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Home matches and challenges

I love presenting to techies – they’re my folks, and speaking with them and exchanging ideas comes as naturally to me as gathering around the kitchen table with the family and shooting the breeze. (Recent SAP Inside Track Netherlands in Eindhoven, organized by the fabulous Twan van den Broek and others, where I hosted two sessions, was such an event.)

 

I also love a challenge – so it’s nice to present to a crowd where it’s not necessarily a home match. Therefore, I particularly enjoy presenting technology to people who are either indifferent or even averse to technology per se. (I’ll explain in a minute why I added “per se” here.) The challenge is to captivate them by speaking to them in their language, about things that matter to them.

 

A difficult audience

The most recent instance, which prompted me to write this blog post, was just yesterday. I spoke to a bunch of colleagues who have a reputation for being an especially difficult audience: a group of managers with a purely functional background, each overseeing a large functional domain; super-busy people who rush from meeting to meeting and write a hundred emails per day, many of them while someone else is trying in vain to capture their attention. They’re unique in their multi-faceted role as managers, experts and generalists, and they know it. Don’t expect any freebies when presenting to them: The moment your talk fails to be relevant, they’ll whip out the phone and start taking calls, or have a loud discussion with their neighbor, or walk out of the room and make the phone glow in the hallway.

 

They aren’t technologists and don’t care much for technology as such, but as product owners of the suite of SAP-based business applications my employer creates, they prioritize all change requests to the applications suite and decide which features will be implemented, and in which release.

I, on the other hand, am 100% a technologist and technology strategist. My job was to explain to those functional folks about a particular new technology in the User Interface (UI) area, and reach accordance on a strategy about it. So I did it. I put myself in the shoes of my audience and tried to say only things that would be relevant to them.

 

What technology means to non-techie audiences

While you, as a technologist, may master difficult technologies on a daily basis and derive lots of pleasure and self-confidence from it, it can be a touchy subject and frequent source of frustration to non-technologists.

 

Key statement: End-users often (rightfully) experience software as built with disregard or even contempt for them and their needs.

 

So when we as technologists talk to non-technologists, we need to make it doubly clear that we’re not speaking from the ivory tower but genuinely interested in providing business value and good usability. After decades of working with barely usable software, end-users may find that the idea of technologists who care for them takes some getting used to. It’s our job to be convincing here and to demonstrate clearly that we’re not advocating a particular technology because it is so much fun to work with for developers, but because of the value it provides to the business. (Even if we put the business value first, there’ll be plenty of techie fun in it for us – so we can easily afford to be real here.)

 

Only technologists are interested in technology per se: for its elegance, for the superiority of its concepts to competing concepts, for symmetry and beauty, and originality and quirkiness, for being a reliable old friend, for ingenuity that strikes like a bolt of lightning, for being a better-to-handle tool than others, for allowing us to reach mastery quicker or to reach a deeper mastery, and so on. These are techies’ reasons to love a particular technology, and they’re sound and valid. But when we speak to non-techies, we should remember that they’re not interested in the virtues of technologies of technology per se, but about what’s in it for them: the business value (however indirect) provided by technology.

 

Dimensions that matter

To your audience, the most important dimensions (apart from the actual functionality) are costs and time. When you present one or perhaps even several alternative technological solutions, explain how costly they will be (or what plan you suggest for finding out, such as building a prototype first), and how long it will take. They’ll love you for it. Another dimension they’re interested in is complexity (which impacts reliability, stability, maintenance costs, the ability of the team to handle it, and so on). And if they’re smart, they’ll care about flexibility (also influenced by complexity), the ability to change things later.

Putting it all together, you could say something like:

 

“Solution A and B are functionally equivalent and roughly equally expensive. Solution A is faster – we can do it in three months –, but at the price of a higher complexity, so it’s more error-prone and less reliable, and it will be more difficult to change things later on. Solution B takes more time – we have to wait for SAP release XYZ and can be done in six to nine months –, but it will be a rock-solid solution with better flexibility.”

 

Remember the list: functionality, costs, time, complexity, flexibility.

 

Six ways to be relevant to a non-techie audience

  1. Remember that to your audience, technology is not a play toy – it’s a bother and a means to an end. They put up with it not for fun but because it can help them if applied well, and make their lives hell when applied incorrectly or carelessly.
  2. Be relevant, and make the technology relevant: Focus not on how it works, but what it can do for your audience. Name existing pain-points and explain how the technology can bring relief. Explain new possibilities and opportunities from a business perspective. Real-world use cases are king! Keep a laser-like focus on the question: What’s in it for them?
  3. Pick up the ball and run with it: When someone from the audience articulates a new pain-point or use case, they’re giving you the golden key to being relevant to them. Explain how the technology can help here, and recur to those points often. Generally, try as hard as you can to map what you have to offer to the audience’s needs. Watch your audience carefully to find out when you hit a sweet or sore spot. Your audience really tells you all you need to know. It’s your job to observe and listen as much as it’s your job to speak.
  4. Speak about holes – not drills: Don’t explain how the drill works, and what the relative merits and disadvantages of a dozen current and future drilling technologies are – to someone who just wants a simple hole in the wall. Keep in mind who’s merely interested in holes and who’s interested in drills, and don’t talk about drills to the holes folks (unless it’s really relevant to them). I learned this from one of member of the aforementioned group and it was one of my most valuable lessons ever.
  5. Keep in mind the dimensions that matter: functionality, costs, time, complexity, and flexibility.
  6. Speak from the heart: Yes, you should speak in the language of the audience, and about what matters to the audience – but it should come from the heart and you should be yourself if you want to engage your audience. So look for the intersection, find the common denominator, and use that as your starting position. Talk about what matters to both you and the audience, in a clear and natural language that suits both you and your audience. Common sense should work as a common denominator. 

 

Back to my difficult session

My session with the difficult folks went very well. I tried hard to be relevant to them, and it worked. They experienced me not as “the other”, the technologist from another planet, but as a reasonable guy who had something relevant to share. I could tell from the way they engaged in a constructive discussion, remained focused, and from body language and eye contact. So I was quite happy after the talk (which, because of many questions and an interesting discussion, took three times as long as scheduled).

 

But the biggest compliment came this morning when I met one of my administrative colleagues, who was in the meeting to take notes and follow up on to-dos. She said that she didn’t care for technology, but had liked my presentation because it was clear and calm and she had understood everything. She even explained the key concepts to another colleague who joined our discussion. I love it – and I consider this the highest accolade: being relevant to someone who not only has no natural affinity to your topic, but to whom you aren’t even relevant per their job role. When they’re merely bystanders as far as your content is concerned, and still they find it interesting and engage – that means you’ve communicated well. This is why my administrative colleagues’ feedback flattered me immensely.

 

There’s no better thrill

And that’s what I want to share: You, too, can do it. Just put yourself in the other person’s shoes, try hard to be relevant to them, and you’ll experience the rush of a communication well done. There’s no better thrill.

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