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5 simple steps for communicating IT concepts with a non-technical audience
It's a question that bedevils every tech professional: How do you help business colleagues with no technical training and limited exposure to technology management understand the complex issues you deal with every day? Especially when it's vital that they understand, so they can make important decisions about budgets and priorities?
The Enterprisers Project (TEP): Every CIO and CTO struggles with the challenge of communicating complex IT concepts to a non-technical audience. What are some effective strategies for doing this?
Foster: As CTO, I do a significant number of presentations to a wide variety of audiences that differ vastly in experience, age, vocation, and technical skill. The only assumption I make is that my audience is smart. But not that they have any grasp of the technical details on the topic we are discussing. Instead, I follow five strategies I've found to be very useful.
First strategy: You have to know your audience. I try to determine their level of expertise beforehand and then start talking at a level slightly below where I think they are. Sometimes I even preface it by saying, "I don't want to insult your intelligence. If this is something you already know, let me know."
If I start at too high a level and say, "If this is something you don't know, let me know," people won't say anything, because they don't want to look stupid in a room full of their peers.
Second strategy: No acronyms. No jargon. No buzzwords. Use English. People do not care how smart you think you are, or how much you know. Communication is a two-way street, and your audience will be much more willing to do the hard work of listening if they think you are genuinely interested in them and have done the hard work of preparing well.
Third strategy: Watch your audience. Some presenters and speakers are oblivious to social and facial cues. People will almost always nod, smile, and keep eye contact when they are tracking. If they aren't smiling, or nodding, or they are looking at their phones, or they have a slight crease in their foreheads, I know I'm a nerd, and I need to reset.
Fourth strategy: Any time I talk or present, my first job with the audience is to make them feel comfortable, and to break down that initial tension. Almost always, I can use some self-deprecating humor, especially if it relates to me being a nerd or a geek. Doing this creates an initial connection that helps with the more detailed information to follow. It also gives me a bit of cushion if I end up being too technical or too nerdy.
Fifth strategy: For me, depending on the subject matter, a whiteboard can be a huge advantage. It's more interactive than a slide deck; there is activity on my part and anticipation on their part. And it allows me to anchor thoughts and point back to them a few seconds later.
TEP: Those are great suggestions! You need buy-in for all technology projects, even those that aren't "sexy." What are some practical strategies for getting that buy-in?
Foster: It comes down to return on investment (ROI). But you have to know your audience because the "return" is different for everyone.
For the CEO or the CFO, it may simply come down to numbers. For instance, "We have shown a consistent 30 percent improvement in operating efficiency when using our software." You've just translated usage of the software to the bottom line.
For the forklift driver, it means painting a picture of how their daily work effort is improved. For instance, the data is more accurate, so they spend less time trying to explain away missing or inaccurate data. Containers are exactly where the system says they are, drastically reducing time spent looking for lost material and increasing efficiency. Everyone likes it when you make their job a little easier.
TEP: When a technology project isn't going according to plan, what are the most effective ways to communicate with top managers about it?
Foster: Two things: First, always be up front with senior managers about the status of the project. Managers don't like surprises, and there is rarely any good reason for you to give them one. Being forthright when a project starts to have problems, though difficult, is almost always easier than bringing management into the circle after the project has completely gone off the rails.
There is a balance. You don't want to barrage managers and CEOs with every little issue that arises. The criteria I use are the following: Does the situation at hand have the potential of disrupting the timeline of the project, or changing the scope of the project?
Secondly, use data. When a project isn't going well, emotions have a tendency to run high. Assumptions and exaggerations are common, which rarely lead to clear thinking and good solutions. Real data cuts through all the human emotion. It is hard to argue with the facts (though some people still try!). The situation at hand is laid out clearly, forcing the group to focus on resolution. We get paid to resolve issues, not to be petty.
Of course, this requires your project to have properly collected data from the very outset. Once a situation occurs, it's often too late.
TEP: What advice would you give CIOs and CTOs about communicating with top executives and helping them understand the importance and impact of IT projects?
Foster: I think one of the key job requirements for the CIO/CTO position is the ability to live in two different worlds. You are a connector, or to be less technical, a translator. You transform business requirements from top management and shareholders into very specific technical objectives carried out by your team. In return, you have to summarize all the details about the project (what can and cannot be done and why, timelines and status) in a way that is easy to understand and drives confidence about your organization.
My main advice would be not to assume. As technical specialists, we believe the merits of our projects are inherently obvious. But they are not. I try to paint with and without pictures of the projects we are working on. Show how your project works toward meeting business goals, but also be willing to show alternatives.
Finally, don't be a whiner, and don't be defensive. Engineers often have a reputation for being cynical and non-flexible. That may or may not be the case in your organization, but either way, you should convey an attitude of confidence, flexibility, and a desire to help meet company goals.