Don't explain an idea to a deer in headlights

Communicating technical concepts to business drivers can drive even a tactful developer to the brink. Here are four things you can do to make the process easier.

Are you often tossed into impromptu client meetings where you have to explain complex system architecture or application components to business people? Do you get blank stares and aimless glances at handheld devices? If so, read on; this article provides some advice on communicating complex technical concepts to nontechnical folks.

Ditch the jargon
Any time you’re tempted to use a term that you even suspect might not be understood, you should think twice before using it. I remember attending a meeting where we were discussing DLLs, OCXs, VBXs, and TLBs. A customer support manager piped up and asked about TLAs. The room went a little quiet. I could tell no one wanted to own up to not knowing what a TLA meant. So, I decided to take the hit: “What’s a TLA?” The room went silent. The customer support manager quipped, “TLA is a Three Letter Acronym”. The room erupted with laughter.

The point is that you may throw out an acronym that no one wants to admit not knowing. When I’m training a class, I make a point to define every acronym that will be used during the day or at least point everyone to the glossary if the curriculum has one. You should not assume that everyone knows what you’re talking about; furthermore, don’t assume they’ll tell you even if they don’t know. Chances are they won’t. By rephrasing explanations without jargon, you can win some friends on the business side.

Don’t be condescending
The other day I was out with some colleagues and we walked by a booth that was selling handheld devices. The salesperson said that the device used a particular technology (I don’t remember the name). While I pride myself on being a tech-centric person, I confessed to the salesperson that I was not familiar with that technology. He gave a visible flinch of surprise. This kind of response to my ignorance undermines both my self-confidence and my willingness to ask for more information.

In the case of the handheld, I wouldn’t make a purchase from that vendor again. When you are trying to relay a concept to nontechies, make sure that you don’t isolate them by coming across as condescending.

Prepare a one-page hints document
If you will be discussing new technical topics with a nontechnical group, then you might consider creating a one-page glossary with key words, descriptions, and hyperlinks to more information. The list of hyperlinks to industry publications can empower the group you are trying to relate to.

Every PowerPoint presentation I develop has a glossary at the end. Be sure to give this out prior to your meeting; with internal clients, post it to the company intranet or a centralized folder on the network. They will appreciate your doing so, because they won’t have to write down keywords or try to remember definitions.

The suggestions in this article are not revolutionary but can go a long way in helping you communicate technical concepts to a nontechnical audience. The next time you give a presentation, don’t forget to distribute the glossary or hint sheet.

Are your business-side peers stuck in headlights?
How do you communicate with nontechnical folks? Drop us an e-mail or post a comment below.


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