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How To Talk To Non-Technical People (for Developers)

Gregory Klein | January 13, 2017

Effective communication between developers and non-technical people can be somewhat of an art form. It's an inherently tricky skill for each party to nail down given the amount of space that exists between technical and non-technical worlds. Nonetheless, there is still overlap and that's why effective communication is so important. This post is geared towards developers and offers some perspective in terms of high-level styles for effectively communicating with non-technical people.

Don't Be Pedantic

Let's clear the air! Most developers are pedantic. I'll even go out on a limb and say that being a pedant is somewhat endorsed within the developer community — this mainly has to do with encouraged transparency regarding depth of knowledge, both good and a bad thing in my opinion.

At my last job I found that there was an ongoing problem where many developers would pretend to have no idea about what they were being asked or told if the subject was technical, and the wording wasn't exactly correct. It was seldom that the folks who created that problem would actually listen to what people were trying to say, but instead only listened to what was actually being said. The root of the problem stemmed from pedanticism.

An example could be the following: A project manager or product owner asks a developer, "When can we start using machine learning? I've heard that's really where things are going.", or, "Isn't there an API that you can pull into the code for that?" — I know, it can be frustrating, but rather than the classic, "What the hell are you talking about?" response, a good response might be "I'm not sure if I understand, what's the motivation behind your question?", or "Sure, I'll search for a third party that may serve our needs."

The first perspective assumes that non-technical people don't care how much developers know, but instead how capable they are of delivering what is being asked for. So, perspective number one: flexing your brain when talking to a non-technical person doesn't help.

What should you do instead? Be empathetic for the person you are talking to, gauge out their technical understanding of what's being discussed, and intentionally decide on what to correct them on, which details are worth diving into, and which are a waste of time; pick your battles.

Control Your Speed

A simple piece of advice that may sound funny, but goes a long way — speaking slowwwly. Obviously not too slowly, but at a pace that comes across as controlled. This can be beyond helpful for a non-technical person, especially when something is being explained; it could mean the difference between an important piece of information going over their head, and actually being acknowledged/processed.

I'll often consider myself the non-technical party in a discussion if I'm listening to an app idea that involves an unfamiliar context. On top of the fact that it's obviously more difficult to understand or learn something new when the delivery of content is overly fast-paced, it's jarring in other ways as well. For example, feeling like I finally have a breath of fresh air after talking to someone who may have just downed three shots of espresso, or ate aderall for breakfast, doesn't exactly make me want to work with them in general. The reason isn't just because they're fast paced, it's because they appear to have no control over their speed and the way they're presenting themselves.

A controlled pace of speaking comes across as professional and stable, which can be immensely important when giving a first impression. Perspective number two: controlling the speed you speak at goes a long way.

Will slowing down always be the answer? No. The idea is to match the pace of the person with whom you're having a technical discussion, and it's especially important if that person isn't technical.

Hold Back From Over-Explaining

One of the first lessons I learned in the client world was that over-explaining can backfire. I was hired by a packaging company to build an iOS application that would serve as an interactive troubleshooting guide. One of the features allowed users to tap a thumbnail picture in the app, and the image would grow to fill the upper half of the screen, leaving the bottom half available for scrollable text. My first approach resulted in skewed images because of the differences in the initial and target aspect ratios. The client expressed his frustration with me, so I was pretty eager to get it right. After I came up with what I thought was a really cool solution, which took into account the different aspect ratios and a buttery-smooth transition, I felt the need to explain it. Bad idea. I actually got yelled at!

The point I'm trying to make is that someone who is non-technical can be pretty off-put by getting more information than what's necessary or what they can understand. I think it's worth pointing out that in my case, I was explaining something that I thought could only be considered as "good news", but the negative effect it had made me feel as though I told him everything was broken and the app was never going to get finished. Perspective number three: technical explanations might not be as helpful as simplified ones.


Empathy and curiosity each play large roles in effective communication. I'm well aware that being empathetic can bite you, but it's a quality that can also lend itself to more productive conversations — like helping the person who is talking be intentional about the energy and speed they're using, or allowing them to understand how much information they should deliver. Curiosity comes into play when something isn't clear to the listener, because it can help them focus their attention towards what was actually trying to be said rather than the made up story that the person asking or telling is being an idiot.

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