Although I have been unable to locate it, I remember an old Doonesbury cartoon that went something like this: Mike had a friend, Roger, visiting from MIT and was introducing him to B.D. or someone else. When Roger spoke, all that came out was, “Bleep Bleep.” I must admit that working around techies all day that’s what some people sound like and I’m sure that I’m no different at times. I remember a few times when someone would come over to my desk and tell me about something they were working on in terms that were unfamiliar to me. I would simply respond with, “Bleep Bleep.”
This came up again a couple of weeks ago at judo practice. One of my students is a Ph.D. graduating from Cornell. I told him that I wanted to hear his 30 second elevator description of what his work was about. We got to talking and I mentioned how it was very important to be able to speak to people with different levels of understanding. Not everyone in your company will have the same technical background that you do, so the ability to communicate effectively with others at their level is crucial. You’ll often find that salesmen, marketing people, and even CEOs will use terminology incorrectly. Additionally, they’ll often have a much less thorough background in the field than you do and yet be responsible for presenting your work to the outside world intelligently.
For example, your CEO may have to speak at a shareholders meeting. He (or she) will need to relate the latest functionality of your software to people who want to invest in it, but have no idea how to use it. The CEO will have to explain the technology using analogies or simpler terms that investors and analysts can understand and get excited about. While you may be excited about the implementation, they’re only interested in the UI and general functionality.
On the other end of the spectrum, your ability to converse with your peers and other colleagues in the trenches is equally important. You must be able to describe complex functionality in a simple way to your documentation people, who then have to help your end users understand things. Your peers on the other hand probably will know more of your terminology, so they will be happy to use jargon that can shortcut a conversation to the point.
Knowing your audience and speaking or writing at the correct level can have a great impact on your effectiveness and your image.