When Facts Are Not Enough – 10 Tips for Communicating to a Non-Technical Audience

Project managers and technologists (geeks) are detail-oriented folks with a precise way of describing things, especially when those “things” are requirements or product descriptions. However, other people may be less interested in absolute truth and more interested in generally correct information. When a project manager talks with customers, potential customers, executives or project stakeholders, finding the right level of detail and “representation schema” (mental model) can be challenging.

As I was thinking about this partial failure to communicate that reflects different world-views, I thought way back to the U.S. Justice Department hearing with Bill Gates talking about Internet Explorer. Yes, some of us watched this while we used our Netscape browsers.  Now, I know these were adversarial proceedings, but I think the example of crossed communication wires is a good one. If you want to read the entire transcript – although I can’t imagine why – the Washington Post has it archived. Here is an excerpt with line numbers and some text removed:

Q. … tell me if you think there is anything in here (the definition of Microsoft’s web browser) that is inaccurate. The full entry of Internet Explorer reads as follows:  “Microsoft’s Web browser introduced in October, 1995….”
A. Well, certainly the product we shipped that was before October, 1995 was Windows 95. The browsing functionality we had in it we’ve updated quite a bit several times. And so defining Internet Explorer to be what we shipped just on one particular date can’t be considered accurate. You have to say that many times we’ve taken the browsing functionality in Windows, which we refer to as Internet Explorer, and we’ve updated that functionality. So you can’t really pin the definition to a particular date. It’s really a brand name we use for those technologies.
Q. Was this definition accurate in 1997 when Microsoft’s computer dictionary was sold to the public?
A. I already told you that reference to October 1995 certainly makes the definition inaccurate.
Q. Apart from that, is it accurate?
A. It’s not accurate to say that Internet Explorer is defined at a single point in time, that it’s one set of bits because it’s a brand that we have used for a set of technologies that have evolved over time. And in that sense I would take exception…

To say this communication was not going to end well is an understatement. Do you have conversations like this?  In the words of Dianna Booher, “ You need communication, not just information.”

When your job as project manager requires answering questions, providing understandable information and persuading listeners to make decisions certain ways, what can you do to help your case?

  1. Define your terms in the beginning. This includes explaining technical words and parts of the solution space e.g., “When I say ‘user’, I mean the person entering data into the software interface. When I use the term ‘customer’, I mean those using the software to get information about products.”
  2. Use examples in addition to data. Here is part of a product description for Albireo™ High Performance Data Optimization Software that tells the audience that it, “delivers ingest performance of 5.9 GB/sec/core with linear performance scale-out as additional CPUs.” You would probably lose some folks with this product benefit statement. Instead, tell the audience what impact a feature makes to them and their experience with your product.   
  3. Tell stories or use testimonials. People form opinions and make decisions for many reasons, not all of which are rational. Decisions can be influenced significantly by what they know like themselves have done before. If you do not believe me, check out Dan Ariely’s interesting book, Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.
  4. Have someone not directly involved in your project sit through a dry run of your presentation. Ask them what they think you said.
  5. Answer why questions without requiring them to be asked. Tell your audience the reason that a piece of data or decision is important in terms of cost, performance or ease of use.
  6. Give a little education about issues and prior decisions before beginning your presentation. Make your audience feel smarter about the problem and the solution.
  7. When customers, users or clients ask questions, make sure you understand the context or meaning the answer has for them.
  8. Do not provide too much detail. Many people lose the point if it is buried beneath a shower of numbers. However, have the data as backup, if you receive questions about your conclusions or recommendations.
  9. Sound bites are not all bad.  Even though politicians have given this phrase a bad name – the technique is designed to make a memory or impression in the listener’s mind.
  10. Practice humility. Do not try to come off as a “better than you are because I know this stuff” person.

If you have some effective techniques for communicating technical information to a non-technical audience, please share.

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