I was recently asked a question which went roughly along the lines of “What tips would you give to a technical person trying to communicate with a non-technical person”. At the time I was under a bit of time pressure and did not have time to give a considered response, so I mentioned a few points about understanding the user, avoiding jargon and using metaphors to help explain concepts.

Since giving the answer, I kept thinking about the question and thinking about things that I could have mentioned. So here are some things that I think are helpful when a technical person is communicating.

Firstly, the important word is communication. We cannot have successful technical communication without first having successful communication. To have successful communication, we need a message (preferably one that is interesting or important) and we need to encode it. We then need to transmit it (e.g. move our mouth and make sounds). Finally, and this is the important part, we need to ensure that our audience has understood the message (feedback). It is important that if our message is more complex than a few words, it should be translated into a stream of coherent ideas. I have introduced quite a few concepts from communication into this paragraph. There is one more concept which is ‘noise’. Anything that detracts from the message that we are trying to convey is noise. In good communication we try to have as little noise as possible.

Secondly, it is often tempting to divide the world into technical and non-technical people. Technical people are often stereotyped as, for example, computer nerds, while non-technical people are everyone else. However, most people are technical in some areas and non-technical in others. My brother is a professor of psychology and is one of the least computer literate people I know, yet when he is speaking about some technical aspects of psychology, I am lost. At work we often have to communicate with farmers, some of whom are not very technical with computers, but start talking to them about animal husbandry and delivering calves and you may soon be overwhelmed by how technical it is. So, when I talk about non-technical people in this post, it will refer to people who are not technical in our particular field.

This brings me to one of the first tips for communicating to non-technical people. Do not assume that because they are non-technical, that they are stupid. My mother had a strong Czech accent, but was is one of the smartest people I know, and has a command of the English language that is probably in the 95th percentile. Often, though, when people heard the accent, they would assume her English was not very good and talk to her as though she was a five-year old.

The next tip is that when we are very familiar with a field, we often have our own vocabulary (often with a lot of abbreviations and acronyms) and forget that others may not be familiar with the words that we are using. Often they may be familiar with the concepts, but have different terms for them. If they are familiar with the concepts, it makes life a lot easier. We can say, for example, when I talk about a Web API, I am just talking about a web page, but one that has been optimised for a machine rather than for a human user.

If preparing a talk or presentation to non-technical users, it would be a very good idea to have a dry run with a user from that domain (e.g. suppose we are giving a talk to farmers, try to get a farmer to listen). If it’s not practical to get someone from the domain, a colleague or even a family member can be a useful substitute. Ask them to listen to the talk and look out for areas where we may be assuming too much of our domain knowledge. It’s very easy when using terms everyday that other people may not be familiar with them. Where I work (in meteorology) showers and rain are two distinct things. When we talk about instability, it has a very specific meaning.

This is closely aligned to another point. Words which have a specific meaning to us may often have quite a different meaning to other people. The word ‘uncertainty’ has a very specific meaning in statistics but to some people it has quite a different meaning (e.g. we’re not really sure).

Metaphors are often a way to bridge the gap between the technical and non-technical person. One example is that sometimes seasonal forecasts (weather forecasts of between two weeks and six months) may be accurate only 60% of the time. When communicating this to farmers it may seem that this is not of much use. However, we use the metaphor of a casino which may have an advantage of 2-3% over the punters. This tiny advantage is enough to ensure that the casinos make a lot of money. Or to put it another way, we don’t have to be right all the time, just be sure that we’ll be right most of the time.

In summary:

  • Technical communication is first and foremost about communication.
  • Don’t talk in a way which is condescending or does not respect the intelligence of the audience.
  • Understand the user and their language.
  • Arrange for effective feedback.
  • Look for ways in which ideas and concepts can be translated into the audience’s domain.

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