Five years ago, most techies didn't have to worry about their speaking abilities. They weren't hired to give presentations or schmooze with customers. Making chitchat was not part of their job description. They were hired for their brains, plain and simple.
Fast forward to the new millennium. Companies no longer want smart geeks who can barely spit out a simple sentence in plain English. They want Renaissance people who are not only technically cutting-edge, but who can also communicate well. That means getting their point across to management and, equally important, to the folks who buy the stuff they create.
Fully aware job specs have broadened, many techies resent the fact they have to bone up on their communication skills. You'd think writing great software or managing complex projects was enough. Now you must divide your energy by thinking and expressing yourself in new ways.
Brandon Hall, editor of Brandonhall.com, an Internet learning resource in Sunnyvale, CA, says technical people have always been more comfortable with abstract and technical things than with people. "It’s because they never had to think about being assertive and convincing people," he explains.
Now they not only have to communicate, but they must do it in simple English, which often amounts to a daunting prospect.
The good news is there is plenty of information capable of bringing you up to speed. There are workshops and a slew of online courses. Some are free, but the better ones, according to Hall, offer more information and cost between $50-$100 for two 8-hour courses. Hall recommends headlight.com and click2learn.
The best courses for improving communication skills involve some type of interaction with another person, according to Kare Anderson, who heads Sausalito, CA-based The Compelling Communications Group, which Anderson calls a "strategic communications” firm.
You got it, Coach
As a speaker and coach, Anderson helps corporate executives and techies communicate better. She says online courses using streaming audio or video, real-time or downloadable, can be valuable, because there is some interaction with human beings (even though once-removed by a monitor). Nothing, however, beats one-on-one human contact. "It makes a big difference, since communicating is all about learning how to comfortably talk to another person," she says.
The problem with techies is they want to impart too much information without a context. “The context is how it affects the person they’re talking to,” Anderson explains.
Problems started when PCs were marketed based upon how they worked rather than how to use them. Even now, Anderson insists companies are still pitching them based upon capacity, rather than on end-user terms: “Technical people need to train themselves to talk in terms of ‘us,’ ‘you,’ and ‘me.’ It means telling people what they need to know in the language they’ll understand and use.”
The big one
The big mistake techies make is assuming everyone wants to know how something works. In reality, most of the world couldn’t care less. They just want to know what technology will do for them. “It means being very specific up front,” says Anderson. “Most technical people who break out of the safe confines of their technical niche find themselves in a heathen world where most people don’t understand them.”
Once outside the technical fraternity, “communicate facts your listener’s most interested in,” Anderson advises. “Inevitably, your listener will want to know more. And, don’t overwhelm someone with too much information.” Simply answer their questions, eliminating qualifiers, prefaces, asides, or unnecessary background information. Most people only process small amounts of information at a time.
Once you’ve made your point, stop talking and listen for follow-up questions to see if you’re targeting someone’s interests.
Anderson advises speaking in a pyramid style, where all the crucial “who,” “what,” and “where” are up front. “Think of communicating as delivering a one-two punch,” she suggests. “Tell someone the most vivid details immediately so they grasp what you’re saying. Think in terms of presenting conclusions.”
When explaining a new piece of software, Anderson suggests making a comparison or summoning a metaphor outside your industry. Example: “This new program is as fast and seamless as a new Porsche.”
The secret to effortless communication? Practice—lots of it. No one expects you to speak in sound bites, but if you drive home bottom-line issues of value, cost, and innovation, you’ve hit the bull's-eye.