What Swahili Taught Me About 3-phase Power

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What is effective technical communication?

That’s a tricky question to answer. But before I outline effective technical communication, let me digress to a tale from many years ago.

Swahili and 3-phase power are not normally the subjects of the same blog.

Well, not unless you speak Swahili.  Which I used to be able to do. (Most of the vocab has escaped my brain in the intervening years, but that’s another story).

But 3-phase power? I was never able to speak that language.

At university, I had a pretty good grasp of most engineering concepts. I may not have done well at structures and topics I wasn’t interested in, but I managed to get an understanding that I could apply to problems.

Except for anything electrical.

Anything at all. As soon as someone mentions 3-phase, high voltage, transformers or switchboards, I could feel my brain shutting down. I seemed to have this block that meant when I heard these words I automatically didn’t understand.

Fast-forward a few years, and I spent a year in Tanzania designing and building a water supply for a hospital, bible school and orphanage. The two biggest challenges I faced that year were learning Swahili and figuring out all the electrical issues with installing a pump in a remote village with no mains power.

So, you guessed it – I struggled to understand the electrical language more than the African one.

Until one day my pump supplier realised I spoke Swahili and stopped talking to me in English.

He explained (in simple Swahili) the difference between single-phase and 3-phase power and why we needed 3-phase for the pump. Not only did he use everyday words (which was all I knew in Swahili), but he used an analogy with water pipes.

And just like that, the blockage was gone. The years of resistance I had built up just vanished. I finally understood 3-phase power and could apply that understanding.  All it took was some Swahili.

Literally.

But I didn’t want to have to find someone to explain in Swahili every new, complex concept I need to understand!

effective technical communication results

The Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) requirements were a little more relaxed in Tanzania…

Instead, I had to figure out what was different in his explanation. Whenever anyone was explaining 3-phase power to me before, they were using jargon or technical words. But when the same concept was presented using everyday words, I understood it straight away.

So the barrier stopping from me understanding was the words people used.

This lesson has stuck with me – when we are communicating to other people at work, are we talking to:

  1. Help the listener understand? (so we use everyday words and analogies where possible)

OR

  1. Sound knowledgeable? (so we use jargon, acronyms, assumed understanding and complex technical words)

Can you explain your work using everyday words and analogies?

If you can’t, you may run into some issues in your career, because your bosses and clients won’t always be technical people. You can be certain they are more likely to promote your colleague who can explain complex concepts to them quickly and in a way they understand.

You had better get practising effective technical communication quickly!

What are your biggest challenges in communicating effectively?

effective technical communication in practice

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