Jody Bruner from Wavelength and David Donaldson from TidalShift, experts in project management, team up to discuss one of our most asked about topics: communicating to non-technical people.
D: Welcome. Today we have Jody from Wavelength Communication Skills Training and myself, David, from TidalShift. We’re here to talk to you about technical communications. Now, just as we get started, we want to just baseline this: We’re not talking about IT technical, we’re talking about any industry, any department within an organization has its own technical language.
We think about legal, we think about marketing, we think about finance. They all they have their own vernaculars, the how they speak and the language they use and that base of knowledge. Now, whenever we are communicating to another department outside of our own area, that’s when we’re getting into the technical to non-technical communication which is problematic for a lot of people. So I want to just shift our thinking a little bit and recognize that we are all technical writers. Doesn’t matter what industry or department we’re in, when we write, we write within that context. So we are here today to provide some tips as to how we can be more effective in our communications with those other areas.
The first is: Focus on the reader’s needs. The second is: Assess knowledge and educate. And the third is: Create a safe space.
Jody, what are your thoughts on focusing on the reader’s needs?
J: I think the key is to remember that it’s not about what I want to communicate to you, at all. It’s really much more about what do you need from me in order to do your job to further the goals of the project that we’re working on together. It’s real important to not demonstrate your deep knowledge of your own expertise, but to be humble and remember that it’s not about you in this situation, it’s about helping the reader, the audience, take the next step that they need to take and how can you help them with the knowledge that you have. How can you help them take that step successfully?
D: You mean it’s not all about me??
J: Well, it’s always all about you! (laughter) A little bit is always about you.
D: That’s some excellent advice. We really want to get into the WIIFM “what’s in it for me” from a reader’s perspective. The second piece, again also from the reader’s perspective, is what level are they at. As a high-functioning expert, I’m somewhere up here within my technical area but my reader is going to be somewhere down here because they’re not within our area at all, they don’t have my same knowledge experience and technical expertise. So the first thing I need to do is come down to their level and then educate them to bring them up to a level where we can have that effective conversation. When we start a conversation often times there’s not enough base there for us to have a conversation so let’s come down to their level first, educate up to a level, and now we can start to have that effective communication. The third piece is about making that safe space.
J: You’ve got to remember that when you have to admit ignorance about something it makes us vulnerable. If I need to ask you questions I want to be safe, I want to feel safe that I won’t feel judged so you gotta just make it really comfortable. Really safe. Be mindful of the assumptions that you make. Make sure you start at the base where the reader is, the audience is, comfortable and familiar, build up step by step in a really logical way, always questioning the assumptions that you have.
D: And I think part of making that a safe space is no nit-picking. I’ve seen this is in, and I’m going to pick on IT, I’ve seen this in the IT world when someone refers to their computer as their hard drive. You see the technician correct them and say “no, that’s the computer, the hard drive is a piece inside”. And you just see the lines of communication breakdown. The person feels like they’ve been degraded. They feel ignorant. It makes them feel bad. It doesn’t forward the communication so we want to be very mindful about keeping the lines of communication open, keep the relationship established.
J: That’s right, if you make me feel defensive then I stop learning and I also don’t like you very much because you make me feel stupid. Nobody likes that.
So to sum up, the three points we want to convey: focus on your audience’s needs, carefully evaluate and meet their prior knowledge and educate them as much and as respectfully as you can creating a safe space for that. As always be plain, be simple, be clear.
D: Fantastic. Thank you so much.
I largely agree with the tips offered in your tech to non-tech video. But I want to challenge the suggestion that “it’s not about what I want to communicate to you, at all.” Not because it’s wrong, but overstated.
The most effective communications, I argue, line up the needs of the speaker/writer – their purposes in communicating – with the needs of the audience/reader as perfectly as possible. Your legal, marketing or finance departments are all communicating for a reason. And that reason must drive things.
When training experts (in business, political science or quantum computing), I’ve always found it more effective to explain the WIIFM of elevating the audience/speaker needs; of giving them equal status. Then you absolutely focus on the audience/reader’s WIIFM, information needs, comfort level and so much more.
If nothing else, you may find that this small change in what you tell trainees about needs motivates them to better follow your other advice.
Hi Michael, I completely agree that we are overstating. You need a clear objective and an ideal outcome in mind. But how you achieve that has less to do with how you want to communicate and more to do with how the audience needs to hear the message. It’s tough for most people to make that shift.