Seeing Things From a Different Perspective
Effective technical communication is tricky because we suffer from the “Curse of Knowledge.” We don’t remember what it’s like to be unfamiliar with all the jargon in our industry. It’s difficult to imagine what it’s like to not know something that we know. As a result, we end up focusing on what we want people to know instead of on what they need to hear in order to understand what we want them to know.
People can only act on what they understand, so the key to effective technical communication is to figure out how the audience understands everything right now. Given that, you can make decisions about how to talk about your specific technical subject.
The first switch to make is to not talk about what something is, and instead focus on what it does for your audience. This gives them a reason to care. Metaphors are also extremely useful because they use something they already understand to explain your topic. Along the way, make sure to stop and check that people are following along with you. Understand what your audience understands, and you can overcome the curse of knowledge to create effective technical communication.
– So let’s say you need to explain something that’s fairly technical. You’ve got a big idea, it’s about technology or maybe it’s just about how to do something that people aren’t already fairly familiar with. How do we take this technical communication and make sure it’s effective technical communication?
That’s what we’re talking about this week on Find the Red Thread. I’m your host Tamsen Webster of tamsenwebster.com and if you would please do me a favor and like and subscribe.
The idea for this week’s episode came from Robert Collins, a friend of mine on Facebook. He was really frustrated with the amount of technobabble and what he called “assumptive messaging” that he sees out in the marketplace.
Now, I’m sure none of you suffer from this yourselves. So we’re going to look at this as how do we help other people fix their technobabble and jargon problem today. And ultimately, we have to start with understanding well, why does it happen in the first place? It happens in the first place because of a thing we’ve talked about here before, the “curse of knowledge.” The inability that we have to imagine what it’s like to not know a thing that we know. But what that curse of knowledge really leads to, which is where jargon comes from, is that we end up focusing on what we want people to know rather than what they need to hear in order to understand what we want them to know.
People can only act on what they understand. Which means, in order for us to achieve that effective technical communication, to get somebody to be interested, to understand, to buy, to act, it’s on us as the communicator to figure out how do they understand everything right now. And, given what they understand, how do I talk about my technical thing even if there’s a gap between my expertise and theirs?
The first and central place, oftentimes, is to just make a simple switch from focusing first on talking what something is. Because if it’s something new, they’re not going to know what it is and focus instead on what it does for them. Because if what it does for them is interesting to them, if it’s valuable to them, if it meets an unmet need, if it achieves a goal, if it solves a problem, well, then you get just kind of a little crack in the window of their brain.
They get a little bit curious and say, “Oh, well, that’s a thing I’m interested in, tell me more.” And so for instance, I saw a Facebook ad the other day for something that said this can be the end of rooms that are too hot or too cold. And I was interested because I was like, “I am always too cold.” And then, once I knew what it did, which would solve the problem of too hot or too cold then I’m interested in what it is. And it turns out it’s something, I don’t even remember what it’s called but it’s a personal thermostat.
Now, you notice they didn’t start with telling me about the technical specifications of how it actually works because I don’t care about that unless I care about what it does. So focus, first and foremost, on what it does for people and then talk about what it is.
And notice another thing about how that personal thermostat company focused on it. They used a metaphor. They used something that I already know and I’m already familiar with, the thermostat in my house or in my office and said it’s a personal thermostat. Which, if I didn’t know that it solved the problem of being too hot or too cold, I wouldn’t know what that meant. But now that I know what it does, they can use that metaphor to make it immediately clear to me, at least conceptually, what it is that this thing does. It sits on my wrist and it allows me to guide and change how the environment feels around me. Or at least that’s what they say.
Now, from there, I may or may not need more information. That completely depends on how interested I truly am in solving that problem that way. But by at least establishing that basis then I’ve got something where I, as the receiver of that information, am not subject to technobabble. I’m subject to things that I know and understand, given where I am and how I’m looking at the world already.
So if you are trying to help a friend solve your technobabble problem, do that. Back up and look at the world the way that your ideal audience, customer or client, whatever… How do they look at the world? What do they already want? What do they already understand? Use those as the anchors and the openings for the more technical conversation that can happen afterwards.
One other tip on this. Make sure that you’re stopping and checking to make sure that people are with you the whole way. Sometimes, once you’ve sold them on the idea of a personal thermostat, they may be like, “Hey, sign me up! I don’t care how it works.”
But other people may want to say, “Well, I want to know exactly how it works before I’m comfortable proceeding forward,” but at each point, you have that opportunity to check.
So that’s how you get rid of technobabble and jargon. You take the view, the world view of the person that you’re talking to. And if you’re not sure that you can do it then put it in front of somebody else who is a proxy for that person. Put your explanation— test your explanation with people who don’t know your topic, your idea, your product or service as well as you do and ask them when and how they get confused. Because when you understand that then you’ll know exactly what somebody needs to hear in order to understand. In order to act the way that you want them to and that’s the key to effective technical communication.
I hope you enjoyed this episode this week. If you’ve got a suggestion for an episode topic, let me know at tamsenwebster.com/contact or if you need help for you or your team translating that technobabble into effective technical communication, same place, tamsenwebster.com/contact. I hope you enjoyed Find the Red Thread. I’ve been your host, Tamsen Webster from tamsenwebster.com.