Having worked with technical professionals (tech communication) ranging from top IT executives to Ivy League scientists to internationally ranked engineers, I fancy myself a cocktail party technologist – I understand enough about a wide spectrum of technical disciplines to discuss them for a minute or two, but can barely hook up Wi-Fi in my own house.
The reality is that there are a lot of people like me in every organization, and technical professionals rarely work in a vacuum – there are other divisions and departments to interface with, and key business decisions are often based around communication – can an IT executive adequately make a funding request to “the business”; can a professor approaching tenure make his or her case to a foundation; can an engineer make his or her client, often a finance professional, understand why a change is necessary? Tech communication is critical!
There are a few tips every technical professional can utilize to make communication with divisions, departments, clients, grantors, and myriad others much easier.
1. Pronouns – I have been to hundreds of technical presentations in the past, and when hearing men present I often hear the same generic gender-specific pronoun usage – He, him, his, himself, etc. – and as you can see, more often than not it has been specific to males. Alienating any segment of your audience is never a good idea.
2. Acronyms – My rule on this is simple, unless you are CERTAIN everyone watching you present, reading your email or receiving your document knows exactly what an acronym stands for – don’t use it! Spell it out instead. I cannot state this emphatically enough – I have witnessed countless instances when folks in one division of a particular discipline, whether IT or molecular biology, do not know what an acronym used in another division in that same discipline stands for. Assume your audience does not know and spell it out – the last thing you want is to be five minutes into your presentation and the audience trying to figure out what the first acronym stood for. (By the way, if you look closely, the first letter of these tips is an acronym as well, but the acronym is not stated!)
3. Information – Key message right away. Especially when talking to a non-technical audience, make sure to lay the groundwork for what we are going to be listening to, so that we can follow and understand. If you are waiting to the middle or end to unleash your message, chances are the audience may not be there with you as following complex technical information is not easy for everyone.
4. Relate – People often understand concepts and ideas related to their own experiences. If explaining a scientific or technical concept, relate it to something the audience already understands. Analogies, metaphors, contrasts all work, as do personal stories. I often ask professionals to explain a concept to me as if they were addressing an eighth grade class – I find this exercise works well to help a professional prepare a presentation to a non-tech crowd – this often generates stories and analogies that would otherwise have remained undiscovered.