Communicate Clearly

By Sixto Ortiz Jr. | November 2006

"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication," Leonardo Da Vinci once said. But even a genius like Da Vinci would find it tough to keep the discourse simple in today's information technology explosion. Technology is everywhere, and with it comes the endless parade of acronyms, buzzwords, and dense technical language that mystifies many and few understand.

Managers, business people, even customers, at times require clear, lucid explanations of complex technical topics. Unfortunately, IT professionals with technical expertise often fall short when attempting to communicate complex technical concepts to non-technical personnel. Whether it's justification for a new piece of equipment or interviewing for a promotion to a managerial role, effective communications skills are essential to the success of technical personnel who want to move up the corporate ladder.

The Tower of Babel

In today's corporate world, it often seems like technical and business people speak completely different languages. So the end result is technical people who can¿t get their point across and business people who regard technical personnel as skilled technicians with little or no management potential.

In a sense, business and technical people are building their own Tower of Babel as each struggles to peer through the communications fog and understand one another.

Industry survey statistics seem to bear this out. Katherine Spencer Lee, Executive Director for Robert Half Technology, an information technology staffing firm, points to a survey conducted by the firm a few years back that asked respondents to assess the greatest challenge for technology professionals in working with end users. 40% of respondents, says Spencer Lee, said conveying technical information in non-technical terms was their biggest challenge.

So, for technical professionals who want to move up the management ladder the challenge is clear: Bridge the communications gap.

The IT Challenge

In many cases, the communication gap looks more like a bottomless chasm. Cheryl Currid, President of Currid and Company, a Houston-based technology consultancy, says some of the biggest obstacles technical professionals face today in becoming more effective communicators include a lack of training in communications, little or no time spent learning how to communicate better, and lots of time spent locked in a glass house and speaking only "tech talk" with colleagues.

"Tech people don't always speak English," says Currid. "While it is true that every field has goofy jargon, the IT group seems to have more than its share," she adds.

Robert Half Technology¿s Katherine Spencer Lee points out that most IT workers have traditionally received very little training in the way of soft skills like communication, customer service, problem solving, and the like.

Compounding the lack of training, adds Spencer Lee, are some of the obstacles facing technical professionals who want to become more effective communicators. Some of these include a perception that communication isn't part of a technical professional's job, the reality that some companies still don¿t recognize the importance of training IT staff in communications, and a lack of recognition by management that good communication in IT is important, she says.

"So," says Spencer Lee, "it's not surprising that they're often deficient in this area."

But, this cloud has a silver lining: "These are competencies that can be learned, and savvy IT pros who want to grow into managerial roles are learning the value of these soft skills," says Spencer Lee.

Learning the Skills

While some of the burden lies with managers who need to plan for providing IT professionals with the training they need to obtain and sharpen their communications skills, IT professionals can themselves take some simple steps to enhance their communications skills.

"Take a user to lunch and learn about the business," recommends Cheryl Currid. "Then, ask to be invited to staff meetings with business people (at first, just take notes but plan on making a presentation someday)."

Currid also recommends that IT executives educate staffers on "business speak, the business of their business, and speaking techniques." Also, IT executives should budget funds to train staffers, starting with how to make presentations to non-IT people. Letting people video tape their presentations, she adds, is a wonderful way to pick up on little speech issues, body language, and clarity of the material presented.

Presenters should ask themselves, "Can I explain this to an eight year old?" says Currid.

Robert Half Technology's Spencer Lee says IT professionals should avoid buzzwords when presenting complex issues. "Keep the use of technical jargon to a minimum by relying on analogies and simple diagrams," she says. Cheryl Currid points out that concepts can be explained effectively when stated "by comparison."

"For example, if the corporate printer is running at full tilt, and a new one should be purchased, the IT manager should state the problem," says Currid. Figuring out the daily/weekly/monthly print runs in length (by assuming each page is 11 inches) and then presenting that statistic in miles can help illustrate the concept.

"This was an old trick of Ronald Reagan¿s when he was trying to get something across to the general public," says Currid. Good advice, considering Reagan was widely praised as The Great Communicator.

Spencer Lee also recommends that technical personnel avoid jumping to conclusions and commit their full attention to what non-technical personnel have to say, even if the solution to the problem seems obvious. Also, she adds, technical personnel should show empathy and make an effort to understand others¿ points of view, schedule one-on-one and group meetings for planning and solution-oriented discussions (instead of relying on email or telephone), and be patient.

"Some individuals might take longer than others to comprehend technical issues. Try using different phrases or illustrations until everyone has grasped the concept," says Spencer Lee.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to the importance of effective communications, Cheryl Currid points to a favorite Lee Iacocca quote, which states that "you can have brilliant ideas, but if you can't get them across, your ideas won't get you anywhere." IT professionals often devise brilliant technical solutions to business problems, but if the technical merits of those solutions sound like Esperanto to non-technical folks, the effort and the potential are both wasted.

Technology can be quite daunting for those who are not as well versed as IT professionals with the complex details of the technologies that make today¿s business hum. As they say, the devil's in the details. IT professionals who learn to communicate effectively and take the mystery out of technology will stand out and become even more valuable assets to the business.

Sixto Ortiz Jr. is a Houston-based journalist who has been writing about information technology since 1996.