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Better Communication with Non-Technical People?

Cliff posted more than 7 years ago | from the get-your-point-across dept.

Communications 164

tinpan asks: "I've got a communication problem. When non-technical managers ask me to explain technical choices, they often make choices I recommend against and they later regret. I can tell that they do not understand their choice because of how they are explaining things to each other, but they usually refuse further explanation. So, it's time for some education. I want to get better at communicating technical subjects to non-technical people. More accurately, I want to get better at helping non-technical people make better technical decisions and I'm willing to accept it may include some understanding of 'selling your idea.' What advice do my fellow readers have in accomplishing this? What books, online courses and/or seminars do you recommend and why?"

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3 Choices (5, Insightful)

jfb3 (25523) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157053)

Give your manager 3 choices. The first choice won't quite solve the problem. The second choice costs way too much. The third choice is the one you want him to pick.

Don't use Acronyms (4, Insightful)

caferace (442) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157261)

I learned this simple technique 23 years ago, as a 22 year old hot-shot at a startup called Microwave Communications Incorporated.

Non-technical people (read: bean counters) like to have slow, soothing explanations, not a lot of jargon laden speechifying. Sometimes, it takes some leveling of your personal technical hubris to ratchet it down a notch, but if you want your IT life to be simple, you have to explain things in terms they'll understand.

None of this requires a book, a seminar or a conference. It's internal, and if you don't learn it intuitively, you won't use it properly.


My dealings with non tech savvy CIOs. (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19157633)

I've had a couple of bosses who were very ignorant of the technological aspects of the work the company did. They were CIO's and were hired primarily because the company owner thought that a good manager should be able to manage anything.

One had some promise. He understood that he was, to be kind, completely devoid of any real understanding of the technology. He relied heavily on the knowledge of the staff and focused on the client facing and staff management aspects of the job. All was well, until it turned out he was a paranoid nut who started playing a variety of political games instead of doing the job, but until then, he was able to do well. He'd demonstrated that a good manger really can manage something of which they have limited understanding.

Another manager was the flip side. He had no understanding of the technology, and was, to be kind, a hand wringing, spineless jellyfish. The thought of pushing for the cash for a major hardware upgrade was beyond his capabilities, and all of our insistence that the system was dying fell on deaf ears because "Well, it's working now, isn't it?"

And when I say "hand wringing" I mean it literally. He would walk around wringing his hands like he was washing them. Walt helps Locke out of the pit. Charlie drowns when Mikhail blows up the underwater station. Jack attempts to contact Kate in flash-forwards off the island. And whenever we discussed budgets or the need for new servers, our manager would get a terrified "Deer in the headlights" look in his eyes.

While he accomplished literally nothing and was, through his inaction, responsible for several major system crashes, he lasted a VERY long time, because he always told the owner what he wanted to hear, and blamed the IT staff when something went wrong, something the owner was apt to accept at face value.

Re:3 Choices (0, Offtopic)

Bluesman (104513) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157651)

One of the replies below contains a spoiler for the last episode of Lost.

Don't read further if you don't want to know.

Man, the trolls are everywhere.

Re:3 Choices (2, Interesting)

iangoldby (552781) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157927)

I think parent is referring to the Decoy Effect [] . It's a bit more subtle - the article is well-worth reading.

5 suggestions and an explanation (1)

sansmal (1103473) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158753)

Advice: 1) Work for a few months in technical customer support, best by phone. Choose a place where you will receive training for this. After a few weeks, you will know how to advise people on things they have no knowledge about. (Warning: this is an enlightening experience, but not fun.) 2) Take courses. Anything related to teaching, communication, motivation, rhethorics, psychology etc. will help. 3) Practice communication in places where you get feedback. Somebody mentioned Toastmasters. Discussion groups are also a nice idea. Rhethorics courses where your performance is recorded by camera for you later to see is helpful, too. 4) Learn to listen. Let friends tell you about things that you have no knowledge about whatsoever and are not interested in. 5) Get to know how managers decide and why. Allow me to comment on your problem the way I see it: Obviously, your superiors do not possess the necessary knowledge to make a right choice. That's ok, that's what tech people are for. Just keep in mind not to present a wrong choice to your superiors as an option, because it is not. If there is really just one way to go, tell them so. I guess eventually, it boils down to taking on more responsibility. One more thing: From my experience, many communication issues between tech people and managers stem from the correctness and precision tech people have learned to exercise. An example: Your manager's computer refuses to work and you are asked for help. You're not sure what the problem is, but you are confident that the graphics adapter is the problem and a driver update will do the job. But because you have learned to be precise, you tell the manager: "It is impossible to say for certain what the problem is. Maybe the graphics adapter is not working, we can try a driver update." What your manager probably understands, however, is this: . o O { My technician doesn't know either! Now, do I trust my hard drive full of valuable corporate data to his hunch or mine? } O o . Needless to say, he will trust his own hunch. What you should have told him would have been more authoritative, maybe along the line of: "The graphics adapter is not working. We will do a driver update." No "maybe", no "try".

Re:3 Choices (1)

tinpan (591424) | more than 7 years ago | (#19159105)

This one rarely works for me. I think they think they're seeing through the method and choose the first choice (that doesn't quite solve the problem).

Re:3 Choices (1)

SavvyPlayer (774432) | more than 7 years ago | (#19159797)

Professional integrity requires the technology consultant provide objective, well-reasoned analysis of the available options. Once the business has chosen a what it believes is the right solution, the consultant ensures that solution is executed with the right balance of quality, reliability, maintainability and expediency.

Re:3 Choices (2, Insightful)

foniksonik (573572) | more than 7 years ago | (#19161421)

Graphic Designers use this same technique. We are always asked to develop multiple 'comps' or compositions to present to a client. Usually there is really only a budget for one 'comp' as creativity takes way more time than people think and we always always take as much time as we can to come up with something interesting to us AND the client (good designers also consider business needs, demographics, existing branding strategies, etc. etc.).

SO, we will typically make 3 designs. A) is bland and boring but meets the requirements. B) is outrageous and cool and but doesn't meet requirements and C) meets requirements but has a very cool concept that we spent 90% of the time working up.

They usually pick A ;-p but we got to have fun on B and C.... AND the client feels like we made a great effort to present them with viable options (even though B was never in the budget) and every once in a while some client will go crazy and pick something other than A or incorporate some aspect of B and C into A.

Be careful though, never present (design or technical) any option that you DO NOT want them to pick. They assume that all options are recommended because you presented them. You wouldn't be presenting a bad option now would you?


The best advice you can get.... (1, Redundant)

zappepcs (820751) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157059)

is to learn to communicate....

No, seriously. You need to learn how to communicate to those in charge, those above you, and those below you. If you are unable to communicate to those you need to, it is YOU that has a problem. Start reading CIO magazine, read SEC reports, do what you need to do so that you are able to communicate what is required in a way that your audience understands.

I'm not bashing you, or supporting management that is intolerant of the tech savvy crowd. I'm simply saying that if you have to, try some education to get your point across effectively. In the end, it is YOU who gains, not just the company.

Re:The best advice you can get.... (3, Interesting)

LionKimbro (200000) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157151)

Right. He agrees with you. His entire paragraph is stating just what you said.

And then, the questions:

  • "What advice do my fellow readers have in accomplishing this?"
  • "What books, online courses and/or seminars do you recommend and why?"

So, you've begun with:

Start reading CIO magazine, read SEC reports...


...try some education...

It's a start, but it's not really answering his question. Any other ideas?

Re:The best advice you can get.... (5, Insightful)

zappepcs (820751) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157295)

Without trying to vitriolic, I did say start reading CIO magazine or whatever it takes. Managers read magazines, talk to their peers, or watch the news etc. to find out what is happening in the world, and they are more often motivated by the CIO (due to SarbOx rules) than anything else lately. If you don't EDUCATE yourself in order to communicate on their levels you will never get through to them no matter how elegant or cost efficient your proposal is.

I'm not going to tell you to trust me on this, but I will say that if you don't learn to communicate effectively with the audience that you are trying to appeal to, you will never get anywhere no matter what your message is. This is why we see so much political posturing during elections; they are trying to appeal to the voters - their audience.

At every level of business, you have to be political. The absolutely largest part of politics is relating to your intended audience. If you need to take speaking classes, finance classes, whatever... do something so that you can relate to your audience in a way that is EASY for them to understand.

Is that a bit more clear?

Re:The best advice you can get.... (1)

LionKimbro (200000) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157385)

Yes; Much more helpful.

Thank you. :)

Re:The best advice you can get.... (1)

mgblst (80109) | more than 7 years ago | (#19161599)

If you don't EDUCATE yourself in order to communicate on their levels you will never get through to them no matter how elegant or cost efficient your proposal is.

I'm not going to tell you to trust me on this, but I will say that if you don't learn to communicate effectively with the audience that you are trying to appeal to, you will never get anywhere no matter what your message is. This is why we see so much political posturing during elections; they are trying to appeal to the voters - their audience.

At every level of business, you have to be political. The absolutely largest part of politics is relating to your intended audience. If you need to take speaking classes, finance classes, whatever... do something so that you can relate to your audience in a way that is EASY for them to understand.

Why do you feel the need to keep repeating this. Nobody is disagreeing with this, the guy is asking for help in doing exactly this. It is like if I took my car to the mechanic, and ask him to get it repaired, and he spends a hour telling me why I should get it repaired.

I think your advice is off, as well. Doesn't any of your family or friends who aren't techs ask you what you do? In this case, you need to explain to them what you do, in a simple not-tech terms. Use the same techniques when talking to your managers. Remember, you don't want to simplify it for simplicities sake, you need to think about what they need to know, what they are interested in. They don't care that you have reduced the database size to now fit on one disk rather than 3, they want to know about savings, freeing up hardware that could be used elsewhere. SPend some time to think about things from their point of view.

Re:The best advice you can get.... (1)

networkBoy (774728) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157159)

Um.... newsflash, but I think that's exactly what he was asking.

Re:The best advice you can get.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19158269)

Once again Captain Obvious saves the day!

Re:The best advice you can get.... (4, Insightful)

Skapare (16644) | more than 7 years ago | (#19159297)

As much as I hate it, zappepcs [] is exactly right on this. Management will not adjust itself to your terms. You need to adjust to their terms and concepts, or find new management (e.g. change jobs ... yeah, there are vast differences in managers).

Things to especially keep in mind include: 1: Express the issue in business terms, including short and long term costs, impact on revenues and sales, legal liabilities, and a thorough risk analysis (risks not only of a paradigm shift in technology, but also a shift in markets, staffing, etc). ... and 2: Give managers choices, but not too many. Two choices can usually work. Three or Four choices is better, even if one or two are obviously bad choices. More than that is probaby too many (depending on the complexity of the issue).

Put it in writing. Summarize entirely in not more than one page, better if it is one or two paragraphs. The whole report shouldn't be more than 2 to 6 pages, shorter is better. Then just say the full details can be made available if needed (they usually don't want it, but some will). And include your recommendation and why in one paragraph. The higher level the manager is, the shorter all this usually needs to be.

Start using 'good' analogies (4, Interesting)

Beefysworld (1005767) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157065)

For talking to a non-technical minded person, the easiest way I've found to communicate with them is to put it in terms that they understand.

However, you'll need to make sure that you have a good understanding of what you're trying to express and a fair understanding of the terms you're trying to express it with. Otherwise, everything will be like a series of tubes...

Re:Start using 'good' analogies (1)

techno-vampire (666512) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157529)

Exactly. I've done ISP tech support, and I've had to learn how to explain things to callers in ways they can understand. IP addresses are phone numbers, routers are PBX/Centrix machines and DNS is the Internet equivalent of calling Information. It may take a little while, but come up with some easy to understand every-day analogies for your technology and they'll get the picture. Remember: no matter how clueless they are when it comes to technology, they're not as stupid as they sometimes seem.

You must be an engineer... (obligatory eng humor) (1, Funny)

Cordath (581672) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158111)

...since your answer, while being technically correct, is completely and utterly useless.


Re:Start using 'good' analogies (2, Insightful)

rts008 (812749) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158447)

That's it in a nutshell. Very concise and to the point. good as your advice is, I get the impression that he is needing more.

The rest of this is not a direct reply to your post, but in the hopes he actually reads this.

Okay Cliff, I can't give you specific books or classes to take to help you, mainly because what you are asking help for is difficult to define, much less give specific info to help you without actually being in your shoes.

Two things I learned in college that have helped me to no end. (I went to school to become a Veterinary Technician...kind of like a RN in human medicine- trying to remember the river rat in Ethiopia that is a common carrier of an internal parasite's particular scientific name!!?! How will that help me to try to remember that in Oklahoma?)

1. No matter how good you are in your field, ya' can't remeber it all, but if you know where to look for the reference/info/documentation, then that is good enough as long as you have a good grasp on what needs to be available on recall, and what can be looked up as needed.

    How does this relate?
    Get your PHB a reference library (simple FAQ on Corp. net, Linux for Dummies, etc.-use what fits) that's easy and quick for him/her to reference.

2.One of the most difficult subjects I had was Anesthesiology (put 'em under for surgery). Our finals were a blank sheet of paper with one problem:
"I am a layman, explain everything you know about anesthesia to me so I understand it."
Theory was that if you actually know the subject, you can explain to a layman on one page, if you didn't know the subject, then you would have to turn the page over, even some asking for more paper to explain.

On that note, practice on friends, tolerant family, cow-orkers, etc. and try to get constructive critics to give you specifics.
If their eyes glaze over during your explaination, then you need to study/practice more.

I wish that I could give you the magic wand effect and point you to the perfect tutorial, but this is all I can give you.

Thanks in advance for your patience Beefysworld, wasn't trying to trash you- you were spot on.

Re:Start using 'good' analogies (1)

BenEnglishAtHome (449670) | more than 7 years ago | (#19159825)

...put it in terms that they'll need to make sure that you have a good understanding of what you're trying to express and a fair understanding of the terms you're trying to express it with.

Truer words and all that.

Illustration: I was once assigned to a team that was required to study a new and growing industry, understand their impact on current law and regulation, and make recommendations for new regulations and/or legislation. We're talking billions of dollars of economic impact per month and the industry had grown so quickly that our (I work for a large, U.S. federal agency) ability to administer the law was severely compromised. Good people in that industry were doing great things; crooks were getting away with murder.

Management was smart enough to put on the team people from every division that dealt with the industry. The chosen participants were all very, very sharp folks. I was low man, by far, and felt privileged just to participate. Theoretically, I was just there to support them with a variety of computer-related tasks. However, it became clear at our first meeting that we had big problems. Each division spoke a different language. Simple terms like "case" meant radically different things to different people.

I was the only person on the team who had, over the course of my career, shown so little ambition that I had allowed myself to drift from division to division, from project to project, from job to job. I had either worked in or closely with every division at the table and I understood all their languages. I literally spent half of my first six months on the project translating, in meetings and informally, for the others on the team. It was common that when two people from different divisions talked in the hall informally about something, they'd migrate to my desk and explicitly ask me to listen in to the conversation and correct any communication errors I heard.

I wound up editing our final report to the Cabinet Secretary and even wrote a chapter covering civil enforcement options for it. I firmly believe that project would, at best, have been delayed an extra year if I hadn't been there to constantly translate and help each participant understand the technical jargon of the others.

The situation doesn't matter. You have to understand both sides to communicate between them. My presence on that team was just a lucky accident. It's not really fair to ask the tech guy to explain things to the non-tech folks in more traditional business roles; they speak different languages. There should be someone in between who has extensive experience on both sides to moderate and translate. That person may have various titles like "Analyst" or "Subject Matter Expert" or even just "moderator", but they must exist. Different business models posit different ideal ways to set this up and, depending on where you learned your business processes, they all seem to make up their own names for the tasks, people, and workflows. Sometimes, it seems that virtually every business just wings it when the time comes to make decisions. But if you want to make the right decisions, you need more than just the business guy and the tech guy in the room. You need one more communications-savvy person who has worked both sides recently and extensively enough to still do both jobs. Without that person, you have to fall back on training tech guys to talk business or vice versa, something that never seems to *quite* work out.

car analogies (1, Funny)

evil_neanderthal (1024405) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157087)

unless it's a girl. then just lie. it's not flamebait, it's a corporate strategy!

Re:car analogies (1)

arivanov (12034) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157369)

While this notion is quite popular, I know plenty of girls that will actually read the spec or get a boy to do that for them. After all there has to be a reason why most drivers driving GM POS out there are male.

In which case... (1)

Thwomp (773873) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158983)

Use Pony analogies.

Re:car analogies (1)

ErroneousBee (611028) | more than 7 years ago | (#19159085)

Why, only 2 hours ago I was heard to say:

"That's like drawing a picture of a car, and saying 'This is how it will feel to drive'"

Not sure it worked, though.

No seriously, it works. (1)

oni (41625) | more than 7 years ago | (#19161631)

Car analogies really are great. About a year ago I had to design a website, which isn't that big of a deal, but there was a lot of information to organize. I did 13 layouts and usability testing before I could say that I had found the absolute best one. It really was a great layout. More importantly, it made use of common web UI standards. For example, where is the link back to the homepage? Click the logo. Where do you expect to see the search box? At the top of the page somewhere.

For some reason, you can take a great website and shoot it up on a wall with a projector and people will start picking it apart in ways that they wouldn't do if they were actually using the site. So people were actually saying things like, "what? Click the logo? Nobody will figure that out!"

So here was my car analogy: If I showed you a car on paper, and you'd never driven one before, you wouldn't believe that it was going to work. "what? I make it go forward by putting my foot on something?? That's insane!" you'd say. But you'd be wrong.

Some times you just need to speak with authority (2, Insightful)

FreeKill (1020271) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157095)

I have been in the same situation before and many times I've found the best way to get your ideas across is the be authoritative and not back down when you think they are making the wrong choice. That obviously depends on the type of environment you're in, but for me I find that sometimes it just takes standing up for your ideas to convince those in charge they are worth looking into.

Re:Some times you just need to speak with authorit (4, Insightful)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157149)

Absolutely. Typically, when someone is non-technical and asks me a technical question, I ask them why they want to know. When they tell me the problem, I tell them how to solve it. When they ask if there is another way to solve it, I say I wouldn't recommend any other way. Even if I have a few alternatives up my sleeve, I don't offer them.. it only confuses the non-technical person.

The worst is when the non-technical person asks a room full of technical people for a solution to a problem. You usually get a whole lot of really poorly thought out solutions. Sometimes, however, you will get one good solution.. and the non-technical person will ask a lot of questions about how this is going to effect business needs of some description. This is bad. If this is your solution, you should immediately suggest that you will follow up with the non-technical person at a later time.. or immediately take them out of the room.

Because you know what's coming? An alternative. Typically a worse alternative. This happens all the time. Technical people love to bring up poor solutions to problems and contrast them against the better solution. They think the non-technical person is going to see why the best solution is better if they can see the reasoning behind why the worse solutions are worse. They want to elevate the conversation out of talking about business needs and back into the technical realm. This is guarenteed to confuse the non-technical person.

The result of which will be the wrong decision. And who gets to clean up the mess? Yeah, we do.

Re:Some times you just need to speak with authorit (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19157393)

Typically, when someone is non-technical and asks me a technical question, I ask them why they want to know.

Perhaps because they're curious, and they want to learn and move beyond being spoon-fed 'solutions' by you? :-)

Re:Some times you just need to speak with authorit (1)

westlake (615356) | more than 7 years ago | (#19159173)

Typically, when someone is non-technical and asks me a technical question, I ask them why they want to know. When they tell me the problem, I tell them how to solve it. When they ask if there is another way to solve it, I say I wouldn't recommend any other way. Even if I have a few alternatives up my sleeve, I don't offer them.. it only confuses the non-technical person.

The IT equivalent of a Bush appointee. All problems are purely technical. Arrogance unbounded. The alternatives to your solution never to be openly and honestly presented.

Re:Some times you just need to speak with authorit (1)

Dan Ost (415913) | more than 7 years ago | (#19161635)

What's the riskier proposition here:
1: Rule out the bad solutions and present the best solution given the requirements and assume that the requirements are accurate
2: Give the complete list of alternatives to someone who can't distinguish between the alternatives

There's a reason why the people who give the best advice also give the shortest answers.

retail (4, Interesting)

Johnny Mnemonic (176043) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157115)

Work in a retail environment, preferably on commission. In about 6 months you'll either learn how to sell ice to eskimos, or starve.

Seriously, this was the best exposure I had to the non-technical user, and I've utilized the learned salesmanship in later interviews and technical presentations. I recommend spending some time selling something to everyone.

Re:retail (1)

networkBoy (774728) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157181)

I sold cars.
Used cars.
I'm still making payments to the devil.
for my soul.

Yes get into sales, no don't sell cars. (unless you like kicking people when they're down).

I signed someone for 22% on a 72 month loan for a $14K car. I quit the following day. I still feel bad.

Re:retail (1)

networkBoy (774728) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157239)

Forgot something: That was over 9 years ago.
and yes I still feel bad. The only bright side is I don't get phucked with when I go to buy a car.

Now to make this post useful.
As to getting into sales, it really is a good learning experience (naturally don't quit a higher paying job to go do sales). The only advice I have for someone seriously considering sales is DO NOT EVER sign up for "commission draw" based pay structures. Unless you are a top seller you will never make more than the minimum wage, and may (depending on contractual arrangements) owe the company when you quit. Classic commission draw is as such: You are guaranteed a minimum pay ($x/hr). If you make more per hour than $x (say $y) then you get $y/hr. The catch is when you make less than $x ($a). The company will give you makeup pay ($z) to get you to $x, but you owe them $z back once you have a $y month.

$x == min pay
you earn $a + company $z == $x
later you earn $y - company takes back $z and leaves you with $b (where $b can not be less than $x)
if $z includes contract or "desk" fees then if you have an outstanding $z when you leave the company you will owe that back. (retail usually doesn't have these fees, though Farmers insurance does. One agent ended up owing ~$26K upon quitting the company).

Re:retail (1)

marcushnk (90744) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157243)

phew, you really are a low life piece of crap aren't you? ;-)

Re:retail (4, Interesting)

networkBoy (774728) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157291)

Dude, you have no idea how low I felt.

She had 2 BK's in under 10 years.
She had $4K down (enough for the bank to approve her at shark rates).
I tried desperately to sell her a used car that she could have free and clear, I even honestly offered her my commission bonus on the car as a rebate.
She wanted that damn new car (Saturn).

Now, had I been selling Benz or Bimmer and someone wanted to bury themselves over a new car I would not have felt nearly as bad. But a Saturn is about as low as you can go without buying complete crap (Escort, KIA, Hyundai, etc.) and in my area you are screwed without a car. I pointed out to the gal that the used car she would own free and clear, have about $1K left over, the car had a 90 day/5K mi warranty, so it wasn't crap (crap don't get well... crap for warranties). She could likely drive it for about 4 years before she'd need another car, and she'd be debt free.

Seriously, the sales manager saw my face after I signed the deal over to finance and said: You don't work here anymore do you?. I replied that I had to go home and think (food on table, or some sense of shame), had no kids at the time, so jobless was I for the next few weeks.

Re:retail (4, Insightful)

cerberusss (660701) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157563)

Don't feel bad about it. You can't avoid other people's mistakes, they have to make their own. That girl will probably remember your advice for the rest of her life.

Re:retail (1)

halcyon1234 (834388) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157807)

For anyone interested in just how bad of a deal the customer got:

Amort Calculator []

22% interest on 14K over 72 monthly payments (I'm assuming 12 payments per year)

$351.77 / month car payment

After 6 years, that's $11326.75 in interst paid!

Let's put it this way: If you can afford to put aside $351.77 / month, and you can get a savings account that offers 4% interest, then after 1 year, you'll have $4,313.83 saved up.

If you need the car NOW, then heck, if you can afford $351.77 / month, you probably have a not too shabby salary. Get a line of credit from the bank. They're usually in the neighbourhood of 6%. You can buy a 14k outright, and then payback the loan. At $351.77 / month, you'll have it paid back in 44 months (as opposed to 72), and you'll have paid only $1631.32 in interest (as opposed to $11k!). Plus a line of credit is more flixible. If you can afford to pay more than $351 in a month, you can, without penalties.

Re:retail (1)

baeksu (715271) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157929)

Ok, now please explain that again as to a non-technical person.

I think you were talking about cars, but as soon as you got technical, my mind froze.

Re:retail (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19158161)

WTF is a BK?

Re:retail (1)

gEvil (beta) (945888) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158853)

Burger King. I'm still trying to figure out how someone who can own two BKs has a problem getting a car...

Re:retail (1)

networkBoy (774728) | more than 7 years ago | (#19160277)


Re:retail (3, Insightful)

Aladrin (926209) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158573)

Okay, I'm totally against shitty salesman tactics. (I passed this test... I was a salesman for a year and a half and was really bad at it because I refused to push a sale... Heh.)

But this is not one of them. You did EVERYTHING in your power, even went WAY beyond (shame on you) and she still insisted on buying that car at a stupid price. You didn't sell her that car, you merely ran the paperwork. 'Selling' involves an effort to entice the customer to buy. You did exactly the opposite.

Maybe your immortal soul will have to atone for other saleman-sins, but this is not one of them..

Re:retail (1)

aoteoroa (596031) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157373)

This sounds worse than it would have been 10 years ago because interest rates are now at their lowest in generations.

But even today you can pay interest rates in the mid teens if you have bad credit.

$273.70 per month is not too tough a pill to swallow for a newish car.

If you have ever had bad credit you will do anything to rebuild it.

America has a cast system just like old India. . . only our cast system is based on buying power not birth.

Re:retail (1)

headbulb (534102) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157431)

I don't suggest car salesmen as a profession. I had one salesman that did do one trick I wasn't expecting. He took my license to get a copy of it before a test drive. When he came back out he had left it in the office. So I decided no matter, I will drive a block without my license. He went on his whole sales pitch and told me he sold a car that day. We get back to the lot and we walk into the storefront. Before I could ask for my license he had set a piece of paper in front of me to mull it over. I decided to see what kind of sales technique he would try to use. Turns out it was a four squire. He had written on the back of it if we could agree on a price if I would buy the car. Then wanted me to sign. I didn't and demanded for my license. He then delays getting my license and grabs the guy from the back sales office. It took me a few times of asking firmly for my license back.

I just thought that was a interesting trick to hold my license hostage.

Oh and the sales guy offered me the test drive after I told him I was interested in a truck (for work. I love cars) So I didn't lead him on. Don't let salesmen push you around. Or try to use a signature as a forcing point.

Kinda Off topic.

On Topic:
If you have to explain something to someone try to aim it towards something they will understand. Don't dumb it done but give them the important points.

Re:retail (1)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157439)

Friend of mine used to sell vacuum cleaners. Really, really expensive vacuum cleaners. He'd go into people's houses and pull a sack of dirt out of a small area of their carpet and ask "how can you put a price on your family's health?" and there ya go, instant sale. Every single person he sold a vacuum cleaner to believed they needed a industrial strength stainless steel vacuum cleaner, and they agreed to pay a fortune because of it. Once they signed those finance papers they were in debt for 10 or 20 years. And it's not like they could complain.. the vacuum cleaner did everything it was claimed to do. It did it for 30 years. Sure, you don't actually need a vacuum cleaner like this.. and it probably has a worse effect on your children's health than exposing them to a little dust, but you get what you pay for.

Re:retail (1)

Dogtanian (588974) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158587)

I sold cars. Used cars. I'm still making payments to the devil. for my soul.
Those are rental payments. You don't seriously think he's ever going to sell it back, do you? :-P

Two Words... (5, Funny)

Aerinoch (988588) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157141)

Better Communication with Non-Technical People?
Sock Puppets.

Two better words... (1)

2008 (900939) | more than 7 years ago | (#19161267)

Better Communication with Non-Technical People?
Clue bat.

Talk to People... (1)

masdog (794316) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157155)

Go out with your friends, join an organization in the community, do anything where you interact with others. Just talk to people. Talk about anything besides tech. If you can talk about it in polite company or at the dinner table, talk about it if they're interested. Once you're better able to relate to people, you'll find that explaining a technical concept will become a lot easier.

I'm sorry (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19157165)

I don't understand you, could you rephrase the question?

the basics of good communication (1)

romit_icarus (613431) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157191)

It seems to me that your problem is not one of technical vs non technical forms of communication, it's more basic: with how to effectively communicate.

When you say that you have no problem communicating with technical folk, what you're actually saying is that you are very comfortable talking to people who are in the same professional area as you are, those who share the same technical lexicon. To these people you do not have to make an extra effort to communicate - your profession provides you with the tools (journals, newsgroups, magazines) and vocabulary to do so.

If you needed to explain to a 'technical' guy from a different profession - say economics or electrical engineering I bet you'd have the same problem.

Well there are books written about it but basics are simple: to communicate to anyone you need to be in the other person's shoes, understand her frames of reference, her obejctives and drives and make sure you can talk at *that* level. As an exercise, pick an arbitrary person (your neighbour, a cousin etc) and try to explain to him what you do in five minutes. :)

Of course, not everyone has the skill and in fact most highly creative professionals don't. Which is why hiring people with complementary strengths is such a good strategy

Use car analogies (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19157197)

Guaranteed or your bandwidth back!

influence, not communication (4, Insightful)

nido (102070) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157253)

Cialdini's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion [] might be what you're looking for.

Re:influence, not communication (1)

Knytefall (7348) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157913)

mod parent up to 5. this book is amazing, amazing, amazing. he describes an array of heuristics people use to get through life, and how people trying to persuade you exploit those heuristics.

Office Space (5, Funny)

Loconut1389 (455297) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157485)

Well, look, I already told you. I deal with the goddamn customers so the engineers don't have to!! I have people skills!! I am good at dealing with people!!! Can't you understand that?!? WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?!!!!!!!

Toastmasters (4, Interesting)

deranged unix nut (20524) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157597) []

Find your local toastmasters club and practice. Since joining toastmasters, I have had many comments from people in both my work and personal life about how much my verbal communication has improved.

Each speech will give you supportive and constructive feedback from multiple people, from multiple experience levels, and from multiple walks of life. I now find myself re-thinking how I explain quite a few technical things to others and catch myself when I am talking to non-technical people and I start to use the jargon that is so automatic among technical folks. I still pause and think about how to appropriately re-phrase what I was about to say to make it more appropriate to the people that I am talking to, but at least I am catching myself now when I used to rattle on and lose them long before I realized that they weren't getting it.

Besides, the dues are about the same as a magazine subscription. It is quite inexpensive for what you get.

Seconded (1)

SanityInAnarchy (655584) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158277)

Practice of any kind is good. This is practice in a somewhat structured format. Added bonus: You will probably learn more by listening to others' speches and evaluating them (good ones and bad ones) than you will practicing on your own.

Disclaimer: I'm not still a member, and not likely to be again for awhile.

Re:Toastmasters (-1, Offtopic)

Dogtanian (588974) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158645)

Note: The Toastmasters logo [] looks like Goatse.

Re:Toastmasters (1)

Wiseleo (15092) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158679)

As a Toastmaster, and moreover as a candidate district officer, I will second this suggestion.

Let me give you an idea why. I was not a bad speaker when I joined the club, and in fact I was quite well-spoken, but I've improved a lot since then. I present seminars professionally and I also am involved in sales presentations nearly daily. I joined Toastmasters to get evaluated by my peers and not by my prospects or customers. You will get highly objective feedback from people whose sole goal is to help you improve your speaking abilities.

You will reduce your tendency to ramble on indefinitely due to strict time requirements for your prepared speeches.
You will gain the ability to answer anything on any random topic in less than 2 minutes (part of our meeting is impromptu speeches about completely random topics between 45 seconds and 2 minutes 15 seconds in length).
You will learn to control your gesturing, posture, and your filler words that make you seem unprofessional.

I notice huge improvements in members in a matter of just a few meetings. Everyone starts the same. In just a couple of meetings, the shyness begins to recede, and the volume and confidence in voice increase dramatically.

If you'd like to learn more about this organization, our district site is [] and my club's website is [] Guests are always welcome at club meetings that are open to public, so just stop by your local club and say "hi".

In addition to this, I took a course "Introduction to Internet" in college. I was an expert, but I took it for the express purpose of learning how to explain such concepts to absolutely computer-illiterate people. Pierre Thierry was the instructor's name at City College in San Francisco and I took the course in the late 90s. He managed to explain Unix shell Internet tools to my 80-year old classmates! I learned a lot about how to explain highly technical concepts to non-technical people from listening to this professor.

There is an linear correlation of income to speaking ability - the better communicator you are, the more opportunities become available to you. Our club members tend to be successful, positive, and very supportive of your future success.

At the conclusion of your first 10-speech program, you will earn the title of Competent Communicator. Toastmasters can send a certificate to your employer as well, if you so desire.

P.S. One interesting side effect of practicing public speaking is that you become pretty smooth with members of opposite sex. After all, if you can articulate your thoughts seemingly seamlessly on any random subject in less than 2 minutes, they will be very impressed. :-)

Good advice (beat me to it :-) (2, Informative)

Avatar8 (748465) | more than 7 years ago | (#19161429)

I've been in IT 23 years. I've been in Toastmasters six. Toastmasters made the single biggest improvement in my career and my personal skills.

I was comfortable speaking in front of a crowd as long as I was talking about computers and speaking in technical jargon. What didn't occur to me was whether or not the people understood what I was saying.

There are specific items in Toastmasters that will apply directly to what you're seeking. Overall the ability to listen well and speak directly to your audiences' needs regardless of their level of understanding.

Impromptu speaking: the ability to provide an intelligent, concise answer on the spot, or the ability to deflect it until you can provide an answer. This is a phenomenal skill when dealing with supervisors or when interviewing.

Structured thinking: you'll start writing speeches in a structure (opening, body, conclusion) and have nested structure within that. Before long it will affect your thinking and you'll find yourself telling people exactly what they need to know in a clear, easy to follow manner.

Time saving: due to time limitations of speeches, you'll put emphasis on getting your point across. In addition with practice and removal of crutch words (ah, um, so) and unnecessary pauses, you'll be able to say more in a shorter period of time.

Meeting management: perform certain tasks in a timely manner, ensure things run smoothly and accomplish all tasks/goals expected. This can apply to a formal business meeting or even a "hallway hijacking."

Leadership skills: you learn to take the helm especially when there is no apparent leader and you learn how to steer any situation in the right direction to accomplish a goal.

There are advanced projects that will help you with this specific issue: speaking to management, speaking to inform and technical presentations.

Obviously this will not happen overnight, but I am quite certain that in a good, healthy club you'll notice immediate changes within six months.

Hit the [] website and use the "Find a club" button to locate a club near you. Visit several clubs just to get a feel for the environment and find out which ones are healthy clubs. You might even find one with numerous technical members. If you'd like specific assistance finding a club or want to know more, send me a private message. I'd be glad to help.

Speak their language and enable them (1)

Lazbien (788979) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157599)

Typically, when I'm working with non-technical folk (as an IT Business Analyst, I normally spend about 75% facing the Business), I learn to first understand their language (verbiage, etc), and then use that when I'm talking to them. As another poster mentioned, simple analogies.

However, I would take this one step further (as I often do). Figure out the different alternatives, figure out their critical success factors, and give them a weighted decision criteria (sorry for the misaligned table, as it typically looks better in PowerPoint or Excel):

                    | weight |alt 1|alt 2|alt 3
criteria 1| .25 | 4 | 1 | 2
criteria 2| .35 | 3 | 3 | 2
criteria 3| .4 | 5 | 4 | 4
total | 4.05 | 3.65| 2.8 |

Get more than three criteria, but no more than six. Use a five point scale and assess based on the marketing literature, industry feedback, anecdotal evidence, and what Gartner says about it. Hell, everyone loves Gartner... Be sure you explain that you're using a five point scale, and why you've assigned rankings to each one. Basically, explain it to them like you're trying to convince your child. Assume that they know nothing (which shouldn't be too hard).

Effectively, you need to show them that the software/hardware you've selected meets the critical success factors they've developed. Show your research. Be a good little school boy and provide them with references.

It sounds to me like these Manager peers of yours are basically trying to legitimize their decision making power. Give them the evidence that you've developed and find some way to show your peers and their minions that it was them who made the decision, and you're the one who just enabled them to make this decision. Remember, IT is about enabling the Business, and recommendations (be it a business case, gap analysis, or business requirements documents) are always laden with politics.

And yeah, I hate it when others take credit for my work too. But we learn to deal with it, as IT is there to enable the business. But then again, whenever I need help (typically with a crotchety old luser who doesn't want to give me requirements), I know that I have friends in high places.

Communication with non-technical hard. (1)

seabre (889946) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157621)

I had to write a research paper last year for my freshman English class, and I chose to write the paper on Digital Rights Management (and why it's bad). Obviously I had to defend my stance, which wasn't hard, except for the "making it easy to understand for non-technical people" part. It was easy finding a real world (non-technical) situation that a non-technical reader to relate to, but explaining, say, applications of DRM to digital music and rootkits (to explain the big Sony BMG rootkit fiasco).
I know I'm a pretty bad writer anyway, but having to explain things to a big general audience that are easily understood by fellow peers is, well, hard. The best thing for technical people to do is to read a dictionary regularly...or at least learn new words frequently. The more ways you're able to express something the easier it'll be for you to when your boss asks you why you can't, I dunno, plug a toaster into a computer.

Communication Skills (3, Interesting)

VAY (455170) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157637)

I was born with awful communication skills, and found this sort of thing very difficult. After I was diagnosed with ADD, I read a lot of material about communication and related skills and learned some soft skills, and it was very useful (as well as very interesting in a geeky kind of way - if you think computers can be interesting, the way people work will blow your mind...).

Everyone should learn how to communicate with people. Essentially, this means understanding different viewpoints, which means being able to understand how people are different. There are different communication styles even between people who are ostensibly similar, which can get in the way of clear communication. I find it very frustrating that techies cannot seem to abandon the idea that there is true and false and nothing else, from which logically follows that if you don't agree with me you are wrong. Of course, in most day-to-day situations things are way more complicated than that. Is it a fact that it is rude to ignore me for two minutes when I approach your desk to talk to you? Yes, of course, I have feelings and a hello costs nothing. No, of course not, I am only dumping the contents of my brain into my IDE so I can give you my full, undivided attention.

Understanding people's reasons for their actions and reactions, and seeing through their eyes, enables you to persuade people to do the right thing, which is good for both your employer and for you. It is not being Macheavellian, or turning into a sales weasel (as long as it is used for good :-)). It also works wonders on your personal relationships.

I would recommend Getting To Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury, about win-win negociation; I'm OK, You're OK by Thomas A. Harris, Games People Play by Eric Berne, and TA Today by Ian Stewart and Vann Joines, about Transactional Analysis; and the works of Deborah Tannen, especially Talking From 9 to 5. Look into the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators too. I would also recommend asking your company to send you on a course or two about communicating assertively and negociation skills.

What I've found (1)

djupedal (584558) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157663)

I've been climbing this hill for nearly the last two decades.

You simply have to put yourself in their shoes and explain things in a way that means something to them and their own priorities, agendas, etc. This means knowing quite a bit about other jobs and what drives the people you are attempting to 'educate', of course.

Again, put things in their terms, focusing on what your idea/plan/suggestion is going to do to help them solve whatever it is that happens to be important to them at that time. Not yours...

Then, as mentioned above, give them three suggestions, your favorite last, in such a way that they will turn from one and two. Let them take whatever time they need to mull things over - some people need minutes and some need days. Once you laid things out and done your best to cache things on their terms, relax and let them come around. Be available to follow-ups, but don't get in their face or they will be prone to reacting negatively, as I'm sure you already know :)

Re:What I've found (1)

matt_bobco (1103429) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157891)

Much of what has already been said is spot-on, but always remember to observe and listen to the non-techy while you're explaining. You should try to explain things in terms they'll understand (without being condescending) as far as possible, but if they look as if they're not getting it, then you should change tack and try a new approach. Keep everything simple and make sure that you have time to explain properly, nothing is worse than rushing an explanation.

As far as courses etc go, in my experience there is no better teacher than working at an electronics retailer for a while. That's probably not going to be possible, of course, but my point is that practice makes perfect, espescially if there is not too much pressure. Maybe try explaining things to family members etc in a relaxed environment, seems like a perfect practice area and if you get it wrong it won't mean the death of your company!

Just what I've found, but I still think practice is a good teacher.

Crossing the chasm (1)

simong_oz (321118) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157675)

Probably the best book, particularly since it deals with mostly software technology is Geoffrey Moore, "Crossing the Chasm" [] . Emminently readable as well.

get an infp to edit your writing (1)

drDugan (219551) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157779)

I've had the same problem. I subcontracted an editor, a popular fiction writer (non technical) who was great at marketing to broad technical audiences. When worked as a consultant, my editor (and MBTI INFJ) who would read the material I sent (especially critical emails) and smooth off the technical sharp edges. It sometime took some face-to-face time with the editor to get her to understand, and she would re-write the stuff for the managers types.

There may be some formal training but (4, Informative)

LoveMe2Times (416048) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157781)

I'm not aware of any training or education specifically designed to help technical people communicate more effectively with non-technical people. You are more specifically interested in communicating with decision makers, which is far more specific than say talking to your family or non-technical friends. Being more specific in some ways makes it easier. I'm guessing that your difficulty lies not so much in not communicating technical details or ideas adequately, but not understanding the decision making process being used. One of my primary job functions is being a liaison between the technical and non-technical sides of the company, and I even talk to customers/partners who know nothing about technology. Point being, I am good at it now--I am complimented on this often--but this was not always so. Meaning that yes, it's something you can get better at.

Given that, here's what I can tell you:

1) Detail is enemy #1. Technical work has lots and lots of details to it, and we often get absorbed in them and like to talk about them. This will ruin your efforts again and again, you *must* train yourself to hold back details unless specifically asked. For example, if somebody asks what an acronym means, you probably shouldn't tell them what it stands for. Also, when pressed for details, try and give only the details relevant to your audience. For example, if somebody asks you what "WebSphere" is, do you tell them:

      a) "WebSphere is a proprietary J2EE server. I recommend we go with JBoss instead since it is open source and does everything we need. It's cheaper and easier too."
      b) "WebSphere is an IBM product designed for an enterprise computing environment leveraging Java technology. You might use it for serving web pages."
      c) "WebSphere is one of many enterprise level, server-side Java solutions. It's a complete J2EE server, supporting all server-side Java standards, like servlets, JSPs, and enterprise java beans. It is intended to provide scalability, robustness, clustering, fail-over, up-time guarantees, and other things expected from an enterprise class product. You might choose it for the same reasons you would choose Oracle over other databases. BEA, Oracle, Sun and JBoss all provide competing products providing almost identical functionality at different price points and service levels."

All three are reasonable answers depending on the context. Does your audience want to hear "cheaper and easier" in (a), "IBM product ... enterprise ... leveraging" in (b), or the particulars about what enterprise-class means and mentioning competitors in (c)?

2) Decision makers often have to make decisions regarding things they do not personally know. As you have observed, this often leads to making sub-optimal decisions. In debate class, relying on an authority rather than having a good argument might get you marked down. In the real world, quoting an authority is often (maybe even usually) more important, as the decision maker might not understand the actual argument. I experienced this repeatedly and to great frustration earlier in my career, where a manager would pretend to listen to me, only to do what a more senior, trusted person recommended. In some cases there will be other hidden agendas, and often times you won't know what the decision makers parameters are. For example, you might recommend Vendor A for price/performance reasons, and the manager chooses Vendor B because B is a "safe" choice and the decision maker is in a difficult position with his or her boss.

3) This leads to: you'll need to understand the chain of command. Often times, the person that you get to talk to does not have the final say. Instead, that person has to sell the decision to other business people and the people who control the purse strings. So in some cases you are educating someone who is really just a champion, not a final decision maker. In this case, you must prep them to defend the decision to the higher ups. If you have a good relationship with the champion, and the champion is an honest person, your efforts actually matter. This is the stage where things often get messed up: sometimes your boss will twist your words, promising more for less, so as to not upset his or her boss.

4) You must be dispassionate and bend over backwards to seem nonchalant. Present arguments against your own position--when you get to phrase them, it's far easier to refute them. Be careful of your tone, it cannot sound snarky! For example, "I recommend we go with A. However, it does cost a bit more up front. I don't see this as a bad thing, though, as it has significantly lower on-going costs. I estimate we'll make up the difference in 3 months, and then we'll be saving money next quarter. If we absolutely cannot afford A, then B is a fine choice presuming our budget next quarter is accommodating." While I recommend that you actually give an objective opinion, the purpose here is to make your audience feel like they're receiving an objective opinion.

5) You have to think in broader terms yourself. What are the ramifications for staffing? Training? Support? Maintainability? The fact that there are far more Java developers than say Ruby developers is a valid business reason to chose Java. As per #4, you should probably mention this yourself when recommending Ruby.

All in all, when you can begin to talk about how the technology will impact the business, how it will increase revenue, decrease costs, increase productivity, manage risk, bring in customers, lock out competitors, etc, then you'll be on your way to talking their language. Suddenly, they start listening to you, and it turns out they're not stupid at all. Watch out, though, as you might wind up *being* management shortly thereafter.

Mod Parent Up!... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19160067)

excellent real world response on the topic thread

Take the choice away from them (1)

Twylite (234238) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157783)

If your managers are not technically competent, then they shouldn't be taking those decisions.

First, take away the technical choices and leave them with business options. Deciding what functionality is provided in a product is a business option; deciding on the design patterns is a technical choice, as is screen layouts (although customer input is a good idea!). So the options you provide only allow business decisions to be made - the relevant technical decisions are implicit.

Gray areas include choice of technology / development platform (the business needs to retain the relevant skills); and use of third-party libraries (compare cost/risk against in-house development and you can often reduce it to a technical choice).

Second, do the work for them, and make it clear that you have the capacity to make the right choice. Start by presenting the options in quantitative summary form: Option X = % functionality provided, estimated cost, estimated time, estimated risk (% of cost/time). Include a terse description of what distinguishes that option from the others.

Demarcate your area of expertise, and make sure you are and expert. Never argue marketing or financial points with your manager - on the contrary, make it clear that those points are outside your area of expertise. But stand your ground on technical issues.

Third, if you are forced into a position where you have to explain or justify a technical choice (note: not explain an option, but justify a decision you have already taken) then use examples and metaphors.

Examples are where you point out how it has been done that way by Microsoft and Google, and millions of people are familiar with it, so it's The Right Thing.

Metaphors are where you find a real-life tale within your manager's experience that focuses on the distinction between technical options, driving a wedge into the gap between them to make it easier for a non-technical person to identify and understand the differences.

Talk to them in their terms (1)

Meostro (788797) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157799)

The best way to communicate something is in terms of how that someone understands things.

If you're talking to a business person, explain your solution / idea / objection in business terms. If you're talking to your doctor, explain it in medical terms. If you're talking to your 3-year-old, explain how SpongeBob would do whatever it is you're trying to do. If you don't really understand what you're trying to convey then you'll have a hard time with this, but if you do know what's going on it's not usually too hard to explain in someone else's frame of mind.

This is something I always try to put on my resume - Communicates complex ideas in understandable terms regardless of audience. If you really understand whatever it is that you're presenting you can re-frame it in terms that your target will also understand. The added bonus is that they'll appreciate that you didn't give them geeky technobabble when they asked you a "simple" question, and you can usually impress them with your knowledge AND let them feel smart for understanding at the same time.

Technical people don't understand business (1)

Frans Faase (648933) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157873)

What I have often felt is that non-technical people think that techies don't understand business and that they understand both business and technical issues. But whenever I have asked a business person if they could give an estimate of the profits of a certain functionality, they often simply stated that it was needed to win a customer. Yet at the same time they often demand that I give an accurate estimation of the development effort (costs).

But the reality is that software is usually bought by non-technical persons (both private as commecial), and that features are more important than functionality. Often it is sufficient that a certain functionality can be demonstrated, not that it is really working or adding something to the product. How the product looks is always more important than how it works. (And once the product is sold, it is usually the helpdesk that is required to help the customer work around all the "features".)

My conclusion is that software development is mostly driven by prospects not by existing customers.

try getting a teachers degree (1)

iblisskun (1103445) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157915)

In the process of getting a teachers degree, you normally (at least here) have some courses where they specifically teach you how to explain things on a level BELOW your own understanding. Well, that's what the point of being a teacher is of course : being able to explain things you understand but the other person doesn't, in a way that they
* want to listen
* become interested/keep their interest in the subject
* build their own interpretation of the matter
* hopefully can give a crude but mostly correct explanation about it to someone else
* ideal: they can use it to understand other new things AND/OR be creative with it

if you want your non-technical decision-makers to listen to you, i think this is a good step (it has helped me to do this, and it works pretty good)

oh and something else: a good preparation of
* what you want to say
* what you think they will ask
* what YOU will ask
* what you DONT want to say
_in writing_ (even purely schematically will do) will also take you a big step forward (but ok, i admit that that is also something they teach you in the courses i talked about above)

Tell it like it is (1)

netpixie (155816) | more than 7 years ago | (#19157995)

As a few of the posts mention elliptically, what you mean by "non-technical people" are actually dullards.

They are stupider than you which is why they are managers and they are definitely stupider then you if they can't choose the right product on their own. The very existence of your job illustrates that they realise they are stupider than you and hence need help choosing things. The final damning piece of evidence is that, after hiring you to help them make the decisions they are too dick witted to do on their own, they ignore your advice.

This puts the whole question onto a different footing: "How can I communicate with the stupid without giving them a lengthy training session to bring them up to my level of understanding?" It might sound harsh and a little bit arrogant but it's the truth. If you start off thinking that these people are anything other than totally random nonsense spouting idiots then you'll end up doing the wrong thing.

This means the first thing to ditch is logical reasoning. Nothing scares a dullard more than a carefully thought out, well researched, evidence based piece of research. I suggest finding out who their friends are, then making up some opinions and attributing them to these friends. Don't bother worrying about getting found out. Managers only have a 10minutes attention span so they won't follow it up.

Next: Draw a graph. It doesn't matter what of, just make it have a line that goes up at the end. This is known as the "hockey stick" and is something managers are trained to spot (and fund)

Next: Remove any word longer than 5 letters from your report.

Next: Find out your managers outside interests. This is probably golf and marital infidelity. Try to include allusions to these things in your report. Something like "This product is so good, its the Nick Faldo of paper shredders" (NB: I am not a golfer so please insert the name of a currently successful golfer to avoid embarrassment). Its more dangerous putting in references to the second activity.

Next: Buy him a donut. Dullards think firstly with their wallets, secondly with their stomachs.

Re:Tell it like it is (1)

iblisskun (1103445) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158101)

ok, this will probably work for the kind of manager/decisionmaker person that you can spot easily: during your explanation they either A) sit there, try to make it look like they get what you're saying, and yet make it so clear that they didnt even understand any word beyond 'a' or 'the'. These people mostly don't even say a single word until you're out the door. B) ask the same identical F%$#ing question 5 times, even in identical wording, so as to make it clear they didnt understand it, and will never do. Can also be recognized by raising the same emotional (like: "i don't like it" or "this sounds fishy") objection at least 5 times these are the people you dont want to waste your time on. Focus on the other people, and ignore this category politely. Make sure the others understand. If you have bad luck and there are no others... well... you can always try using the parent poster's method :) It sounds interesting, so i'll have a go at it myself -- especially the part about talking about marital infidelity

Re:Tell it like it is (1)

Silver Sloth (770927) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158761)

They are stupider than you which is why they are managers and they are definitely stupider then you if they can't choose the right product on their own. The very existence of your job illustrates that they realise they are stupider than you and hence need help choosing things. The final damning piece of evidence is that, after hiring you to help them make the decisions they are too dick witted to do on their own, they ignore your advice.
I wonder why it is that techies are seen as insular and arrogant. The skills needed to be a sysadmin and to be a manager are different and non-overlapping. In my many years in the IT business I have learnt that Service Managers, Change Managers, Technical Architects and all the other bains of my life have a role to play and, quite often, the view from the sysadmin bunker doesn't cover all the options. An effective working relationship should involve mutual respect for each other's part in the overall plan.

And, if (s)he's so stupid, why are they your boss/paid more than you?

background choices (1)

edis (266347) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158071)

I can well recognize situation - however yet managed to get my recommendation chosen. One reason for that to happen is, of course, certain track record where what I formerly have said, turned to be true. That is trust, you have to be build to be trusted, not questioned in the first place. It comes with time, naturally.

Another thing is providing clear summary information about possible choises: come down to several of the most obvious solutions to problem, describe each by understandible strengths and weak sides (one performs better, another costs more to use, being safe choice in terms of being popular solution, third has best cost/performance/engineering balance). I do obviously state what my choice would be in this set. If there are additional questions - have them answered, and I do not see how decision maker could deviate far from my recommendation, me being expert in my field. Of course he could, if basing on something, that he considers critically important - like cheapest purchase is best. But, then, what future this business will have is well worth of considering seriously.

How I learned to talk to the tech illtierate (1)

steelcobra (1042808) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158085)

Retail. Nothing teaches you how to explain all the various choices better than working the electronics section in a retail store, because the lowest common denominator will come in with no information and expect you to teach them everything they need to know. But there are some basics to it that you can use:

1: Use the full terminology, then expand it in a simplified manner until they understand it. Don't be afraid to repeat yourself several times. Your goal is educating them on their best option, and using comparisons to other options help as well. You said that they repeat it wrong amongst themselves. This means you did not provide an accurate enough description in terms they understand.

2: Explain exactly why choice X would be better than choice Y in that instance. Emphasize the problems that would arise from using Y.

3: Most importantly, remain calm, level-headed, and patient. Unlike most Slashdotters, most personnel in a company see the computer world from a "I want to do this, but I don't know how" perspective, rather than a "I'm going to hunt around until I figure out how to do this" mentality. It would often take me 15 minutes to describe the differences between the PS2, XBOX, and Gamecube in a way that the average consumer needed to know in order to make their decision. But they left the store happy that they made the right choice and likely to return and ask me about something else they'd like. And those skills have carried over to where I am now, the #1 technician at a battalion-size element's G6 office.

Talk long enough (1)

WaZiX (766733) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158133)

What you need to do is be really really technical about it, start talking about the most little details, then start drawing little sketches that no one would actually understand and chose one strong point in favor of your solution, one that he can understand, and always fall back on that point so he thinks he understands what you are talking about.

After about an hour, start suggesting him your solution more and more, gently point out his mistakes at first, then put more and more stress on his/her shortcomings, making him really really feel bad about them.

After a while, start telling him your solution will not only be useful for the problem, but will also stop aids, make him a better sex partner (or a better mother), and generate world peace.

Finally, make him buy old books for thousands of dollars and regularly meet with him again just to make sure his brainwashing is up to date.

This method is flawless, you might even be recognized as a religion in a few years, and make your bosses call you Master!

Win-Win! (2, Funny)

ReidMaynard (161608) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158177)

Give them 3 choices, and each choice ends with "...and a new Porsche for me."

Listening is the key to effective presentation (2, Informative)

dfoulger (1044592) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158229)

There are no magic bullets for solving the problem you are dealing with. A lot depends on what your audience is trying to accomplish, what kind of constraints they feel they have to work within, and how much they know about the subject matter. High level managers and executives can't be experts on everything they need to make decisions on. The span of their decision making is to large and their ultimate focus has to be on bottom line issues like controlling costs, building revenue, and delivering on time. Note that none of those things are technical issues.

You may find considerable value in reading a book on making presentations (the kind they use in basic speech courses in college). There are a number of excellent choices out there. I'm particularly fond of Presentations In Everyday Life: Strategies For Effective Speaking [] , by Engleberg and Daly, because I think their recommendations are well researched. This kind of text is usually a goldmine of organizational strategies for presentations, any one of which may be right depending on the managers you are addressing and the type of recommendations you are trying to make.

The most important chapters in these books (make sure they have them) are the chapters on researching the audience and listening. Hardly anybody really learns how to do these things, but they are the key to making effective presentations to overburdened managers and executives, who often have to make difficult, risky, and expensive decisions based on one or a few ten minute meetings. What you need to find out, before you even walk into the room, are the following things:

  • What they are making the decision about. Like as not you already know this (its probably the only thing you already know). But it pays to confirm it by informally networking beforehand. You probably won't be able to get much from the executive or high level manager, but you probably can get useful information from people on their staff.
  • The context of the decision. Most recommendations are made within the context of a larger problem (an overarching project, a promise made to the a higher up, a company strategic direction, a specific customer problem, etc). The more you know about the context of the decision, the better you'll be able to customize your recommendation and presentation to the needs of the people you are presenting to, even if you don't mention that context (and its probably best if you don't).
  • The decision makers preferred presentation style. I have found that most executives have a preferred presentation style. Some want to see three slides (problem, solution, cost) and only want to hear your preferred recommendation (keep your other possibilities in your pocket as backup). Others want to see a specific set of tables. Most want you to get immediately to the point without justifying your recommendations (they wouldn't have asked you to present if they didn't value your judgment), but be ready to go into detail. They will ask for justification. Some will "blindside" you (well, they think its blindsiding) with aggressive interruptions. The good news is, there will be lots of people who have presented successfully to the manager/executive. Talk to the staff. Talk to other people who've pitched the executive. Customize your presentation to the decision makers preferences and be ready for their ideosyncracies.

Research. Listen. Listen to the staff you ask questions. Listen to the people who've presented. Take notes. Ask questions. Make sure you understand what you hear. I generally recommend that you do each of the following things as you listen:

  1. Stop. Don't think about anything else. Get rid of distractions before you start listening.
  2. Tend. Focus on the speaker, not just by paying attention, but by looking like you are paying attention. This is often a bit of a self-fulfilling action.
  3. Organize. Make sense of what they telling you in terms that make sense to you.
  4. Respond. Double check you understanding by saying "So you're telling me that" (or something similar) and repeating your understanding of what they've said in your own words.

If you follow this STORage [] listening process, you'll likely learn more than you would otherwise.

Finally, and this is the most important thing, when you are actually in the meeting, listen to what what they have to say with the same focus. The best way to communicate your ideas is to understand both what they are trying to achieve and what they need to know.

car analogies (2, Funny)

gEvil (beta) (945888) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158717)

Always try to turn your techno mumbo jumbo into a car analogy. People love car analogies.

As for the non-technical crowd... (1)

Bones3D_mac (324952) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158779)

... just don't say "are you sure?" after one of us does manage to explain it. It's annoying enough that you already interrupting our workflow, just to have us decipher your ignorance, so don't push your luck. (Especially if you are underpaying us, or treat us as expendable.)

Learn to communicate (1)

gEvil (beta) (945888) | more than 7 years ago | (#19158877)

The way to communicate better is to learn to communicate better. Take some technical writing and editing classes. They'll help immensely. The technical writing classes will help you learn how to communicate technical ideas in plain English that (nearly) everyone can understand. The editing classes will help you learn to cut sentences and explanations down to just the essentials. Trust me, they work. Plus you get to review some of the more esoteric aspects of grammar that your 17-year-old mind didn't want to attempt to grasp the last time you took any English/grammar classes.

The best way to communicate better (1)

hey! (33014) | more than 7 years ago | (#19159045)

is to listen better.

Listening is active. Consider what they are saying; don't get disgusted with stupid questions, elicit better ones.

If you want people to understand you, you have to know what their concerns are, then build understanding on that framework.

Blackbox no, I/O yes (1)

BenoitGirard (927897) | more than 7 years ago | (#19159063)

Since they are not technical people, it's a waste of time to try to explain what's in the Blackbox at hand. Focus instead on the consequences of the choices offered. As in "If you go with choice number 1, it'll cost the company 2 millions dollars and there is a high risk of delay. Choice number two, on the other hand, means good integration with our infrastructure, cost less and offers better chances of success." They can understand these choices.

Re:Blackbox no, I/O yes (1)

juanfe (466699) | more than 7 years ago | (#19161311)

Couldn't agree more. Usually, folks who are non-technical are often coming from either an MBA background or are using the jargon used by MBAs -- so instead of talking about RoR, LAMP and AJAX like you might, they're talking about ROI, NPV, IRR and APAC.

Thing is, what you would need to do to justify, for example, why the company should use a combination of Ruby on Rails and AJAX on a LAMP setup to build their next corporate website, you should talk about the return it can generate a good return on investment for the company by reducing the cost of software development and hardware by x amount, and that the x amount at an internal rate of return of y% generates a net present value of $z dollars -- with the added benefit that you get economies of scale by using technologies that are widely used in asia pacific (RoR) and that let the marketing folks do the visually appealing things that Google Maps can do.

It's about talking in the other people's language, really.

Dale Carnegie Course (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19159075)

Find a local Dale Carnegie Course ("Effective Communications and Human Relations"), and take it. []

Essay Form (1)

mdsolar (1045926) | more than 7 years ago | (#19159151)

Say what you are going to say, say it, then say what you've said. In each of these sections explain that you favor a particular choice and in discussing the other choices you are just being informational. This way your role as advisor is always up front. Say it is OK to snooze on the parts you are including for "fairness" or "balance" because the issues you're covering are really expert issues.

In this kind of situation you are providing technical advice, not technical information so have the advice be the thing said at the beginning, middle and end while leaving the details to the middle.

I think you can learn most by asking for feedback once each decision is made. If it goes against your advice, find out why, it it goes with your advice, find out why. In the first case you need to see if there were other considerations that weren't shared with you. If that is the case, in future you need to ask for more information about the decision space before providing advice. That way you can address those considerations. In the second case, you need to find out if your advice was influential and how. This helps you know what is working. It could be that the question you are answering is not the question you were being asked because the questioner did not put the question in a way you could catch the first time through.

Finally, it is important to remember that seeking advice is not a commitment to take it. Be polite and thank people for taking the time to listen. Remember, repeat yourself. Hope this helps and thanks for asking.

I have a better question. (1)

oyenstikker (536040) | more than 7 years ago | (#19159199)

Why are people who do not understand what they are making decisions about the ones making the decisions?

Re:I have a better question. (1)

alexgieg (948359) | more than 7 years ago | (#19159845)

Why are people who do not understand what they are making decisions about the ones making the decisions?
Basically, because they're the ones willing to take risks, while most of those who are knowledgeable on some subject usually prefer stable and less risky positions.

Nothing, in principle, prevents the knowledgeable ones from also becoming risk takers and either succeed or fail by doing so. Also, those who do so have huge chances of becoming successful, provided they also devote time to develop the specific skills required from a decision maker. But most simply don't follow this path.

No shortcuts? (1)

bscott (460706) | more than 7 years ago | (#19159257)

I'm not sure if there's a book or a class that will truly help more than a few in your position. It takes work, time, and honest self-evaluation, not a tutorial. (although for all I know, mentoring from a more experienced person might be the best way of all - sadly, I never came across anyone in a technically-oriented position who wasn't as least as bad as me)

What about your social circle - are they all techies or do you spend time with folks outside your area of expertise? How do you talk to them? I cultivate and maintain friendships with people as different from me as I can find, just to try and keep my sense of perspective pried open a tad, because I've learned that without constant work my worldview shrinks to a sliver pointed straight back into my own head...

Keep the other person's viewpoint in mind, and if you don't know what it is, ask them. Feel free to admit that you may need help in crafting your answer in a way that will help them solve the problem, because in all probability you're used to looking at things on an entirely different level. Encourage them to ask questions for anything they don't feel clear about. Encourage them strongly - lots of people are hesitant to question someone they view as an "expert" and will put the blame on themselves for not understanding.

Some people seem to be born with effortless social skills; the rest of us either have to invest a lot of work, or live with a language barrier between us and our colleagues. Keep at it. Give it a few years. And in between talking to people, think back over past conversations and try to use the wisdom of hindsight to decide how you could've handled them better.

Call your mother (1)

Chemisor (97276) | more than 7 years ago | (#19159263)

No, really. If you can explain to your mom how your exceptionally technical recommendations work, no PHB will be able to stand against you. As a bonus, mom might finally figure out that you are not twelve any more.

Security & Fear (1)

unity100 (970058) | more than 7 years ago | (#19159409)

The stuff they most easily understand are these. a manager would be inclined to take a sweet deal a vendor is offering despite its risk, but if you put what carnage would a security con would result in, they will see the light. Problems generally happen to be that way. Vendors who are selling solid stuff rarely need to offer "sweet deals".

To summarize all the advice (1)

rainmayun (842754) | more than 7 years ago | (#19159531)

Talk in terms they understand. No one cares about technology but techies. This means you must explain things in terms of:

  • Money - What is the cost of the choice, and what potential revenue or savings does it provide?
  • Time - Will this choice make some business process faster or slower, relative to another choice?
  • Glory/Shame - Is this choice going to get laurels heaped upon the manager later, or will it result in buckets of embarassment? What is the magnitude of risk involved?

Programs... (1)

teflaime (738532) | more than 7 years ago | (#19159973)

I am a consultant at a vast private company (if it were public, it would be in the top 25 of the Fortune 500). They like to send their internal people to the Dale Carnegie classes.

Other options would include:
taking business writing and classes at a local community college.
Toastmasters (while they are about public speaking, they also help develop communications skills).

You might check out a local community college or public university to see who their technical/business writing professors are and contact one of them for additional resources.

Align yourself with their POV and work together (1)

BobMcD (601576) | more than 7 years ago | (#19160485)

Others have said it in pieces and parts, but let me recommend that you approach it at their level. At a manager's level. Empathize with what it takes to be a manager who comes to an IT guy looking for answers. They do not really want (nor need) to understand what it is you're suggesting. They merely want 'Business Objective A' to be met, and want to leverage technology to do it.

If you were that manager, and held the same things to be important as they do, what would be important to you? What criteria would you need to decide it?

Then, depending again on your audience, give a couple of options with pros and cons targeted towards those manager's concerns.

BE CAREFUL though, as they can spot your naiveté as well as you can spot theirs. Don't get cocky. Just play it straight and be ready to accept that they know their job better than you do. Again, remember that the reverse is certainly true.

By the way, this situation is why there is supposed to me a technical manager between you and them. Someone who walks in both worlds that can translate between the two...

It's All About the Benjamins (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#19161459)

The biggest mistake I tend to see technical types make is that they don't look at it from a financial standpoint. Although they say "this more expensive method is better", they don't lay that out as a good financial choice. So you'll see managers choose another method because it, for all intents and purposes since that's how it was explained to them, is financially better.

Lay out the various options with detailed cost justifications and return on investment times. Show ways that they'll save money, increase efficiency (and how that then saves money), and ways it will save money in the future. Especially when it comes to technical things, many non-technical types don't automatically see the financial aspects of all the technical details. Techies will understand the financial ramifications without further explanation, but that doesn't mean your manager will too.

Where I work we hired a Network Admin that had this very problem. And he notoriously got projects rejected. We eventually helped him understand what he needed to detail in his requests, and in some cases had manager's excited about some of his ideas for change.

There are likely other issues involved, but this is one of the largest that I'm aware of.
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