Have you ever felt like banging your head over the wall of misunderstanding or lack of wording to describe a technical solution and prove your point of view? Oh my, this feeling of deep desperation. But fear no more – technical communication is a skill anyone can learn.
What are the main challenges, and what techniques do I use to overcome them? You can read it below.
- Diverse Audiences: Technical communication often involves communicating with a wide range of audiences with varying levels of technical expertise. Consider splitting the different audience groups if they are too diverse: fellow engineers and finance, for example, and deliver information separately with varying levels of details and terminology.
- Lack of Context: any communication requires context. Technical one is not an exception. Always provide enough information on why we are here, what it is all about, what the goal is, why it is important, and what the expectations are – at the very beginning to bring everybody on the same page.
- The complexity of Technical Concepts: Technical fields often deal with complex and specialized concepts that might be difficult to pick up initially.
- Start with a high-level overview and simplified version to warm everyone up before jumping over the cliff and diving into technical details. As a further audience from your current team is, a higher-level explanation should be provided. Keep in mind that only some groups need all the details.
- Use visuals to complement your explanations.
- Use analogies or metaphors to help illustrate technical concepts and make them easier to understand.
- Jargon and Technical Terminology: Technical fields use a lot of jargon and specialized terminology that can confuse or alienate. In addition, the same term can be used in different areas of IT but have a very different meanings. For example, `kernel` is the core component of an operational system that manages the computer’s resources. In machine learning, a function transforms input data into a higher-dimensional space to simplify the separation and classification of data — the same with abbreviations. PoC stands not only for proof of concept but also for people of color. To avoid such confusion:
- Minimize abbreviations usage;
- Set up agreements on terminology, either by explicitly pronouncing what a term is when it is used first or by adding a glossary to the document.
- Add a legend to your visualization.
- Time Constraints: be mindful of other people’s workload. Some might not have enough time to read through 100 pages of documents or several hours of meetings. When you expect people to do pre-reads before the meeting, send an invite with the document at least a week prior. Also, shorter is better in any case:
- Learn to extract main ideas into bullet points instead of a wall of text;
- One visualization can replace 1000 words and would be easier to consume;
- Provide tl;dr for the paragraph and delete the paragraph.
- Language Barriers: Technical communication often occurs in global organizations where English may not be the first language for all team members, leading to language barriers and misunderstandings. Simplify it. Use shorter sentences and automatic spell checkers.
- Cultural Differences: Cultural differences can impact how technical information is received and understood, especially when communicating with global or cross-functional teams. You need to keep it in mind. Appealing to factual information works the best, but not always. In some cultures people would never tell you when they disagree or why your idea won’t work. So, you could find yourself in a situation where no one said anything during the discussion, but work does not move at all. In others, it is culturally inappropriate to admit that something is unclear. So, if you want to receive feedback or an opinion in that case, consider one on one meeting or an informal chat to clarify details. Sometimes it helps.
- Resistance to Change: Technical communication often involves introducing new ideas or changes, which can be met with resistance from stakeholders who are comfortable with the status quo. Try to understand where their fears or disagreement come from (five why’s, active listening). They might know something that you have yet to discover. Find common ground with them, and from there, try to come up with a consensus solution. Sometimes inviting a referee to the conversation can be very helpful (a third party with enough authority but not personally interested in any resolutions). If nothing is working, escalation can also be the way to go.
The last two but most important techniques you should absolutely use to master your technical communication skills are:
- Regularly explain what you do at work to a non-technical person in the way that person understands it. If you can explain the difference between a data lake and a data warehouse to your granny, you can certainly explain it to a colleague.
- Use your team or manager to do dry runs of presentations and documentation drafts.