3 Musts When Talking to Non-Technical People


Talking to non-technical people is a part of every technical job.

You can’t avoid it. Even if all of your colleagues are technically trained, they may not know your area of expertise. So when you are speaking to them, you are effectively speaking to a non-technical person.

I have changed jobs often.

Even when in the jobs for five years or more, I changed roles and industries within the organisation. Each time, I have had to get my head around the industry-specific acronyms and jargon.

Now I’m a technical person. I have a couple of engineering degrees and worked as an engineering consultant and technical analyst in government agencies.

But whenever I entered a new role, the challenge of becoming familiar with all the terminology was daunting. The other technical people would speak to me in what was almost like a foreign language and I would struggle to keep up.

Confused non-technical people

Conversations would go like this:

Me: “So why are we proposing option 2?”

Colleague: “Option 2 is the only option which meets the third KPI to ensure the ESCs comply with clause 13(a) of the ESA by having HV above 1000kWh…”

And my brain would melt.
Apologies to former colleagues, I know I have paraphrased what you said terribly, and it is not technically correct!

So if I struggled, how on earth did the non-technical people cope?

Well, more often than not they just never understood and gleaned what they could. They never gained a functional understanding of the concept. There were so many lost opportunities to bring the non-technical people along in the story. The non-technical people were often the decision makers, so a functional understanding was important!

But if the content is technical, you can’t just not say the technical jargon, can you?

Can you explain it to a high school graduate?

Technical jargon is often shorthand for an idea that can be explained in non-technical terms, but just takes more time to say.  If you can’t explain a complex technical concept in non-technical terms, you may need to work on your understanding of the technical concept.

That’s right. I just said that if you can’t explain a complex concept to a high school graduate, I would question whether you understand it very well.

Now that’s controversial, I know. But think about it. Have you just memorised the jargon? Or do you have a functioning understanding of the mechanics of the concept?

Three musts when you are talking to non-technical people

I have written some articles about considerations when you are writing technical content for a non-technical audience. While many of the principles are similar, there are some nuances to think about when you are talking to non-technical people.

1. Think about your audience.

They may need more background. There is a fine line between effectively communicating to someone with limited technical understanding and being condescending by babying the person.

One way to make sure you don’t do the latter is to check in with the person – ask if the background is helpful or if you are taking up too much of their time with stuff they already know. Most people react well to such inquiries, either saying, “no it’s really useful”, or else they may say, “I already covered this material in another meeting and feel on top of it”.

2. Use visuals where possible. Or metaphors, or analogies.

Often our brains can’t digest simple information if it is masked by unfamiliar words. If the person you are speaking to is not used to talking about high voltage power lines, even the most simple concepts may be difficult to grasp. Try talking about traffic flow on a freeway (high voltage) in comparison to a suburban road (low voltage). I wrote about this in “What Swahili taught me about 3-phase power”.

3. Repetition if the concept is complex.

You may feel like you are repeating yourself, but explaining the same concept in different ways can be helpful. Our brains aren’t machines, just because our brain doesn’t understand the first time, doesn’t mean it won’t understand the second or third explanation.

The trick here is to vary the explanation by using different metaphors or analogies.  Don’t just say the same words repetitively!

Ready to get started on improving your communication skills?


All rights reserved Salient.

The 3 Early Warning Signs You Aren’t Changing The World – The Questioning Engineer’s manifesto.

Find out what a questioning engineer is in this Free Ebook.