At some stage, most IT professionals have encountered glazed eyes, furrowed brows and blank expressions when they are communicating complex issues to someone without a technical background. In social situations, it can be an inconvenience.
When it comes to managers, board members and other senior stakeholders, it’s a serious issue. The secret to success is to take a slightly different approach in your communications.
IT professionals are not the only people who encounter challenges when communicating complex issues to people outside of their field of knowledge. There’s a reason why it takes time to prepare board reports – whether you’re in IT, finance, logistics or the marketing department.
Use plain language
We all speak our own languages within our professional fields. It provides clarity, increases the speed of communication and assures we are all on the same page. But when you’re talking to people outside of the IT profession, it’s helpful to avoid jargon and to use simple expressions to explain your point. This doesn’t mean dumbing down your message – nobody likes to be told how to suck eggs.
One of the most effective communication skills is to simply use plain English and avoid referring to things by their technical names or jargon.
Before you go ahead and explain what something is, ask if your audience is familiar with the term or concept. You can shortcut this process by getting to know your audience beforehand. If you’re talking to a room full of engineers, electricians or telco installers, chances are they’ll be familiar with more technical language, whereas a group of architects, marketers or accountants may not.
If you’re communicating in text, include a glossary of technical terms in your document. For emails and online messages, link to a glossary on the intranet that can be used as a ready reckoner. Expand acronyms, familiarise technical names and refer to alternative names for things.
Organise your message
Often the challenge in communicating complex IT issues is not simply because it is IT, but because it is complex. To communicate effectively, add some organisation to your communication skills and your message.
Start by stating the issue or to put it another way, get straight to the point. What’s the headline? Declare it at the start of your message to give your audience a touchstone that they can continually refer to.
There’s no point starting with the background, some context or a bit of scene setting. Not only is your audience’s time valuable, but they will be wondering what it is you’re trying to say. Leave them in no doubt – tell them at the top.
Only then can you go into the detail, and when you do, structure your message in bite-size pieces that are easy to digest. Include one detail in each paragraph or phrase and make sure that each one provides more information than the last. So, your headline states the issue in one simple sentence, the first paragraph expands on that and introduces the main detail, the next paragraph gives more information and another detail. And so on, and so on.
Complex information is shared more easily in the form of a story – it’s easier for you to tell and for your audience to comprehend. That doesn’t mean you need to fabricate a fiction, but make sure you have a beginning, middle and end.
It’s a good idea to limit your scope and tell only one story at a time. While your complex issue may be related to other issues, events, or people, it’s probably not essential to deliver all of that information at once. It can be helpful to refer to other information, provide links, or indicate that more information will follow – but only tell one story at a time.
The end is as important as the beginning. It’s an opportunity for you to repeat your headline, to tell them what action you want to take and to leave them with the message you want to convey. A good ending will help ensure your complex information is conveyed effectively.
Cater to different learning styles
Do you like to read manuals? If you do, you may be surprised to find out that a lot of people do not. It’s not because they are lazy or less intelligent, but because they have a different learning style.
The VARK model identifies four different learning styles – visual, aural, reading and kinaesthetic. Most of us are a mixture of the four styles, with one or two predominant and preferred learning styles. If you like reading a manual, clearly you have a reading learning style. Someone else may learn better with aural explanations or with visual cues, images and videos. Kinaesthetic learners learn by doing.
If you are communicating complex issues to one person you can simply ask what their preferred learning style is, or how they would like to receive information. If you are presenting your issue to a group, include a mixture of all four.
You don’t necessarily need to have four versions of your message, but you can include images or videos in your communication where relevant. Explain ideas verbally that complement your written message or take your stakeholders on a tour of the server room to see the objects that you are talking about.
Listen to yourself to communicate more effectively
Self-reflection is one of the most powerful ways to improve your communication skills. It’s challenging, yet rewarding to look inward and reflect on our previous performance.
Deakin University’s Professional Practice degrees not only teach you how to harness the power of self-reflection, but they recognise and qualify your wealth of skills and experience. These degrees have been created for professionals who have the background or potential for leadership but want the credibility of a postgraduate degree to enhance their IT leadership skills.
Deakin’s Professional Practice degrees are not a complex issue to communicate, but they are another story. Why not make it your story? Learn more about our Master of IT Leadership by getting in touch with our Enrolment team on 1300 043 524.