Perhaps you’re giving a big presentation about your passion project. You’re feeling great about it, and you’re in peak performance mode, talking up all the cool details, all the thrilling plans. You’re practically bouncing on your feet.
Eager to share more, you ask if there are any questions. Dead silence. Finally, somebody from management asks something so irrelevant, you wonder if they actually heard you at all.
Huh? What went wrong?
Very likely, you haven’t been on the same page since the beginning. And your fundamental mistake? Assuming that your layman audience has your same expert, insider point of view.
So how can you bridge this communication gap?
Create a jargon ‘safe zone’
Jargon is the specialised language used by experts in a certain field. Often, it’s unavoidable, because it helps communicate specific concepts with clarity and precision.
But what if your audience are not experts?
The average person actually fears jargon, because they don’t like looking ignorant. Sometimes, management will pretend that they understand, and start using terms like “machine learning” and “deep learning” and “AI” interchangeably.
Nope, don’t show your frustration. You need to keep a straight face. Actually, you need to make them feel safe and therefore receptive to your ideas. Your job is to explain.
- Explain the term simply, once, and preferably at the beginning. When talking, check their understanding. When writing, include a definitions page, an appendix, or even just footnotes.
- Watch out for jargon bloat. Choose your non-negotiable jargon terms, and stick to them. Try not to over-explain with additional technical words. Remember, less is more.
- Remind as necessary, and correct gently. Egos are fragile, so you have to be subtle about this. But it’s your job to check in at various stages, to see if you’re still on the same page.
Explain benefits, not features
As a product owner, engineer or specialist, you’re rightfully excited by your awesome product, and can’t help sharing all the cool features.
“Our accounting and payroll app has plug-and-play support, is designed for cloud, mobile and desktop environments, and even has a user-researched intuitive client interface!”
Cool! Er… so what?
This is a very common mistake that hides in plain sight. Technical communication is full of exciting features, specifications, and details. But technical people often forget to tell their stakeholders why that information is important.
They forget to explain the benefits.
- Features: surface facts about your products or services; what something is
- Benefits: how your products or services can improve their lives, or why they should buy it
To convert features into benefits, ask yourself “Why does this matter?”
For the example above, imagine selling the app to a boss of say, an import and export company. Yes, go ahead and list the features. But then follow up with:
“This means that you can install this app easily and use it everywhere, with no additional staff training cost!”
She’ll prick up her ears. Because true benefits connect to your users’ deepest desires, such as saving money, saving time, reducing hassle, being more productive, getting good value, solving their pains, and generally leading an easier, happier life.
Engage your audience with storytelling techniques
In fiction writing, it’s usually said: show, not tell.
What this means is that instead of simply informing a reader about information, you have to paint a picture that they can see in their mind’s eye.
By doing so, you’re getting them to visualise, conceptualise, and recognise, instead of passively accepting your words.
It’s like a light bulb going off in their heads. An emotional response will always keep an audience engaged.
So how do you do this?
- Use metaphors. Vivid language helps engage the senses. By associating words, you can link concepts and communicate a complex message. For example, “Data is the new oil” clearly shows data’s potential value, plus its status as an untapped resource. But be careful not to do overdo it!
- Use pictures, visuals, infographics. Over 90% of communication is non-verbal, so imagery is one of your strongest communication tools. But imagery doesn’t mean schematics, flowcharts or graphs taken straight from your specs. Ask yourself: does this image help to explain, convince, or make a point? If not, don’t use it.
- Catch attention with stories they can relate to. For example, think back to the beginning of this article – ever found yourself in a similar situation? If yes, you’re likely to read on. For bonus points: emphasise the emotional pain, for greater impact.
And finally, for one catch-all tip that applies to all persuasive communication: always start with the end in mind.
If you know your desired outcome, you can come up with a clear message to drive that outcome.
“Fund this project – it’s going to have benefit x, y, z”
“Give me a pay raise – I’m fantastic because (list reasons)”
“You need to buy our widgets – they’ll help you double productivity!”
Consistently apply that message across all your communications with management. Repeat over and over in various forms… and you might just sneakily get them doing what you want.