Technical knowledge versus technical communication

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After a brown-bag presentation from a Linux-based technology company recently, a colleague who was an expert in mainframe technology asked a friend who was a UNIX expert, “Did that make sense to you?” The answer was affirmative, but only because the UNIX expert had already done outside study on the subject. Both technicians agreed the presenter obviously understood his subject, but both also agreed that the presentation failed to communicate with its audience.

What went wrong?

Simply stated, the wrong person was selected to make the presentation. A technology guru by definition must know how to communicate with computers, which speak in variables, parameters, arrays, loops and keywords that only programmers and computers can fathom. Programming is a high skill that requires a lot of concentration, but being able to program does not automatically confer skill in explaining to non- or less-technical people how they can use that technology to accomplish their tasks of writing reports, updating web sites or crunching numbers.

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Once I approached an engineer in my company for assistance with some computer problem I was having. He told me he “had his head wrapped around Windows architecture right now” but would come help me when he reached a stopping point. Programmers spend most of their working lives with their minds focused on how to put those special keywords and phrases together so the computer will do what the programmer wants it to do. Stepping out of that world to talk to an average person can be a long walk.

Some programmers can make the journey; others do not have the skill, and still others do not have the desire to make the effort. Even those who can bridge the gap may still leave an audience bewildered, simply because they have forgotten, for example, that the simple instruction “ install the software” involves a collection of tasks (finding the software, identifying which version of the software is appropriate for your operating system, downloading the appropriate file, clicking the executable to start the installation, and selecting appropriate values for any options provided), some or all of which may or may not be known to the person with whom they are speaking.

What was the alternative?

Someone should have been selected to present who understood the technology from the audience’s perspective. This means the presenter should have been aware roughly of the knowledge level represented in the audience and thus the level of technical (or non-technical) language needed to communicate the subject matter. Often, the ideal presenter will not be a technician, in which case it would be helpful to have a more technical person on hand to field any questions the presenter cannot address. If a technical person must make the presentation, the person should be conscious of whether the audience is following the talk, be willing to ask questions, accept questions or both to find out and then be willing to adjust the presentation language accordingly.

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