The Art of Explaining Complex Technology for Fun and Profit

You’re smart. You understand your business. You’ve mastered the latest technologies. But you keep getting rejected when you propose new investments to the executive committee. Or you can’t seem to close the deal with a prospect. How can you turn failure into success?

Avoid “talking down” to colleagues

How can IT leaders explain a complex technical issue to executives and business managers? My answer is simple: don’t try to! In most cases, the explanation of how the technology works is less important than the value the technology provides. Knowing what the technology accomplishes and what benefit it provides is usually more useful than a detailed description of its inner workings. The key question in executives, business managers and employees’ minds is “what’s in it for me (WIIFM)?” WIIFM pokes at the utility of technology to each person individually and the part of the organization the technology is supposed to benefit. The IT leader who addresses this question will communicate more effectively than one who stays in the technology functionality weeds describing the finer points of how the technology works.

There are corollaries in other disciplines. For example, I can make an excellent loaf of bread without knowing the specifics of the chemical reaction that allows yeast to create gases that leaven bread. However, it is helpful to know that properly proofing the yeast – knowing the job the yeast is supposed to do – will result in a loaf that is delectable rather than a doorstop.

IT leaders can avoid sounding like they are “talking down” to colleagues when discussing technology issues if they take a minute to understand what is behind the question. What does the person really want to know? Usually, it has little to do with how technology works and more to do with its usefulness and its applicability to solve the organization’s problem. IT leaders should avoid “setting the detailed technology table” before they let the executives and business leaders enjoy the meal. 

Here are three common situations when technology explanations might be requested:

  1. An IT leader is requesting funding for a project;
  2. A vendor is trying to make a sale;
  3. A tech-savvy person is being asked a question about the technology.

Successfully requesting project funding

In my role as an IT leader, I was often in the situation of needing to ask business leaders to fund a project. This usually meant creating a presentation or white paper that described what we wanted to do and what technology was needed to accomplish it. Oh yes, explaining how much it would cost was pretty important. 

Multiple studies describe the typical IT leader as a person with an analytical social style. Analytics have an aptitude for dealing with data and detail that overwhelms people with other social styles (driving, expressive and amiable). These styles tend to be more focused on results, emotions and relationships, respectively. The IT leader who knows the CEO wants to boost productivity by improving employee engagement will cite data on the positive correlation between flexible work programs and productivity. Then they will explain how investments in collaboration and video conferencing tools enable flexible working. 

The better approach to gaining approval for a project is to understand the social styles – and hence the motivation – of the business leaders and appeal to that rather than provide a detailed dissertation on technology. How technology works excites the analytical mind and leaves the other social styles befuddled. The IT leader should start by describing technology results. Let the business leaders ask technology questions if they want more detail on its operation.

Clinching the software deal

The vendor who wants to make a sale can also use this approach. As an analyst, I received many briefings consisting of detailed information on product functionality. Sadly, there was little insight into how the product could be used to solve a business problem. Neither was there info on what benefits customers were getting from using it.

The better approach to making a sale is to emphasize results in terms of business value and customer satisfaction. This works better than touting how cleverly the product was designed or how quickly it was brought to market. It also is more meaningful than citing the combined experience of all the people in the company.

Using analogies to explain complex technology

IT leaders asked questions about technology can use analogies to explain it. An analogy describes how one thing is comparable to something else. For example, explaining that “an application programming interface (API) is a way to programmatically interact with a separate software component or resource” could use the analogy that it functions like a waitperson who takes your food order, relays it to the kitchen and returns the food to you when it’s ready. Similarly, the concept of folders on a computer is a carryover from the days when people used manilla folders to store information in actual file cabinets.

Analogies might not always be totally accurate but they are often good enough to explain how technology works. And they don’t sound condescending. This is particularly true since technology evolves and often the terminology evolves with it but not all non-techies keep pace. For example, I was once asked by a colleague what “cloud” was. This was at the time when cloud was a new and poorly understood concept (circa 2006). Another colleague provided a technically accurate description. The colleague was still confused. I added that cloud was an updated version of time-sharing. That explanation was as much as he needed or wanted to know. 

Recommendations:

  • Focus on describing the value as vividly and specifically as possible – talk about outcomes and benefits. Ditch the acronyms and jargon. Use knowledge of social styles to highlight what value each person considers most essential from the technology. 
  • Use everyday analogies – analogies work when there is a shared experience. Select analogies that will appeal to a wide audience. Avoid analogies from obscure knowledge domains or esoteric topics.
  • Tell stories to emphasize key points – the IT leader who can embellish a request to update security with a story of expensive it was to deal with the last denial of service attack might fare better than if they just state the request. Stories are a great way to connect with people regardless of their social style. 

As author Stephen Covey suggests, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Disclosure

The views and opinions in this analysis are my own and do not represent positions or opinions of The Analyst Syndicate. Read more on the Disclosure Policy.