How to explain technical ideas to a non-technical audience
Reading time: about 6 min
Posted by: Lucid Content Team
Among today’s career professionals, developers and engineers have some of the most impressive skill sets around, honed by years of tech training and real-world experience.
Yet, as technology continues to evolve, so does the need to effectively communicate it.
At tech-savvy companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, successful workplace interactions are often dependent on a technical professional’s ability to inspire collaboration, express their ideas, and solve problems with their non-technical co-workers or leaders.
So, how does a technical professional explain technical ideas to a non-technical audience?
In the same manner as you would any other information—in a clear and compelling way. The relative complexity of your message doesn’t mean you can’t be a good storyteller or convey your information with an easy, fun, or memorable approach. But it will take work.
In this article, we will review five strategies that developers, engineers, IT workers, and other technical professionals can use to communicate their ideas more effectively, strategies that you can quickly put into practice in almost any workplace imaginable.
Let’s get started.
1. Use humor and humility to better explain technical information
Whenever you need to talk about code or present technical information, always strive to make your audience feel more comfortable. To break the ice, jokingly acknowledge the fact that you’re a “computer nerd” or “tech geek” and apologize in advance if you get too technical.
Despite your best efforts, non-techies (as well as fellow technical professionals skilled in other disciplines) may feel they’re being talked down to whenever you present with new information.
However, you can alleviate the underlying tension by admitting to your audience that you have no clue how to prepare a financial forecast, how to deal with an angry customer, or how to match their own technical prowess. Acknowledge the things they’re good at and let them know you have respect for what they do. Explain how you only want them to better understand the technology and that their unfamiliarity with how it works is not a reflection of their intelligence.
Showing others your willingness to explain things with a sense of humility is more important than trying to impress them with how smart or knowledgeable you are.
2. Be attentive to your audience throughout your presentation
As you present, pay close attention to your audience’s social and facial cues.
By reading the room, you can adjust your content accordingly. Whenever you share your technical know-how with a non-technical audience, the goal is to be conversational. Even if you’ve explained the technology to people hundreds of times and know the subject matter inside and out, the person you’re currently talking to might be hearing about it for the first time. Always present with passion and enthusiasm.
3. Incorporate storytelling when sharing technical information
When you have a lot of data or information to share, resist feeding it to your audience with a firehose. Take time to allow them to wrap their head around your subject, avoiding the urge to cram every detail on a slide and just reading it aloud.
If you’re going to use PowerPoint to convey your information, remember that every slide should enhance the presentation and not detract from it. Don’t use boring stock photos or charts that fail to express your message clearly and quickly. Think of each slide in the context of how it will guide your audience along the journey from point A to point B.
As you put together your presentation, always keep your objective or purpose in mind.
To start, what’s the most important takeaway? Are you trying to convince your CMO that no-code platforms for citizen developers will dramatically reduce the product backlog? Or maybe you’re hoping to convince finance that your tech team deserves new equipment? Whatever the situation, storytelling is more persuasive than facts alone.
Stories are effective at planting ideas in the minds of your audience—especially stories told from personal experience. If you don’t have your own relatable or relevant story, use anecdotes taken from recent events or industry publications that fit your needs. For example, if you’re explaining the game-changing potential of a new technology, share how Steve Jobs championed the iPod and how its success defied shareholders’ expectations.
4. Use visual content to explain technical information and processes
Written content and verbal explanations are both essential ways to communicate ideas.
However, when your goal is to simplify technical information, working to visualize your concepts can be a much more effective communication medium. Why? Visual content is easier to learn and more frequently recalled than concepts learned by reading or just being told.
This phenomenon is called the picture superiority effect. Research suggests a visual can increase your memory of a piece of information by 65% versus 10% by hearing it alone and improve one's ability to synthesize information by 36%.
Not surprisingly, many people make regular use of diagrams, models, and other visual presentation techniques to get their point across. If you’re looking for a quick, effective way to visualize and share your content with your organization, there’s Lucidchart.
With its user-friendly templates and interface, you can easily adapt or edit your process workflows to the demands of your non-technical audience. An executive doesn’t necessarily need to every part of an architecture diagram; they want a basic understanding of the structure. With Lucidchart Cloud Insights, you can generate a cloud architecture diagram and easily narrow down your diagram to the part that’s relevant.
Because Lucidchart is web-based, those visuals and diagrams can be shared remotely with other departments or incorporated into a video conference for an expanded presentation. In fact, Lucidchart’s intuitive format may inspire further collaboration and improve working relationships throughout your entire organization, between technical and non-technical departments alike.
5. Avoid technical jargon when possible
Although it may be second nature for you to throw out acronyms like GCP and DBMS, certain terminology may confuse or disengage the less technically savvy members of your audience. Take some time to make sure your audience understands the context of the situation.
If possible, avoid using jargon altogether and translate your terminology into layman’s terms. If not, you might consider providing a reference guide for any technical acronyms and terms you’ll be using during your presentation or incorporating those definitions into your slides.
6. Focus on impact when explaining technical concepts
Remember, information that might be fascinating to you might not be fascinating (or relevant) to your audience.
When discussing technology, it’s more helpful to highlight what makes it a worthwhile investment rather than how it works. Let’s say, for example, that you were suggesting the adoption of new patching, suppressing, and monitoring protocols for your network, you should focus your discussion on how exposure to cyberattacks cost U.S. businesses $654 billion in lost capital in 2018 alone rather than going on and on about the latest authentication process technologies.
Focus on the initiatives and pain points that your audience cares most about, and your interactions will have a much greater impact with executives and other non-technical employees at your organization.
Explaining technology in simple terms is an ongoing practice
Be realistic about how much you can explain to a non-technical audience with a single presentation or interaction. You may need to conduct regular meetings to provide your organization’s non-techies with the in-depth understanding and appreciation they need.
Even if it feels like you’re only making incremental progress, to those who were previously unfamiliar with the technology you share, your efforts may feel like a true revelation.
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