Don’t Get So Technical: How to Effectively Communicate at Work
Standing in an executive briefing room with the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar telecommunications company, Jim Palermo launched into his typical spiel usually given to technical people about his company’s technology solutions and how they work.
“I’m 10 minutes into the presentation and thinking, I’m doing great. I’m killing it,” recalled Palermo, who at the time worked at Cisco as a domain architect for content and application networking.
Then ... reality hit.
The CEO, who sat deadpan during the entire presentation, finally spoke up as Palermo prepared to move onto another topic.
“He said, ‘hold on a second, Jim. Let’s pretend for a minute that I have no idea what you’ve been saying for the last 10 minutes. Tell me what business outcomes you can generate from implementing the solution? That’s why I’m here,” Palermo recalled. “The sales guys were kind of freaking and I was reeling a little bit. I managed to find a way through the conversation but walked out of that meeting thinking I just completely ruined this opportunity.”
It made Palermo realize how critical it is to understand why somebody is in the room and how the topics at hand need to be relevant to them. It also prompted him to get effective communication skills training, he said.
Across the tech industry, the ability to effectively communicate is rather lackluster among entry-level tech workers to senior executives, according to industry players and communications experts.
“I think it’s still a significant problem in the industry,” said Palermo, vice president of digital solutions delivery for Red Hat, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he has worked for over a decade and is bringing effective communications training to his senior leaders and individual contributors on his team who need to articulate the business impact of Red Hat’s technology.
Effective communications training is gaining notice in the tech industry. The number of people taking Coursera’s top online communication courses for IT professionals has doubled in the past three months from 12 months ago, according to the Mountain View, California-based, online training company.
While the benefits of effective communication are clear, getting from point A to point B may seem a little murky, however. Here are some concrete steps you can take.
3 Parts of the Communication Process
- Effective Communication: The message sent to another person is received the way it was intended vs throwing the message out there and hoping it lands the way it was meant.
- Persuasion: Convincing someone to take your position on a matter but not necessarily taking action.
- Influence: Effectively communicating your idea, persuading them to take your position, and influencing them to take action.
Effective Communication When Speaking
One of your first steps towards building effective communications skills is to make a connection with the individual or people in the discussion, advise communication experts.
Start with asking a couple of casual questions about their background and familiarity with the topic you’ll be discussing to build a map of their world, said Steve Cerri, CEO of STCerri International in San Ramon, California, which specializes in communications and leadership training for tech professionals.
Information about their background, such as the type of work they do, hobbies and interests, can provide a palette to draw analogies from when discussing your topic and presenting it in a way that they’ll understand, especially if they are not technical, said Cerri, who is also a former engineer.
“Most people do what I call communications. It’s not effective communication but just communication. They throw a message out and hope it lands the way they intended,” said Cerri, noting there are three parts to the communication process. “But it’s not really being received by the receiver in a way that makes sense or in a way they can understand and accept it.”
Gauging an individual’s or audience’s familiarity with the topic by asking a few questions will also avert insulting them by dumbing it down, communication experts said.
“Play to the height of the intelligence of the people you’re meeting with,” said Kirk Miller, senior vice president at Ariel Group, based in Waltham, Massachusetts, which specializes in team and leadership communications and training.
However, he cautioned, “If you’re dealing with executives who are in technology, you may assume they understand how technology works but they may not know all the details. So you actually have to ask them, ‘I’m about to go a bit deeper, and are you familiar with this technology? Or do you want me to give you a little more background on it?” Miller said.
Effective communication also comes from following the PRES model, Miller said. This model stresses an attentive presence to actively maintaining a relationship with those you communicate with.
- Present: Put away cell phones and other distractions so you can be attentive in collaborating with your team
- Reaching out: Contact your peers and colleagues to maintain a relationship so you can be as effective as possible.
- Expressive: People are generally inspired by those who have energy and are expressive versus monotone and low-energy.
- Self-knowing: Know your strengths and weaknesses to take advantage or mitigate them.
Mimicking body language and voice tone during one-on-one discussions is a critical component of effective communication, Cerri said.
“Relationships between people are primarily established through body language and voice. We’re hardwired as a species to be more comfortable with people who are more like us,” Cerri said, noting body language accounts for 58 percent of the communication connection and voice tone and pace 35 percent.
One manager, for example, complained of an employee who would come into her office, drape his arm over the chair and stare up at the ceiling as she talked to him, leaving her with the impression he wasn’t listening when he failed to follow through after they talked. But when she took Cerri’s advice and mimicked the employee’s body language when they talked, the manager noticed an improved attitude and follow-through with that employee.
Make Your Writing More Effective
Before putting the proverbial pen to paper, consider the focus of why you’re sending an instant message, a text, email or letter, rather than making a phone call, conducting a quick video chat, or holding an in-person meeting.
“The biggest thing that I really push with our team is you’ve got to recognize the right medium for a discussion and, if you don’t, you are leaving yourself open for interpretation,” Palermo said. “That can result in dealing with a lot of churn that is going to exhaust your day when you could be focused on the things you should be focused on.”
Questions to ask yourself in making a decision whether written communication is the best medium to use and what type of written form is needed include: Who is the audience? What do they need to know? What is the call to action?
“These are the things to think about when organizing your thoughts and writing structure,” Miller said. “The number one challenge for people when writing for business is to make it short, sweet and actionable.”
Before leaping into a request for information, data, or their time, it’s still important to establish a connection with a new person or casual acquaintance even when sending a text, email, instant message or some other form of written communication, Cerri said.
For example, introduce yourself and mention how it is that you know of them, such as, you know of their expertise in a certain area, or, perhaps you were introduced at a conference. Then, briefly make your request and state why it’s needed, Cerri said.
Effective Communication Skills for Team Members
Ask team members questions to get an understanding of what they know and don’t know, what their particular goals are for a project, task, or the team, as well as any hot buttons they have, Cerri advised.
By understanding their map of the world and being in alignment when you communicate to them, you will have more influence to move the needle forward for your ideas and the group’s ideas, Cerri added.
But what if fear takes hold when addressing the team?
“The first thing is to breathe. If you start to talk and need to pause, that’s OK. Just tell yourself you’re excited to be presenting and you’re not nervous,” Miller said. “This way, you can shut down that part of your reptile brain that says, ‘I’m going to get eaten by a dinosaur.’ Instead, you’ll start to think of yourself as a leader with important things to say.
Raymond Wolfgang knows about this fear and triumph.
Fresh out of graduate school, Wolfgang would be called to meetings for his electrical engineering expertise when he worked as a civilian for the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command beginning in 2002.
“I would just freeze up. I’m not speaking. I’m not trying to steer the conversation,” said Wolfgang. “It was a confidence thing and also I’m a bit introverted by nature.”
Eventually, Wolfgang’s boss told him he needed to speak up to move the team forward, as well as discuss the organization’s approach to solving problems. In 2003, Wolfgang decided to try Toastmasters, which offers public speaking training and practice sessions.
Practicing his presentations in front of small groups at Toastmasters helped him feel more comfortable in addressing team meetings and small audiences, he said, noting he remains a Toastmasters member.
But the biggest change for Wolfgang came from the realization his presentations didn’t have to be perfect.
“I think I held back at meetings because I wanted to formulate my thoughts and say the perfect contribution,” Wolfgang said. “But meetings demand quicker thinking and it’s just better to get your thoughts out — even if they’re not well-formed or a little scattered. If you wait, the moment will pass.”
Wolfgang, who works as a systems engineer at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said improving his effective communication skills brings value to his employer of 14 years.
“This is the biggest benefit. I remain relevant to my employer. I can communicate ideas and, at least, have some semblance of influence,” Wolfgang said.
How to Communicate With Your Boss
“Communication is important at all levels of the organization, but as you start to move up the accountability and responsibility ladder, whether it’s managing people or as an individual contributor, it becomes increasingly important because the stakes are higher,” said Palermo.
Start your presentation to upper management or executives with a question of what they hope to walk away with from the meeting and adjust your talk on the fly based on that information, Cerri advises.
Quickly adjust your presentation by acting as a storyteller, pulling from one of the many stories tucked away in your mental library, Miller said. These stories can include past successful deployments of various technologies under different situations to client case studies that can be shared with those present in the meeting to drive and influence your agenda, he said.
But, most importantly, address the what and the whys in the meeting, Miller added.
“I always say lead with the headlines like what is the impact you are having on a project?,” Miller said. “Remind everyone on why you’re working on this project before you go into the weeds of the project. Ask yourself what would the executives want to know — is the project on time and on budget? That’s going to keep their attention and keep them listening.”
Tech Roles Need Effective Communication
Senior tech managers and senior individual contributors are expected to communicate effectively with co-workers, customers, and other stakeholders and this skill is given substantial weight when Palermo interviews people for such roles.
“I think that will ultimately drive a lot of their success, certainly at Red Hat, and I think pretty much anywhere,” Palermo said.
Data scientists who are trying to create actionable insights tied to data need effective communication skills at all levels to influence the business, he noted. But two tech roles in the service delivery business, in particular, need this skill, even more, are those who are involved in architecture and also business engagement, Palermo said.
Tech professionals working in architecture need to explain how systems and technology are connected in a way to achieve business goals, he added.
Employees responsible for delivering services for a particular business unit need to pair the unit’s business processes with how the technology enables it and connect the dots to potential outcomes, Palermo said.
Effective communication skills are also crucial for engineers who work in pre-sales, since they collaborate with their organization’s sales and account teams and serve as technical experts for product or service presentations, said Miller said.
“Your ability to formulate the technical complexity of what you need to communicate into a story will help you bridge the client into the technical conversation,” Miller said.
For Palermo, he not only needed to untangle the technical complexity but also address the take away the telecommunication CEO wanted to walk away with. And how did that Cisco deal ultimately end?
“The deal got done,” Palermo said. “I don’t think I damaged it to the point where it couldn’t be repaired, but I think I might have perpetuated the stereotype of what business folks have of technical people.”