IT professionals are entrenched in a world of technical jargon and endless acronyms–from AMQP to ZPL and everything in between. Without a doubt, the technical interactions around the infrastructures you maintain are paramount. But your non-technical interactions with non-IT colleagues are also important. In fact, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that improved communications was one of the top 5 strategic priorities for CIOs.
A common misconception is that strong communication skills are only a prerequisite for IT professionals on the management track, but they’re crucial for all IT professionals. If you’re looking to grow your IT career in a technical capacity, you still need effective communication skills to advance.
These skills can prove valuable in many contexts–for example, if you want to negotiate with vendors; build good security habits for your organization and protect your data; or get buy-in from C-level executives for a new initiative.
For this three-part series, we consulted three IT experts to compile some tips, strategies, and best practices on how to communicate more effectively with non-IT people in all tiers in an organization. Part One of this series will be on communicating IT concepts to general audiences (e.g., colleagues, customers, or employees).
Meet the Experts
Jonathan Feldman is the CIO of Asheville, North Carolina. He is also an award-winning writer, a global public speaker, and a columnist for InformationWeek. You can read his blog here and his InformationWeek articles here.
Miguel Jacq runs mig5, a sysadmin consultancy based in Melbourne, Australia. He blends the art of communication and systems administration for agencies and other sysadmin teams around the world, helping to improve and evolve their IT systems, workflows, and customer solutions.
Teresa Banks is a Manager for Information Security and Compliance Programs at the University of Arizona.
Know Your Audience: Talk Services, Not Servers
Jonathan Feldman, CIO of Asheville, North Carolina, says effective communication is all about knowing your audience. Feldman, who is also a writer and global public speaker, knows first-hand how important this is. “You have to use the jargon and the language of the audience,” he says. If it’s a tech audience, sure, talk about TCP delivery windows. But if it’s a business-minded or general audience, frame your message in the context of how IT affects them.
“No one cares about the server. They care about the service they receive,” he says.
Make Information Accessible to Everyone: “I Live in a World of Metaphors and Analogies”
“I’m often asked, ‘What do you do?’ and ‘I’m in IT’ just doesn’t cut it much of the time. I usually follow up by describing myself as an ‘internet plumber’! Once people start thinking in terms of pipes, flows, and mess, that clears a lot of confusion up,” says Miguel Jacq, who runs a sysadmin consultancy called mig5.
Using metaphors and analogies is a great communication tool for explaining IT concepts to non-IT folks. Just ask Teresa Banks, who’s the Manager for Information Security and Compliance Programs at the University of Arizona. Their office is responsible for explaining policy and guidelines to, and creating security awareness for, a campus of 55,000 students and employees.
“In our office, it’s quite a challenge to make communicating on those subjects accessible to people. And I have found that I live in a world of metaphors and analogies,” she says.
Banks is also a member of ITCats, a branch of Toastmasters International that’s open to campus IT professionals. There, IT staff can improve their communication skills and learn how to “translate ‘geek speech’ to English.”
“When I listen to people who are really, really good at public speaking and communicating in IT, they’re relating it to everyday things because inevitably, you’re going to have somebody in your audience who doesn’t do that. And it’s a challenge for IT people because while they are technically brilliant, they’re immersed in their world,” she says.
“It can be very hard to step back and think, ‘How do I explain this to somebody who doesn’t understand a border firewall?’”
She recommends stopping to really think about what would make sense to your audience. “How would you explain this to your child? How would you explain this to someone who knows absolutely nothing? This is the first time they’ve picked up a device. And once you do that, that helps them [understand],” she says.
Feldman echoes that sentiment. “It is about metaphor and analogies. You can’t expect to speak in acronyms and have someone understand you.”
“When you do that, you’re being passive aggressive. You’re trying to show everyone you’re the smartest guy or gal in the room, and no one appreciates that,” he says. “So you try to use plain English. You just have to simplify, and you have to not talk down to people.”
Making IT information relatable is especially crucial when it comes to critical topics like security. “We want security to be a habit. We have to work hardest to make things relatable because we are about not just helping our employees and helping our students to secure their own data, but their habits affect the data at the university. And it’s our job to make sure that regulated data is secure,” says Banks.
Our experts shared six simple, effective analogies and metaphors that you can use to explain complex IT concepts to anyone. Download our free guide here.
Explain It Eight Different Ways
Banks recommends using several different ways to explain and disseminate an important idea, even though it might feel like over-communication. “People hear things or read things in different ways,” she says. “We all learn differently. You have to say things in many different ways in order for people to get it. And if they don’t understand it the first time, we’ll try a different tack.”
For example, don’t just do an online presentation. Do a face-to-face meeting, a newsletter, and/or an email, too. All of this communication may feel like overkill, but consider the cost of your team or organization operating under different assumptions–that can be deadly to projects and goals.
Use Pop Culture Examples to Make IT Memorable, Relatable, and Fun
To make IT concepts more relatable, think about your audience–what’s going to appeal to the 20-somethings vs. the 40-somethings?–and what kind of pop culture elements you can bring in. “If you can bring something in pop culture-wise that people can remember, you get a lot further along,” says Banks.
As an example, her first security awareness campaign was James Bond-themed. “We called it ‘The Spy Who Hacked Me.’ Every presentation’s name was a twist on a James Bond movie. We’ve done pirate themes too. It’s memorable, it’s relatable, and it makes it fun,” she says. “What better way to relate to people talking about bad guys than pirates and spies?”