Talking Tech to Non-techies

Technical people have a reputation for being introverted and poor communicators. As I write this from behind my sofa, hiding from the neighbors, I can certainly see that that idea is not entirely unrealistic.

At the same time, many technical people are extremely passionate about what they do and are itching to communicate that passion. They just have to recognize that clear communication is just another technical skill that needs to be mastered. If you’re a techy, try these tips for better communication with non-techies.

1. Don’t assume they’re stupid.
When communication goes wrong, the biggest failures I see happen when a technical person equates lack of knowledge with stupidity. That is not to say that tech experts openly sneer at their audiences (though I’ve seen that too). However, your underlying attitude informs what you say and how you say it, and — trust me on this — your audience knows when you are talking down to them. This doubles the difficulty of communicating and reinforces every stereotype about geeks.

I always start with the assumption that my audience (whether an individual, a large group or the readers of an article or book) is intelligent, but busy with its own concerns. They probably know a lot about topics that I do not — they are just not experts in what I happen to be explaining.

2. Find common ground.
So, my first goal is to try and find some common ground. If you are geeky enough, you could equate this with the handshake between two pieces of equipment before they can really talk. When you are one-on-one or talking to a small group, you can start by asking some questions and getting a feel for where they are coming from. For larger groups, you can still ask some general questions, but instead of being able to get direct answers, you have to rely on head-nods and laughs to see if you are connecting.

3. Avoid geek-speak.
Once you get into your topic, try to use your audience’s terminology rather than your own. Put all your examples and analogies in their domain. If they are in the insurance industry, talk insurance terms; if they are in education, talk about schools. Of course, you are liable to make mistakes (since it’s not your area of expertise), but the audience will appreciate the effort. It will even help them feel more even-footed with the “technical expert” by getting to feel that they understand something you don’t.

Avoid jargon, and if you do have to use complex terms or acronyms, make sure you explain them. This can be tricky, though, because if you explain obvious terms, it will come across as condescending. I usually use gestures or verbal clues to indicate that the listener probably understands the term, but I have to mention what it means for due diligence purposes or for that one person in the room who might not get it.

4. Focus on broad concepts.
Also, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, avoid getting distracted by the details. The things that may be the most interesting factoids to you are just confusing and distracting to a nontechnical audience. You are generally trying to communicate concepts, not train novices in the minutiae of your art. Obviously, if your selling point is in those details, you will have to go there, but avoid gratuitous side-points.

5. Understand it’s a two-way communication.
The most important thing, though, has nothing to do with technical versus non-technical communication, but with communication in general. Pay attention to your audience! When they speak, listen to what they say rather than planning what to say next. If you see the light leave their eyes, realize that you’ve lost them and have to back up. Ask questions and watch for the feedback that lets you know when an idea has connected or has been lost.

And above all, don’t underestimate your audience.

*From the Editors of IT Insider