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I am a Project Manager and Developer with an emphasis on Enterprise Content Management and Business Process Management systems.

With over 20 years of experience in large and small systems design and implementation. Currently based in the Raleigh NC area.

The views expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily represent the views of my clients and employers.

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A sure sign that you are in trouble with a customer, or your co-workers, is when you come to the realization that they truly do not understand what you are trying to tell them. By its very nature, IT work is very technical, filled with jargon and TLA’s (Three Letter Acronyms), and routinely deals with complex subject matter. Heck, I don’t even know what all the TLA’s of the day mean, and I am immersed in the cause nearly 24/7/365!

So, if you are attempting to explain to a decision maker, why you need them to authorize a $30,000.00 purchase of software and licenses you had better be able to make the case for it in terms they can understand. This is crucial, even if you have an excellent relationship with your management and they trust the fact that if you say they need 10,000 widget licenses, then you really do, they often have to defend that need to others. And if they don’t really understand it, how can they convey the need onward?

But how do you educate your audience? The answer is to find common ground and experience and convey your needs and ideas in non jargon, clear language. You need to communicate! You need to educate! Think about the core concepts you are trying to get across, spell out acronyms, add explanations where necessary, in short demystify your language and your topic. It is not that hard to get the core concepts across to a layperson if you approach the subject carefully, having thought things out ahead of time.


I am constantly surprised when I realize just how much jargon and tech speak creeps into my everyday conversations. And to make it worse not everyone in the industry uses the same words to describe the same concepts. Take any 10 document management professionals and ask them to describe a Taxonomy, Content Types and Metadata, you will get 29 different answers! That is because a lot of the concepts we work with every day are subject to context to clarify the meaning.

Don’t fall into the trap of trying to talk down to your audience either. Most of the people you will be dealing with are in all likelihood at least as well educated as you, have at least as much experience in their fields as you do in yours, and will correctly feel you are a condescending twit if you try to overly “dumb” down your topic.

Instead of talking down, talk too and with them, but doing so requires some preparation on your part. You need to be able to clearly explain the key concepts of what you are talking about in terms that are common to both of you. There is plenty of help available to do this, it just takes some time. I frequently turn to the web and look up definitions for terms I know and use every day but are not necessarily common outside my field of expertise. Often a couple of minutes of web searching will reveal others attempts to explain the same concepts or needs. I often stumble on White Papers and other sources that were written as sales aides. Sales people live and die on the ability to explain complex concepts in terms lay people can understand, more importantly, often in terms of answering the unspoken question all management asks “Why do I care?”

The next step is to practice your approach until you are comfortable with the concepts you are trying to convey in terms you normally would not use. And here is where I will let you in on a little secret! When you are asked a question, don’t answer it with the first thing that pops into your head! Count to 5, while you think about your answer, make sure you stay away from unnecessary terminology and unneeded technical terms. Speak clearly, confidently, but slowly, with deliberation. Works almost every time!

The reverse is true in our day to day lives. How often do we sit down with a SME (Subject Matter Expert) and exhaustively go over their job with them in order to understand their needs and be sure we are solving the actual problem they need solved? My first client in any industry is always a huge learning experience as I learn what I can of their jargon and TLA’s. We can’t solve a problem if we don’t understand it, and we have no trouble when it comes time for us to sit down and work hard to understand their world and their language, but we seem to be very reluctant to explain ours.

So next time you see your audiences eyes begin to glaze over, step back, start to work out how you are going to educate them in a way that ensures you are both understanding what you are saying! Your life, and theirs, will be much better for the effort.


Bob Porter

Posted on Friday, December 11, 2009 3:56 PM Ramblings , Consulting | Back to top

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