years of experience as a professional engineer, I have found that good communication skills are uncommon in engineers. The foundation for poor communication is often laid long before we enter the professional world.

 

Writing Takes a Backseat in Engineering

The answer lies in our training. From my first undergraduate course, I was conditioned to believe that good engineering writing must be dry, mechanical, and devoid of personality. It's no coincidence that while pursuing my undergraduate degree in engineering, I took just one course that included writing amidst all the rigorous science and math requirements. That writing course was also a design and presentation course with little emphasis on writing. I had a full course load as a General Engineering Major with a Civil Engineering emphasis. I took general engineering courses ranging from electrical to structural and even welding. Then my elective courses focused on civil engineering. I didn’t entertain any additional courses, since I was financially and mentally at my limit with all my technical courses. 


We pursue engineering to make a tangible difference in the world. Yet our poor communication skills hold us back, limiting our impact. If it wasn’t for reading that last proposal in the Village Hall that fateful day, I may not have realized how my poor writing skills are stifling my progress. 

 

Engineers Write to Document Findings 

Following the standard engineering trajectory, I started my career as an Engineering Intern (EIT). Fascinated by the challenge of analyzing stormwater systems, I took classes and webinars to learn how to use all the 2D and 3D modeling software. I learned how to input the existing conditions and calibrate the model to historical flood levels. I also learned how to create a proposed conditions model that reduces flood depths and durations. It was fascinating work, but the company template to document my findings was bland, without personality or passion.

 

A New Perspective

Years later, the tables had turned. I changed jobs and instead of being the design engineer submitting to the community for approval, I was now working for the community approving those submittals. Suddenly, the templates and canned marketing language felt insulting. I wanted the engineers to show they understood my community beyond describing the existing conditions. I wanted them to explain the unique aspects of the study area and what was challenging to replicate in the modeling software. Rather than just stating the watershed area, I wanted them to talk about the lack of upstream detention and the impacts on the downstream system. I wanted to hear more about the project challenges and the discoveries made during the analysis. I wanted them to explain why providing stormwater detention in this area was critical and how other areas of town could benefit from it. Finally, I wanted detailed descriptions of the opportunities the project presents and how the design was developed to fit in with the existing aesthetics of the neighborhood or to provide green space that is desperately needed.  



But beyond the limited details in these engineering studies, they were also bland. Each one started with the same format - enter the community’s name here and the population there. In some studies, I could see the gray boxes for the engineer to enter the specific project information. They would propose a solution to the problem we identified in the proposal, but I wanted them to look at the project with a wider lens. Think outside the box. Was there a solution for this neighborhood we hadn’t considered?


Worse than the engineering studies were the marketing proposals. A company’s proposal to win a competitive bid against similar firms should be the best example of their work. Right? They should put their best foot forward.


The main pieces of an engineering proposal are project approach, project team, similar work experience, project schedule, and project budget. The project approach is where the firms can showcase their innovative ideas and knowledge of our community. Instead, I found the same canned description I had seen in other proposals, lists of all the possible solutions with no indication of what might work in our community, and, in some cases, my project description from the RFP restated back to me. Really? How is copying my project description from the RFP and pasting it into the proposal inspiring?


I couldn’t believe an engineer wrote this proposal. The thought and the level of detail that went into it was remarkable. He explained cost-saving options for rehabilitating the existing pavement that I did not have experience using and options to correct the problem of cars parking on the sidewalk that was not mentioned in the RFP; I was intrigued. After seeing the thought he put into the proposal, I could not wait to see his design. 


That fateful day reviewing those twelve proposals revealed the missed potential in engineering. Why should we settle for boring descriptions when our work is far from boring? Our studies should document the struggle of the analysis and innovation of our design and explain how the improvements will change people’s lives.

 

Striving for Better

When I started my own engineering business in 2018, I didn't know how to market my company, but I always remembered that one marketing proposal, it reminded me that I wanted to stand out in the sea of sameness I saw from the larger engineering companies. During the first few years, I was lucky I didn’t need to market my business. My previous clients continued to hire me for projects that did not need to be competitively bid. 


In 2023, I realized that my workload had shifted, and I had too much work from one client. To diversify my client base, I needed to start marketing my business. I always enjoyed marketing when I worked for larger firms, and I knew how to win them. The communities issued RFPs that explained exactly what was needed and a deadline to submit your marketing proposal. However, I knew marketing a one-person business was different, but I didn’t know how.


With the help of a skilled Content Strategist, I learned to write with a conversational tone, so my clients could understand my services. I was marketing on LinkedIn rather than in response to an RFP. Slowly, the right people started finding me - rather than me having to seek them out. Gone were the days of incomprehensible jargon and technical gibberish. In their place, I embraced clarity and simplicity, using analogies and stories to make complex ideas relatable. For example, I compared complex grant applications to Thanksgiving dinner, compared a “half-baked” grant application to my unsuccessful brownie recipe, and gave a major “Hint, Hint” on grant applications just like my college professor used to give away a quiz question in class.



This approach can be applied to all engineer’s writing. Engineering studies, marketing proposals, grant applications, and even emails can all be written to resonate deeper with the reader. The purpose of our writing goes beyond documenting findings. If we want to have a greater impact, we can start by improving our communication skills.

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