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If you think that knowing what you’re talking about is the critical success factor in communicating effectively, you’re wrong. It matters … but it’s the fourth item on the list.

You may think that the key issue in communicating with your coworkers is knowing what you’re talking about. You are mistaken.

In fact, “knowing what you’re talking about” is about fourth on the list of “communicating effectively” … and I’m not being cynical about this. If you’re going to say that your communication is “effective,” you mean things like:

  • People pay attention to what you say.
  • What you say is acted on (or dismissed for a valid reason).

If you aren’t achieving those two goals, then I don’t think you can call whatever you’re doing “effective.”

Why Developers Don’t Get Listened to

As developers, we pride ourselves on our ability to solve problems by applying deep technical knowledge. We also tend to assume that everyone around us thinks like that too.

They don’t.

At work, the people around us certainly value our technical knowledge and appreciate what it contributes to the organization. Other than that, they deeply and passionately don’t care about it. At all. If they did, they’d have become developers, the poor dears.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t communicate with non-technical people. It’s just that “communicating with suits” gives you a different technical problem to understand.

Let’s take care of one thing first: You’re thinking, “But the technical stuff matters, and people have to know it to make decisions/do stuff.” So here’s a story:

I did some work in Karlskrona, Sweden, which is the home of the Swedish navy. As I walked from my hotel to the client’s offices, I went past many of the ships that made up the navy. They all had big barcodes on their sides. Those barcodes are there so that, when the ships come back to port, the harbor master can scandinavian.

If I told you that was a joke, you might disagree because you feel a joke should be, you know, actually funny.

Which is my point: It’s the target of your communication (your audience) who gets to decide what’s important—not you. You know this is true: You also only pay attention to what’s important to you. If you can’t make what you’re trying to communicate important to your audience, then you’re wasting your time and theirs. And, trust me, the technical details you care about aren’t important to anyone but you … unless you make those details interesting and valuable to your audience.

Similarly, the only testing that matters is testing through the eyes of the user.

And don’t be confused: It’s your responsibility to make what you want to communicate interesting and valuable to your audience—it’s not their responsibility to find some value buried in what you say.

The Three Critical Factors in Communication

You have been told that the way to get your audience’s interest is to be enthusiastic about the topic, or to use lots of graphics, or to find ways to interact with your audience. Those are all good things to do (and, as I’ve demonstrated, I plainly don’t think it’s about telling good jokes). But the only guaranteed way to get your audience’s interest—to get your audience to listen to you—is to connect what you want to say to what’s important to your audience. So your first step in communicating effectively is to know what your audience cares about.

There are two parts to that. First: Figuring out what topic (or topics) matter to your audience. And second: figuring what your audience values about those topics.

That second part matters. If, for example, you’re presenting a solution to your audience, you need to understand whether your audience is looking for the fastest solution, the most reliable solution, the solution with the biggest payoff, or whatever else your audience values in the solution. If you talk to an audience about the fastest solution when they want the “least risk” solutions then, I assure you, you sound to them like the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon.

Next step: Know how your audience is going to use whatever you’re passing on to them. If there’s nothing that your audience can do with the information that you’re communicating, they will lose interest in what you’re saying almost immediately. Focus on what your audience can use and skip the rest no matter how much you care about it (to quote Arthur Quiller-Couch: “Kill your darlings”).

And, yes, there may be background information that you need to cover before you can get to what you’re your audience regards as “the good stuff” (i.e., the stuff they can use). When that’s the case, then you need to tell your audience what that good stuff is and assure them that it’s coming. Only after that can you begin filling in the background (and, in a written document, use headings to give your more knowledgeable readers the ability to skip over the stuff they already know and find what they care about).

Final step: Know what your audience’s purpose is in listening to you or reading what you’ve written (what your audience’s goals are). Your audience probably, for example, doesn’t want to become experts in the field and you shouldn’t be trying to achieve that. The audience’s goals are obviously tightly coupled to what your audience values, and if you can’t separate the two, that’s OK.

You get to have a say here, too, by the way: Be clear about your goal in communicating with your audience.

As an example, consider a government employee giving a presentation on “How to Fill out Your Tax Form” to an audience of average citizens. The topic is going to be “How to pay all the taxes you owe and not go to jail.” Now consider an independent tax consultant writing a customized report for a very well-to-do client. The topic there is going to be “How to pay the minimum tax you have to without going to jail.” Two different audiences and two different sources gives two different results, even though the technical information in both cases is the tax code. And, I bet, with those approaches, both audiences will pay attention.

It’s All About Keeping the Audience Interested

You may have read or been told that that you need to be short and “to the point.” Certainly, you shouldn’t use two words when one will do (“now” vs. “at this point in time”) or a three-syllable word when there’s a one-syllable word that means the same thing (often people say “utilize” when they just mean “use”). But what, exactly, does “to the point” mean?

In place of that, what you want to do is “always be interesting to your audience.” Being interesting means to always talk about (and only talk about):

  1. What matters to your audience
  2. In a way that’s useful to them
  3. So they can achieve their goals

If you do that (and only that), then you’ll be as short or as long as you need because you’ll always be valuable to your audience. To put it another way: You appreciate it when other people talk about what matters to you. Now you can return the favor.

And, oh yeah: Now you can worry about whether you know what you’re talking about because, now, your audience is paying attention.

Next up, you may want to read: Getting What You Want (or Something Like It): Negotiating for Techies

Peter Vogel
About the Author

Peter Vogel

Peter Vogel is a system architect and principal in PH&V Information Services. PH&V provides full-stack consulting from UX design through object modeling to database design. Peter also writes courses and teaches for Learning Tree International.

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