Can Techies and Executives Speak the Same Language?


By Christo Lute, Director of Advanced Analytics,
Analytics Guild

Photo by  Sharon Mollerus

I work with a lot of technical colleagues who are highly proficient at making an argument with numbers and data. Give them a problem and they can explain the answer to the problem at a deep analytical level, as well as the implications of their solution for other problems. As long as you can understand the lingo and track with the veins of the argument, these analysts are among the finest, most articulate rhetoricians. They hold themselves and their analytical arguments to high standards and work hard to keep those standards.

However—take these same analytical workers and ask them to report out to an executive, and a strange and seemingly magical thing happens. Suddenly, these powerful analytical thinkers fumble. They create arguments that seem to fall on deaf ears. The important points are missed, visualizations are nitpicked, and their soaring analytical gifts are as useful to them as a golf club is to a gorilla—it’s a good tool, but it misses the point. 

Inevitably, my technical colleagues return to their desks and talk in hushed tones with each other about how disconnected the executives are from the day-to-day operations of the business, about how they just don’t understand the data. They are frustrated that their deeply sound analytical arguments are treated as though they were unsound or mistaken.

Why does this happen? Are my colleagues correct? Are executives simply disconnected? Or are the clichés about technical people true? Are technical people just bad at communicating?

In truth, I think neither technical people nor executives are to blame. In particular, I think the existence of the “bad communicator-techie” trope surrounding this notion is a symptom of not paying attention to the details of how communication works.

I think my technical colleagues are telling a very different story than the executives are equipped to listen to—in the same way that it’s very difficult to convince someone poetry is life-changing if all they’ve read is what they were assigned in middle school. My technical colleagues are telling a technical story, a genre tale that works only if you are familiar with the nuances of the genre.  

Executives, on the other hand, have a different type of story to share. They care that the story is compelling, has a feeling of urgency about it, and a clear call to action. Executives will always quibble over the details of any technical presentation, but at the end of day, they need a story to believe in. They need a narrative they can sell to their bosses, to the business’s customers, or to each other that has the ring of authority behind it. Numbers and charts and graphs do not have a glitter of authority; they are not shiny tales about saving the company hard dollars or about casting a vision for what the future will hold.

Fundamentally, the disconnect isn’t between technical people who can’t communicate and business executives who can; it’s between two different camps used to very different genres of story. In order to bridge the camps, we must uncover the foundational principles of storytelling itself, not the niche skills of genre-specific storytelling. We need technical people who understand the principles of telling any kind of story, not just a technical one, and we need business people who can appreciate and interpret the principles of a detailed technical story.

With my technical colleagues, I’ve implemented the practice of asking them whether they think the executive could repeat their arguments to someone else. This litmus test has opened to door for further conversations about what makes for a good presentation, and deeper conversations about the art of telling a story with data.

Looking for more? Read about shaping analytics stories here.