How To Communicate Better With Non-IT Colleagues
NOTE: This is the second post in a series of posts on workplace communication. Check out part one: “ How To Communicate Better With IT Colleagues.”
There was a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch around the year 2000 starring Jimmy Fallon. Fallon played “Nick Burns, your company computer guy.” Cue the jingle:
Nick Burns, the computer guy. He'll fix your computer, then he's going to make fun of you. Cause he's Nick Burns, your company computer guy.
The sketch consisted of Fallon as an arrogant corporate tech support employee bullying and pushing around his colleagues.
It was a pretty mediocre sketch. And the jokes are pretty dated now. But the bit played off a lot of stereotypes that are still very common today. And there was some truth behind the jokes. The communication barrier between tech- and non-tech colleagues can be pretty grueling.
It’s unfortunate. Because poor internal communication can sink a company, even one staffed by the finest engineers.
"Language is our most distinctly human capability, and it underlines everything that we do. Considering this, it’s surprising how neglected communication has been in the business world, until very recently. Communicative acumen can increase team harmony, diffuse conflicts, and salvage reputations."
Win over your audience
In the classic book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” author Dale Carnegie lays out 30 principles for winning people over. Sales teams have been pouring over these principles for years. There’s a reason the book has been in print for almost 80 years and sold 15 million copies. Ever wonder how sales people have a knack for connecting with others so quickly? There’s a good chance they, or whoever taught them how to sell, studied this book.
Good communication comes down to persuasion, getting the other party to want to do something. This is often missing when tech- and non-tech colleagues talk. It’s nobody’s fault. You’re just both speaking different languages, communicating your own needs. But if you do the little bit of extra work to bridge this gap, all sorts of advantages open up.
Three of Carnegie’s 30 principles address this concept nicely.
Be sympathetic with the other person's ideas and desires.
Try honestly to see things from the other person's point of view.
Talk in terms of the other person's interest.
Let’s visit that third point. People love to talk about what interests them. Get conversational momentum on your side early with this technique.
For example, when Teddy Roosevelt had appointments coming up, he would stay up late the night before studying up on subjects he knew his visitors were interested in. After meeting him, people would remark about how brilliant and smart the president was. In reality, he just wowed his guests by actually giving a damn about things they cared about.
"The royal road to a person’s heart is to talk about the things he or she treasures most.”
Reading and Meetings
Pouring over texts in the Oval Office probably isn’t the most practical tip for your life. Consider this advice from HubSpot:
“Before your next meeting with someone, do a bit of research on their website or LinkedIn profile, and see if you can find out about one of their hobbies, favorite places, or pieces of work.”
You can also do this with the non-IT colleagues in your workplace. They’ll be floored. Maybe their interests aren't on LinkedIn. Try checking out other social networks. And don't just look at what they're writing, take a look at who they're following as well, which will clue you in to their interests.
Chris Alejandro, the head of IT for Arizona College, blocks out time to brush up on topics his non-technical colleagues care about, according to this piece in Dice Insights.
For Alejandro, this includes reading publications like Forbes, Time, Inc., The Chronicle of Higher Education. He also has coffee with the college business leaders every Tuesday to hear about their challenges.
Bonus Tip: Names
Another one of Carnegie’s principles involves using people’s names in conversation. Most people don’t make the effort to mention people by name during conversation. If you make this small effort, your colleagues will be more likely to pay attention to — and agree to — whatever your asking of them.
The average person is more interested in his or her own name than in all the other names on earth put together.
— Dale Carnegie
Some of the best technical communicators are skilled at building compelling analogies to illustrate a technical point.
Consider the award-winning “Brain on Drugs” PSA from 1987. Certainly the message could have featured a doctor explaining the technical minutia of neurological damage from substance abuse. It would have been more scientifically accurate, a more analytically-correct representation and blah blah blah. Who cares. Ever hear a pan sizzle? It’s visceral.
Explaining the science behind addiction wouldn’t have had the same impact as frying an egg.
The campaign worked. The ad was so compelling that a lobbying group for the egg industry worried it was hurting egg sales.
This is the power of analogy at work. It’s showing impact and illustrating a concept without bogging down the message with technical details.
Often, engineers will resist using analogies because they don’t hold up to the intellectual rigor and analysis they are used to. This problem is almost universal. Any analogy will fall apart upon close inspection.
But that’s OK. Analogies are meant to illustrate a concept, not represent the entire system.
Focus on the objective
A similar way to get your point across is to focus on the goal of what you’re trying to explain. Talk about the big picture objective, rather than the technical details.
“I think I get the most response when I explain something in terms of the idea behind the code instead of the code itself. I just strip out all the technical jargon, avoid mentioning programming related terms and just talk about the idea and what is actually being done.
For example, I recently tried explaining how a spam filter works. I just said it keeps a record of the words typically found in spam and those not found in spam. The record is built up using known spam and non-spam mails. After that, whenever a new email arrives, we just check how many of the words there look spammy (i.e. occur in our record of spammy words) and how many look non-spammy. If there are too many spammy words, it is probably spam and so gets sent to the spam bin. The non-tech people I was talking to followed the idea quite well.”
Bonus Tip: Analogy science
Researchers and educators have been studying the craft of analogies for years. Several have even created detailed models for mapping and deploying analogies. If you want to be more scientific about your analogies, here is a good place to get started.
There’s no secret to communicating with non-developer colleagues. There are, however, a ton of secrets to communicating with people. And whether you’re talking to the CTO or a vagabond poet, all people respond to some pretty universal emotional triggers and cues. Just like you can clean up a stubborn piece of code, you can unlock a lot of tricks to communicating with people at your workplace. Try some of the tips we listed above. If you want to really dive into it, check out the books and blog posts we suggested above. Just don’t be Nick Burns.