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Home matches and challenges

I love presenting to techies – they’re my folks, and speaking with them and exchanging ideas comes as naturally to me as gathering around the kitchen table with the family and shooting the breeze. (Recent SAP Inside Track Netherlands in Eindhoven, organized by the fabulous Twan van den Broek and others, where I hosted two sessions, was such an event.)

I also love a challenge – so it’s nice to present to a crowd where it’s not necessarily a home match. Therefore, I particularly enjoy presenting technology to people who are either indifferent or even averse to technology per se. (I’ll explain in a minute why I added “per se” here.) The challenge is to captivate them by speaking to them in their language, about things that matter to them.

A difficult audience

The most recent instance, which prompted me to write this blog post, was just yesterday. I spoke to a bunch of colleagues who have a reputation for being an especially difficult audience: a group of managers with a purely functional background, each overseeing a large functional domain; super-busy people who rush from meeting to meeting and write a hundred emails per day, many of them while someone else is trying in vain to capture their attention. They’re unique in their multi-faceted role as managers, experts and generalists, and they know it. Don’t expect any freebies when presenting to them: The moment your talk fails to be relevant, they’ll whip out the phone and start taking calls, or have a loud discussion with their neighbor, or walk out of the room and make the phone glow in the hallway.

They aren’t technologists and don’t care much for technology as such, but as product owners of the suite of SAP-based business applications my employer creates, they prioritize all change requests to the applications suite and decide which features will be implemented, and in which release.

I, on the other hand, am 100% a technologist and technology strategist. My job was to explain to those functional folks about a particular new technology in the User Interface (UI) area, and reach accordance on a strategy about it. So I did it. I put myself in the shoes of my audience and tried to say only things that would be relevant to them.

What technology means to non-techie audiences

While you, as a technologist, may master difficult technologies on a daily basis and derive lots of pleasure and self-confidence from it, it can be a touchy subject and frequent source of frustration to non-technologists.

Key statement: End-users often (rightfully) experience software as built with disregard or even contempt for them and their needs.

So when we as technologists talk to non-technologists, we need to make it doubly clear that we’re not speaking from the ivory tower but genuinely interested in providing business value and good usability. After decades of working with barely usable software, end-users may find that the idea of technologists who care for them takes some getting used to. It’s our job to be convincing here and to demonstrate clearly that we’re not advocating a particular technology because it is so much fun to work with for developers, but because of the value it provides to the business. (Even if we put the business value first, there’ll be plenty of techie fun in it for us – so we can easily afford to be real here.)

Only technologists are interested in technology per se: for its elegance, for the superiority of its concepts to competing concepts, for symmetry and beauty, and originality and quirkiness, for being a reliable old friend, for ingenuity that strikes like a bolt of lightning, for being a better-to-handle tool than others, for allowing us to reach mastery quicker or to reach a deeper mastery, and so on. These are techies’ reasons to love a particular technology, and they’re sound and valid. But when we speak to non-techies, we should remember that they’re not interested in the virtues of technologies of technology per se, but about what’s in it for them: the business value (however indirect) provided by technology.

Dimensions that matter

To your audience, the most important dimensions (apart from the actual functionality) are costs and time. When you present one or perhaps even several alternative technological solutions, explain how costly they will be (or what plan you suggest for finding out, such as building a prototype first), and how long it will take. They’ll love you for it. Another dimension they’re interested in is complexity (which impacts reliability, stability, maintenance costs, the ability of the team to handle it, and so on). And if they’re smart, they’ll care about flexibility (also influenced by complexity), the ability to change things later.

Putting it all together, you could say something like:

“Solution A and B are functionally equivalent and roughly equally expensive. Solution A is faster – we can do it in three months –, but at the price of a higher complexity, so it’s more error-prone and less reliable, and it will be more difficult to change things later on. Solution B takes more time – we have to wait for SAP release XYZ and can be done in six to nine months –, but it will be a rock-solid solution with better flexibility.”

Remember the list: functionality, costs, time, complexity, flexibility.

Six ways to be relevant to a non-techie audience

  1. Remember that to your audience, technology is not a play toy – it’s a bother and a means to an end. They put up with it not for fun but because it can help them if applied well, and make their lives hell when applied incorrectly or carelessly.
  2. Be relevant, and make the technology relevant: Focus not on how it works, but what it can do for your audience. Name existing pain-points and explain how the technology can bring relief. Explain new possibilities and opportunities from a business perspective. Real-world use cases are king! Keep a laser-like focus on the question: What’s in it for them?
  3. Pick up the ball and run with it: When someone from the audience articulates a new pain-point or use case, they’re giving you the golden key to being relevant to them. Explain how the technology can help here, and recur to those points often. Generally, try as hard as you can to map what you have to offer to the audience’s needs. Watch your audience carefully to find out when you hit a sweet or sore spot. Your audience really tells you all you need to know. It’s your job to observe and listen as much as it’s your job to speak.
  4. Speak about holes – not drills: Don’t explain how the drill works, and what the relative merits and disadvantages of a dozen current and future drilling technologies are – to someone who just wants a simple hole in the wall. Keep in mind who’s merely interested in holes and who’s interested in drills, and don’t talk about drills to the holes folks (unless it’s really relevant to them). I learned this from one of member of the aforementioned group and it was one of my most valuable lessons ever.
  5. Keep in mind the dimensions that matter: functionality, costs, time, complexity, and flexibility.
  6. Speak from the heart: Yes, you should speak in the language of the audience, and about what matters to the audience – but it should come from the heart and you should be yourself if you want to engage your audience. So look for the intersection, find the common denominator, and use that as your starting position. Talk about what matters to both you and the audience, in a clear and natural language that suits both you and your audience. Common sense should work as a common denominator. 

Back to my difficult session

My session with the difficult folks went very well. I tried hard to be relevant to them, and it worked. They experienced me not as “the other”, the technologist from another planet, but as a reasonable guy who had something relevant to share. I could tell from the way they engaged in a constructive discussion, remained focused, and from body language and eye contact. So I was quite happy after the talk (which, because of many questions and an interesting discussion, took three times as long as scheduled).

But the biggest compliment came this morning when I met one of my administrative colleagues, who was in the meeting to take notes and follow up on to-dos. She said that she didn’t care for technology, but had liked my presentation because it was clear and calm and she had understood everything. She even explained the key concepts to another colleague who joined our discussion. I love it – and I consider this the highest accolade: being relevant to someone who not only has no natural affinity to your topic, but to whom you aren’t even relevant per their job role. When they’re merely bystanders as far as your content is concerned, and still they find it interesting and engage – that means you’ve communicated well. This is why my administrative colleagues’ feedback flattered me immensely.

There’s no better thrill

And that’s what I want to share: You, too, can do it. Just put yourself in the other person’s shoes, try hard to be relevant to them, and you’ll experience the rush of a communication well done. There’s no better thrill.

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32 Comments

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  1. Nigel James

    You always write so well Thorsten. Thanks for articulating these great points to keep in mind with people who aren’t so enamored with tech for tech’s sake.

    I agree there is no better thrill.

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  2. Tammy Powlas

    On this:

    Just put yourself in the other person’s shoes, try hard to be relevant to them, and you’ll experience the rush of a communication well done.

    But what if you cannot reach the other person if you are in the moccasins, so to speak? What if you can’t find relevance?  Where do you go from here?

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    1. Thorsten Franz Post author

      I have never experienced that it can’t be done, Tammy. I sincerely believe that the common ground is always there. You could put me in front of a group of construction workers, or garbage disposal workers, or theologists, and I’ll find a way to make NetWeaver Business Client relevant to them. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I might have to go one abstraction level further and discuss something similar that they actually use, but I’d see it in their eyes when I’ve hit the spot – be it Youtube which they use on their mobile devices or desktops, or the dashboards in their work vehicles, or the apparatus in their ancient Greek bibles, the match can be made.

      Best,

      Thorsten

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          1. Gregory Misiorek

            Thorsten,

            thanks for the reference and i’m glad to have learned something new. ad rem, it’s simply “comments” then, just like what we engage in here, is it not?

            i think it’s mostly the legal profession today, busy writing their briefs, that we may want to take our technical messages to.

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  3. Chiara Bersano

    Thank you for this very valuable reminder. In the end we have to speak for our audiences, not to please ourselves.

    I think your list of dimensions that matters: “functionality, costs, time, complexity, and flexibility” could bear the addition of sustainability. Quite often, proposed solutions look at the current costs, complexity and time, but forget that at the end of the line, the same parameters must apply to the live product, long term. 

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    1. Thorsten Franz Post author

      Chiara,

      Thanks for your comment! I agree that the long-term perspective is very important, and while I’ve had to learn that some people have valid reasons to look more at the short term, personally I weigh the long-term perspective very strongly.

      The flexibility dimension in my list was intended as one such long-term dimension: Regardless of how well we can solve the problem at hand, today, how well-equipped are we going to be to arrive at good solutions for the problems in 6 months, 2 years, 5 years? Will we be forced to build terrible kludges that cause rapid architectural decay? But you’re perfectly right to define the long-term consequences as a dimension in its own right.

      Best,

      Thorsten

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      1. Chiara Bersano

        Great point, Thorsten. There is a big difference looking at the short and the long term.

        Having been HRIS Director at a couple of big customers for many years, I know that what can appear a good decision on the basis of the usual tryptic of “time, money, quality”, will not apt to be supported in an economic and acceptable way – and that is truly architectural decay – I love the term.

        The quality of the end product and the viability of the built system is measured not in the cost of the project, but in the cost of the system long term, and it is important to keep that in mind and to be able to highlight the long term when we are talking to non-techies!

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  4. Julius von dem Bussche

    Common sense should work as a common denominator.

    And I thought all along that the answer was 42…!?!? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Super blog! Will add the dimensions on post-it’s to my office wall for a while until they stick properly on the inside.

    Cheers,

    Julius

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  5. Christian Horak

    Sounds like the operating manual for Product Marketing, Thorsten. Great points, it describes pretty well what we do on a daily basis  as evangelists, trying to translate technology into benefits for a “solution-only interested” audience. The challenge we often run into is that the audience often does not really know “exactly” what they want until they see someone else in their peer group using some new approach or tool. Everyone will easily agree with statements like “we have to do better, become faster, improve processes, etc. “. But until you show an example that “connects the dots”, the mental light bulbs don’t always switch on along the lines of “I wanna be like that person!”. The planning framework I use for a presentation is usually centered around understanding the motivation of the audience. In other words, understanding what “crumbles their cookie”. Once you understand the motivation, you have an angle for relevance, examples, and specific success criteria so everyone can relate to what “done” looks like, and how widget-x has made that possible in a unique way

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    1. Thorsten Franz Post author

      Thanks, Chris. I’ll have to borrow an expensive watch one day and start a presentation with the words: “If you do as I do, and say as I say, one day you’ll have a shiny Breitling like this one. Now read my lips, and speak after me: Successful CIOs buy solution XYZ.”

      Wait, are we still in Marketing, or is that how Sales works?

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  6. Fred Verheul

    Thank you Thorsten for such great advice. I’m pretty sure I’ll come back to this blog in the (near?) future.

    Btw, it sounds like a lot of empathy (on your side) was involved ๐Ÿ™‚ .

    Cheers, Fred

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    1. Thorsten Franz Post author

      Thanks, Fred, and yes, it was. It’s one area where trying really hard to put oneself in someone else’s shoes yields very favorable results. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  7. Gail Moody-Byrd

    “Speak about holes, not drills…” and

    “Keep in mind the dimensions that matter: functionality, costs, time, complexity, and flexibility.”

    Thanks for reminding we tech marketers what we are selling when we talk to LoB audiences.  Its increasingly important in my work to expand the SAP Community beyond the technical audience.

    Glad you got thru this, learned and SHARED.

    Best

    Gail


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  8. Rolf Paulsen

    Hi Thorsten,

    thank you for describing the “difficult folks” so accurate ๐Ÿ™‚ and sharing the challenge I meet every day ๐Ÿ˜†

    I really like your blogs inspired of real-life situations.

    Cheers, Rolf

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    1. Thorsten Franz Post author

      I know, Rolf, your role in charge of a project that touches several functional areas and applications is especially good as an opportunity for growth. Thank you. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  9. Luke Marson

    Hi Thorsten,

    This is superb and a must-read for every consultant. Sometime we can get caught up on the technical side of things or how software works when all the someone from the business wants to know is how this is going to benefit them and their organization. It is very important to get down to the level of the business or user and communicate the value and how they achieve it.

    Best regards,

    Luke

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  10. Roel van den Berge

    Hi Thorsten, you’ve perfectly described the path that I am walking for some time now. Talking to peers is easy. Addressing non-techies is a whole different ball game. I had a similar experience when I explained the CRM BOL/GenIL framework to functional consultants some of which had very little knowledge/interest in ‘what’s under the hood’. Before my session they told me that they came but didn’t have the illusion that they would actually ‘get’ the stuff I was about to speak of. Then after my session we got into a nice discussion and that showed me that they did get it. That was a moment of victory for me, because I did bump my head on multiple occasions trying to bring a message in ‘my’ language instead of theirs. Need to find a way to memorize your dimensions. Is FuCoTiCoFlex a word? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Thanks for this great write-up! It’s almost as good as having you on-site ๐Ÿ™‚ SitNL was great and your sessions certainly contributed to that!

    Cheers, Roel

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    1. Thorsten Franz Post author

      Roel, it’s a word if you say so. ๐Ÿ™‚ I can understand that moment of triumph very well – nothing gives me a better kick than seeing the faces in an audience change from politely attentive (at best) or dumbfounded (at worst) to that “aha!” expression where they realize they’re just now getting real value, and start paying close attention. I guess that’s what you achieved with your functional consultants, just like you did in every other presentation I’ve ever seen you give. Congrats. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  11. Audrey Stevenson

    Hi Thorsten,

    Such an excellent blog sharing your experience and, above all, your how-tos for replicating your success.

    The dimensions you talk about are exactly the ones I look for when combing through SCN content looking for items to highlight in the Business Process News @SCN newsletter. The audience of that newsletter is business-oriented, and every time someone successfully explains a new SAP technology or application in terms that describe how it can accomplish certain “hole-drilling” using the dimensions your list, I experience a little “Eureka” moment because I’ve just found another piece that the audience will appreciate.

    As you say, “Real world uses cases are king!” and I cannot agree more. I am always eagerly awaiting a new post in the SAP Runs SAP space because blogs on that topic are so popular when I run them in the newsletter.

    Thanks again for such a good post!

    –Audrey

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    1. Thorsten Franz Post author

      Audrey,

      Thanks for your kind words. You’re right, SAP runs SAP is highly valuable for people out there in the ecosystem. Normally, SAP builds the technology and everybody else adopts them. There is only so much the adopter can learn from the builder, and only so much the builder can teach the adopter. Believe me, I speak with the builders all the time in order to help my company be a better adopter – it’s a wide gap.

      But when we see SAP in the additional role of “first adopter”, this means that suddenly there is a lot more common ground and many more things to learn from each other. It’s the ultimate in marketing, really.

      @Chris, if you get SAP to run FinOD and Oliver Bussmann to speak about it on every stage, you can pretty much lean back. Work on the Mobile angle. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Best,

      Thorsten

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  12. Timo ELLIOTT

    Thorsten,

    This is a topic near and dear to me, as I travel around trying to explain the impact of new technologies on business. One important tool I didn’t see mentioned here: Analogies!

    It’s not enough to talk only about the business benefits – people are a little cynical about techies telling them they can fix their problems – so you need to explain enough about the technology to give them “permission to believe”

    Eg in the case of SAP HANA, it’s easy for us to understand the technical beauty of the solution, but it sounds almost too good to be true – faster AND simple AND more flexible?! Really?

    This is where analogies come in. A good analogy helps people understand what has changed by referring to everyday situations. Eg SAP HANA is “like digital cameras – new technology that completely changes the way things are done. You no longer have to wait for experts to slowly and expensively process film for you: you just take a picture and you get instant results. We’ve all become better photographers because of digital cameras, and we’ll be better decision makers because of SAP HANA”

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  13. Borat S

    Nice post.

    Perhaps usability and productivity could be worthy and more relevant addition to the list of functionality, costs, time, complexity, and flexibility

    In my very first company, when there was no SAP, people were
    highly productive. They could do 10 things in a day apart from doing work on
    the their super speed FoxPro terminals that had a down time only once in a blue
    moon but when SAP came in, people spent 80% of their time understanding and
    arguing why SAP is right or not right. Some spent a whole day creating one
    sales order and reconciling ledger entries. They abused people like me for
    advocating SAP at the first place. I was the biggest advocate of going modern
    at a time when SAP was highly pricey company. I quit that company.

    Coming to I the point, I saw this not as a training issue but
    usability issue. Many a times the screens and presentation in SAP can be so intimating
    and frustrating at the same time, even to technicians like us. Enormous time
    can be wasted on some screens that could perhaps be done more productively on
    the fly. When all building blocks are in place, why do such a bad job on
    presentation?

    As an end user I can think of 100 ways to make SAP sales order screen
    look cool and simple but it hasn’t changed since a decade. Many spent millions
    to develop their own screens. This is a complete waste of time. I can give 100
    examples of what it means to be bad usability and productivity. I just came out
    of one such screen. Techies at SAP seriously need to work on this before they
    lose the mind share of users… unless of course SAP wants to mint some consulting
    revenue doing such low key development work.

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