I was talking with the head of research and development for a major medical device company, and he was really frustrated. "Anett," he said, "my leadership team doesn’t understand what we’re doing. We’re not just a back-office function supporting the company—we’re building our products!" He felt like his team was getting trampled on and disregarded—he just didn’t know how to get his message across.
People in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields are used to getting blank stares and being asked dumb questions when they talk about their work. But it's not that everyone else is stupid—it's just that you know a lot more about the technical details than they do.
In other words, it's a communication challenge: You need some better ways to present your solutions, discoveries, or obstacles to everybody else in your organization—to translate them from tech speak into business speak. So whether you’re a recent engineering grad just entering the corporate world, or a mid-career IT manager hoping for that big promotion, here are four tips to help you explain what you do and why it matters.
As a technical professional, you've been trained to follow the scientific method: Articulate the hypothesis or problem, explain your process, describe your results, and then give your conclusion. The scientific method is critical to your work, but it can screw up how you talk about it.
You can’t follow that same sequential structure when you speak. In business, you have to give the conclusion first, ideally in the first two minutes. You have a narrow opening: The audience’s window of attention closes quickly. So avoid the urge to show your work first, and present your conclusion immediately.
Just as your senior leaders don’t want to hear the details about how you came to your conclusion, they don’t care how much effort it took to get there. When you go to a restaurant, you don’t care about how long the pastry chef spent on your cake, just as long as it looks and tastes great. It's the results that matter.
The same goes if you're a tech expert or science wonk. It may be the process that excites you intellectually and gets you up in the morning. And sometimes those results look so deceptively simple that it almost feels deceptive to focus just on those. But to communicate to everybody else, you can't take them through every hour—that's not going to make them see how good you are.
Resist the urge to explain your process. It may feel unfair, but you won't be appreciated strictly for your effort. Learn to take pleasure in the achievements themselves—and again, to always talk about those first.
When you speak to your boss, your peers, or your senior leadership team, your goal isn't to demonstrate how smart you are. Your goal is to make them feel smart. No one wants to feel dumb, but when people don’t understand what you’re saying, that’s how they’ll feel—even if that wasn't your intention. They'll get worried that they're making stupid decisions. They'll check out. And next time, they may even be less inclined to listen to you.
So if you want to keep your audience engaged and preserve your own influence, speak like you're talking to a friend. Maybe that friend isn't as well versed in the technical details as you are, but that's okay. Focus on connecting, not explaining.
This is true, even when you’re speaking to other people with technical backgrounds; don’t assume they’re going to immediately understand what you’re talking about.
Technology moves quickly, and the forks in the road where one person's specialized knowledge departs from another's usually come up fast. So even if you work in the same field as someone else, there's still probably a gap between your knowledge bases just by virtue of you doing different jobs. Your job as a communicator is to bridge that gap.
Even if you’re leading a project that ends up getting dropped, you need to stay positive in front of your team members. I worked with a tech leader from a major aerospace company who told me he'd spent nine months working on a project, only to have it cancelled after funding was cut. "You get used to it," he shrugged.
He's right. Projects get canned all the time in tech fields, but great leaders don't let their teams get discouraged. Stay positive, and move onto the next project—and when you talk to others in your organization, make sure they know you're looking forward to that.
If you come from a technical background, there’s no reason you can’t be an effective communicator. Keep these four strategies in mind, and you'll be less likely to get bogged down in the details, even if those are the things you like the most.