Restraining exuberant engineers (Ask Dr. Wobs)

Photo: Marta Pucciarelli via Wikimedia Commons

Collaboration — especially with those who are not professional writers — creates challenges for clear communication. Today we explain how to collaborate with overenthusiastic engineers.

This question reflects a common challenge for product descriptions and engineers:

Dear Dr. Wobs:

How can I write good product datasheets?

Technical people write datasheets as a very long list of features with an abundance of superlatives (state of the art, leading, …). They are certainly hard to read but engineers only do them this way. What is a better way to structure/write product datasheets in a very technical b2b market? How can I edit one to improve it?

— Alessandra

What engineers want

I hear you, Alessandra. I worked closely with engineers in technology companies for years. Your challenge arises because engineers have two qualities:

  1. They have pride in their work.
  2. They value facts and logic

The key is to use the second of these qualities to temper the first. You need to convince the engineers that vague superlatives don’t work. Start them with this analysis of Marissa Mayer’s cheerleading to demonstrate how a pileup of vague intensifiers undermines the message.

ROAM analysis for a datasheet

As for what actually belongs in the datasheet, let’s do a quick ROAM analysis of a product description.

Readers. Potential and existing customers. In a market like this, you can expect them to have some technical knowledge.

Objective. You would like those reading the data sheet to gain enough knowledge of the value of your product to consider it for use in their company.

Action. If the data sheet is effective, the potential customer will contact your sales staff, or, ideally, purchase the product. If the product is not right for their application, they will decide not to purchase. (This is not a bad outcome — selling people things they don’t need doesn’t tend to end well or create loyal customers.)

iMpression. The customer will think that your company is honest and clear in how it describes its products.

Replace superlatives with facts

Engineers want to include vague words like “state of the art” partly due to pride, partly because it’s how they imagine that marketers write, and partly out of a need to fill space. None of these reasons accomplish the objectives, motivate action, or make a good impression. In fact, they do the opposite.

The cure is to replace the weasel words with facts. Did you win industry awards? Is your product twice as fast as the old version, or twice as fast as the competition? Are you compatible with 26 different file formats?

It’s likely the case that the product has features that the engineers included to solve specific customer problems. Writing about how the product solves the problems (not about how great the features are) is more likely to create the desired Action, and will leave your customer with a better iMpression of you as a company.

Regarding the length of the list of features — if you organize them according to what the customer is looking for, they’ll be easier to scan. And cut 20%. Focus on what’s important. No one but an idiot makes a choice based on the length of the feature list (and you don’t want idiots for customers).

These are logical arguments. Use them, and your engineers will respect you — and might learn a little about marketing, too.

Have a writing problem? Submit it to Ask Dr. Wobs. If I answer it, I’ll send you a free book, personally inscribed.

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