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How technical project managers fail to communicate

Frank J Pietrucha
August 5, 2014

Apollo 13 Mission Control Flight Director Gene Krantz was an ‘engineer’s engineer’: although a highly capable rocket scientist, he lacked the ability to discuss his work in a manner anyone but an experienced technician could understand.

The story goes that, following the explosion that threatened the lives of the astronauts and the purpose of the mission, Krantz was obliged to give an interview to a journalist about the rescue operation. Apparently Krantz’s answers were so complex and technical in nature, the information was next to useless for the public, which the journalist represented.

Knowing thy audience is crucial. Understanding the audience’s educational background, technological experience, and need for the information is a top priority to avoid issues like this from derailing your communication efforts.

Some smart people excel at explaining complicated content to nonspecialists, while others bomb. There are several reasons many of them find it so difficult to communicate in layman’s terms:

They were taught to communicate to peers, not to broader audiences.

Most educational systems teach specialists to communicate to like-minded people using specialised
language. This might be efficient for peer-to-peer communication, but it’s a hindrance when these same individuals need to communicate outside their immediate professional circle.

They live in a bubble.

Many professionals live and breathe their science or technology. They work long hours together, socialise together, and sometimes live together. They find it hard to comprehend that others outside their world don’t share their excitement for the latest gadgets or small discovery. The more engrossed they get in their profession, the more difficult it is for them to relate to folks not in their field.

They’re too busy.

Professionals stretched to their limits often don’t have time to customise their communications for specific audiences. Consequently, a one-size-fits-all approach is created out of necessity. Customising papers, web content, and presentations to select audiences is time consuming—but failure to do so can lead to a communication meltdown.

They’re driven by ego.

We humans can’t help ourselves. We want to impress our audiences with our intelligence—it’s in our DNA. Many specialists often, consciously or subconsciously, use their platforms to make themselves look smart. Unfortunately, speaking or writing to impress often comes at the cost of failing to reach your audience with meaning.

If you’re a technically minded individual—do any of the above points describe you? Sometimes appreciation of your issue with audience awareness can be the key that unlocks your potential as a better communicator.

You can work on ways to find commonalities with your audience and develop empathy with them. You can expose yourself to people outside your immediate circle to give you a more balanced perspective on the world. And you can most certainly learn to see your communication efforts not as a way to show off, but as a way to bring meaning to the people who need your expertise. Be proactive—talk to your colleagues in sales and marketing about your communication style.

If you’re an executive or communications pro working with a technically minded individual fitting one or more of the above points—can you figure out a way to help that person overcome these challenges?

Effective managers help employees identify shortcomings and work with them to find solutions. You can give them the time to focus on audience needs when putting together presentations. You can gently alert them to their myopia and suggest ways to broaden their worldview.

And you can work with them directly to help them see how their frame of reference impacts their outreach efforts. Be proactive, but understanding.

Supercommunicator by Frank J PietruchaThis article is an extract from Supercommunicator: explaining the complicated so anyone can understand by Frank J Pietrucha (McGraw-Hill/Amacom). Purchase a copy online.

Frank J Pietrucha
Frank J Pietrucha has been working with and translating for smart people for more than 25 years. Through his consultancy, Definitive Communications, he helps interpret and communicate complex issues for clients such as George Washington University, the International Intellectual Property Institute, and NASA. Supercommunicator is his first book.
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