Monday, October 24, 2011

Communicating clearly to nontechnical audiences - the grandmother test

Albert Einstein reportedly once said that:

“You do not really understand something until you can explain it to your grandmother.”

In a blog post on October 19th titled "Tech Communication Tips" Matt Eventoff described how:

“I often ask professionals to explain a concept to me as if they were addressing an eighth grade class – I find this exercise works well to help a professional prepare a presentation to a non-tech crowd – this often generates stories and analogies that would otherwise have remained undiscovered.”

Here is an example from failure analysis. The ASM Materials Engineering Dictionary says that a striation is:

“A fatigue fracture feature, often observed in electron micrographs, that indicates the position of the crack front after each succeeding cycle of stress. The distance between striations indicates the advance of the crack front across that crystal during one stress cycle, and a line normal to the striations indicates the direction of local crack propagation.”

That definition is almost meaningless unless (as shown above) you already have seen a photo of some striations. (The scale marker in the lower right corner is 3 microns long, which is about 0.00012 inches).

I co-authored a paper for insurance adjusters that appeared in the April 1994 issue of Claims Magazine. It was titled: "Don’t Let Your Case Rust Away: evidence preservation vital of surfaces produced by fracture." We discussed striations with two analogies:

“Repeated cycles of loading can cause cracks to initiate and grow, a process called fatigue. The fatigue cracks will grow until the remaining cross-section can no longer carry the load, and fracture occurs.

In fatigue, the deformation only occurs locally and repeatedly at the tip of the growing crack. This repeated opening and closing of the crack tip forms microscopic features called striations. Striations are rows of parallel hills and valleys which appear similar to the surface of corduroy fabric, or a plowed field.”

The painting by Albert Anker and the photo by Jsemenak both are from Wikimedia Commons.


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