Communicating Complex Ideas

Note: This article was originally written for The Sterling-Report with the title “The Zen of Technology Marketing.” The ideas are as true today as ever so I’ve updated it, changed the title and re-posted here. Summary: to get your ideas across verbally, abstract complexity, and remember that passion is what makes your story stick.

Scene 1: a conversation between the CEO of a small private company, its VP of Engineering, and VP of Sales. The CEO asks the VP of engineering why one of their top customers was having so many issues with the company’s back-office products. In response, the VP of Engineering goes into a detailed five-minute account of the customer situation, specific technical problems, why the issue isn’t as bad as it seems, how the team  let such a defect into the system, the underlying technology challenges, and what the fix options are. By all accounts, the response was thorough, accurate, informed, and fact-based. The CEO then said: “…well… that was a thorough explanation, but I lost you a few minutes back.” The VP of sales then chimed in: “hey…I don’t even remember the question!”

Scene 2: Consider John. He is one of the brightest, most competent executives that you could ever run into. In-fact, he’s “scary-smart.” His mental processing power is so acute that his mastery of details and processing speed allow him to out-negotiate just about anyone. He also has great charisma. His style, when communicating with his own team in meetings, is evidenced by the white-board, which is generally filled with unintelligible words and half-complete diagrams. After leaving one such meeting one of his staff members commented, “wow, what a great idea! John is unbelievable… but what exactly did he say?”

Scene 3: You have just visited a startup company to review its business. You’ve spent several hours listening to the executive team describe their products, technology and direction, including sales forecasts. You’ve seen a presentation and a product overview, resplendent with architectural diagrams, market pie charts, trends, and long term directions for the products. Just before the end of the meeting, you start asking about how the existing  customers are doing. At that point, you learn that the products do not actually exist! The voice-over that you heard for the past several hours always referred to products in the present tense, so you naturally believed they were available and being sold. You realize that the entrepreneur’s passion formed a kind of “reality distortion zone” that you willingly entered into.

I’ve witnessed each of these scenes many times; the characters have been changed, of course. But, the episodes point to two of the most important skills needed to effectively communicate complex ideas in the technology business:

  1. The ability to think and communicate in reasonable abstractions while retaining the knowledge of the details in your head, and,
  2. The ability to communicate with passion.

Abstracting to the Right Level

Even the most complex set of details can be held, stored, managed, and understood when they are simplified at the right level of abstraction. Disclosing too much detail too quickly makes your message either unmanageable or unintelligible. Think about the best communicators that you’ve met. They probably had a keen ability to abstract highly complex thoughts into words, phrases, images, and concepts that could be easily processed. Great communicators delve into details when needed, but they strive to remain above them when laying out arguments in order to keep focused on the main objective.

As we gain more detailed knowledge in a subject, we can fall into the trap of believing that the people we want to communicate with need to hear all the details we have assembled in our heads. They don’t. As we get “smarter” in a subject, and as we become more detailed, we can start losing the ability to abstract up to a level that others less familiar with our subject can digest. We end up creating a kind of information overload that makes it difficult for others to understand what we are trying to communicate.

One example is personal. I’ve had to learn how to drop into situations involving new technologies, new markets and new teams and come up to speed very quickly. When I first start investigating a situation, I’ve had to teach myself to categorize and abstract data quickly, because if I don’t, I end up “drinking from a fire-hose,” and the extra facts I am trying to process just create a kind of mental viscosity — a fog that slows down my ability to process, let alone perceive. As the old saying goes, when you get too immersed in the trees you lose sight of the forest. Early in my career when I was consulting I had an epiphany. I realized that this problem was precisely what my clients were grappling with themselves!  In fact, it was often the reason they wanted to bring-in an outsider in the first place.

As another example, try this:  walk around a trade-show in the info-tech sector and ask salespeople what their companies do. You’ll hear quite a large dump of product capabilities and lots of industry-specific and domain-specific data. You’ll get plenty of technobabble. Surprisingly, you won’t often get a good elevator pitch — what they do, why you should care and why they are unique or different. I actually test this when walking around exhibitions. Like the character in my first little vignette, after some of these professional sales explanations, I come away without a clue about the main points. By the time the conversation is done I’m faced with either asking more probing questions, or just moving on.  So — time to move on.  But on the way out, I’m given not one brochure, but several. I get back to my hotel room and dump the brochures on the bed. I try to figure out which one I’ll take time to read. The others go into a file or into the trash.

Support staff, development and IT managers have a similar challenge. For example, when Sue Smith, the VP of HR calls Herb the IT guy because her email doesn’t work, how much time does Herb spend telling Sue all the reasons her system didn’t work? He tells Sue that the mail-server had a problem, or the IP address didn’t get resolved,  or that the MX record was changed, that event ID xxx happened…. and guess what? Sue checked-out after the second sentence. Herb feels that he communicated. But, he just put Sue into sensory overload. When the brain receives more than it can process, it begins to shut down. In this case, Herb put Sue’s brain into a denial of service attack.

Conveying Passion

The next most important thing to remember when communicating is to do it with passion. Abstraction deals with a way to effectively communicate facts at a high level, but passion is all about conveying beliefs and emotion, that in-turn engender trust. Facts and logical argument are simply givens in any good argument. If you’ve not done your homework, shame on you. But any details must support your argument only to the extent they are truly needed for decision-making. Beyond that point, the details just get in the way and make the brain begin to shut down.

Over my life I’ve noticed that passion always multiplies competence (or incompetence), while facts are hygiene — they are required, but expected. In other words, you don’t really get credit for having your facts straight. Yes, you lose a lot if you don’t have them right, or don’t have them at all!  But otherwise, having your facts right is expected. So it follows that a fact-based argument alone is not particularly differentiating. On the other hand,  given two competent executives presenting the same facts and logical arguments, the one who shows real passion will always motivate people more effectively.

You see passion conveyed by a manager who is obviously enjoying what he or she does; the person who constructively but aggressively argues a point while keeping a sense of humor. Passion shows up in the hard-charging leader laughs at his or herself. You see it in the entrepreneur who sold several companies in his or her career and made more personal wealth than Croesus, but who continues to drive innovative new businesses to keep changing the world for the better. Passion is rooted in excitement that’s channeled into what you truly care about — and a belief in something bigger than yourself.

Almost like no other place on earth, business passion shows up every day in the world of early stage investors and entrepreneurs. Those who have never presented to a capital firm in search of funding tend to believe that VCs are high-flying risk-takers who base decisions on market data and business plans. But the truth is that venture investors can actually be pretty conservative folks. Business plans are important but almost never really differentiate. Lead investors are great at rigorous analysis and diligence, of course. But they also understand that early-stage business plans are largely exercises in consensual hallucination. The best analysts evaluate the model and uncover the risks. They want to understand if the entrepreneur has a grasp of the facts and if the plan has the possibility of being successful. But, they are rarely foolish enough to totally bank on the accuracy of an entrepreneur’s projections. For an entrepreneur who wants to be financed by a professional capital firm, the reality is that he or she is just one of many “scary-smart” folks out there looking for investment.

What differentiates an entrepreneurial team is when it is perceived as being composed of “A” players versus “B” or “C” players. The pedigree and experience, knowledge, and intelligence gets entrepreneurs through the door; the plan and facts presented define the possibilities. But, it’s the combination of excellent ability, passion and great communication skills that truly differentiate the A-team. The way that entrepreneur(s) communicate is what creates belief in a company and its team, and the desire to invest in, and participate in its future.

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