As the account strategist at Loves Data, I work with both technical and marketing specialists daily. My role often involves translating technical stuff into plain English.
I’m not entirely technical myself, so sometimes the tech specialists and I have to do a couple of conversational loops before we start talking about the same thing. Working in any kind of technical role usually means having to explain complicated things to busy people.
In this blog, I’ll cover five easy communication tips to help you explain technical information to project managers, clients, and your mum.
1. Know who you’re talking to
If you don’t know who you’re talking to, ask. A project manager will care about different information to the client’s marketing manager, who will care about different information to the client’s web development team, etc.
Once you know who you’re talking to, it’s a lot easier to understand what they need and why they need it. If you have a basic understanding of what people in the organisation do, and what their goals are, you can speak about things in terms that are relevant to them. For example, the IT manager wants to know exactly why the website’s broken and how to fix it, the marketing manager wants to know how much of their audience they can’t convert while it’s broken, and how long it will take to fix it.
That said, it’s not your job to know everyone else’s job, so if you need more context, just ask. Something like “what’s the most important objective of this project for you?” is a good way to get to the heart of it. Getting this information early will lead to clearer communication throughout the project.
2. Say less
You know a lot more than your non-technical friend needs to know to effectively do their job. Start with the most relevant information first, and then work your way through only the necessary details.
The “most relevant information” is a lot easier to identify if you’ve completed step one and figured out who you’re talking to. If you’re going into a meeting with a project manager, the most relevant information is: “I can’t get this done by the deadline, and this is why.” If it’s the marketing manager, the most relevant information is: “the campaign isn’t working, and here’s why.”
As a technical team member, it might make more sense to start with the technical matters, working your way to the conclusion that something is either broken or fixed, working or not working, effective or not. This can be hard for non-technical team members to follow. Starting with the conclusion gives people context to follow along with the rest of your explanation.
Like high school essay writing, tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them. And remember – you don’t need to tell them everything. They won’t always need to know the history of .gaq. In fact, they probably never need to know the history of .gaq.
Obviously, an interested and curious person is a lot more fun to work with than another kind, but let them lead you, rather than overloading them with too much information to begin with.
3. Answer the question
This might seem obvious, but it’s a more common problem than you think. When a client asks “can we do this,” don’t start with the technical features that make the thing possible or impossible. Say “yes”, “no”, or “kind of…”, and then explain why.
Always remember to be solutions-focused when asked a question. If you can’t do the thing, explain why, and offer an alternative that might achieve the same objective.
4. Use pictures
Think about the best way to present the information at hand. Images, graphs, flow charts, are a great way to condense information, make comparisons easily and show how processes and events connect. People love pictures. Here are a couple of examples I created using Google Docs.
5. Check yourself before you wreck yourself
You might think you’ve explained something in a clear, concise, relevant, and engaging manner. For example, I have an analogy about Google Tag Manager as a small room attached to a larger, more complicated room full of crystal vases. If you stay in the small room, you can’t break anything in the big room. I think it’s brilliant, and the Google Analytics team says it makes sense. The design team thinks I’m speaking gibberish. What you think is luminously obvious might be inaccessible to your audience, so remember to check.
Remember to check with your audience – does that make sense? Do you have any questions? Are there any concerns I haven’t addressed? Likely, they’ll have questions. They might be reluctant to admit they haven’t got it, or they might not know they haven’t understood it until they try to implement it two hours later, so remember to be encouraging and available to answer any questions they might have.