Explainer Tip: Stop Talking About Technology

The following post is a part of a series called "Explainer Tips" where we share lessons we've learned in crafting explanations.

You likely have friends and family members who consider themselves non-technical.  When discussion turns to anything related to computer, they throw up their hands and say "I just don't get tech stuff!"  The truth is, this is the vast majority of people.  And it's completely understandable why they feel this way. Technology can be very intimidating and many of the most popular tools are poorly designed for a new user.

But it's not just technology - it's how we talk about technology.  The most simple and user friendly tools can sound intimidating if we insist on using terms like XML, extranet, APIs, etc.  There is no end to confusing technology language.

The next time a novice asks you about technology, here are questions I want you to ask yourself: 

  • How can I explain this without talking about technology?
  • Can I use a real-world example to explain this instead of the actual technology?
  • What is this person likely to understand that I can use as a comparison?

A classic example is email.  Let's say your long lost uncle emerges from the woods and says "What's email?"  You have a choice: You can tell him about computers, SMTP, domains and headers or think of something that he already understands, like the Postal Service. To make it easy for your uncle, forget technology and start by talking about snail mail.  Establish the value of being able to communicate written messages over long distance.  Talk about using pens and typewriters.  Talk about how long it takes and why it's painful. He will get it.  Then, the jump to technology is easier.  Email is the same as sending a letter but more efficient because we have computers instead of pens and typewriters.

By taking technology out of the picture in the beginning and speaking in recognizable terms, you can prevent your audience from throwing up their hands and saying "I don't get technology!"  Instead, you're offering an invitation - an introduction to the subject that speaks in their language and lives in their world.

Other Explainer Tips:

Make People Care

Remember the Curse of Knowledge