How to Talk Tech to Nontechnical People

shutterstock_Matej Kastelic

Communications isn’t just a skill for IT professionals in business-facing roles. Today, practically everyone who works in IT needs the ability to communicate technical concepts and information to end users.

Recruiters say hiring managers are often willing to substitute one technical skill for another when they consider candidates… but communication skills are a non-negotiable requirement. So what’s the secret to communicating technical concepts and information to nontechnical folks?

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In addition to patience and a dose of humility, you can rely on these key tactics:

Speak Their Language

If you want to communicate with businesspeople, you need to speak their language and understand the problems they’re trying to solve, noted Chris Alejandro, the head of IT for Arizona College. Alejandro keeps up with the latest business trends and terminology by reading Forbes, Inc. and Time as well as The Chronicle of Higher Education. He also has coffee with the college’s business leaders every Tuesday, just so he can hear about their latest challenges.

“Everyone lives in a world that they understand,” added Dr. Tony Eng, a senior lecturer who teaches a course in communication skills for engineering and computer science students at MIT.

“It’s not about dumbing down your message,” Eng said. “Being an effective communicator is about using vocabulary and terms that the audience can relate to and understand.” The presentation is always about the audience.

Eliminate Technical Jargon

Increase the audience’s understanding of technical material by avoiding jargon and defining a few key terms that they absolutely need to know. If you’re having a hard time removing unnecessary jargon from your repertoire, take a page from Eng’s curriculum.

His students practice eliminating jargon by playing a technical version of the word guessing game Taboo: Each student has to communicate a technical term to the class without using the word itself (or five similar words listed on a card). In addition, they have to successfully present technical subject matter to nontechnical people such as philosophy majors and high school students in order to pass the course.

Mix and Match Your Style

Not everyone learns the same way. An accounting and finance manager may prefer to see facts, figures and graphs that illustrate the potential cost savings associated with a revised application and business process, while a visually-oriented logistics manager may want to see a diagram that tracks the order fulfillment or order-to-cash process.

Put yourself in the user’s place, Alejandro advised, then tailor your communications methodology, approach and visual aids to match his or her learning style and business priorities. “Present concepts at a high level and check for understanding before you dive into the weeds… Every time you mention something your audience doesn’t understand, they get further away from you.”

Provide context, or use relatable analogies and narratives to help the audience understand the intuition behind a particular technology or solution, Eng said. Focusing on the benefits your solution provides will keep the audience engaged. “Citing examples can help the audience cross the bridge between your two worlds,” he added. “It’s much easier for them to envision something tangible instead of an abstract concept. That’s why painting a picture is usually an effective way to present unfamiliar technical material.”

Correct as You Go

Maintain the connection with your audience by checking for understanding as you go. Change course, solicit questions or simplify your message if you see puzzled looks on their faces. Be aware of what you’re saying and watch the audience’s body language to see if your message is resonating.

Generally speaking, less is more when it comes to communicating technical information to nontechnical people. “Involve the audience in your presentation or discussion and don’t data dump,” Eng said. “The best way to make sure you’re getting through is to have a conversation.”

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One Response to “How to Talk Tech to Nontechnical People”

  1. Shannon Anaya

    We just conducted training classes to teach a process that is shared between two companies who use different tools that interface with one another. We needed to teach them our need, from their system perspective. It was great though. We learned more about what their process was in order to help them understand how what they do translates into our tools. This is a good article to remind presenters to remember the importance of communicating in such a way that their audience doesn’t get lost in the weeds of one sided TechnoJargon.