When asked for the time, don’t explain how your watch works

Communication difficulties between the “technical” and “non-technical” are the stuff of legend. A recent article discussing that disconnect identified the issue as a conflict of values:

Because, for me, a technical person, details reveal truth. Broad, sweeping statements are vague and untrustworthy, nothing more than assertions. They need to be deconstructed, clarified, qualified or proved before I believe that they embody any form of truth. Analysis is my chosen method for discovering truth. Big things are broken down into manageable components that are then examined individually. If the parts cohere, then the whole makes sense.

But for her, a nontechnical person, details cloud truth. Broad statements give her a handle on what’s at stake, so she can test the truth of an idea against her internal sense of what’s what. Essentially, she wants to “feel” the truth. Too many details interfere with her ability to process the explanation, thus preventing her from “getting it.”

The author concludes (rightly so) that tailoring the message to the audience is essential. As his counterpart explained:

 If I had offered a high-level answer that focused on one or two key ideas, she would have been much more receptive. She explained that she would have eventually been interested in the details, but only after she had gotten the gist.

It’s instructive, however, to remember that all of us are “technical” or “non-technical” to a some extent depending on the context. I might have found the author’s exposition on the technology to be as fascinating as he did, but at the garage I’d share the business person’s reaction if faced by an in-depth exposition on my vehicle’s transmission.

It’s also import to examine the second part of that statement: “She explained that she would have eventually been interested in the details, but only after she had gotten the gist.”. The need for shaping the message is never an excuse to withhold information. Professional ethics requires that any caveats or issues should still be presented, just in the format that best insures the message is understood.

All levels of architectural practice will involve communicating with diverse audiences. Taking the time to understand the needs of those audiences will serve to increase your effectiveness.

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One thought on “When asked for the time, don’t explain how your watch works

  1. Pingback: Storming on Design | Form Follows Function

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