Be brief: Don't get lost in the weeds with tech debriefings

Learning the art of brevity is essential for everyone, but especially those in the IT field. The trick is to avoid jargon and dumbing things down and still discuss pertinent projects fast.

Image: iStock/shironosov

One of the most important skills for anyone, but particularly someone in the technology field, is the art of delivering information with brevity.

Joe McCormack, author of Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less, said there's a strong need for brevity in tech briefings. It's so crucial that he teaches workshops on the subject around the country. He recently taught a brevity workshop to 20 IT leaders at US Gypsum and then to a Chicago conference of chief information security officers as part of his company, The BRIEF lab, a subsidiary of The Sheffield Company, where he is managing director and president.

"There's a huge applicability within the information and security realm," McCormack said. "The hook for a technology person is the inherent challenge you're untangling something which is inherently complex for people who don't understand it. As technology becomes more and more mainstream, it doesn't change that it's complicated."

Image: Joe McCormack

When an executive asks for a tech debriefing, the IT person often talks at a level high above the understanding of the executive. This creates an annoyance because the executive doesn't understand what is being said. McCormack focuses his workshops on teaching IT professionals to give a tech update in 90 seconds if they're in a meeting, or if they run into a company executive while walking down the hallway and they're asked about how the project is going.

This impacts the bottom line because IT spending is often discretionary. Anyone who wants to increase their IT budget needs to know how to discuss their department's projects with the company's executives so that the projects are considered relevant and valuable.

"The big thing for people is brevity is an expectation in business. When people ask questions, 'why are we doing this,' they expect a very tight, well thought out, well organized answer," he said.

As McCormack explained in October during a presentation at IdeaFestival 2015, as written about in TechRepublic, there are three tendencies that keep most people from being brief:

  1. The tendency of overexplaining
  2. The tendency of underpreparing
  3. The tendency to completely miss the point

"I was a journalist in college. A journalist is thinking, 'Why would a person read this.' A tech person has to think the same way. 'Why would a person listen to me?'" McCormack said.

One way to get someone to listen to you is to speak in a headline. But in order to speak in a headline, you have to prepare and know the point of the headline, he said.

IT people, "want to show how smart they are. I think sometimes there's not even a sensitivity. Sometimes they want to show they're smart. Sometimes they don't even realize they're doing it."

This happens in other instances as well. McCormack said he might be embarrassed if he takes his car to the shop and doesn't understand the mechanic's description of the problem. But a business person will simply get annoyed if an employee doesn't make sense, and will think they're trying to talk above their level of understanding in order to pull one over on them and make them look stupid.

Often, when a tech person is talking, it's riddled with jargon, it's overly long, and there's no point, McCormack said.

"I think the big challenge is how to untangle that for people and not feel like you're dumbing it down. I think you have to start from square zero. It's almost like talking to a person who doesn't speak English. You have to think about how you can reframe things in ways that are easy for people to understand. You want to use devices to do that," he said.

If people don't have the base level of information you have, you have to start with, "if I were them, what would I want to know," he said.

"Put yourself in a person's shoes and how to keep it really simple for them as a starting point. Why would they care and find the moments that they do care and play upon that," McCormack said. "There are different layers in business. People in business are very busy and care about the numbers. Focus on why would they care and start there. Not playing on their fears and starting there."

By Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a former Associate Managing Editor at TechRepublic. She oversees TechRepublic's news team and TechRepublic Premium. She focuses on tech and business and how the two worlds intersect. Teena's lifelong journalism career has included wri...