What’s the big idea?
To innovate, first communicate
March 10, 2021 in Innovation, Technology
“The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty — a fad.”
—The president of Michigan Savings Bank, counseling against investing in Ford Motor Co., 1903
“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
—Western Union internal memo, 1876
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
—Ken Olson, founder of Digital Equipment Corp., maker of big business mainframe computers, arguing against the PC, 1977
“The cinema is little more than a fad. It’s canned drama.”
—Charlie Chaplin, 1916
“People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”
—Darryl F. Zanuck, 20th Century Fox movie producer, about television, 1946
Imagine a world without cars, phones or computers. How about no movies or TV? Fortunately, someone somewhere convinced others to support, invest in and adopt these unproven ideas. They figured out a way to articulate how these innovations would go way beyond fads.
In today’s significantly more crowded technological landscape, it’s crucial to communicate a promising technical innovation clearly and convincingly so it doesn’t get left behind simply because of ineffective messaging.
If the audience doesn’t understand an idea’s significance, they cannot rally behind it. If decision-makers can’t envision how your brainchild fits into their portfolio of projects, they won’t bring it to the next level. When resources are limited, effective communication is even more important.
Resources for pitching a business idea are plentiful and well worn. But technical communications present their own set of unique challenges. The next time you have the opportunity to promote your technical idea’s significance, whether it’s part of a broader business pitch or in early stages, employ these strategies to communicate its complete potential.
1. BE CLEAR
So you’re ready to deliver a big talk about your technical idea. You need to be clear on what you want to accomplish. Are you generating awareness of your work, searching for collaborators, looking for input on next steps or seeking an investment? These are all valid outcomes, but your talk should be quite different depending on your goal. Ask yourself what you want to leave the meeting with and what you want your audience to take away. Also consider putting yourself in the audience’s place and think about what they may want. Ideally, you can meet your own goals and ensure your audience leaves happy too.
Once you’ve answered these questions, you can refine your talk to meet any time limit, knowing what can be cut and what is essential to ensure everyone’s baseline goals are achieved. Be sure to share your goal for this meeting with the audience toward the beginning of your engagement or even before the meeting. This gives them the opportunity to listen with that goal in mind. Should they be listening with the intent to make a decision or the intent to generate a set of additional research questions? Help your audience help you.
You should also have clarity on where you are in the technology development process and how that fits into a larger goal. Are you in early stages, creating a demonstration of a capability for evaluation purposes? Or do you have a technology ready to be implemented or an idea you want to start on? Clarity in your technical progress will guide your message. Knowing the larger goal will shape how you articulate the expected value of your work, the outcomes you foresee and potential impact as well as any significant barriers. Now that you are clear on purpose, let’s tailor your talk.
2. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
It is always important to know a little something about your audience, but it is critical in the case of technical communication. Determine if you will be speaking with a technical audience. Clarify if they are technically skilled in the area you will be discussing. Based on that knowledge, anticipate any counterarguments or potential questions.
Perhaps the audience will be a mix of technical and nontechnical members. Adjust word choices and level of detail in your explanation depending on their familiarity with the technical content. Research at Ohio State University shows jargon should be avoided, as it “kills people’s interest.” Sophisticated, inside terminology alienates audience members, even when explained. If the audience has a mixed skillset, take a little time to consider your language so all can evaluate the idea from a common understanding.
3. CRAFT YOUR MESSAGE
The best way to connect to any audience is to rely on our oldest, most human form of communication: telling a story. And the way you weave your story is pivotal. You must gain the audience’s attention at the start. Reveal the pain point you are seeking to eliminate and why it is an obstacle to be overcome. Lead them to wonder, how is anyone ever going to manage without a solution? Then here you come to save the day, providing the answer.
When you share your idea or capability, be sure to include the steps to implementation, which include timing, cost, people and skills needed, as well as technical and nontechnical barriers. Clarify the value your offering brings over other options. You may need to talk to others with different expertise or do some research to put together a solid story.
Be sure to understand the business-related aspects too. A technical idea alone is not enough to warrant support. Include information about the market or business potential for your solution and its impact. Even if you are early in development, there should be a clear connection to a business or research field impact. Address opportunities to extend your solution to other products or industries.
Finally, circle back to your meeting purpose and verify your messaging is on point. Ensure you included the right information and level of detail for the audience in order to reach your goal.
4. SEEK DIVERSITY
People differ in the ways they connect with technical information. Some are visual or tactile; others connect with spoken words. Consider sharing your idea in multiple ways. Perhaps as you learned about the audience, you gained insight into how they best receive information, and you can target an approach.
If you are still in development, consider building a minimum viable product. It provides something concrete to relate to while also proving your larger vision is feasible. The key is to use minimal resources to demonstrate viability.
In situations where you have more time, you might create a science fiction style vignette that features your idea. This can help others fully understand your proposal in an imagined context that highlights its potential. And take your story for a test drive, gathering feedback from trusted colleagues. There are many tools and methods to consider, and your goal should be to employ multiple pathways to connect your audience with your idea.
You’ve heard it before: Practice, practice, practice. I suggest practicing your talk at least 10 times. It’s tempting to stop when you feel like you’ve memorized the key messages and can masterfully recite the words, but the magic happens in those last few reps, when you become more natural and can add emphasis at just the right moments.
Then you gain the ability to improvise and authentically find your way back to your main points when thrown off topic by an interjected question. This fine-tuning will make all the difference. What if everything veers off-track, as it sometimes does? Not a problem. You practiced. You know your goal and, at a minimum, can always steer back to that. Practice will make you prepared.
After you’ve had your say, if your idea is not adopted, let it go and move on to the next. Find strength in knowing that, due to your effective communication, you were heard and your idea was evaluated for its merits. Focus on what parts of this activity were successful. There is always an aspect that went well or some constructive learning. It is understandably difficult to let go and embrace the learning, but don’t downplay that process. Allow it to propel you to your next brilliant idea. It’s out there waiting for you.
For more, read this recent study about those who learn from projects that didn’t work out. Now go, dream up what’s next!