I often find myself having to explain highly technical networking or security concepts to non-technical people. It’s an extremely important skill for IT people.

A lot of what we need to do is rather complicated and most of it is expensive, and we need to justify those expenses to somebody on the business side who’ll be paying the bill. They need to understand what you want the money for.

Importantly, they don’t need to be able to implement the technology themselves. They just need to understand at a high level what it is you want to do and why it’s important enough to justify the cost.

The other important time when you’ll need to communicate highly technical ideas to non-technical people is when you’re explaining what went wrong. Here the stakes are probably higher because your job could be riding on a good, clear explanation.

Here’s a little list of things to remember the next time you’re in this situation.

  • Be clear
  • Be concise
  • Avoid acronyms and jargon
  • Don’t insult their intelligence
  • Don’t trivialize your own point

Be clear

Clarity comes from having your ideas organized. Make sure you know what your key message will be. If you need to explain an important technical concept before you can make your point, then tell your audience what you’re doing.

For example, you might need to explain why you need a new server or a faster firewall. Think about the most compelling reasons for the upgrade. Think about how much it will cost and how your reasons justify the expense.

By the way, if you need to invoke “total cost of ownership” for your key point, you’ve already lost. Nobody cares about fictional cost savings or how hard your job is. Instead, your argument should be based on what’s important to your audience. Explain how you’ll make their lives easier.

Be concise

Get to your point as quickly as possible.

You’ll need to do some explanation before you can get to your point. You’ll need to teach your audience some new concepts. Don’t undersell the complexity of what you’re explaining, but try to get to the point as quickly as possible. You don’t want their minds to wander so they miss your point.

Avoid acronyms and jargon

It can be difficult to completely avoid acronyms and jargon because these terms are useful and meaningful to us. I have two main tricks here. The first is to describe things according to what they do rather than by their technical names. And the second is to educate your audience on a few key terms and then use just these terms.

For example, I was recently working on a VoIP project that included a session border controller (SBC) as a main component. The first time I mentioned the device to the business rep, I explained that it was a sort of gateway between the internal VoIP network and the carrier’s VoIP network that they could think of as being like a firewall.

That’s a pretty complicated description, and I only wanted to use it once, so I told them this device was called an SBC. This gave the business rep a handle for the concept. Then I could explain how I wanted to make the SBC redundant, and how I wanted to implement disaster recovery and so forth.

Another time, I needed to explain a problem with a customer’s routing to the Internet. So I started at the white board by drawing a very high level network diagram showing the Internet, the customer’s internal network, and the intervening firewall and BGP router. This allowed me to talk about the problem with the BGP router without needing to explain what BGP is or how it works.

In both of these conversations I avoided going into a deeper discussion of the protocols and other equipment types. I just explained the one key concept I needed to use. I didn’t want to confuse my central point by introducing too many new terms.

explaining technical ideas business

Photo: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung on Flickr

Don’t insult their intelligence

When talking to people who don’t understand things we consider simple, it’s easy to think they’re stupid, or to talk to them in simplistic terms that will imply they’re stupid. If you’re talking to somebody like the VP of Finance, it’s almost certainly not true.

You need to be the one who reaches across the knowledge gap. This is the key. Express the technical ideas in terms they’ll understand. That VP of Finance will care about hardware in terms of its costs and amortization schedule. She’ll also care about security and who can access her ledgers.

If you’re talking to some other frontline businessperson, chances are the technology you’re talking about is intended to directly support their business. The better you understand how the technology supports the business, the better you’ll be able to make your point.

Don’t trivialize your point

One of the things I often see really smart people do when talking to non-technical audiences is trying to lessen the knowledge gap by trivializing the point.

If you think they’re stupid and you don’t want to offend them by talking over their heads, you might subconsciously present the technical difficulties as if they’re unimportant. No. The complexity of IT is real and your job is to manage that complexity. Think about how to communicate the complexity without demeaning the audience or the topic at hand.

It’s worth getting good at this

Communicating complex technical ideas is hard, but it’s a great challenge. Any decent teacher will tell you that the mere act of explaining something forces you to understand it better.

But I’ll also tell you a little secret of IT. IT executives and businesspeople really appreciate techies who communicate well. It’s a rare skill and it translates into promotions and bigger paychecks almost every time. If you value your career, get good at it.