2015 / 19 March

Giving technical explanations to non technical people

makeitclearMany situations require that as an IT developer/analyst/architect you need give some technical explanations to a non technical audience. This often happens when IT people have to talk to managers or to customers.

These explanations are usually not that easy, and the audience usually doesn’t understand. Why?

You’re just not explaining things well enough!

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. Albert Einstein

Here are 10 tips to make your communication effective while explaining technical issues to non technical people.

  • Remember that the goal of your explanation is not to make you look or sound smart, but to get people to understand what you are talking about. Your audience should at no moment feel stupid.
  • Tell your audience, they can interrupt for questions (unless if you are delivering a TED Talk!).
  • Adapt your explanations to your audience. If you don’t know your audience, ask them how much they know about the technologies you are talking about.
  • Go straight to the point. You don’t have much of high attention time available from your audience. The first 2-3 minutes are crucial: don’t start with explaining non essential details.
  • Briefly explain the context. It is likely that your audience is not familiar with the context
  • Start with the helicopter view: a really very global explanation, then zoom in.
  • Draw! Use simple graphics, which can build up into more complex ones as the explanations are being given.
  • Simplify your explanations to the maximum. Going in details is usually not necessary.
  • Cut out all the computer jargon. Yes, most non technical people have no idea what a thread is.
  • Compare your situation to other situations your audience can understand. I often use car related situations, like driving on a highway vs on a city street…

Once you audience has understood the situation, you may dig deeper in details.
There is one problem with all this, people will tend to underestimate your efforts to solve the problem since it looks so simple as they understand it themselves!

One example:

Imagine you need to convince your manager that a web page cannot be considered as secure just because nobody knows it’s url.
A good way to do that would be to use a banknote. Ask him if it is secure if placed in a safe with a passcode that he is the only one to know. Then stick the banknote under his desk, and ask him if it safe there. If you manager answers yes, find yourself a new job! If the answer is no, then you can start comparing both situations, the banknote being the web page...

It is a challenge to give technical explanations to non technical people, especially because you need to start with the basics. This requires patience, a lot of patience! But it is rewarding when your audience gets to understand, and you might be surprised when you’ll be proposed a different approach to some problem.

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Email: gregory@vanass.be

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