Decoded! What not to say to your non-IT coworkers (and what to say instead)

Some phrases are guaranteed to annoy or baffle non-IT folks. Avoiding them may be just the boost your career needed.


Lost in translation

I may not be a programmer, but I've written about technology for more than a decade, and so when I decided to write an article about technical jargon, I didn't think there'd be anything I wouldn't understand. But when I was soliciting quotes, a correspondent named Brandon Allgood sent me a phrase I'd never heard: "Let's late bind on that issue." It's a phrase coders use to mean "circle back later" or "decide when we get there," it derives from a programming concept, and it's a great example of how a helpful in-group phrase can be an impediment to understanding when communicating with others.

Here's a quick guide for avoiding exactly this type of communcation pitfall.

Also on ITworld:

Avoid scary words
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First, do no harm

Sajeel Qureshi, who runs the digital marketing and tech agency Computan, says that, when talking with your co-workers, remember that "the IT department is like the hospital. Nobody calls or visits IT to say 'hi.' You call IT when you have a problem. IT can improve their 'bedside manner' by not using words like 'down,' 'security holes,' or 'hack.' These scare non-tech folks and get things exaggerated for no reason. A non-tech guy thinks all the mail in the company is down because he can't send an email from his iPhone."

Use analogies
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Use analogies

Qureshi suggests that you use the power of metaphors to make technical language easier to understand. "Every non-techie gets upset when their software projects need more money because they ask for out-of-scope changes," he says. But instead of going into the details of how, for instance, new code might require database tuning, "IT can say this is like an upgrade to the base price of a house. 'The house comes with carpet, but we're asking them for hardwood flooring now. That costs extra.'"

Avoid acronyms
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Avoid alphabet soup

Nick Espinosa, CIO of IT consulting firm BSSi2, urges you to dump the abbreviations. "Acronyms like DNS, DHCP, TCP/IP, RMM, SaaS, and IaaS are not really understood, and non-tech people usually don't care." You'll need to translate this stuff: for instance, "explain in simple, but respectful, terms that DHCP is the service that gives your computer an address on the network, and that all computers need an address so they can get to the Internet and talk to other computers." As Ryne Thornsen, head content writer at IP Phone Warehouse, puts it, "Technical terms are great for conversations with other 'in the know' professionals. Outside of that circle, it sounds like gibberish."

Avoid jargon
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Avoid interchangeable jargon

Much as techies would like to think that our terminology is precise, it's hard to deny that sometimes multiple names for essentially the same technology are in use, which can lead to trouble. "When a technology is known by several different terms," says Thornsen, "they should not be used interchangeably. If they are, make it known ahead of time that a solution has several names. Take, for example, a VoIP phone system and an IP PBX: no one would know these are the same thing without prior knowledge."

Don\'t deflect blame
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'Not my problem!'

Michael Wright, principal consultant at Metcalfe Consulting, says that technical terms can often be a shield that IT staffers use to essentially say that they aren't at fault for current crises. "When an application is failing," he says, "the phrase 'it's not the application, it's the hardware or network' drives users nuts. They don't care. All they know is that the solution isn't working. Obviously the best way is to work on solving the problem; users can be educated on the source of the problem later, when heads are a lot cooler."

Don\'t condescend
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Don't condescend

It's important to not to make non-IT staff feel insulted, and according to Beth Bridges, Vice President of Digital Identity for J - I.T. Outsource, tone and body language can insult as harshly as words. She says, "If a technical person tells someone in marketing, 'Our site is hosted on a VPS,' and the marketer asks, 'What's a VPS?', all the techie should do is say, 'A Virtual Private Server. It's a much more secure way to host a website than a public server.' The marketer will probably look it up, and try to figure out how to monetize it. Instead, here is what is usually said by the techie, after a sigh: 'Virtual. Private. Server.' Followed by an eye roll and another martyred sigh."

Don\'t put up walls
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Don't build walls of hostility with co-workers

"Starting a conversation assuming the other person cannot possibly comprehend what you are doing," says independent mental health and wellness expert and psychometrician Gabrielle Loehr, "is probably one of the biggest ways tech people keep themselves isolated. Not only is being condescending rude, it also limits future communications you are going to have with that person. I suspect that a significant portion of tech problems at work are related to people working around the tech people who think they're dumb." So you won't have to deal with that non-tech person's annoying questions anymore -- but problems will go ignored until they hit a crisis point.

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Get in touch with emotions

Emily F. Peters, founder of brand strategy studio Uncommon Bold, says that discussions with those outside IT should "work in emotions and feelings over literal facts. How is it going to help me? How am I going to feel when I use it?" MapD, one of her clients, was originally pitching a GPU-based supercomputer with language like "the columnar store DB was tested on a system with two 8-core Ivy Bridge Xeon sockets running at 3.2 GHz with 384 GB of RAM"; now MapD is selling "a data exploration platform, with a massively parallel database that powers for 1000x faster data science." Peters says that "their story is more about speeds that allow weightless exploration and creativity in data analytics than the exact specs."

Don\'t get bogged down in specifics
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What's in it for them?

"Feelings" may seem squishy, but you should always talk in terms of what customers and co-workers want and need. JP Lessard, President of Business Software Solutions at IT consultancy Miles Technology, warns of "getting bogged down in specifics: 'We are going to scale up your SQL server capacity by adding two processors and 16 GB of RAM.' Non-techie people cannot relate to this and have no way of knowing if it's even true. Instead, explain what the impact was or will be for the customer and how you're going to make it better from their perspective: 'Twice as many people will be able to use your system with no noticeable slowdown.'"

Discuss business benefits
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Speak the language of business

When it comes to software, "It's not part of our architecture," is another phrase that drives business users up the wall. According to Metcalfe Consulting's Wright, IT staff often use this to mean "we are not interested in the business's opinion." Instead of just deflecting with that phrase, Wright says techies should make sure the business side "understands that the cost and expertise to build and support a solution that isn't part of the architecture is high. I always felt that if you could discuss the business reasons and benefits of sticking to the architecture, then the business could make the appropriate business decision with their eyes wide open."

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We're all on the same team

Perhaps what ties all these examples together is that IT needs to communicate in a way that meets others on their own terms. "Tech is important to many companies," says Loehr, "but knock out HR and accounting and no one will get paid. Get rid of sales and marketing and no one will ever find you or know what you do. Take out administrative and support staff and a billion important things fall through cracks." You would hope that all of these coworkers would talk to you in language that you can follow, and you should extend the same courtesy to them.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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