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Better Communication with Non-Technical People? 164

tinpan asks: "I've got a communication problem. When non-technical managers ask me to explain technical choices, they often make choices I recommend against and they later regret. I can tell that they do not understand their choice because of how they are explaining things to each other, but they usually refuse further explanation. So, it's time for some education. I want to get better at communicating technical subjects to non-technical people. More accurately, I want to get better at helping non-technical people make better technical decisions and I'm willing to accept it may include some understanding of 'selling your idea.' What advice do my fellow readers have in accomplishing this? What books, online courses and/or seminars do you recommend and why?"
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Better Communication with Non-Technical People?

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  • 3 Choices (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jfb3 ( 25523 ) on Thursday May 17, 2007 @01:33AM (#19157053)
    Give your manager 3 choices. The first choice won't quite solve the problem. The second choice costs way too much. The third choice is the one you want him to pick.
    • by caferace ( 442 ) * on Thursday May 17, 2007 @02:04AM (#19157261) Homepage
      I learned this simple technique 23 years ago, as a 22 year old hot-shot at a startup called Microwave Communications Incorporated.

      Non-technical people (read: bean counters) like to have slow, soothing explanations, not a lot of jargon laden speechifying. Sometimes, it takes some leveling of your personal technical hubris to ratchet it down a notch, but if you want your IT life to be simple, you have to explain things in terms they'll understand.

      None of this requires a book, a seminar or a conference. It's internal, and if you don't learn it intuitively, you won't use it properly.


    • by Anonymous Coward
      I've had a couple of bosses who were very ignorant of the technological aspects of the work the company did. They were CIO's and were hired primarily because the company owner thought that a good manager should be able to manage anything.

      One had some promise. He understood that he was, to be kind, completely devoid of any real understanding of the technology. He relied heavily on the knowledge of the staff and focused on the client facing and staff management aspects of the job. All was well, until it turne
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by iangoldby ( 552781 )
      I think parent is referring to the Decoy Effect [msdn.com]. It's a bit more subtle - the article is well-worth reading.
    • Professional integrity requires the technology consultant provide objective, well-reasoned analysis of the available options. Once the business has chosen a what it believes is the right solution, the consultant ensures that solution is executed with the right balance of quality, reliability, maintainability and expediency.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by foniksonik ( 573572 )
      Graphic Designers use this same technique. We are always asked to develop multiple 'comps' or compositions to present to a client. Usually there is really only a budget for one 'comp' as creativity takes way more time than people think and we always always take as much time as we can to come up with something interesting to us AND the client (good designers also consider business needs, demographics, existing branding strategies, etc. etc.).

      SO, we will typically make 3 designs. A) is bland and boring but me
    • Your manager doesn't want choices. They want the right decision. Going technical doesn't help them make the right decision. Neither is giving them choices (though using the Decoy effect is very efficient).

      Give them the right choice. You know what the requirements are. You know if it's too expensive, or too difficult, or too time consuming. So make the right choice and then give it to your manager.

      Give them the explanation only if they ask for it.
      Give them the alternatives only if they ask for them.
    • If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a movie worth? :-)

      What programmers do... [youtube.com]

      It's not everyday you get to implement OpenGL on the Wii :)
  • is to learn to communicate....

    No, seriously. You need to learn how to communicate to those in charge, those above you, and those below you. If you are unable to communicate to those you need to, it is YOU that has a problem. Start reading CIO magazine, read SEC reports, do what you need to do so that you are able to communicate what is required in a way that your audience understands.

    I'm not bashing you, or supporting management that is intolerant of the tech savvy crowd. I'm simply saying that if you have
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by LionKimbro ( 200000 )
      Right. He agrees with you. His entire paragraph is stating just what you said.

      And then, the questions:
      • "What advice do my fellow readers have in accomplishing this?"
      • "What books, online courses and/or seminars do you recommend and why?"

      So, you've begun with:

      Start reading CIO magazine, read SEC reports...


      ...try some education...

      It's a start, but it's not really answering his question. Any other ideas?

      • by zappepcs ( 820751 ) on Thursday May 17, 2007 @02:10AM (#19157295) Journal
        Without trying to vitriolic, I did say start reading CIO magazine or whatever it takes. Managers read magazines, talk to their peers, or watch the news etc. to find out what is happening in the world, and they are more often motivated by the CIO (due to SarbOx rules) than anything else lately. If you don't EDUCATE yourself in order to communicate on their levels you will never get through to them no matter how elegant or cost efficient your proposal is.

        I'm not going to tell you to trust me on this, but I will say that if you don't learn to communicate effectively with the audience that you are trying to appeal to, you will never get anywhere no matter what your message is. This is why we see so much political posturing during elections; they are trying to appeal to the voters - their audience.

        At every level of business, you have to be political. The absolutely largest part of politics is relating to your intended audience. If you need to take speaking classes, finance classes, whatever... do something so that you can relate to your audience in a way that is EASY for them to understand.

        Is that a bit more clear?
        • by mgblst ( 80109 )
          If you don't EDUCATE yourself in order to communicate on their levels you will never get through to them no matter how elegant or cost efficient your proposal is.

          I'm not going to tell you to trust me on this, but I will say that if you don't learn to communicate effectively with the audience that you are trying to appeal to, you will never get anywhere no matter what your message is. This is why we see so much political posturing during elections; they are trying to appeal to the voters - their audience.

    • Um.... newsflash, but I think that's exactly what he was asking.
    • by Skapare ( 16644 ) on Thursday May 17, 2007 @08:17AM (#19159297) Homepage

      As much as I hate it, zappepcs [slashdot.org] is exactly right on this. Management will not adjust itself to your terms. You need to adjust to their terms and concepts, or find new management (e.g. change jobs ... yeah, there are vast differences in managers).

      Things to especially keep in mind include: 1: Express the issue in business terms, including short and long term costs, impact on revenues and sales, legal liabilities, and a thorough risk analysis (risks not only of a paradigm shift in technology, but also a shift in markets, staffing, etc). ... and 2: Give managers choices, but not too many. Two choices can usually work. Three or Four choices is better, even if one or two are obviously bad choices. More than that is probaby too many (depending on the complexity of the issue).

      Put it in writing. Summarize entirely in not more than one page, better if it is one or two paragraphs. The whole report shouldn't be more than 2 to 6 pages, shorter is better. Then just say the full details can be made available if needed (they usually don't want it, but some will). And include your recommendation and why in one paragraph. The higher level the manager is, the shorter all this usually needs to be.

  • by Beefysworld ( 1005767 ) on Thursday May 17, 2007 @01:34AM (#19157065)
    For talking to a non-technical minded person, the easiest way I've found to communicate with them is to put it in terms that they understand.

    However, you'll need to make sure that you have a good understanding of what you're trying to express and a fair understanding of the terms you're trying to express it with. Otherwise, everything will be like a series of tubes...
    • Exactly. I've done ISP tech support, and I've had to learn how to explain things to callers in ways they can understand. IP addresses are phone numbers, routers are PBX/Centrix machines and DNS is the Internet equivalent of calling Information. It may take a little while, but come up with some easy to understand every-day analogies for your technology and they'll get the picture. Remember: no matter how clueless they are when it comes to technology, they're not as stupid as they sometimes seem.
      • routers are PBX/Centrix machines

        PBX? Ain't that the channel what had that funny-lookin' white guy with the afro painting happy little trees?

    • ...since your answer, while being technically correct, is completely and utterly useless.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by rts008 ( 812749 )
      That's it in a nutshell. Very concise and to the point.
      However...as good as your advice is, I get the impression that he is needing more.

      The rest of this is not a direct reply to your post, but in the hopes he actually reads this.

      Okay Cliff, I can't give you specific books or classes to take to help you, mainly because what you are asking help for is difficult to define, much less give specific info to help you without actually being in your shoes.

      Two things I learned in college that have helped me to no en
    • ...put it in terms that they understand...you'll need to make sure that you have a good understanding of what you're trying to express and a fair understanding of the terms you're trying to express it with.

      Truer words and all that.

      Illustration: I was once assigned to a team that was required to study a new and growing industry, understand their impact on current law and regulation, and make recommendations for new regulations and/or legislation. We're talking billions of dollars of economic impact per

  • I have been in the same situation before and many times I've found the best way to get your ideas across is the be authoritative and not back down when you think they are making the wrong choice. That obviously depends on the type of environment you're in, but for me I find that sometimes it just takes standing up for your ideas to convince those in charge they are worth looking into.
    • Absolutely. Typically, when someone is non-technical and asks me a technical question, I ask them why they want to know. When they tell me the problem, I tell them how to solve it. When they ask if there is another way to solve it, I say I wouldn't recommend any other way. Even if I have a few alternatives up my sleeve, I don't offer them.. it only confuses the non-technical person.

      The worst is when the non-technical person asks a room full of technical people for a solution to a problem. You usually get a whole lot of really poorly thought out solutions. Sometimes, however, you will get one good solution.. and the non-technical person will ask a lot of questions about how this is going to effect business needs of some description. This is bad. If this is your solution, you should immediately suggest that you will follow up with the non-technical person at a later time.. or immediately take them out of the room.

      Because you know what's coming? An alternative. Typically a worse alternative. This happens all the time. Technical people love to bring up poor solutions to problems and contrast them against the better solution. They think the non-technical person is going to see why the best solution is better if they can see the reasoning behind why the worse solutions are worse. They want to elevate the conversation out of talking about business needs and back into the technical realm. This is guarenteed to confuse the non-technical person.

      The result of which will be the wrong decision. And who gets to clean up the mess? Yeah, we do.
      • Typically, when someone is non-technical and asks me a technical question, I ask them why they want to know. When they tell me the problem, I tell them how to solve it. When they ask if there is another way to solve it, I say I wouldn't recommend any other way. Even if I have a few alternatives up my sleeve, I don't offer them.. it only confuses the non-technical person.

        The IT equivalent of a Bush appointee. All problems are purely technical. Arrogance unbounded. The alternatives to your solution never to

        • by Dan Ost ( 415913 )
          What's the riskier proposition here:
          1: Rule out the bad solutions and present the best solution given the requirements and assume that the requirements are accurate
          2: Give the complete list of alternatives to someone who can't distinguish between the alternatives

          There's a reason why the people who give the best advice also give the shortest answers.
  • retail (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Johnny Mnemonic ( 176043 ) <mdinsmore.gmail@com> on Thursday May 17, 2007 @01:40AM (#19157115) Homepage Journal

    Work in a retail environment, preferably on commission. In about 6 months you'll either learn how to sell ice to eskimos, or starve.

    Seriously, this was the best exposure I had to the non-technical user, and I've utilized the learned salesmanship in later interviews and technical presentations. I recommend spending some time selling something to everyone.
    • I sold cars.
      Used cars.
      I'm still making payments to the devil.
      for my soul.

      Yes get into sales, no don't sell cars. (unless you like kicking people when they're down).

      I signed someone for 22% on a 72 month loan for a $14K car. I quit the following day. I still feel bad.
      • Forgot something: That was over 9 years ago.
        and yes I still feel bad. The only bright side is I don't get phucked with when I go to buy a car.

        Now to make this post useful.
        As to getting into sales, it really is a good learning experience (naturally don't quit a higher paying job to go do sales). The only advice I have for someone seriously considering sales is DO NOT EVER sign up for "commission draw" based pay structures. Unless you are a top seller you will never make more than the minimum wage, and ma
      • phew, you really are a low life piece of crap aren't you? ;-)
        • Re:retail (Score:5, Interesting)

          by networkBoy ( 774728 ) on Thursday May 17, 2007 @02:10AM (#19157291) Journal
          Dude, you have no idea how low I felt.

          She had 2 BK's in under 10 years.
          She had $4K down (enough for the bank to approve her at shark rates).
          I tried desperately to sell her a used car that she could have free and clear, I even honestly offered her my commission bonus on the car as a rebate.
          She wanted that damn new car (Saturn).

          Now, had I been selling Benz or Bimmer and someone wanted to bury themselves over a new car I would not have felt nearly as bad. But a Saturn is about as low as you can go without buying complete crap (Escort, KIA, Hyundai, etc.) and in my area you are screwed without a car. I pointed out to the gal that the used car she would own free and clear, have about $1K left over, the car had a 90 day/5K mi warranty, so it wasn't crap (crap don't get well... crap for warranties). She could likely drive it for about 4 years before she'd need another car, and she'd be debt free.

          Seriously, the sales manager saw my face after I signed the deal over to finance and said: You don't work here anymore do you?. I replied that I had to go home and think (food on table, or some sense of shame), had no kids at the time, so jobless was I for the next few weeks.
          • Re:retail (Score:5, Insightful)

            by cerberusss ( 660701 ) on Thursday May 17, 2007 @03:04AM (#19157563) Homepage Journal
            Don't feel bad about it. You can't avoid other people's mistakes, they have to make their own. That girl will probably remember your advice for the rest of her life.
            • I believe that some people are addicted to debt. When faced with two options, they will always pick the one that drives them deeper into debt. What can you do about it? Start a twelve step program, I suppose.

              • I believe that some people are addicted to debt. When faced with two options, they will always pick the one that drives them deeper into debt. What can you do about it? Start a twelve step program, I suppose.
                And charge a boatload for each step.
                Be sure to provide a high-interest loan option to help those who really need the program pay for it!
          • For anyone interested in just how bad of a deal the customer got:

            Amort Calculator [fsu.edu]

            22% interest on 14K over 72 monthly payments (I'm assuming 12 payments per year)

            $351.77 / month car payment

            After 6 years, that's $11326.75 in interst paid!

            Let's put it this way: If you can afford to put aside $351.77 / month, and you can get a savings account that offers 4% interest, then after 1 year, you'll have $4,313.83 saved up.

            If you need the car NOW, then heck, if you can afford $351.77 / month, you probably

          • Re:retail (Score:4, Insightful)

            by Aladrin ( 926209 ) on Thursday May 17, 2007 @06:15AM (#19158573)
            Okay, I'm totally against shitty salesman tactics. (I passed this test... I was a salesman for a year and a half and was really bad at it because I refused to push a sale... Heh.)

            But this is not one of them. You did EVERYTHING in your power, even went WAY beyond (shame on you) and she still insisted on buying that car at a stupid price. You didn't sell her that car, you merely ran the paperwork. 'Selling' involves an effort to entice the customer to buy. You did exactly the opposite.

            Maybe your immortal soul will have to atone for other saleman-sins, but this is not one of them..
          • by TheLink ( 130905 )
            Uh, why feel so bad. It's not like you conned her. You recommended what you thought was a better option. She did get the car she wanted at the price she figured she was willing to pay (crazy woman).

            I guess you're not cut out for that job tho, so I guess it was good you figured that out early, than when its a lot harder to quit.
      • This sounds worse than it would have been 10 years ago because interest rates are now at their lowest in generations.

        But even today you can pay interest rates in the mid teens if you have bad credit.

        $273.70 per month is not too tough a pill to swallow for a newish car.

        If you have ever had bad credit you will do anything to rebuild it.

        America has a cast system just like old India. . . only our cast system is based on buying power not birth.

      • I don't suggest car salesmen as a profession. I had one salesman that did do one trick I wasn't expecting. He took my license to get a copy of it before a test drive. When he came back out he had left it in the office. So I decided no matter, I will drive a block without my license. He went on his whole sales pitch and told me he sold a car that day. We get back to the lot and we walk into the storefront. Before I could ask for my license he had set a piece of paper in front of me to mull it over. I decided
      • by QuantumG ( 50515 )
        Friend of mine used to sell vacuum cleaners. Really, really expensive vacuum cleaners. He'd go into people's houses and pull a sack of dirt out of a small area of their carpet and ask "how can you put a price on your family's health?" and there ya go, instant sale. Every single person he sold a vacuum cleaner to believed they needed a industrial strength stainless steel vacuum cleaner, and they agreed to pay a fortune because of it. Once they signed those finance papers they were in debt for 10 or 20 ye
  • by Aerinoch ( 988588 ) on Thursday May 17, 2007 @01:47AM (#19157141)

    Better Communication with Non-Technical People?
    Sock Puppets.
    • Better Communication with Non-Technical People?
      Clue bat.

    • Sock Puppets.

      Yes, we know they're sock puppets, but the question was how do we communicate with them.

      I usually just go with the BOFH [theregister.co.uk] approach and push enough technical terms on their stack until it overflows and then tell them what to do while their still rebooting.

  • Go out with your friends, join an organization in the community, do anything where you interact with others. Just talk to people. Talk about anything besides tech. If you can talk about it in polite company or at the dinner table, talk about it if they're interested. Once you're better able to relate to people, you'll find that explaining a technical concept will become a lot easier.
  • It seems to me that your problem is not one of technical vs non technical forms of communication, it's more basic: with how to effectively communicate.

    When you say that you have no problem communicating with technical folk, what you're actually saying is that you are very comfortable talking to people who are in the same professional area as you are, those who share the same technical lexicon. To these people you do not have to make an extra effort to communicate - your profession provides you with the to

  • by nido ( 102070 ) <nido56NO@SPAMyahoo.com> on Thursday May 17, 2007 @02:04AM (#19157253) Homepage
    Cialdini's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion [amazon.com] might be what you're looking for.
    • by Knytefall ( 7348 )
      mod parent up to 5. this book is amazing, amazing, amazing. he describes an array of heuristics people use to get through life, and how people trying to persuade you exploit those heuristics.
  • by Loconut1389 ( 455297 ) on Thursday May 17, 2007 @02:49AM (#19157485)
    Well, look, I already told you. I deal with the goddamn customers so the engineers don't have to!! I have people skills!! I am good at dealing with people!!! Can't you understand that?!? WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?!!!!!!!
  • Toastmasters (Score:5, Interesting)

    by deranged unix nut ( 20524 ) on Thursday May 17, 2007 @03:10AM (#19157597) Homepage
    http://www.toastmasters.org/ [toastmasters.org]

    Find your local toastmasters club and practice. Since joining toastmasters, I have had many comments from people in both my work and personal life about how much my verbal communication has improved.

    Each speech will give you supportive and constructive feedback from multiple people, from multiple experience levels, and from multiple walks of life. I now find myself re-thinking how I explain quite a few technical things to others and catch myself when I am talking to non-technical people and I start to use the jargon that is so automatic among technical folks. I still pause and think about how to appropriately re-phrase what I was about to say to make it more appropriate to the people that I am talking to, but at least I am catching myself now when I used to rattle on and lose them long before I realized that they weren't getting it.

    Besides, the dues are about the same as a magazine subscription. It is quite inexpensive for what you get.
    • Practice of any kind is good. This is practice in a somewhat structured format. Added bonus: You will probably learn more by listening to others' speches and evaluating them (good ones and bad ones) than you will practicing on your own.

      Disclaimer: I'm not still a member, and not likely to be again for awhile.
    • by Wiseleo ( 15092 )
      As a Toastmaster, and moreover as a candidate district officer, I will second this suggestion.

      Let me give you an idea why. I was not a bad speaker when I joined the club, and in fact I was quite well-spoken, but I've improved a lot since then. I present seminars professionally and I also am involved in sales presentations nearly daily. I joined Toastmasters to get evaluated by my peers and not by my prospects or customers. You will get highly objective feedback from people whose sole goal is to help you imp
    • I've been in IT 23 years. I've been in Toastmasters six. Toastmasters made the single biggest improvement in my career and my personal skills.

      I was comfortable speaking in front of a crowd as long as I was talking about computers and speaking in technical jargon. What didn't occur to me was whether or not the people understood what I was saying.

      There are specific items in Toastmasters that will apply directly to what you're seeking. Overall the ability to listen well and speak directly to your audiences'

  • Communication Skills (Score:3, Interesting)

    by VAY ( 455170 ) * on Thursday May 17, 2007 @03:19AM (#19157637)
    I was born with awful communication skills, and found this sort of thing very difficult. After I was diagnosed with ADD, I read a lot of material about communication and related skills and learned some soft skills, and it was very useful (as well as very interesting in a geeky kind of way - if you think computers can be interesting, the way people work will blow your mind...).

    Everyone should learn how to communicate with people. Essentially, this means understanding different viewpoints, which means being able to understand how people are different. There are different communication styles even between people who are ostensibly similar, which can get in the way of clear communication. I find it very frustrating that techies cannot seem to abandon the idea that there is true and false and nothing else, from which logically follows that if you don't agree with me you are wrong. Of course, in most day-to-day situations things are way more complicated than that. Is it a fact that it is rude to ignore me for two minutes when I approach your desk to talk to you? Yes, of course, I have feelings and a hello costs nothing. No, of course not, I am only dumping the contents of my brain into my IDE so I can give you my full, undivided attention.

    Understanding people's reasons for their actions and reactions, and seeing through their eyes, enables you to persuade people to do the right thing, which is good for both your employer and for you. It is not being Macheavellian, or turning into a sales weasel (as long as it is used for good :-)). It also works wonders on your personal relationships.

    I would recommend Getting To Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury, about win-win negociation; I'm OK, You're OK by Thomas A. Harris, Games People Play by Eric Berne, and TA Today by Ian Stewart and Vann Joines, about Transactional Analysis; and the works of Deborah Tannen, especially Talking From 9 to 5. Look into the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators too. I would also recommend asking your company to send you on a course or two about communicating assertively and negociation skills.
    • I keep a copy of Getting To Yes (or "Getting Toyes" as my employees call it) on my desk. I bought it because I was frequently getting squashed in negotiations, capitulating more often than I wanted to. It has some great techniques and examples, and some great (if a little dated) historical and foreign policy anecdotes for illustration.

      It helped me find techniques for getting my needs aired and considered (if not always met) as a part of negotiations. I find that I can walk away from negotiations, now, feel

  • I've been climbing this hill for nearly the last two decades.

    You simply have to put yourself in their shoes and explain things in a way that means something to them and their own priorities, agendas, etc. This means knowing quite a bit about other jobs and what drives the people you are attempting to 'educate', of course.

    Again, put things in their terms, focusing on what your idea/plan/suggestion is going to do to help them solve whatever it is that happens to be important to them at that time. Not yo
  • Probably the best book, particularly since it deals with mostly software technology is Geoffrey Moore, "Crossing the Chasm" [amazon.co.uk]. Emminently readable as well.
  • I've had the same problem. I subcontracted an editor, a popular fiction writer (non technical) who was great at marketing to broad technical audiences. When worked as a consultant, my editor (and MBTI INFJ) who would read the material I sent (especially critical emails) and smooth off the technical sharp edges. It sometime took some face-to-face time with the editor to get her to understand, and she would re-write the stuff for the managers types.
  • by LoveMe2Times ( 416048 ) on Thursday May 17, 2007 @03:43AM (#19157781) Homepage Journal
    I'm not aware of any training or education specifically designed to help technical people communicate more effectively with non-technical people. You are more specifically interested in communicating with decision makers, which is far more specific than say talking to your family or non-technical friends. Being more specific in some ways makes it easier. I'm guessing that your difficulty lies not so much in not communicating technical details or ideas adequately, but not understanding the decision making process being used. One of my primary job functions is being a liaison between the technical and non-technical sides of the company, and I even talk to customers/partners who know nothing about technology. Point being, I am good at it now--I am complimented on this often--but this was not always so. Meaning that yes, it's something you can get better at.

    Given that, here's what I can tell you:

    1) Detail is enemy #1. Technical work has lots and lots of details to it, and we often get absorbed in them and like to talk about them. This will ruin your efforts again and again, you *must* train yourself to hold back details unless specifically asked. For example, if somebody asks what an acronym means, you probably shouldn't tell them what it stands for. Also, when pressed for details, try and give only the details relevant to your audience. For example, if somebody asks you what "WebSphere" is, do you tell them:

    a) "WebSphere is a proprietary J2EE server. I recommend we go with JBoss instead since it is open source and does everything we need. It's cheaper and easier too."
    b) "WebSphere is an IBM product designed for an enterprise computing environment leveraging Java technology. You might use it for serving web pages."
    c) "WebSphere is one of many enterprise level, server-side Java solutions. It's a complete J2EE server, supporting all server-side Java standards, like servlets, JSPs, and enterprise java beans. It is intended to provide scalability, robustness, clustering, fail-over, up-time guarantees, and other things expected from an enterprise class product. You might choose it for the same reasons you would choose Oracle over other databases. BEA, Oracle, Sun and JBoss all provide competing products providing almost identical functionality at different price points and service levels."

    All three are reasonable answers depending on the context. Does your audience want to hear "cheaper and easier" in (a), "IBM product ... enterprise ... leveraging" in (b), or the particulars about what enterprise-class means and mentioning competitors in (c)?

    2) Decision makers often have to make decisions regarding things they do not personally know. As you have observed, this often leads to making sub-optimal decisions. In debate class, relying on an authority rather than having a good argument might get you marked down. In the real world, quoting an authority is often (maybe even usually) more important, as the decision maker might not understand the actual argument. I experienced this repeatedly and to great frustration earlier in my career, where a manager would pretend to listen to me, only to do what a more senior, trusted person recommended. In some cases there will be other hidden agendas, and often times you won't know what the decision makers parameters are. For example, you might recommend Vendor A for price/performance reasons, and the manager chooses Vendor B because B is a "safe" choice and the decision maker is in a difficult position with his or her boss.

    3) This leads to: you'll need to understand the chain of command. Often times, the person that you get to talk to does not have the final say. Instead, that person has to sell the decision to other business people and the people who control the purse strings. So in some cases you are educating someone who is really just a champion, not a final decision maker. In this case, you must prep them to d
  • If your managers are not technically competent, then they shouldn't be taking those decisions.

    First, take away the technical choices and leave them with business options. Deciding what functionality is provided in a product is a business option; deciding on the design patterns is a technical choice, as is screen layouts (although customer input is a good idea!). So the options you provide only allow business decisions to be made - the relevant technical decisions are implicit.

    Gray areas include choice

    • That sounds like good advice if your company is building a product, but if it's buying a product things are different.

      If the VP that will make the purchase decision has been offered a board seat at company X, then it's a business decision to buy the product from company X, not the technically superior Y.

      Unfortunately, the business people will never reveal everything that goes into their decision process, unlike technical people that like graphs, charts and pro vs. con arguments. You can't know what t
  • The best way to communicate something is in terms of how that someone understands things.

    If you're talking to a business person, explain your solution / idea / objection in business terms. If you're talking to your doctor, explain it in medical terms. If you're talking to your 3-year-old, explain how SpongeBob would do whatever it is you're trying to do. If you don't really understand what you're trying to convey then you'll have a hard time with this, but if you do know what's going on it's not usually
  • What I have often felt is that non-technical people think that techies don't understand business and that they understand both business and technical issues. But whenever I have asked a business person if they could give an estimate of the profits of a certain functionality, they often simply stated that it was needed to win a customer. Yet at the same time they often demand that I give an accurate estimation of the development effort (costs).

    But the reality is that software is usually bought by non-tech

  • What you need to do is be really really technical about it, start talking about the most little details, then start drawing little sketches that no one would actually understand and chose one strong point in favor of your solution, one that he can understand, and always fall back on that point so he thinks he understands what you are talking about.

    After about an hour, start suggesting him your solution more and more, gently point out his mistakes at first, then put more and more stress on his/her shortcomin
  • Win-Win! (Score:2, Funny)

    by ReidMaynard ( 161608 ) *
    Give them 3 choices, and each choice ends with "...and a new Porsche for me."
  • by dfoulger ( 1044592 ) on Thursday May 17, 2007 @05:15AM (#19158229) Homepage

    There are no magic bullets for solving the problem you are dealing with. A lot depends on what your audience is trying to accomplish, what kind of constraints they feel they have to work within, and how much they know about the subject matter. High level managers and executives can't be experts on everything they need to make decisions on. The span of their decision making is to large and their ultimate focus has to be on bottom line issues like controlling costs, building revenue, and delivering on time. Note that none of those things are technical issues.

    You may find considerable value in reading a book on making presentations (the kind they use in basic speech courses in college). There are a number of excellent choices out there. I'm particularly fond of Presentations In Everyday Life: Strategies For Effective Speaking [amazon.com], by Engleberg and Daly, because I think their recommendations are well researched. This kind of text is usually a goldmine of organizational strategies for presentations, any one of which may be right depending on the managers you are addressing and the type of recommendations you are trying to make.

    The most important chapters in these books (make sure they have them) are the chapters on researching the audience and listening. Hardly anybody really learns how to do these things, but they are the key to making effective presentations to overburdened managers and executives, who often have to make difficult, risky, and expensive decisions based on one or a few ten minute meetings. What you need to find out, before you even walk into the room, are the following things:

    • What they are making the decision about. Like as not you already know this (its probably the only thing you already know). But it pays to confirm it by informally networking beforehand. You probably won't be able to get much from the executive or high level manager, but you probably can get useful information from people on their staff.
    • The context of the decision. Most recommendations are made within the context of a larger problem (an overarching project, a promise made to the a higher up, a company strategic direction, a specific customer problem, etc). The more you know about the context of the decision, the better you'll be able to customize your recommendation and presentation to the needs of the people you are presenting to, even if you don't mention that context (and its probably best if you don't).
    • The decision makers preferred presentation style. I have found that most executives have a preferred presentation style. Some want to see three slides (problem, solution, cost) and only want to hear your preferred recommendation (keep your other possibilities in your pocket as backup). Others want to see a specific set of tables. Most want you to get immediately to the point without justifying your recommendations (they wouldn't have asked you to present if they didn't value your judgment), but be ready to go into detail. They will ask for justification. Some will "blindside" you (well, they think its blindsiding) with aggressive interruptions. The good news is, there will be lots of people who have presented successfully to the manager/executive. Talk to the staff. Talk to other people who've pitched the executive. Customize your presentation to the decision makers preferences and be ready for their ideosyncracies.

    Research. Listen. Listen to the staff you ask questions. Listen to the people who've presented. Take notes. Ask questions. Make sure you understand what you hear. I generally recommend that you do each of the following things as you listen:

    1. Stop. Don't think about anything else. Get rid of distractions before you start listening.
    2. Tend. Focus on the speaker, not just by paying attention, but by looking like you
  • by gEvil (beta) ( 945888 ) on Thursday May 17, 2007 @06:47AM (#19158717)
    Always try to turn your techno mumbo jumbo into a car analogy. People love car analogies.
    • by Alsee ( 515537 )
      You really shouldn't tell people to turn everything into a car analogy. One size does not always fit all.

      It's kinda like saying everyone should drive an SUV because it's small enough basic personal use and big enough to haul stuff.

  • ... just don't say "are you sure?" after one of us does manage to explain it. It's annoying enough that you already interrupting our workflow, just to have us decipher your ignorance, so don't push your luck. (Especially if you are underpaying us, or treat us as expendable.)
  • The way to communicate better is to learn to communicate better. Take some technical writing and editing classes. They'll help immensely. The technical writing classes will help you learn how to communicate technical ideas in plain English that (nearly) everyone can understand. The editing classes will help you learn to cut sentences and explanations down to just the essentials. Trust me, they work. Plus you get to review some of the more esoteric aspects of grammar that your 17-year-old mind didn't want to
  • is to listen better.

    Listening is active. Consider what they are saying; don't get disgusted with stupid questions, elicit better ones.

    If you want people to understand you, you have to know what their concerns are, then build understanding on that framework.
    • You beat me to it. Yes, listen. Two ears, one mouth, and all that.

      I had a conversation recently with another techy at work about how to communicate difficult issues to management. His method is to write a really long email, covering all of the technical pros and cons for all the options, so the manager can make the best decision. My approach is to write a very short summary of the main business issues, with one or two recommended solutions, and an offer to explain things further if need be. My colleagu
  • Say what you are going to say, say it, then say what you've said. In each of these sections explain that you favor a particular choice and in discussing the other choices you are just being informational. This way your role as advisor is always up front. Say it is OK to snooze on the parts you are including for "fairness" or "balance" because the issues you're covering are really expert issues.

    In this kind of situation you are providing technical advice, not technical information so have the advice be
  • Why are people who do not understand what they are making decisions about the ones making the decisions?
    • Why are people who do not understand what they are making decisions about the ones making the decisions?

      Basically, because they're the ones willing to take risks, while most of those who are knowledgeable on some subject usually prefer stable and less risky positions.

      Nothing, in principle, prevents the knowledgeable ones from also becoming risk takers and either succeed or fail by doing so. Also, those who do so have huge chances of becoming successful, provided they also devote time to develop the specific

      • It isn't about who is willing to take risks. It is about who is able to get other people to let him spend their money.
        • It isn't about who is willing to take risks. It is about who is able to get other people to let him spend their money.
          Textbook Marxism, eh? Lol. Go tell that to all entrepreneurs who become bankrupt just today. Managing a business is difficult, and always risky.
          • Managing a business is difficult, and always risky.

            So is working for an entrepreneur. There are also all the employees who became broke and jobless because their employer's risks did not pay off. All of the risk, none of the potential for reward.
            • So is working for an entrepreneur. There are also all the employees who became broke and jobless because their employer's risks did not pay off. All of the risk, none of the potential for reward.

              Wrong. When you have a standard job, you know you'll be making a fixed amount per month. You think you might be making more, but you figure you also might be making less, or getting mixed results. Talk to anybody that works by himself without being either an business owner nor a salary man, and he will tell you it i

    • by Avatar8 ( 748465 )
      That's called "business".

      23 years I've been working in IT and providing suggestions, recommendations and consulting. Most of the time those suggestions were taken into account and a sound business decision was made that improved our workflow, simplified processes, brought in more customers or in general affected the business in a positive manner.

      But there was this one company, sadly a technical company, who took my ideas, converted them into their ideas with their own business twists and then wondered wh

  • I'm not sure if there's a book or a class that will truly help more than a few in your position. It takes work, time, and honest self-evaluation, not a tutorial. (although for all I know, mentoring from a more experienced person might be the best way of all - sadly, I never came across anyone in a technically-oriented position who wasn't as least as bad as me)

    What about your social circle - are they all techies or do you spend time with folks outside your area of expertise? How do you talk to them? I cu
  • No, really. If you can explain to your mom how your exceptionally technical recommendations work, no PHB will be able to stand against you. As a bonus, mom might finally figure out that you are not twelve any more.
  • The stuff they most easily understand are these. a manager would be inclined to take a sweet deal a vendor is offering despite its risk, but if you put what carnage would a security con would result in, they will see the light. Problems generally happen to be that way. Vendors who are selling solid stuff rarely need to offer "sweet deals".
  • I am a consultant at a vast private company (if it were public, it would be in the top 25 of the Fortune 500). They like to send their internal people to the Dale Carnegie classes.

    Other options would include:
    taking business writing and classes at a local community college.
    Toastmasters (while they are about public speaking, they also help develop communications skills).

    You might check out a local community college or public university to see who their technical/business writing professors are and con
  • No one else is saying it, so I will: Some managers are just stupid. "Paris Hilton stupid" even.

    If this is the case, better communication will not help. Rather, work on cultivating an attitude of acceptance, and consider whether you should change jobs.

  • OK, so your basic problem here is that you are trying to explain something that they don't care about, don't know about, but want to understand in order to run their business. This is a tough position, but it could be worse (most teachers for example have to deal with don't know, don't care, don't desire to learn. You at least have desire to work with.).

    Starting from there, I'd offer a few tips.

    1. Don't talk about choices that don't matter.
    If you have a set of 6 choices, but you know that 4 of them really a
  • There's a few very simple rules you need to keep in mind when trying to explain technical matters to those who have less exposure to such matters.

    First of all, you need to remember that most people don't like to appear as if they don't know something, so they may not tell when they don't understand you.
    Second of all, never assume that people are unwilling or incapable of learning. Sometimes, people just need to be shown that the problem which is giving them a headache is simpler than it appears at first gla
  • It doesn't get much easier because everyone is different and different people interpret things differently. What does get easier is how you react to those interpretations. That takes practice and experience. That only comes with time. Many posters have already stated that.

    Things I have taken away from my similar experiences might be of some help. I have three major things to look at that will make my presentation of my idea more efficient in a sense.

    First off, since all non-technical people are different, y
  • I tend to use analogies explaining things to non-techies, and it works well. Frame the conversation in things that they'll understand, avoid techie words, and don't go into too much detail. And most importantly, don't let them get sidetracked trying to understand minute but interesting details. Give them a quick, broad overview, and slowly work in details if they ask about them.

    For instance (happened to me yesterday):
    Q: "Why can't my boyfriend send me emails? I keep getting these stupid 'rejected by the con

Never worry about theory as long as the machinery does what it's supposed to do. -- R. A. Heinlein