Want to Move Up? Drop the Techno-Gibberish

Jaffe: If you can't translate your ideas and thoughts into words others can understand, you may find yourself forever relegated to the backroom.

"You lost access to that site because the DHCP server was giving you a static IP to allow you to pass through the firewall. When you got your new workstation, we forgot to assign the same privileges to your new MAC address."

Okay, you probably know what that means, and its a perfectly accurate and sensible technical explanation of a common problem. But, to a user you might as well be talking Esperanto. I would never give that kind of explanation to a user. Instead Id say, "It was a configuration error."

Of the many stereotypes associated with people in the technology field, one of the most persistent is that we talk in technical arcana. To a large extent, I think, theres a good basis for that reputation. We use many technical terms and phrases that are either acronyms (RAID, BIOS), formed from other words (modem from modulator-demodulator, bit from binary-digit), seem to have no bearing on technology (e.g. mouse, nibble), or sound/look a little silly (e.g. OOP, SCSI, POTS.) To the untrained ear, WIN.INI almost sounds like something from Dr. Seuss. Fortunately it doesnt get used much anymore.

We also have some words that are so general that their meaning is hard to define. Interface can apply to hardware, software and design (as in user-interface). In other cases we frustrate users by interchanging words that are virtually synonymous (e.g. migration and upgrade; line, t1 and circuit).

Of course, IT isnt the only field with a specialized jargon. Virtually every vocation has one. The fields of law and medicine use a lot of terms in Latin, which gives them a certain air of elegance. (Wouldnt it be a lot classier to say malum prohibitum instead of security violation, or indicia instead of log entries?)

It is important to remember that the intent of communication is to get your message across. If youre using technical terms when talking to the CEO, you may as well be talking about flux-capacitors, Heisenberg compensators, Erised mirrors, thromdibulators and infinite improbability drives. You wont be understood, and hell be shaking his head the moment you leave his office. And, for your own personal growth, keep in mind that people will judge you on the way you speak (and write, but thats for another column). If you cant translate your ideas and thoughts into words others can understand, you may find yourself forever relegated to the backroom, with minimal user contact, and unable to progress beyond being a technician.

On more occasions than I care to remember, Ive had a user forward me an e-mail or v-mail from another ITer, and ask for a translation. Could you be guilty of causing that kind of confusion among users?

Look for the signs that youre talking above someones head. Glassy eyes mean you crossed the line a while ago. If the person youre talking to says uh-huh every time you pause, it probably means youve lost them, and theyre hoping youll shut up or start making sense. Of course, its also our job to educate users about IT – but we have to do that from their perspective.

When talking to a user, try to use a minimal amount of technical mumbo-jumbo. If the user is one of those computer hobbyists who wants more detail, theyll certainly ask. A very handy phrase that I like to use when starting an explanation to a user is Ill spare you the technical detail, but… This acknowledges that Im aware that techie-talk is sleep-inducing and of no interest to them. Hopefully, this also makes them think that Im equally aware of the issues that are important to them.

Next time, when a user is told by another ITer that the problem was "an invalid key in one of the registry hives," maybe youll be the one whos called to translate and explain that it was a "configuration error."

Brian D. Jaffe is an IT director in New York, an eWEEK contributing editor and co-author of the "IT Managers Handbook: Getting Your New Job Done."