Why IT Pros Need to �Shut Up and Say Something'

Don Tennant

As someone who has observed the IT profession up close for over two decades, I've come away with a lot of observations. Some are welcome and accepted among the generality of IT pros, and some aren't. One of the least welcome is my observation that IT people in general aren't as good as they need to be at communicating.

It's a topic I've never shied away from, despite the negative reaction that raising it invariably elicits. I've addressed various aspects of the topic through the years, including the fact that there is a disproportionately high percentage of people in the IT field who have been identified (through self-diagnosis or professional assessment) as having Asperger's syndrome. It's an unsurprising phenomenon, since the strength of focus and the problem-solving skills that are common among 'Aspies' make IT a natural fit.

Yet it's also the case that Aspies tend to be uncomfortable with social interaction, often preferring isolation to working in a group environment. They're on the more extreme end of the social interaction scale on which a great many IT people fall (a place where social interaction and communication tend to be avoided). And the cry that typically comes from that end of the scale is, 'Don't bother me with all this stuff about communication and social skills. Just leave me alone and let me innovate.'

The best-articulated response to that cry I've ever heard came in a discussion I had earlier this week with Karen Friedman, a TV news reporter and anchor turned professional communications coach, and author of the book, 'Shut Up and Say Something: Business Communication Strategies to Overcome Challenges and Influence Listeners.' Here's that response:

If you want people to understand your innovation, and if you want to make a difference, you need to communicate. Regardless of how you do that, you have to communicate. If you are somebody who is creating incredible advancements in the world of technology, and you're uncomfortable speaking to other people, and you're not going to do it no matter what your boss or Karen Friedman says, maybe there are other avenues for you. Maybe you can do it in the form of written correspondence or a podcast or an article that somebody edits and helps simplify so your message and information are crisp and clear. You can have the greatest innovation, the greatest discovery or the greatest vision in the world, but if you can't communicate it clearly and succinctly so people understand how it benefits, impacts or affects them, then nobody will care about your innovation.

Even when IT pros are comfortable communicating with others, they typically fail to accomplish it effectively. Friedman hit the nail on the head when I asked her what strengths and weaknesses IT people exhibit with respect to communication:

Their strengths are that they are very knowledgeable, and they really understand the details and the technical aspects of what they're talking about. Their weaknesses are they're very knowledgeable, and they really understand the details and the technical aspects of what they're talking about. What happens with IT people, and honestly it's fairly common with scientists, researchers and academics-people who deal with a lot of details and information that's very important-it's very difficult for them to decipher between everything they need to tell somebody, and what people really want to know. What ends of happening is many IT people get stuck in the weeds, or stuck in the minutia, and people tune out.

I will have IT people say to me, 'My audience understands this language. They know what I'm talking about, so it's OK.' And my response to them is, no, it's not OK. Your audience may understand the words, but it's still up to you as a speaker to facilitate understanding. You have to help them understand, why should I care about this? Your audience may understand the definition of the words, but what does that mean? Will it save them time? Will it save them money? Can they do more with less? So your job as an IT person is to really consider your audience, and put it in context for them. Be very careful about using jargon or buzzwords, and mistaking that for communicating. If you keep your language plain and simple, you're going to be a little bit punchier, and a little bit better understood.

We seem to forget, Friedman said, that the entire goal of communication is, after, all, to be understood. Her final bit of advice to help accomplish that couldn't be more insightful:

Look for opportunities to humanize and personalize the information. Because no matter what we do for a living, no matter what part of the globe we live in, we're all people. And as people, we care about mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, the people we love. That transcends every culture, every industry, and every single situation.

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