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June 5, 2017

Decoding the greenlight: Translating technology for business

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With tech week over in Wellington, I’ve had the chance to be inspired by experienced business people, investors, students and people starting out on exciting journey which could change the world, but there was a common theme amongst my conversations.

Technical folk are amongst some of the best and the brightest – fluent in code or analytics, but for all of their depth of understanding complex ideas, communicating the importance of their work or even what their work is to others is still a struggle, even after years of attempts. Any undertaking of the sort often ends in a short awkward silence, frustration, a ‘yep, yep, yep’ and then a topic change.

Whether it’s trying to talk about work with a friend over coffee or a high-stakes meeting with a client that involves funding and contracts, it’s a frustratingly common issue that can have disastrous repercussions. As someone who has experience in both tech and business, I am here to offer you some tools you can use to provide meaningful translation for others and finally get your point across.

TL;DR

Using common, simple language might be obvious in theory, but trying to keep it in mind while you’re in the middle of a conversation with a client is a whole different ball game.. It pays to do your research beforehand – even if that research is just lending an ear to conversations that are close enough for you to hear.

This entry used to be called “speak in plain English” but that isn’t quite the whole story. There are two working parts to this: speaking in plain English and speaking the language of your client. Firstly, make sure that everything you are saying can be explained to your local barista, preferably in the time it takes them to make your coffee. Meeting these criteria forces you to not only start at the beginning (instead of the middle, as we specialist are so prone to do) and compile what would have otherwise been a long-winded technical discussion into meaningful information for the other person.

Simplifying your speech forces you to leave out a lot of jargon, but if you do find yourself having to use specialised language, it’s useful to prepare a one-liner simple explanation for how it affects what you’re discussing. Kind of like the technical version of an “elevator pitch”. Any more than a few sentences and you risk losing your audience’s attention. However, I encourage you to use jargon – if it’s theirs. Outside of that, drop the jargon and in-depth explanations – just use the tl;dr version.

A WHOLE NEW LEVEL OF AGILE

You’ve heard of Agile – now it’s time to apply that to your communication skills.

To get your points across effectively, you’re going to need practice. Think about it: exactly none of the great speakers you know – Barack Obama or Steve Jobs, for example – just magically woke up one day that talented. It takes work! So, before your meeting, take the time to test and refine your explanations. You can even use Agile as a framework to speed up your improvement. To achieve this, it may be useful to take advantage of anyone who is willing to listen – use your local barista or friends / coworkers as a soundboard to distil your speech.

The most important thing to do here is listen. If the people you use as a soundboard do not understand what you’re saying, it’s highly likely that the person you are meeting with isn’t going to get it either. Begin by explaining things in terms that are natural to you, then listen to what they say back to you. Pay extra attention to the questions they ask you – more often than not, in their attempt to understand they will repeat what you’ve just told them, but in plain English, which you can incorporate.

By using this process to tweak the language you use allows you to potentially avoid your biggest hurdle – unresolved confusion.

Tip: If you notice that your audience appears to no longer be following along with what you’re saying, it can be useful to ask “I feel like I might have lost you. Where did I lose you?” so you can both walk back to find a common point of understanding and work from there.

LEAVE YOUR ASSUMPTIONS AT THE DOOR

You’re an expert in your field. What you do, what you know, took years to learn and implement into the high-quality skills you offer today. You cannot reasonably expect that someone without the same training and background as you understands the same things you do at the same amount of depth. Diving into a conversation like this without reining in your assumptions can be disastrous as you could accidently assume that they have knowledge and context that they actually don’t, causing all meaning of what you are saying to be lost to your client.

Here’s the thing – if your client was completely honest, they would say that they don’t actually care about how you work your magic, only how they can get their hands on that magic fairy dust to make everything better and get results. I know this is a little demeaning, but having this prior knowledge allows you recognise what you can potentially leave out and change your conversation to be something meaningful that they will actually get value out of. So instead of assuming they want to talk about the ins and outs of your process in achieving a goal, instead focus on the solutions you can provide them..

A good trick is to force yourself to start noticing every time you take a deep breath in order to start explaining something that takes more context, complexity or time than you can afford. Remember, at the end of the day your client is just looking for results and as tempting as it is to explain how many hoops you would have to jump through to get something working, it’s not worth it. By noticing your deep breaths, you can catch yourself before it’s too late and actually give them something that they can work with.

CHAMPION THEIR BUSINESS’ VALUES

You are already a specialist, you know how to become an expert in complex SQL queries, so doing this research will be a cake walk. Knowing the values of the business you’re working with can be excellent ammunition for proof of concept when it comes to you work. Every company has a “mission” statement on their website and if you take the time to understand the key points, you can incorporate them into the conversation. You can use these values to help justify your own work in how it contributes to them – and if you can memorise them to pull out on a whim, even better.

Using common language helps here too – What words are they emphasizing when they describe their own values as a company? What do they consider achievements to be celebrated and how can your work help make that happen?

ALIGN YOUR GOALS

Finally, possibly the most critical step – playing connect the dots.

I’m not kidding, if you can manage to successfully complete a connect the dots puzzle, then you can do this. Aligning the goals of your own work with your client’s goals is critical for translating your value to them. Though more often than not, you’ll be able to logically work your way up from the work you are doing to the current campaign goals or even the businesses overall mission – just like connect the dots. If it helps, you can actually physically do so on paper. The key to this is focusing on the products and outcomes of your work and how they contribute directly to the business and campaign goals, rather than trying to deep dive into technical jargon that will waive all meaning with the other person and potentially cost you. This is not an opportunity to show off how much you know, so just keep it at a “high level” analysis.

You should be able to draw a straight line.

Once you manage to directly match up the outcomes of your work to the campaign objectives of your client in such a way that you literally could draw a straight line between them, you have found your value. Not only that, but you have found the way to communicate your value to your client in a way that will impact them.

While doing this exercise, don’t be afraid to once again forego leaps in the technical process or extra steps that need to be taken. It’s good that you have that understanding so you can stay on track, but they don’t need to know. Focus on how you can help them, rather than how they can help you.

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