More and more often I find myself thinking about an interesting book called Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Charles Sheffield. Perhaps it is because the author describes in it his vision of the future, including the near future. In his vision the structure of languages changes in such a way that there will be only one universal language and some specialized languages, e.g. for medicine, music, etc. Last year I actually encountered a number of situations in my professional life that forced me to think this issue over.
A new business director entered our company last year. He captivated us with his audacity, fearlessness, and healthy impudence. His arrival was not accompanied by rituals that had been so tediously repeated by his predecessors — he did not cry that he could not sell because of the bad website, because of the ridiculous leaflets, and who knows what else. On the contrary he immediately went to see the customers. From the beginning, however, he had a big handicap. He had never before worked in our industry, he knew desperately little about it, and basically he didn’t understand a thing. He therefore tried to gather as much news and information as possible, without any perspective or distinction. He was a frequent visitor to the offices of our consultants as well as mine. And his favorite phrase was: “You all seem to be talking Chinese, I do not understand anything. What sort of language are you using? No customer can possibly understand it. Your offers are so complicated that nobody reads them. “I’ve always prided myself on my technically precise expression, but now, only with great difficulties, did I realize that I had to agree with him. In order to clarify things I must mention that the field I am talking about is the field of information security, which is the boundary between IT, management processes, as well as social engineering, physical security, and who knows what else.
After several meetings with clients, which I attended together with our new business director, I had to admit that he was right and that I needed to overcome my ingrained patterns. If managers understand what we are talking about, then they will be much more willing to do business with us. Well, I ordered that the communication style of our company be changed and that we were not going to speak technically, but in layman’s terms. And results came as business really started to improve. However, the pressure from our business director did not stop. “Put it more simply, I do not understand, how a customer can understand?” And so we continued to simplify, not only the language of proposals, but also projects, and presentations.
Last week I was asked to write a specialist article for a magazine. Aware of my shortcoming — the liking of technically precise language, using the words of our business director, tech speak — I started to write in layman’s terms about—the data encryption issue. It is a good practice of mine to give my articles to my colleagues to read before sending them. I am interested in their opinion, and I try not to underestimate the feedback. Their reaction, however, dealt a blow to my self-esteem. “This is not a specialist article; you are explaining the subject in a teacher like manner to young children and reducing the readers to nerds.” Well, they were right.
Sheffield‘s future from Tomorrow and Tomorrow is already in a way happening today. We speak technical languages without realizing it. After all, who among us would understand a discussion between two top IT experts on the topic of, let say, effective protection against DDoS attacks? It is also an undeniable truth that one has to speak to the laymen with respect and dignity so that they can understand us, whether we are doctors, engineers or security experts. But there is still something to technical language; if we abandon it completely, who will then believe that we are the experts? I do not know about you, but I personally accept the challenge, which will be quite essential for doing business in years to come: to find the right balance between tech speak and lay language, which the customer understands and which at the same time allows for high level of professionalism. After all, is life not about balance?
Author: Vladimír Lazecký, an expert on information security, the founder and director of VIAVIS a.s.