6 essential communication tips for IT workers

Anyone who has been in the IT job market in the last few years will have noticed an increasing amount of references to “people skills” in job advertisements. Sometimes recruiters talk up “soft” skills when describing the requirements to applicants. What they mean is beyond technical skills, IT workers are increasingly being expected to have strong communications skills.

In my experience, employers are giving this topic lip service far more than placing real value on this set of skills. Partly, this is because it can be quite difficult to quantify someone’s ability to communicate – hence the name “soft” skills. Standard parts of a job description are usually easier to quantify – they are “hard” skills.

If you have a degree, this suggests at least a basic level of competency (whether this is accurate or not is another matter); you can be set standard programming tasks to test your coding skills; your ability to put together a specification can be evaluated if you’re an analyst; your ability to put together a project plan can be tested if you’re a project manager; your ability to lie to little old ladies and hurt babies can be tested if you’re in marketing.

So why are communications skills being focused on in IT roles where this has not traditionally been a prime requisite. In short, this is one of the biggest problems in the IT industry worldwide. The breakdown in communication between the business/management side and the IT side derails far more projects than it should. Competent or even perfect technical execution is no guarantee of success in the corporate world. If the people side of the equation is not managed then life for IT workers is far harder than it needs to be.

Here’s the good news: communications skills are easier to learn than IT skills. I think the reason the burden of communication is being increasingly placed on IT workers is that the non-IT people have hit a dead-end. IT has become so complex and changes so quickly that business people think they don’t have a chance of understanding what’s going on. They don’t even know how to ask the right questions.

Taking on this role shouldn’t be seen as an additional burden by IT workers. This is a golden opportunity. A chance to drive IT decisions in a direction you think is appropriate. Not to mention an opportunity to further your career (if that’s the way you want to go). So here are my fundamental keys to communications success for IT workers:

Get used to talking to people. You can’t communicate if you’re scared of talking to people. The old stereotype of introverted IT people is not without basis. My observation over the years is that IT is filled with people who suffer a massive deficit between their intelligence and their ability to communicate (i.e. they’re really smart but have trouble communicating the value of their intelligence).

So presenting to meetings at work scares you. Deal with it. Do something scarier in front of people. The IT group where I work currently runs a “Toastmasters” speaking group. If you want something really terrifying, try stand-up comedy (trust me on this one). Start a band. Sing karaoke. Do SOMETHING that involves being in front of people. Don’t underestimate how important this is to a successful career.

Don’t mumble! It’s appalling how many IT people are “low talkers“. Fair or not, if people have trouble understanding you they’ll stop listening. Mumbling is usually a sign of lack of confidence – in a business setting it will often be taken as a lack of confidence in what you are saying, not a lack of confidence in speaking itself. You don’t have to be the loudest voice in the room but make sure you don’t mumble.

Move your lips when you talk. Words don’t come out properly if you don’t articulate correctly. This is a close relative of mumbling but it isn’t all about volume. It’s an order of magnitude harder to understand what you’re saying if you don’t use your lips and tongue to form words. God forbid you might be the type who talks without parting your teeth. I had to deal with this the other day – I barely took in a word he said, all I could think was “Open your damn mouth when you talk!”

Vary your pitch and rhythm. Another way to make sure nobody pays attention to what you say is to talk in a monotone. It’s so boring listening to someone who talks in a constant, droning level – it ends up taking on the quality of an annoying background noise like a hard drive that whirrs too loudly. Vary your pitch and inflection to make points and just to stay interesting. And don’t be afraid of silence – the occasional pause after making a point is an extremely powerful way of giving additional weight to your point.

Adjust your communication for your audience. Jargon is almost always a bad idea. Too often, jargon and technical language is used by people to cover the fact they don’t really know what they’re talking about. Prove you know what you’re doing by explaining it in clear, unambiguous language.

Get your written communication right too. The exact tone of your emails and other written communication will be dictated by the standards of your particular workplace but here are some standards that will improve how you are perceived wherever you work. Spell check everything before you send it. If it’s important review it manually to find the things your spell-checker missed (it’s even better if you can get another person to proof read for you). No matter how relaxed you think your workplace is, NEVER EVER use “leet-speak” or text abbreviations. It looks terrible and is almost always guaranteed to get you written off as someone who’s not making a serious contribution. Do not underestimate the importance of this point. Seriously. Just don’t do it.

A lot of IT workers, particularly those immersed in the programming part of the cycle, will be wondering why this is important to them. Isn’t the only requirement that they produce and ship quality code? Well, if you never want to advance, that’s a fine attitude.

And I’m not talking simply about people who want to move into management. If you want to have a say in the technical direction of your company, if you want to improve the quality of your work life, if you want people to understand the simple fact that you are actually doing quality work, you need to learn to communicate. Particularly with non-technical people.

It may not be in the safety of your comfort zone but simply getting out of your cubicle and talking to people is one of the best ways to improve your prospects. You’re not going to turn into an award-winning public speaker overnight but honestly, it’s almost certainly going to be easier than you fear. You have nothing to lose but the poor reputation IT people have for communicating and you have everything to gain.



Filed under Work

20 responses to “6 essential communication tips for IT workers

  1. Thanks for a great writeup!

    I enjoyed reading it.


    Shlomi Fish

  2. You seem to be confusing Marketing, and Sales.

    In Marketing you need to be able to produce really pretty documents with convincing graphs on them.

    I have enormous problems with communicating, but it’s entirely irrational. I actually have some sort of phobia of speaking in public. On the few occasions I do do it I’m good at it, (my best man’s speach last year was really funny, if only the bride’s grandmother hadn’t had a stroke during it – I seriously wish I was joking about that last part.)And yet, regardless of the number of positive outcomes (and the very few times things have gone badly.) I’m petrified of talking to more than a small group of my friends.

    Similarly I have a horrible phobia of telephones, although that’s gradually losing its (seriously) paralysing grip on me. I always figure that no-one will want to listen to me, and they all already understand what it is I’m talking about better than I do.

    Fortunately I’ve discovered that this fear of being discovered as a fraud is quite common, and even great orators like Keith Olbermann (say what you like about his politics, he can rant like no man on earth) suffer from it.

    The truth is simple: You’re more interesting than you think you are.

    If only I could remember that.

  3. Simon

    I know you’re right about people skills. But it seems to me that the points you’ve addressed here about communication seem to be the easy, technical ones.
    I’m quite confident speaking clearly in front of groups about things I know about, or even holding attention and blagging things I’m not so sure about.
    The difficult part of communication, not just for me but for a lot of geek-types, is the ‘social’ bit. For example:
    How to tell your boss that he just doesn’t have a clue, without getting fired.
    How to engage in smalltalk without making it obvious how strongly it’s making you contemplate suicide.
    Also more generally, how to stand up to people without causing a scene which marks you out as ‘not a team player’.
    How to say something to a suit that is both true AND won’t be construed as flippant.
    I know what *not* to say in these circumstances, but it pretty much encompasses everything I want to say. How do you deal with those types of communication difficulties?

  4. Dear man,

    You are funny. You are a genius. You should be deified.

  5. I’ve been in the IT arena for better than 20 years now and couldn’t agree more with what you have said. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve read that were sent corporate wide by an IT staff member that would have no meaning to the general population, only because of its wording. One tip I could add, have someone that is non-technical proofread whatever you are about to release to the general population. Also, programmers, document your code. Make it useable by the next guy/gal. Great post!

  6. Rob

    Nailed it, Mr. Angry!

    Your points about introverts (which are applicable not just to people in IT, but like you my experience tells me introverts are legion there) are echoed in an excellent book entitled “The Introvert Advantage” by Marti Olsen Laney. As someone whose spouse is *highly* introverted (and shy in public as well — note that these are not necessarily synonymous, although as character traits they often go together), I found it helpful in understanding her needs and difficulties in communicating and social interactions.

    Like the archetypical IT geek described in your first tip, she’s quite intelligent — she has three university degrees, a BA, a teaching degree and a Master of Library Science (I’m the lowbrow of the household, having just a single bachelor’s degree in engineering) — but she often has difficulty in communicating. Introverts apparently use fundamentally different (longer, slower) pathways in the brain for their thought processes compared to extroverts (who, by the way, represent about 75% of the population — easy to see why introverts can have a tough time of it).

    An introvert will require time to absorb, digest and process information before they are able to respond — by which time, your average extrovert has glazed over and moved on to the next thought.

    The book I cited is worth reading, whether you are an introvert _or_ an extrovert — the former group will learn that they’re not defective, they just deal with information and external stimulation very differently than the majority of the world around them.

    The latter group will also benefit from reading it, as at some point they will surely have to deal with an introvert and knowing what works with them, or doesn’t, will make the most of what the introvert has to offer (and it may save a relationship…)

    The other tips for communicating you’ve given are also dead on the money — I would just add to your advice about silence/pauses being useful for emphasis and letting points sink in, noting that substituting a pause for an “um” is a simple trick to make you look about 10 IQ points brighter and 5 times more confident.

    It can take some practice to do this, but believe me it’s well worth the effort — you can either practice in front of someone and have them alert you every time you “um”, or if you’re too self-conscious to do it in front of someone then record yourself and listen for the “ums” in the playback. You may be shocked at how often you do it without being aware of it.

    Once you *do* become aware of it, you may find it hard to speak in front of people at first as you’ll be focusing on not “umming” instead of your presentation, but eventually it becomes second nature.

  7. Massif: Here’s the secret, that fear doesn’t need to go away – ride the adrenaline baby!

    Simon: I’ll take your challenge! This piece was intended to be an introduction – the “easy” advice. I’ll do another post to tackle the more difficult topics.

    Chloe: You’re right of course 😉

    Erik: Thanks for the additional input!

    Rob: thanks for the insight into the world of introverts. And I’m totally with you on the “Umms”. That’s one of the first things I learned in presenting, silence is way better than saying um.

  8. I’m with Simon on this one, but I’d like to add something too……

    Non-IT people don’t seem to realize that just because they are having an insert -“computer/software/network/ or just plain old thingie is making the doohickie go urrrr…urrr…” problem, doesn’t automatcially mean they are my #1 priority.

    It’s called triage folks. Look it up.

    I have 15 other issues going on right now (not to mention all the other crap I do besides the IT work) and I have to figure out what takes priority.

    But they don’t get it and will stand there and argue with me that they just can’t possibly do their job until the missing shortcut to their grandbaby’s birthday pictures reappears. Uh…yeah…right.

    And when I finally point out that the longer they stand there and argue with me, the further behind I get, ipso facto, the longer it’s going to be before they are once again a double click away from (insert baby talk here) “cute little Bitsy’s birf-day” (ugh..gag me, she really said that!) photos, they get mad… at ME…. go figure.

  9. Most people only see things from their own perspective. I have formed the opinion that most business people think IT people are lying to them and/or trying to get out of work. Sometimes they are right but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.

  10. Dennis Pryor

    “this is one of the biggest problems in the IT industry worldwide. The breakdown in communication between the business/management side and the IT side derails far more projects than it should.”

    I disagree with this. Most projects fail because management imposes an impossible combination of schedule, team size and feature set, then refuses to listen to any feedback from engineers because “Those technical people just don’t understand that this isn’t a request, it’s a requirement that the new product be delivered in 60 days using 4 developers with the given feature set. It’s not negotiable. And if they can’t find a way to make it happen, we’ll replace them with some guys from India who will work for two dollars a day.”

  11. Soft skills aren’t easy and hard skills aren’t particularly difficult.

    Learning “soft” skills is really hard. Much harder than learning “hard” skills, to be honest. What you are talking about here is changing stuff which is either “in the muscle” (the volume you speak at / how clearly you articulate) or which is to do with deep-seated fears.

    You’ve got the truth of it, but not the whole truth.

    Personally, when I am teaching IT people to communicate I start with written communication. It’s easier to learn because you have the time to think about it. (Incidentally, Mr Angry, you are totally right about leet and txtspk. Oh, and capitals.)

    The key to clear writing is to use the Pyramid Principle. Give the punchline first – you are not telling jokes, don’t save the good bit up to the end. When you cut to the chase in the first sentence people can then speed read what you write by reading only the first sentence of each paragraph, and not miss anything essential if they do so. They can choose whether or not to pay attention to all the extra stuff like reasoning and and explanation and context and background. If they have to wade through loads of material with no organising principle, then you’ll confuse them and loose them. Here’s some more about it: http://blogs.salon.com/0002007/2003/09/09.html

    Using the pyramid principle in what you write is hard: “simple” emails take 3 times as long to write and can appear brusque. On the other hand they are significantly more effective. Using it in realtime is really hard. However it is a skill worth persevering with.

    The trick I use when speaking in public is to concentrate on varying pace and volume. Greater articulation and the rest seems to follow on fairly naturally if I do that. Dunno if that’s true for everyone.

    But communication skills are hard. I’ve a colleague who is struggling to put together a training session for the business right now. She’s still struggling with the simple question “what am I trying to say?” instead of “what do my audience need to know?” She’s a bright Business Analyst, BA with a couple of business related degrees, she’s very personable, she communicates well in writing, on the phone and face to face, but she’s struggling.

    I am very passionate about soft skills because, in my experience, they are both rarer to find and harder to learn than so-called “hard” skills.


  12. Maverick

    I definitely agree with you Mr. Angry. Even though I am still new to the IT industry (I worked after college and have been a Software Engineer for 2 years), I know that this has been a problem for a lot of people, specially in the IT field. As I was going through the transition of being a student to being a worker, I realized the value of communication. When I was still in school, I could get by and graduate without really bothering to speak up. Except for those required reports and speeches, I could do everything in paper. But when I started working, it’s a totally new ballgame. I do agree that when you do technical stuff, all you think of is beating the deadline, submitting your code and doing your work. That’s it, if you don’t plan on improving and striving for more, you can do that. But if you want to improve and go up a few levels from what you are now, you need to develop your communication skills. Higher ups tend to look at employees who can explain and express their ideas. They tend to trust them to do more managing tasks.

    Before, I was like that. When I was still new to the company, I was afraid to speak up. I don’t have the confidence to express my ideas. I was thinking stuff like: “What if I’m wrong?” and “What if my idea isn’t good enough?”. Well, we never know until we say it right?

  13. Angry,

    Could I quote the tips bit of this posting for my company’s e-newsletter (we’d add a full acknowledgment and link to your posting here, of course), The Source for Communicators?

    I’d like to do it because I write a (free) advice e-newsletter my firm sends out to people in the comms industry.

    P.S. We’re also planning to review your blog for our monthly magazine, so I’ll post a link here to the PDF for that when its ready.

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  15. Communication is a two way street. If management learnt how to listen IT guys would not get saddled with an image of being poor communicators. Nor would they be subjected to jerk offs suggesting they do not mumble and such. Ninety percent of management is verbal role playing. *Meetings* are one example. It’s not only the very stuff geeks hate, most of it is useless anyway. When companies put IT directors on the main board geeks will believe that (a) people take them seriously and (b) they make a contribution to the bottom line.
    They do not need to change. Geeks are geeks.

  16. Dennis: that sounds like a communication problem to me.

    Aphra: You make some excellent points. When I said soft skills were easier it might have been more accurate to say it’s easier to learn the basics and be functional (i.e. it doesn’t take 3 years of full time study). However, become an expert communicator is pretty much a lifelong pursuit.

    Maverick: it’s good you recognise the importance of communication when starting out. Many people will work in IT for years without realising how important communication is.

    James (love the explanation about your name): Feel free to quote liberally. Credit is all I ask for. Maybe include a note to the effect that I’m a genius.

    Root: communication is indeed a two way street, if you’re not doing your part it’s hardly fair to complain about someone else not doing their part.

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  18. Excellent. Excellent. Excellent.

    (P.S : I intended to keep it to the point and no more. Just like you did.)

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