‘Nothing but the facts’ approach just won’t work with business people

Posted by on Dec 12, 2011 in Communication | 0 comments

I’ve been talking lately about how IT and business people have trouble communicating. It goes beyond speaking different languages. The two groups really think differently.

If you believe I’m overstating my case, then try this experiment.

The next time you give a presentation to business people, do a follow-up a day or two later. You will likely find that nearly everyone in your audience completely missed your point.

The reason we often bomb when it comes to presenting to business people is that we misunderstand how they tend to process presentations and information. We make the mistake of believing that they think like we do. They don’t.

Anytime you give a presentation, you need to share four things with your audience. And you have to think about what each of those four things means to nontechnical people.

Facts. Most presentations by technical people are built around facts. We believe that our obligation to our organizations — and to the concept of truth itself — is to present the cold, hard facts as best we know them.

Unfortunately, facts don’t penetrate most people in the same way that they do techies. Because facts are objective and verifiable, we find them compelling, even exciting. They stand on their own and provide a sense of order and structure that we like.

In our minds, if you have the facts, you have all you need to make a decision. But for business people, facts are neutral at best, and not motivating in many cases. They need more than facts if they are going to arrive at your meaning.

Insights. Insights depend on facts, but they only come when you have illuminated the implications of the facts. An audience of business types won’t arrive at these “aha!” moments if you don’t point the way to the larger meaning to which the facts give rise.

And if you don’t do that, you won’t get through to them, because, for business people, insights are more influential than facts. You might feel uncomfortable telling your audience what they should conclude from your facts, but if you don’t guide them to the insight, they may not understand what you’re trying to tell them, or they may at least miss its significance.

Stories. As essential as insights are, they can be impotent without a story to illustrate them. Humans seem to be wired to think in narrative terms, and for nongeeks, stories are the dominant structure for understanding facts and insights, making them viscerally accessible.

Techies often complain that anecdotes don’t prove anything. That’s true, but this fact doesn’t change the reality that stories are compelling to most people. Don’t think of narrative as a means of providing proof; think of it as a device to help people remember your important points.

Emotions. Most importantly, people remember what they felt during your presentation. Maya Angelou wrote, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Your challenge is to have an impact on your audience. To do that, you need to plan out not just what you want them to think, but also what you want them to feel — especially in cases where you’d like them to make a decision, change course or up your funding. It’s the emotional impact (which includes facts, insights and stories) that persuades business people to take action.

Copyright 2011 by Computerworld Inc., One Speen Street, Framingham, MA, 01701.  Reprinted by permission of Computerworld.  All Rights Reserved.

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