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 Communicating with Non-Technical Audiences

You’re ready. You collected the data, did the analysis, interpreted the results, and have a sound, well thought-through recommendation—but it does not go as you expect. The public is disgruntled and won’t listen to you; the boss makes a politically-driven decision that runs counter to your analysis. How do you make them listen? How do you make them understand logic?

You don’t. The secret to communicating technical topics to non-technical audiences is for you to understand them. I’ve seen this so many times. We spend time understanding the material but spend little if any time understanding them.

You get one chance, and it needs to go well. To prepare, you can examine the four Cs of communicating technical topics:

  1. Clarity of purpose
  2. Customers’ context
  3. Concise content
  4. Communicate with…

Below are a few highlights of each C.

Clarity of Purpose

Briefings come in many forms. You may be there to inform a group or seek specific action. Perhaps there is a decision to be made. Or, maybe, you are there to listen. Whatever it is, be clear on your purpose. It seems obvious, but I’ve seen it happen too frequently. The meeting ends and the key players are left wondering, “What was the point?” Next time, before you walk in the door, know why you are there. What is your ideal outcome? What does success look like? What is the “ask?”

Customer’s Context

It is easy to focus on the material, the facts, and the analysis. But, for an important meeting with a non-technical audience, you should spend half as much time understanding the audience and their needs. Know their context, their concerns, and their comfort levels. Put yourself in their shoes and ask, “What’s in it for me? (WIIFM)” Force yourself to spend time thinking about it. It is essential. What do you know about the group’s interests, fears, and history? What do you know about the political climate, career trajectory, and risk profile of the decision-maker? What are the consequences of the decision? Is credibility, embarrassment, power, or an election at stake? When we walk in the meeting only armed with facts and figures, we come across as tone-deaf. Decision-makers shake their heads thinking, “They just don’t get it.” And unless we know as much about the people as we do about the topic, they are right.

Try it. If you were them, what would you fear and what would you want? Know before you go and adjust accordingly.

Concise Content

Benjamin Franklin said, “I have already made this paper too long, for which I must crave pardon, not having now time to make it shorter.” Ben was right. It takes time and effort to whittle a topic down to its essence, but that is exactly what you have to do. In my career, I did a lot of briefings including to Congressional staff and the Secretary of Transportation. If we were lucky, we had a half hour. Period. And they frequently ran late. It is absolutely essential to be crystal clear on the “ask,” understand their context (WIIFM) and be concise. What is the one thing you want them to remember? Just One. Can your “one thing” be easily and simply explained to a “regular” person? If not, try again. Really. Try again. You also need to know how they best consume information. You may love a great graph, but do they?

Communicate with…

You are not presenting to them, you are communicating with them. Communication is a two-way process. You must focus as much energy on understanding their concerns, questions, and reactions as you spend trying to get your point across. It is good to hone your presentation skills, but how are your listening skills?


Shelley Row, a former Director of the ITS Joint Program Office with be keynoting the IRF Global R2T Conference & Exhibition which will be held in Las Vegas on November 19-22, 2019. For further information, please visit www.irf.global/r2t

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