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Words Matter Tue 18 Nov 08

Written_or_spoken_christy_b_2I ran across an interesting article, "Lighten Up On Language"  by Ellen Perlman.  What made it interesting for me was that Perlman talks about one of my favorite topics - the words we use to communicate.  Perhaps I should say it talks about how the words we use hinder our communications.

As she points out, "Language matters. It shapes how people interpret concepts — or whether they think about them at all. And whether, in a serendipitous elevator ride with a mayor or governor, a CIO could quickly make his or her case."  I couldn't agree more.

Perlman wrote her article for Governing.com and therefore naturally talks with public policy experts.  Interestingly enough she quotes an expert that illustrates how some words can dull your message through two example words commonly used in government: infrastructure and architecture.  Two examples that also have meaning in the IT world.  As Perlman explains:

"Using a big word as shorthand doesn't advance a technology department's cause with non-technologists, who draw a blank when they try to apply architecture to something digital."

Technical jargon and acronyms may be efficient and precise when talking with other IT people but when conversing with not-IT folks it is unhelpful.  Specifically, it can drive people away from our message.

The purpose of our communications are to convey information and also quite frequently to "sell" a concept or project.  While efficiency and precision are nice, achieving our purpose is more important.  Would you rather efficiently state your proposal using technical jargon if it meant not getting it approved or would you rather get the approval?

One of the public policy experts Perlman talked with suggested a simple exercise -- asking people to explain technical terms in one sentence.  I'd like to expand this to one simple sentence.  Ideally, a sentence that doesn't use (or at least minimally uses) other technical terms and doesn't ramble on forever.  The reason for this is that by doing this:

  • it makes us focus on the key elements and weed out the minutia
  • it helps create the story or picture that allows others to visualize and understand the concept

I'm not trying to suggest that we talk down to people but rather we communicate at the level of our audience.  Use the jargon and acronyms when your audience understands them and appreciate all they imply but avoid them when they don't.

What tips do you have for communicating IT concepts and projects to non-IT folks?

"written or spoken" photo by {christy_b}

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