[IMGCAP(1)]I am not an expert—but I talk to a lot of them, and I spend a lot of time asking them to slow down, to explain that again, to use shorter words, and to put things in layman's terms.
Whether it's a tax preparer talking about the difficulties they had this tax season with cost-basis reporting and Schedule D, or an audit partner explaining their sampling techniques, or an IT director describing the technical details of virtualization, I'm forced to ask question after stupid question until I start to have even the barest understanding of what they're yammering about.
This is frustrating for both me and the experts. It makes me feel like I'm stupid, while at the same time making them feel like I'm stupid. No one likes feeling stupid, and no one likes talking to stupid people.
For a long time, I thought this was entirely my fault for not being as smart as the experts I was talking to. But recently I've begun to think that it's actually the experts' fault—or, if not their fault, at least a situation that they should work harder to remedy. They're experts, after all.
What got me thinking this way was a conversation I had with Ronit Koren, the director of marketing at California-based Top 100 Firm SingerLewak. (She's an expert, but an expert in marketing, which means she knows how to talk to journalists—using small words and easy-to-understand concepts, with food and drink within easy reach.)
She was working with one of the firm's experts to introduce its cloud- and IT-related services to their client base through a series of articles in a firm newsletter. Knowing how deeply immersed this expert was in the arcana of his subject, and how technologically sophisticated his writing could be, she proposed a set of article topics that would allow an audience of non-experts to relate to the fairly complex subjects at hand.
To help explain server farms, for instance, she suggested an article on how YouTube serves up videos like the famous Mentos and Diet Coke experiment (complete with link), and to demonstrate the disaster recovery benefits of the cloud, she suggested framing it in terms of protecting family photos and files in the event of an elephant sitting on your laptop.
"Remember," she told her expert, "you're over here at XYZ, but they're over here at ABC."
They're not stupid, in other words; it's just that they've only just started learning that particular alphabet. You don't call a five-year-old stupid because they don't know the alphabet—you teach them how to spell. Only after that do you expect them to spell C-A-T, or C-L-O-U-D.
And, just to be clear, the point here is not that experts should dumb themselves down to make non-experts feel better about themselves (though we non-experts would appreciate it). The point is that useful communication requires developing some idea of the recipient's ability to understand what you're communicating, and shaping your message appropriately.
Here are some examples of why it matters:
• With clients: Clients don't have to understand you. They don't have to listen to you. They don't have to comprehend the extremely sophisticated tax strategy or estate plan or business intelligence system that you're trying to sell them—you have to make them want to understand, and then make them actually understand. And I can tell you from firsthand experience that for a person who is at ABC on a particular subject, there is nothing more annoying than talking to someone who's at XYZ, if you don't have to. Just think of the last time you spoke to a medical specialist, or a mechanic, or a teenager.
• With staff: Staff want to understand you, but may not be equipped to. If you give an XYZ assignment to an ABC staffer, it doesn't take an expert to figure out how it's going to turn out. And if you don't start with ABC, you'll never get them to move on to D, and E, and F.
• With journalists. To be honest, you shouldn't have to worry about where reporters stand in the alphabet. It's our job to understand you, or, if we don't understand you, to keep asking stupid questions until we do. (And we will.)
At the same time, you don't want us misreporting and misrepresenting you. For instance, right now there's probably a marketing director in Los Angeles who's thinking, "He totally missed the point ... "
Next week will be brought to you by the letter D.
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