We’re technology people, but we can still learn to communicate better

Use these tips to get your message across and connect with your audience

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We’ve all felt it before.  We’re in the middle of a presentation and we can see the audience looks bored. Or we read the terse response to an email we just sent. We all struggle at times getting our point across effectively and respectfully. 

You may understand where your audience is coming from, but are you speaking their language?

This is especially crucial when you are giving a presentation. Before you start, ask yourself, what’s important to my audience? Are they technical? Will they understand all of the complex ideas and language I tend to use? The hard part is to remember that even technology people may not be as knowledgable in your specialty as you are. Start with simple terms, you can always build up if the audience stays with you. And if they don’t, keep the terms simply and the ideas concrete.

Even when you are communicating 1:1, unless you’re talking to a team mate in the same specialty, the other person will have different goals and priorities and a different way of approaching your subject. Starting from their viewpoint will help you frame the conversation or presentation that you are giving.

Use concrete ideas with analogies and metaphors that anyone can understand

We all fall in to this trap. No matter what our role is, we have mastered technical skills and knowledge that are critical for our jobs. And all of the people around us that don’t have the same role that we have probably haven’t mastered those same skills and knowledge. All of that knowledge makes us really good and effective at what we do. It also affects our brains to think more abstractly about that subject matter, which allows us to apply our subject matter expertise to many areas and in creative ways.

But here’s the problem, when we start to communicate that subject matter expertise with others outside of our role or field, we naturally continue to speak in the same abstract and complex terms that we ourselves think in. And that’s when we lose our audience, because they can’t think in those same terms. We need to remember to take our ideas and back up a notch, and describe them in very concrete terms that anyone can relate to. So for example, as a security practitioner if I start talking about Cross Site Scripting and user input being rendered back to the browser, anyone not in my field will have no idea what I’m talking about. But what if I use a few extra sentences and describe the problem of taking what the user types into a web form and then the server ends up putting part of what the user typed in on to the resulting web page. Most people could follow that sequence and I can build from there to describe why that can be a problem.

If you aren’t writing an academic paper, use simple language

This may sound similar to the last point, but here we are talking about avoiding big fancy words and showing off our vocabulary. That might be fine to do if we were writing a short story or a novel, but if we want to get our point across and persuade our audience we need to use words that everyone understands. This is why most newspapers in the US are written at a middle school reading level. It just makes understanding an article easier for the reader.

At the same time, it’s really important to be conscious of words that might be taken out of context or have negative connotations. For example, I used to write a lot of technical assessment reports, and it was common for my team and me to observe a practice or process that existed, but wasn’t very mature or effective. So we would write in the report that the client lacked the specific items they needed to have in place. And to many of us, the term “lacked” simply meant that whatever they did have wasn’t sufficient. But many clients read that to mean they didn’t have anything in place at all, which would sounds much worse to any executive or board member reading the report. I use this example, because this might sound to the report author to be a minor distinction. And objectively speaking it probably is fairly minor. But to the client it meant the difference between telling their leaders that they had done absolutely nothing (i.e. lacked the practice) and saying they had made a start to putting the right practice in place, but it needed additional work (i.e. avoiding the word “lacked”).

I have found that paying more attention to these 3 areas has made my communications much more effective. I hope you find it equally helpful.