How to speak tech to non-tech people

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Let’s set the scene: You have a massive undertaking that requires you to explain to your boss’ boss exactly why you need to employ encryption key authentication in order to secure the transmission of various data. That’s when you’re met with the famous ‘deer in the headlights’ glare and the “Can you speak in English? I don’t understand nerd!” response. We’ve all heard this before — or at least have heard stories about it being said to others. But it’s important to understand that it’s not an insurmountable hurdle. Bridging communication gaps like this is actually quite simple; it’s a matter of knowing your audience and being able to communicate your ideas clearly and confidently.

It’s all in the breath


You’ve probably heard the saying “life begins with breath.” This truth also applies to communication. When you step in front of anyone who might intimidate you (in any way), the first things to change are your heart rate and your breathing. But you can immediately control your air flow by simply slowing down and breathing properly.

What? You mean there’s a way to breathe “properly”? Yes, in fact, there is. When we are all infants, we breathe properly. If you watch a baby breathe, you’ll notice that as they inhale, their tummies expand, and as they exhale, their tummies collapse. Somewhere during adolescence this changes (my theory is that both boys and girls begin to place importance on the upper torso area, which modifies the breathing patterns).

Learning how to breathe properly is a chore. The easiest method is to bend over at the waist and place your elbows on your knees as you stand. In this position, breathe. You should feel your lower body expand as you breathe (especially your lower back and oblique muscles). Continue practicing this until you can stand upright while breathing from the same depths. It will take some time, but once you get it, you’ll notice the ability to not only speak with more power, but your body will be more relaxed. A relaxed breath will affect your entire body which, in turn, will effect your ability to speak more clearly and confidently.

Talk across, not down or up


One of the biggest problems we face as communicators is how we express our ideas to others and at what level those ideas come across. I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase “talking down to someone.” If not, it’s simple: Talking down to someone is a manner of speaking that is patronizing, condescending and degrading. Many times this occurs when you know your audience doesn’t understand the concept of your idea, so you “dumb it down” more than necessary. Here’s an example: You want to communicate the idea of convergent technologies and you illustrate that with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Sure the idea might seem fun at first (and the sandwich delicious), but to the wrong audience, that’ll come off as condescending and “talking down to.”

Here’s how to avoid talking down to people, especially when speaking to a large audience:

  • Come up with three different analogies for your idea: very basic, basic, complex
  • Judge the average intellect of your audience (you might have to ask questions or find out from a host)
  • Use the analogy that is appropriate to your audience

When you do this, you’re talking across, not up or down. You’re leveling the playing field so everyone has the same understanding as you. This way you leave no one behind or give anyone feeling that they’ve been talked down to.

Building blocks

Outside of avoiding the “talking down to” trap, you also must consider this: If you are speaking to an audience (regardless of size), you cannot assume anything to be true. Let’s say you are speaking about the importance of a hardware-based security device. If you assume the audience understands what that is, you might be giving that audience too much credit. In that situation, you will be building a foundation few understand. With a shaky foundation, no one will understand the bulk of your speech or discussion. You must assume no one understands what a hardware based security device is and explain that first.

It’s all about building blocks. Take the easiest to use blocks and build a foundation that everyone can understand. From that point, you can build as high and far out as you can. Without that solid foundation, you’re setting yourself up to fail. But you have to be careful not to talk down to your audience at the same time.

If it all sounds confusing, I know. It can be tricky to get right, and like anything else, it takes practice. Knowing how to speak to people, especially an audience, is a balance that requires an understanding of who you are speaking to, a careful consideration of the words you choose, and the knowledge of how best to use your vocal instrument. But even if you only change your breathing, you’ll at least be placing yourself in a more relaxed state which will allow you to speak to people in a way that comes off more polished, which is a great place to start.

And if all else fails, just picture everyone in their underwear. At a party. In clown makeup.

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Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award winning writer of technical content and fiction. He has been covering Linux and open source since the late '90s and just about every conceivable topic since. His fiction breaks ground in the post apocalyptic genre as well as horror, thriller, and science fiction. For more information on Jack, check out his site, Get Jack'd at