If you ever find yourself in need of describing a product, a technology, or your science to someone else, that humble stapler on your desk can be of tremendous value. Take a look at that stapler, and then try to answer these two basic questions:
What does it do?
How does it work?
This might seem silly, but in my work helping clients to communicate technical ideas, I frequently see people mix these up. It’s extremely common, and the result is often a missed opportunity to successfully engage a crucial audience.
Back to the stapler. Pretend you’re an entrepreneur, and you’ve invented this new, wonderful device. You’re now at a networking event in a room full of potential users. Someone hears about your creation, and says, “Cool. What does it do? What’s it for?”
The proper response to that question would be something like, “If you have a stack of papers that you’d like to keep together, you’d use this. It puts a little metal fastener up at the edge of your stack of papers to neatly and securely hold them together.”
But you invented this device. You built it. You are intimately familiar with every square centimeter of its design, and you are justifiably proud of the clever engineering that went into your creation. When you are this close to a technology, it becomes extremely easy and natural to answer the wrong question.
“Cool. What does it do?”
“Oh… well, there’s a small-gauge spring inside that is attached at two points. And that spring puts pressure on a cartridge of staples, keeping then in line with a feed-through mechanism. The top is basically a lever, and when the user depresses the top…”
The person asked what it does, and you’ve just told them, in excruciating detail, how it works. I see this happen a lot. All the time. And the result? The listener leaves the conversation confused, perhaps a bit bored, and no wiser as to the incredible value of your technology. An opportunity is lost.
Certainly there may be times when you are asked, “How does it work?” The challenge then is to relay your technical design information in a clear, engaging way. That’s a topic for a different article. The first step is to be sure you’re answering the right question, and when it comes to talking about a technology, most of your key audiences will first want to understand what it does.
What’s it for? How will it help them? Listen carefully. Answer the question that was asked, and you’re well on your way to successfully communicating your technical ideas.