No one doubts the intelligence of technical people, but that doesn’t mean they’re good at everything. One of the areas where many could use some improvement is communicating technical information to non-techies.
Techies often believe that communication is one of those skills that is nice to have, but not critical to their career. If they ever need it, they believe they’ll figure it out. How difficult can it be?
What they soon discover is that communicating effectively is challenging, and communicating technical information to non-techies can be a nightmare. They can’t seem to convey what they believe to be simple information to a non-tech audience, who fire back that these techies look down on them because they’re struggling to understand.
To make matters worse, senior leaders become increasingly frustrated with the poor communication, letting the techies know this shortcoming could hurt their careers.
If you’re in technology, it’s time you started giving more serious thought to how you will communicate, especially with non-techies. With some planning, non-technical audiences will begin to applaud your efforts and really learn what you’re trying to teach them, instead of becoming frustrated and complaining about your efforts to their bosses.
If you’re asked to explain technical information to a non-technical audience, here’s what you need to do:
Don’t assume anything. Don’t sabotage your efforts from the beginning by assuming that your audience has some basic tech knowledge. Try conducting a brief survey of attendees before the meeting to determine the skill level. Consider providing a “cheat sheet” of terms you plan to use repeatedly, along with definitions so that your audience can refer to them throughout the workshop or training sessions. While tech speak is second nature to you, it will seem strange – and a bit intimidating – to the non-technical audience. Remember to stay away from acronyms such as EC2, SEM or XML, as non-techies may think you’re talking about robots from “Star Wars.”
Don’t try to do too much. Be realistic in how far you can move your audience in one session. You may need to hold regular meetings and plan a strategy for how information will unfold. Sometimes you may feel you’re only making incremental progress, but to those who are unfamiliar with the subject, it may feel like an earthquake.
Hit them where they live. Your non-technical audience is going to be much more receptive to your information if they understand how it will help them do their jobs better or easier. Do your homework beforehand so you have a good picture of the hassles and headaches of attendees – then craft your presentation to specifically tell them how this technology is the answer. Try to use many of the terms they may use in their everyday work day so they feel more comfortable with the information being presented.
Level the playing field. Non-techies may believe they’re being talked down to when technical personnel present new information. That’s why it’s important to break the ice by letting your audience know that while you have technical expertise, you have no clue how to drive a forklift or how to deal with an angry customer. Those are the things they’re good at, and you have respect for what they do. Let them know that you’re there simply to help them understand technology better. Just because they’re unfamiliar with technology does not mean they’re stupid.
Don’t data dump. While data may be a head rush for you, the non-techie is going to be less enamored by a bunch of statistics and random facts. Try to only include numbers if you can directly link them to something they need to know: “This software can reduce the number of customer complaints from 15 a day to one.”
Use a canary in the mine. Ask a non-technical employee to sit through a dry-run of your presentation or training. Then, ask for an honest assessment (it helps to select someone who is outgoing and articulate). What went right? What went wrong? Where can you make improvements before unveiling it to a group? This non-techie also can later provide a testimonial to the rest of the group, underscoring the value of the information and training you will be providing.
Engage them on all levels. While it’s tempting to use technical slides full of charts and graphs, try to steer away from those in your presentation. Look for visuals that illustrate your point, such as photos of inventory backed up in the warehouse because an old software system needs to be updated. Many people are visual learners, so think of providing a diagram that shows how the new system will operate and eliminate inefficient practices.
Ask for feedback. People may be shy about asking questions, feeling like they’re “dumb” questions. Provide multiple ways for people to meet with you or contact you, until they feel more comfortable asking the questions in a group. Assure them that your job is to teach them, not judge them.
Finally, to get inspired and give a more dynamic presentation or training session, try watching online promotions for high-tech equipment and how information is communicated. There are various technology product ads, such as those for Super Bowl 49, that show what grabs the attention – and what is simply boring and confusing. (Maybe you’ll even find a way to fit in some to screaming goats.)