Can You Hear Me NOW?
How IT professionals send listeners into the Communication Dead Zone
By: Core Ideas
Aug. 12, 2009 06:15 AM
As an IT professional, you talk about IT issues all the time. But when you speak to a business crowd, well… it can sometimes be very challenging, to say the least.
Have you ever been faced with this type of communication challenge? Let's say you're talking about cloud computing to your business users. After two minutes of speaking, your audience's eyes glaze over, brows furrow and zombie-like faces stare back at you. And no matter how many times you rephrase and restate your ideas, still, you're talking to a black hole. Do you feel like screaming, "Can you hear me NOW?!"
Welcome to the communication dead zone (CDZ for acronym aficionados). Your non-technical listeners don't have a clue what you're talking about. You've forced them to tune out and shut down, and once they fall into the CDZ, it's very very hard to pull them back.
How does your audience end up in this limbo world? What sends them into the dead zone and what can you do to remedy it?
In most cases, we put listeners in the CDZ by merely communicating like IT folks. We just forget that when we say, "networking" our audience automatically imagines chatting with colleagues over wine and cheese, or if we say, "AJAX" our listeners think of an abrasive bathroom cleanser.
What else do IT professionals do to put up communication barriers?
1. We use acronyms like CRM, SaaS, SOA, ERP, Five nines, ADSL, TAPI, BAPI and API. Whew! We just assume the audience knows what we are talking about. We say SMB and think, "Server Message Block" but our audience is thinking, "Small to Medium Sized Business."
2. We'll explain complex ideas with other complex ideas: "Cloud computing is a pool of abstracted, highly scalable, and managed compute infrastructure capable of hosting end-customer applications and billed by consumption." No wonder eyes glaze over!
3. We'll talk about cause and effect without an adequate explanation. We assume the listener gets the association and everyone has an IT background. "As you are all aware, the packet loss can cause considerable performance issues." That might compute for CCIEs, but your business listener is thinking, "What kind of performance issues? Will I still get my email"?
So what are some communication best practices we can put in place to keep listeners in their seats and out of the CDZ?
1. Use simple analogies and explanations. What if you were trying to explain digital video and how data must travel in a continuous stream in order to avoid losing frames during the video capture and playback process?
Why not try: "Think of your video capture card as throwing lots of baseballs and your hard drive is the catcher that must catch them all. If the video card starts throwing more balls than your catcher can catch -- then balls are going to be dropped. That's what's happening as data is pumped into your system and your drive must have enough "hands and catcher's mitts" to avoid dropping frames and data." Simple analogies like this can make all the difference between comprehension vs. confusion.
2. Kill the Acronyms. Never assume your audience understands your acronym. You can use an occasional acronym, but play it safe and right away parenthetically explain it.
3. Provide background or context. Especially for business listeners, give a short history of the project you're talking about. And when describing a technical situation, frame it with a bit of background to help anchor your ideas in some common ground. Think about talking to your mom. She's a very bright woman (after all, she has a brilliant kid in IT!) but does she really "get" Virtualization? Without talking down to the audience, provide the background, history or context so even your mom can understand it.
4. Never make assumptions. Your audience is bright and eager to hear what you have to say, but don't assume they have a level of understanding on technical issues. One of the best practices is to entertain a dialogue rather than a monologue. Whether you're communicating to a small group internally or a large crowd at a conference, periodically take the pulse of the audience: simply ask a question. "How many of you think of coffee when I say, 'JAVA'?" That way you'll always stay on the same plane.
5. Examples, examples, examples! You can't underestimate the power of examples. Throughout our schooling, we had teachers who were really good at explaining obtuse concepts, and they used examples to bridge the learning gap. Take a page out of their teaching manual and offer up real-world examples of what your technology can DO for the clerk at his desk or the administrator in her meeting. "For example" are he two most powerful words in your communication arsenal.
Ultimately, the Communication Dead Zone exists in almost every profession. But for IT, it can be a real dilemma. Shut the Zone down by keeping your audience in mind, respecting their intelligence and guiding them through your concepts. Then you won't be asking, "Can they hear me NOW?" You'll be stating, "Now they CAN hear me!"
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