Tips for Explaining Technical Things in Simple Terms to Non-Technical Executives

Bryana Dacri | January 22, 2018 | tag: Executive Reporting

You don’t have to be a CIO to know that a great IT department is crucial to the success of any large organization. With the rise of big data, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things, technology promises to become an even more fundamental part of competitive corporate strategies in every industry.

But even as technology becomes more critical to success, technical knowledge remains limited. Many people, including powerful executives, consider software programming, network design, and other key competencies to be reserved for “technical people.” In other words, a CEO who pays very close attention to finance, sales, marketing, and other departments might gloss over cybersecurity, because they assume they won’t understand much of what happens.

When you’re responsible for your company’s technology and/or cybersecurity program, you have to be able to communicate your department’s needs to the executive team. Unfortunately, the perceived divide between “technical people” and the rest of the company can result in poor communication, especially in the boardroom.

Thankfully, explaining technical things in simple terms doesn’t have to be that challenging.  Below are three best practices for communicating technical topics in ways any board member will understand.

1. Don’t Assume Baseline Knowledge

Normally when we speak to people, we subconsciously analyze just how much they know about whatever we’re talking about. This allows us to skip past the basics and get to the interesting stuff faster. This is a vital part of human communication — without this we would need to start every chicken soup recipe with instructions for turning on the stove.

[Related: Learn More About BitSight Security Ratings for Executive Reporting]

However, our assumption is not always accurate, especially when it comes to technical topics. Assuming your audience knows too much can lead to frustration on both sides and impede important decisions from being made. 

One example is technical jargon. Sure, it’s easier to say “VPN” than “virtual private network,” but if the people in the room don’t have an understanding of what those letters stand for, they will begin to tune out. Terms that seem very basic to you (e.g. SaaS or API) might cause confusion among your audience.

On the other hand, explaining every detail of a technical subject can be a tedious way of doing business, and might lead to executives feeling embarrassed about what you assume they don’t know. One workaround is to print a cheat sheet of technical acronyms and terms with their definitions and leave it in front of every seat before you start a presentation.

2. Talk About Impact, Not Process

When you’re discussing technical information as someone who likes working with technology, it can be tempting to talk in detail about how things work. While something like the ins and outs of hyper-converged network infrastructure might make for engaging conversation with your IT team, it won’t be as stimulating for members of the C-suite.

When it comes to explaining technical things in simple terms, a good rule of thumb is to talk about what something can do rather than how it works. When you’re proposing the purchase of a new cybersecurity tool for your network, for example, you should focus on what that tool can bring to the organization in terms of ROI, risk mitigation, and reducing the odds of a data breach — instead of explaining the technology that drives it.

By focusing on impact rather than process, you can keep the conversation firmly within a landscape that your executive team understands — results and business value.

3. Illustrate to Educate

Some department executives might be able to give a great presentation and lead a successful discussion with only the power of their voice alone. For a lot of technology and cybersecurity leads, on the other hand, relying on visual aids to help demonstrate technical concepts is a necessary method to get their point across. 

People tend to learn by seeing rather than hearing. In fact, 65% of the population are visual learners. Therefore it can be enormously beneficial to use diagrams, models, and other visual presentation techniques to get your point across.

If you’re trying to get a new product or service contract approved, or partner with a new vendor, a great place to look for visual aids is on that company’s website. Their marketing teams may have already figured out great ways to explain their technology in simple terms. You can make use of their pitch decks, data sheets, and even explainer videos to help bolster your chances of getting the go-ahead.

As technology continues to embed itself into our day to day business operations, technical knowledge will likely become a requirement for more people. Until then, it’s necessary to adjust the way you communicate in order to effectively manage your company’s risk management technology needs. By using visual aids and cheat sheets, as well as focusing on impact and value rather than process, you can increase your chances of getting what you need, and maybe even increase your executives’ trust in your department.

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