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Cracking the IT Da Vinci Code

Five IT Communication Best Practices

When non-IT folks listen to technology staff talk about IT, it's a bit like trying to crack the Da Vinci Code. It sometimes seems like a secret language that confuses and maybe even intimidate business users. But by following a few communication best practices, IT personnel can crack "the code" and have an effective and successful dialogue with their business units.

Scene one: The CIO walked into her doctor's office complaining of sore throat and a fever.  She was a bit concerned about the rumors of swine flu hitting IT personnel.  "No," her doctor assured her, "You don't have swine flu. You have marginal  pharyngitis. I'm prescribing  broad spectrum, BID. Call me if you get worse."

She thought to herself, "I didn't understand one word you're saying, Speak to me in plain English!  All I want to know is what do I have!"

Scene two: The business manager walked into the CIO's office complaining about email problems.  She was a bit concerned about security breaches. "No," the CIO assured her, "There has been no breach." She then started to talk about ACL, BCP, Configuration Management and Packet Switched Network.

The manager thought to himself, " I don't understand one word you're saying, Speak to me in plain English! All I want to know is can I use my email!"

Hmmm. Does this sound familiar?


Gobbledegook, jargon and acronyms that no one understands is endemic in the IT world. For IT professionals,  using a technology-based vocabulary is a default setting.  And it makes sense to streamline communication with acronyms and short-cuts when speaking to other members of the IT community.  But when speaking to non-IT folks, technology jargon can seem intimidating, almost like a foreign language. A Divinci Code  they can't easily crack.

When speaking or writing, if you tend to use technology terms that might not be part of your listeners' vocabulary, here are five tips for a more "audience friendly" communication style and a way to avoid "technology-speak."

1. Know Your  Audience. This is the cardinal rule of good communication.  Think like your listeners.  If your audience has a fair understanding of IT terms, then you can use them more freely. If  you're talking to "newbies", then perhaps temper how much technology jargon you use. But ultimately, it is better to assume the non -IT audience is NOT savvy about terms. Plain speak should be your language default setting.

2. Ask  Questions. The easiest way to find out if there is a communication divide is to ask your listeners if they know the terms you're using.  Periodically ask questions like, "Are we all on the same page?" or  "Is everyone following me?" By keeping your thumb on the pulse of the audience, you'll get a good sense of whether they are understanding or lost.

3. Use Parenthetical Explanations. If you do use a technology term, immediately explain it.  In an email or tweet it might be a parenthetical explanation.  "We're looking into ACL" (that's short for access control list: the list of the identities that are permitted to access our system resources). Just make sure your explanation is not complex or too wordy.

4. Use Analogies. Creating a simple comparison  is a great way to get your audience on board.  Instead of talking about packet switching, create the analogy of a puzzle. You send all the pieces of the puzzle, but they're just sent in a few separate packages. Most listeners "get' analogies and metaphors, especially if they're universal symbols.

5. Say it So Your Mother Can Understand It. Bottom line, speak in a plain a simple way.  Don't  speak "down" to anyone, but use explanations, analogies and terms that even your mother could understand! You'll have a far more productive IT conversation!

More Stories By Core Ideas

Loraine Antrim is co-founder of Core Ideas Communication, a communications consulting agency focused on presentation development and media training for C-suite executives. Core Ideas enables executives to package and communicate relevant and compelling messages in their presentations and interviews. Loraine's expertise is killing butterflies. You know, butterflies: the feeling in your stomach before you have to present or speak in public. Loraine works with executives to create a powerful story, memorable messages and an authentic delivery style. Confidence kicks in, and butterflies scatter. Nice work killing butterflies! You can contact Loraine at: manager at coreideas.com

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