It’s pretty safe to say that every single person in this industry is regularly faced with the challenge of communicating with people who know very little about what we do. Whether you’re explaining a design, showing someone how to use a CMS or justifying expenses, talking to people with vastly different skillsets is a crucial part of 21st century businessing.
I’ve come up with some tips and tricks to greatly improve the frequently stressful, excruciating and sometimes downright dangerous process of talking about technical things with non-technical people. Most of this post is framed in the context of a “presentation” but the core concepts are the same whether you’re lecturing a room full of people or teaching your grandmother how to check her email.
With the exception of totalitarian dictators and bank robbers, effective communication involves establishing rapport. Technical people have some specialized obstacles in this department. In addition to the normal challenges of communicating with people you may not be very familiar with, your audience will most likely be bringing some rather unfortunate expectations to the table.
It’s a long-standing cliché that technical people chirp and beep like robots instead of talking with words that “normal people” understand. At this very moment, someone in Cleveland is standing next to a water cooler wearing a lanyard and making an incredibly mediocre joke about it. Your audience is almost definitely going to expect you to show up and babble incoherently at them. The good news is that subverting this expectation is actually pretty simple and, once you manage to do it, your audience will instantly be more receptive to the things you have to say.
The trick is to establish a new expectation and then deliver on that promise. This is a basic tenant of public speaking but, as a technical presenter, you have a unique set of challenges and solutions. Here’s the simple formula:
- establish solidarity
- raise their confidence level
Your first priority is to destroy the perceived intellectual divide between yourself and your audience. You know a lot of stuff that they are barely aware of. This makes them wary of you. You need to convince them that you are a peer and that they could potentially know all the same stuff that you know. The more they understand this, the easier communication will be.
Brief personal anecdotes are very effective here. Joke with them about your own struggle to wrap your head around the stuff you’re talking about. Depending on the subject and the setting, you might want to use some colorful language and/or talk smack about weaknesses of the tech. Metaphors can be helpful here as well, but be careful to avoid constructing overly complex ones.
However you get there, remember that you need to continue to reinforce this idea throughout your presentation. As you begin to get more technical, your audience will start to drift away from you. How much time/energy you spend reinforcing solidarity and raising their confidence will depend on your audience and subject.
The best way to stay on top of this is to maintain eye contact. Coincidentally, eye contact is also one of the most frequently overlooked and effective ways to engage people. If you’re using a computer during a presentation, make sure to spend more time connecting with your audience than looking at your screen.
Wading Into The Weeds
Once you’ve convinced your
victims that you’re not so different from them, you’re ready to get to the business at hand. This is where most presenters end up getting themselves into dicey territory. If you’re naturally personable, you may already be experienced at subverting your audience’s expectations and getting them ready to talk about things outside of their comfort zone. Unfortunately many of the same instincts and skills that make us good at technical stuff can often lead us terribly astray when it comes to explaining this stuff to other people.
The guiding principal here borrows heavily from the world of UX: filter absolutely everything through the lens of your audience. Obviously this is easier said than done. The following is a magical checklist that can help you avoid some common pitfalls that will tragically derail your presentations.
Sell It to Them:
People’s interest and patience in anything is directly proportional to their personal investment in that thing. If you start explaining something that’s difficult to understand without convincing people that it is in their best interest to understand it, they will quickly lose interest and inevitably begin to ignore you. This point cannot be stressed too heavily. It is one of the quickest and easiest ways to lose your audience.
Start At the Beginning:
Most people’s first instinct is to skip to the good stuff to avoid boring an audience and to maximize time. This instinct can be dangerous when you are presenting technical material. Be very careful to avoid glossing over rudimentary fundamentals. Remember that things which seem tedious and obvious to you may be completely foreign and novel to your audience. Often the key to helping people quickly understand difficult concepts is carefully engineering and arranging stepping stones.
Don’t Muddy the Water:
Choose beforehand which information is essential and which information can be left out. Every time you mention something your audience doesn’t understand, they get further away from you. Technical people have a common tick when we are explaining things: We blurt out some kind of crazy gibberish, realize that explaining it will be an insurmountable task, then we say something like “oh don’t worry about that” and try to move on. This gives people the impression that no matter how hard they try to understand what you’re saying, they’re not getting the whole story, so they might as well not even bother.
Prepare People for What You Are About to Say or Do:
In addition to selling people on what you will be presenting, you need to prepare them for how you are going to present it. Once again, this is a common tenet of public speaking with special significance for technical topics. Let’s say you have three significantly complex points to make and it will take about 15 minutes to make them. If you mention this before you begin to make these points, you will easily buy at least 15 minutes of patience and concentration. Conversely, if you fail to mention this, your audience will assume that you have just opened up the nerd spigot and will be gushing nonsense for the foreseeable future.
This is yet another common pitfall in public speaking that seems especially ubiquitous among technical folks. We start talking at a brisk pace and then we gradually increase speed until all hope of understanding us has gone the way of the dodo. Get into the habit of regularly checking your speed. Take a moment to pause after each concept. Ask folks if they’re following you okay. Try to channel Bob Ross if possible.
Generally speaking, abstraction is a benchmark of quality in our industry. We eat, sleep and breathe abstract thinking. Most industries are much less reliant on this sort of behavior. This can be a very tricky area to negotiate since many of the things we need to explain are inherently abstract. The best strategy is to simply identify the most abstract elements of the things you need to talk about and try to trim them back as much as possible. Visual aids can also help bridge the gap between you and your audience, but be cautious: one person’s helpful diagram is another person’s inscrutable concept art. Oversimplification and bending the truth can be handy devices as well. Which leads us to…
They Don’t Need to “Get It” Like You Do:
Our industry places a huge premium on technical precision. Most of us found our way into this industry because of our innate drive to track down all the details and wrap our brains around really complex stuff. We tend to be passionate about our understanding of the things we do. A good web developer can shift a simple conversation about URL structure to a history of the HTTP protocol in about 2.7 seconds. Don’t do that.
Never Get Flustered or Confrontational:
Nerds get weird when they lose their cool and we seem to be especially vulnerable to getting a little too worked up when things don’t go our way. To make matters worse, less technical folks tend to get defensive when they’re struggling to understand something technical. This can lead to some very awkward and bizarre standoffs that will result in wonderful anecdotal barroom fodder but very little else. It’s your responsibility as the presenter to keep your cool and gracefully help people move beyond their frustrations.
Like most stuff, this sort of thing is a skill. The more you do it, the easier it will be. So get up from behind that wall of monitors and go help your client realize that he doesn’t actually want to utilize AJAX/“paraluxxe” to display that 6,200 word bio of himself on his company’s home page.