For technical founders exasperated by trying to communicate with funders and customers

How many times have you watched this scene play out at a store checkout counter?

A customer approaches the counter with a question about a product, a pair of shoes say. The clerk behind the counter answers the question hurriedly, not recognizing that the customer doesn’t speak fluent English.

The customer asks the question again, this time with gestures to fill out broken phrases. Now the clerk catches on. “Ah! “ she thinks. “This is someone whose first language is not English. I’ll have to adapt to get my point across.”

So what does the clerk do? She repeats exactly what she said before, only more loudly. The same words, at a higher volume.

The customer starts to get frustrated. He points to the shoes emphatically, maybe showing some irritation. So the clerk adapts again. She embarks on a long explanation, speaking even more loudly.

And so the cycle of frustration continues—until either the customer walks away in frustration or another customer intervenes, “translating” the clerk’s response into simple, slow sentences.

I’ve observed this pattern more times than I can count. I’ve also lived it from the customer’s perspective, both during travels to other countries and on trips to the computer store and the hardware store (both of those retail zones are foreign territory to me).

As a technical founder, you’ve probably experienced similar situations when writing for non-expert audiences, such as government funding agencies, investors, and potential customers. How do you typically respond? Like the clerk whose solution is to shout, or like the helpful customer who steps in to “translate”?

Here are five warning signs that the documents and presentations you create might be shouting at non-experts:

1. Your business documents and presentations include long definitions, sometimes relying on multiple technical terms.

Example: A spectrometer is used to perform spectroscopic analysis of sample materials. It measures light wavelength over a broad electromagnetic spectrum. 

This definition assumes that the reader will recognize and understand at least three technical terms: spectrometer, spectroscopic analysis, electromagnetic spectrum.

When you’re communicating with nontechnical audiences, take the time to question each technical term you use. Do you really need it to precisely convey the essential meaning of the sentence or paragraph? Is there another, simpler word that could stand in its place? If it’s absolutely necessary, how could you define it in the simplest way possible?

2. Your proposals and reports include a fat glossary or appendix of definitions.

The presence of a glossary indicates that nontechnical readers will likely be baffled by key concepts in the documents. By explaining those terms in an appendix, you force your already-confused reader to go to the extra work of looking up definitions.  By the time they find the term they’re looking for, they’re irritated as well as confused.A more reader-friendly approach is to explain technical terms in the body of the document. Parenthetical definitions provide a useful way to do this, as do marginal glossaries.

3. Your marketing collateral includes complex diagrams explaining your process or methodology.

As the inventor of your method, you value its complexities. You place a high value on the “how” of what you do. But chances are that your non-expert audiences are more interested in the “what” of the process—its results.

Avoid the temptation to emphasize the difficulty of what you do so you can impress your audience with your sophistication. When you’re trying to build a relationship with a funder or a customer, your aim isn’t really to wow them with your expertise. Your primary goal should be to cultivate their trust. Put your energy into clearly describing concrete outcomes, rather than inputs and processes.

4. Your sales messages include content an engineer would find interesting.

Engineers get excited when they get a peek under the hood of a new technology. That means they’re willing to spend time diving deep into technical details, reading lengthy passages of technical description and step-by-step procedures.

Most non-experts, however, get turned off by too much technical detail. They tend to care less about how something works and more about how it will work for them, to help them achieve their goals. (And they tend to be especially interested in two goals: saving time and/or making money.)

If your website or other collateral reads like an excerpt from a technical report and your primary decision-makers aren’t engineers, you have some translating to do.

5. Your pitches begin with a detailed history of your company or solution.

A pitch is all about the present moment. Yes, your audience needs to appreciate the context from which your remarkable solution has emerged so they can grasp its significance. But any background you provide should be pithy—short and 100 percent relevant. Ruthlessly eliminate detail that isn’t critical to your mission, which is to create a solid base of understanding for your audience in as few words as possible.

As pitch expert Permjot Valia recently reminded participants in a fantastic webinar series offered through Volta, you have just seconds to capture your audience’s attention. Whether your pitch is delivered as a presentation or a written proposal, make the most of those first few seconds by providing a rapid orientation, not a scenic tour through your entrepreneurial journey.

 

Looking for more tips to help you communicate successfully with people who don’t share your expertise? Tune into the webinar I’ll be delivering on November 26 as part of Memorial University’s research week: How to Write in Layperson.

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