Estimated reading time: 4 mins
One of the most difficult tasks as a Technical Professional is helping non-technical people to understand technical subjects. Do you struggle to get your point across sometimes? Probably, Yes. Is in an art form? Yes I think it is. So is there an approach which can help us? Yes, and I will share it with you here.
The problem with ‘technology’ is that most people misunderstand what the word means. Technology isn’t really gadgets or PCs or cellphones. These are the products of technology. Technology is know-how. It is how we do things today based on the knowledge and experience of our predecessors. Cellphones didn’t just appear – they were developed as a concept from many underlying technologies (like radio, battery power storage, digital communications, etc), which themselves were based on technologies like electricity generation and data encryption. Similarly, automotive technologies were based on the horse and cart and engine technology developed for electricity production and locomotives. Technology is a stack of preceding technologies.
Innovators and inventors of the previous centuries had the same problem of sharing their knowledge as we do today, except their ‘stack’ was simpler. But these people were successful in articulating their technology, or else they wouldn’t exist for us to build upon today. Thomas Edison must have been able to describe how a light bulb works for it to become a commercial product!
The culmination of technologies in the 20th century has made task considerably more complex, and significantly more important. But the art of communicating how technology works can be made easier for us if we were to consider the ‘stack’, as I described. And this is where the use of ‘models’ comes in. I don’t mean those people who stroll down the catwalk, despite how much we might want that.
‘Models’ are conceptual communication tools. They’re the bedfellow of an academic, but they’re also a tool we all use time to time – possibly written on the back of an envelope. A model is a way of abstracting knowledge to help people understand it. When we use a model to explain something like technology, we use a language which simplifies the technical details to an appropriate level for the audience. Here is an example: at school they teach kids the model of the atom – it’s a central nucleus with protons and neutrons in it with electrons flying around the nucleus in a cloud. This is a good model for explaining nuclear physics to children. But it is only a model as an atom doesn’t really look like that – scale is a big factor. On paper the electrons are drawn fairly close to the nucleus, but in reality if the model was drawn to scale the electrons would be situated many miles away! The other fact that the objects are not really particles, but waves, is neither here not there. The point is, a model is used to articulate the knowledge that is accessible to children, and approximates the truth enough to be acceptable by society.
The use of models, then, is a very effective way of articulating technology. Skilful use of models is essential for Technical Professionals who work with non-techies. But there is something else – a model itself is a great tool – but the creation of a model is even more effective. What I mean is this: imagine two scenarios. 1) A Technical Professional pulls out a pre-written model and explains the technology to a colleague. 2) A Technical Professional draws a model from scratch to explain the technology to a colleague. What I find is that scenario 2 has a much greater impact than scenario 1. The non-techie can see the model being elaborated through more and more context. At each stage of elaboration, questions can be asked which allows the non-techie to understand more with a simple context. Often, a complete model in entirety is too much for non-techies to engage with and assimilated. Do you put up flat-pack furniture? The best directions to build the item are those that take the customer through a series of simple steps, each one elaborating the build at each stage. A complete schematic would surely result in many left over screws!
So here is the trick:
- When you’re explaining technology to people, always make sure you’re prepared so you can use a model.
- Where possible, run through the creation of a model alone so you can see how it forms. You might need to adjust how you build it to avoid squashed up drawings and lines that look like spaghetti.
- Consider using real-world analogies to explain key concepts. E.g. if you need to explain ‘asynchronous’, use the example of a letter through the postal system. If you’re talking about logging in, use the example of a key to a lock.
- Always have a pen and paper ready, and if possible, a flipchart.
- Lead the non-techies through the elaboration of a model and give them opportunity to ask questions.
- Let the non-techie leave the meeting with the model you’ve drawn.
Here is a great example of someone who explains a technology like a true guru – Kevin Kettler, CTO of Dell, walks us through virtualization :