Security in the Board Room

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

Bryana Dacri | January 22, 2018

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 there.

When you’re responsible for your company’s technology and/or cybersecurity, 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, there are strategies to communicate technical topics in ways any board member will understand.

Don’t Assume Baseline Knowledge

When we speak to people, we subconsciously analyze just how much they know about what 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 analysis, 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 analysis is not always accurate, especially when it comes to technical topics. Assuming your audience knows too much can lead to frustration on both sides. 

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. “server” or “cloud”) 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. One workaround is to print a cheat sheet of technical acronyms and terms with their definitions, and leave it front of every seat before you start a presentation.

Talk About Impact, Not Process

Technology is fascinating, and when you’re discussing technical information, it can be tempting to talk about how things work. But while the ins and outs of hyper-converged network infrastructure might make for engaging conversation over coffee with your IT team, it won’t necessarily 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 it 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 technology 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 an arena that your executive team understands — results and business value.

Illustrate to Educate

HR or marketing execs might be able to give a great presentation with only the power of their voice alone. Technology and cybersecurity leads, on the other hand, might have to rely on visual aids to help demonstrate technical concepts.

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 tech in simple terms. You can make use of their pitch decks, datasheets, 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 and more positions. Until then, it’s a necessary component of your risk management strategy to adjust the way you communicate in order to effectively manage your company’s technology needs. By using visual aids, cheat sheets, and focusing on impact and value rather than process, you can increase your chances of getting what you need, and maybe even increase trust in your department among the executive team.

Help amplify your voice in the boardroom. Read our guide “5 Ways CIOs Can Optimize Communication With Other Executives.”

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