You’re finally ready to meet with your boss about your proposal. You’ve lined up several vendor presentations, completed a preliminary budget forecast, and written an overview of the project’s scope and potential benefits. You’ve spent a lot of time on this and firmly believe that if it’s green-lighted, the project can transform the way your organization functions. You’re upbeat and enthusiastic as you walk into your meeting.

An hour later, you’re back in your office, thoroughly deflated. Your boss didn’t actually hate your proposal, but she didn’t share any of your excitement about its possibilities. She listened politely but wasn’t impressed. Instead of the ringing endorsement you’d hoped for, she told you that she’d like to “think about it.”

Playing back the meeting in your mind, you wonder what went wrong. What could you have done differently? Did you not provide enough information? Should you have given more detail on the budget worksheet? Would a longer overview have helped?

Before you start burying your boss with even more information, consider the possibility that the problem wasn’t what you said but how you said it. In this column, I’m going to argue that if you really want to communicate effectively, you must present information in the style most amenable to your audience. In other words, as an IT manager, you have to speak their language.

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Of whiteboards, Word docs, and worksheets
This is no profound insight on my part but rather a recognition of what every student learns in Psychology 101: Different people have different means of assimilating information.

To illustrate my point, I don’t have to look any farther than my boss. While he can analyze a balance sheet, of course, he can’t pretend to get excited about looking at a business opportunity on an Excel worksheet. He’d be the first to admit that he’s not a numbers guy.

But put him in front of a whiteboard, and it’s a different story. He likes to break down problems and processes visually, and he’s constantly drawing pictures on any whiteboard within reach. Sitting across my desk in a meeting, it doesn’t take too long before he’s bounding out of his chair and asking, “Is that stuff on your whiteboard important?” In an instant, he’s erasing with one hand while drawing with the other.

(For his birthday a couple of weeks ago, we got him specialty dry erase markers, whiteboard wet wipes, and miniature whiteboards so that he would always have one handy.)

Personally, I prefer the written word (not a surprising confession from an editorial guy). If someone is pitching a proposal to me, I’d like to see it in writing with a summary overview and the highlights bulleted. But that’s me.

After a few months of working with my boss, I find myself going to the whiteboard a lot more often when talking with him for a couple of reasons. First, I have found that visually representing a problem or process can help you when casting about for solutions. Second, if I’m seeking my boss’s buy-in on a particular project, I want him to understand what I want to do and be as excited about its potential as I am. For my boss, that means presenting information visually.

I could offer him a 10-page Word document on my proposal. That would be my preferred format, but why put another obstacle in my project’s path?

My director for business planning and analysis is a different story. While she’s comfortable making and giving PowerPoint presentations, her financial analyst background makes her even more comfortable with Excel worksheets. She truly is a numbers person and tends to view problems from a financial perspective.

Implications and caveats
As I said earlier, this strategy is more common sense than rocket science. While thinking about these different styles of communication, don’t forget to consider these points:

  • It’s all good. The fact that some people learn visually, while others learn best through words or numbers, shouldn’t be taken to imply that one method is superior to another. They all have their place. That leads to my next point.
  • A good manager is “multilingual.” Even though I prefer to see proposals in a text-based format, that doesn’t excuse me from being able to navigate a worksheet or a PowerPoint presentation. A good technical manager must be able to communicate in a variety of “languages.”
  • Try multiple “languages.” If a particular presentation is important to you, try offering multiple formats. For example, you might want to lead a meeting with a PowerPoint presentation and then offer to e-mail a worksheet to anyone who wants more detail on the budget implications.
  • Pick your battles. As with just about everything we discuss in this column, be smart about when to use these techniques. If you took the time to analyze your audience’s preferred learning method every time you needed to communicate something, you wouldn’t have time to do your job.
  • Style is no substitute for substance. We’ve been talking about how to communicate, taking it as a given that you’ve nailed the actual content of what you want to say. No PowerPoint presentation, Word document, or Excel worksheet—no matter how artfully prepared—can cover the fact that you didn’t do your homework in the first place. Do that first and then figure out how to present your findings.

Are you “multilingual”?

Have you made an effort to learn the “language” spoken by developers, accountants, or other team members who don’t converse the way you do? How do you adjust your communications method? Post a comment to this discussion and enter our weekly contest.