Three ways to turn complex IT into simple descriptions

5 Apr 2021

Saying that IT programmers struggle to communicate is like saying the grass is green. Everybody knows it. I try to avoid stereotypes but in this case, the stereotype exists for a reason. What I don’t understand is why isn’t more done to help improve their communication?

The ability to communicate clearly is a crucial skill for all IT professionals. If you work in IT, here are three ways to turn complex IT into simple descriptions.

Use analogies to make things relatable

The inner workings of software applications are a mystery to business stakeholders. Some people might understand coding languages or how the applications fit together. But those people are rare.

Analogies are a powerful tool for making things relatable. You can explain almost anything using examples from everyday life. Things that most people have experience of. Here are some examples:

  • Firewalls are like castle walls
  • Data transfer is like water pipes because only so much can move through a pipe at a given time
  • Searching through unstructured data is like looking for a specific book in a library. In the dark. After being hit by a tornado. It is going to be difficult and time-consuming (futile!)

Analogies don’t need to be complex, they don’t even need to be real. They just need to provide a relatable context for your topic. When they are used well, they can turn complex IT into simple descriptions.

Never show a system diagram to a business user

System diagrams are complicated. Some developers and architects take pride in creating the most complex diagrams possible. Even seasoned IT professionals need time to understand a complex system diagram.

Here’s the thing – Business stakeholders don’t care about the detail. They don’t need to see it.

The business users care about the end result — will the system do the job they need it to do? That’s what you should focus on.

I bet you’ve never seen the blueprints and architectural plans for the house you live in. They exist, your house wouldn’t be standing if the builders hadn’t seen them and used them. But for you, as the end-user, you don’t need to see the plans for the house.

Imagine you called a plumber and before fixing the pipe they showed you the layout of the entire system. Walking you through all the pipes, pumps, and valves in the house. Would you care? No. You want the leak fixed.

This is how business users feel about the system diagram you want to show them.

(Oh, and did you notice the use of analogy there 😊)

Give a short summary at the start

Your brain needs to know the purpose of a topic before it can sort and process new information. Give your audience the best chance of understanding your message — start with a short summary.

  1. State the goal you are trying to achieve.
  2. State the problem that is preventing you from achieving that goal.
  3. Describe the solution you want, need, or are putting in place.

Almost all work topics can fit into this structure. You can read more about the goal-problem-solution summary method.

When you spend all day deep inside technical systems you become an expert in how it works. The greater your expertise the more you forget how little other people know about it.

The greater your expertise on a topic the more you need to use simple language to explain things. This doesn’t mean be patronizing or talk to business teams like they are children. It means using common language they can relate to. Analogies help make things relatable. System diagrams are always too much information. And every conversation is better when it starts with a clear summary.

If you apply these three ways to turn complex IT into simple descriptions your business stakeholders will thank you for it.

Find out more about how to be concise in my award-winning book The First Minute.

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