One professional skill that I both value and work hard at improving is effectively communicating with others. Effective communication skills is one of the most important attributes one must have in order to be an effective manager and leader. And it is absolutely required should one have ambitions about moving upward through an organization, in my opinion. Not that being a good communicator is easy, of course.
I work in a tech field, heading up a tech department, but one of my responsibilities, explicitly, is to develop a strategy about providing the tools to help my overall organization do its job more effectively while not overwhelming others with jargon, too much information, or causing general confusion.
This is not an easy task – many times the benefits of some new technology or equipment are the direct result of what that stuff does, yet what it does is complicated or perhaps out of the ordinary for many folks. I’m not by any means saying that people aren’t able to comprehend these things, it’s just that they aren’t part of their everyday vocabulary.
Sometimes it’s conceptual, too. For instance, I remember a conversation with my mother quite a few years ago where I talked about how we used a server to do something at work. Now, technically, any computer running a service of any kind is a server. So if you take the computer with which you are reading this post right now – desktop, laptop, whatever – and install the right thing on there, it could be a server. This might be something that turns the computer into an e-mail gateway (what actually sends out e-mails, and to which your client, like Outlook or Thunderbird, connects to get mail), or perhaps something that tracks the statistics for this or that. If it’s a service, the box is a server.
To my mother, however, a server was a big, loud, heavy duty machine with lots of blinking lights that the “IT people” kept in a secret, separate room. Of course, there is a reason why she had that perception – services should be run on enterprise-grade hardware, the kind of stuff my mother was accustomed to seeing. But the point is that she could not separate the two. It was a paradigm that was already cemented in place.
Well, it’s my job to help translate that. To find a way to explain the difference to, in this example, my mother, so that she could understand the benefit she received.
At work, that means that I tell others that we’re looking at getting a “big storage system” instead of a SAN or that we’re working on “a way for all of us to take our Word documents, share them, keep them up to date, and get them off of our personal desktops which might break down” rather than “a collaboration suite with document management tools that is network-based for greater and more effective central management.” The latter example is far less extreme than the first, but there is still a difference.
I like to think that I do a pretty good job at this, but I have run into a couple of recent surprises.
At a planning meeting for a conference, I did a good job, I think, of explaining a type of session known as a “Birds of a Feather,” or BOF. These are informal meetings, often scheduled with little notice and scribbled on an announcement board somewhere, so that people can talk about a very specific topic. For instance, during a conference a formal session might spur some to want to talk more about a sub-topic. Set up a BOF.
I purposely avoided using the word BOF as I thought it was jargon. I emphasized that it was like meeting over a topic during lunch, except this brought in people that one might not already know (and therefore invite to sit together at said lunch). I focused on the benefits. In neuromarketing, one would say that I identified the pain of wanting to find others with whom to talk about a specific topic, made the claim that these sessions met that need, and demonstrated the gain through anecdotes. I thought I kept it pretty straightforward.
To my surprise, the planners at the meeting that were not familiar with BOFs indicated that I had been pretty jargon-heavy during the discussion. I was really thrown off by this.
Another thing I try to do is to explain how certain things work, so that the benefits can be understood. I also try not to keep people in the dark. I don’t want technology to be some kind of “magic” black box or set of tools that are just “out there.” The more a user understands about what is actually happening, even at a very basic level, perhaps the easier it is for that user to make the most of the tools.
The other day, I realized that there is one staff member here who just simply does not want to know what something is, how we did it, etc. She just wants to tell us (me) what is wrong and have us fix it. As indicated above, I try to keep the details simple, but she did not seem to want any information at all.
I’m not the world’s best communicator. I tend to be wordy, for instance (I could probably cut this blog entry by 20% if I really tried). But I like to think I build a solid rapport with people.