Communicating tech talk at work
Technology is now the foundation for almost every given activity in the workplace; however, what happens when understanding it becomes a barrier to communication and productivity?
How can we translate the tech talk into something our colleagues and employees understand?
It’s now generally accepted that as the Millennials and Generation Y grow up grasping smartphones and micro-blogging their lives on social media, overall understanding of technology is increasing with every generation entering the workplace. We may still find the odd instance of laptops repurposed as doorstops, but with IT used daily both in and outside of school or work, most have little choice but to embrace technology.
However, the all-time favorite IT support phrase “Have you switched it off and back on again?” continues to prevail; when technology fails or new software, hardware or processes come into play, there is a continued barrier between the experts and a more lay audience.
Why the tech jargon?
- Imparting technical wisdom that goes over the heads of your listeners is a common occurrence. The best way to address it is to first understand why it occurs:
- You don’t understand what or why your audience needs the information: sometimes we simply need to understand the listener’s needs. If asked ‘what’s the time?’ there’s no call to explain how to build a watch!
- You want to demonstrate your knowledge: when working in a profession misunderstood by many, it’s natural to almost unconsciously want to demonstrate credibility.
- You’re processing the problem: when asked a question, you will begin a process of evaluating the cause and trying to identify a solution. If you do this aloud, it’s easy to throw off or lose your listener by using terminology they don’t understand – or need to know.
- Force of habit: if you’re typically surrounded by fellow technically minded individuals and converse in a language they instantly understand, it’s easy to forget this doesn’t necessarily translate globally.
When employers find themselves in a position of not understanding, very few will admit to the fact – or will only ask for clarification a limited number of times before giving up. At the bottom end of the scale, this will translate into frustration and a lack of adoption of new technology, as well as deterring those individuals from approaching technical experts again.
At the top end, this could translate into real, tangible errors within the office, posing a huge potential risk to the business. A report by the Ponemon Institute identified that 39% of data breaches involved employee negligence – often associated with a lack of understanding of the applications, processes and policies held by their business organization.
Breaking down barriers: explaining technical things in simple terms
The first step is to identify your audience and their current level of understanding – and then benchmark against the lowest point. Before explaining something, question your audience – have they come across this before? Do they use this already? How confident do they feel about X?
If delivering to a diverse range of levels, manage the potential for patronizing by positioning with those who hold a higher level of understanding that you are going to explain as simply as you can for the benefit of all – and welcome questions. Understanding is best gained through a two-way conversation.
What’s in it for me?
Consider what information your audience actually needs – and what they stand to gain from it. Start from the top; for example, “this is our new HR platform”, then build the detail as needed. Your everyday user will want to understand how to login, request annual leave and find their payslips; however, your HR representatives will need more in-depth understanding about adding or removing modules, changing settings or adding new users. At each stage, consider the value to your listener and explain it – this will ensure no-one switches off, risking missing vital information.
Spell it out
Acronyms are rife in technology. Identified as the greatest frustration for employees, these are easily addressed and represent one of the quickest ways to build understanding. Never assume your listener knows what you’re talking about; and even if you’re confident they do, it can still help to use the full terminology to reiterate the message. “This is our new CRM” quickly triggers a switch-off; using “customer relationship management system” in full forces the listener to consider its purpose and keeps them engaged. If you can further break down fear or intimidation by referring to something in a more user-friendly manner or assigning a term they understand, all the better (there’s no crime in reverting back to ‘database’ if this is a term more individuals will grasp…!)
When concluding any conversation, summarize the key message or take-aways for your listener as clearly as possible, ideally in a few simple sentences. If your listener is going to forget most of what they’ve been told anyway, this ensures the most important elements are retained.
Particularly when delivering instruction to a group, you’ll find many individuals are uncomfortable asking questions in front of their colleagues – perhaps fearing ridicule or appearing to lack basic understanding. After any conversation surrounding a technical issue, be sure to follow up with written communication to reiterate the message and check that individuals have understood.
In most cases, it’s also worthwhile writing up the issue / question and its solution to share publicly, perhaps via your company intranet. If the question has been asked once, chances are it will be asked again; and this approach not only gives the original individual(s) a reference to refer back to, but will streamline IT support by giving employees a resource to refer to before picking up the phone.
Expertise has tremendous value, but only if it can be understood. Take the time to consider how you can make technology accessible for every individual – it’s a small investment that will have long-term benefits for all.