Communication Differences and Singing Pigs

Recently, I spoke to a friend about his work. I’ll call him Art.

Art’s a smart techie guy. He was frustrated and venting because, in the course of his work with clients, he realized that his clients really didn’t understand what he did and how to tell him what they needed. Often they would leave out critical pieces of the project and he knew he’d have to add those pieces later.

I’ve known Art for some time and know that he is brilliant at what he does. But he isn’t always the best at explaining highly-technical things to non-technical people.

I reminded him that it’s ok that his clients don’t think like he does. They don’t fully understand what he does and it’s his job to interpret their needs and advise them. If the tables were turned, the client would probably be similarly frustrated with Art.

After all, if they could think like him, why would they need him? Art took my advice in stride and it opened my eyes as well and I heard myself telling Art things I probably needed to hear myself.

Often, we expect our clients and colleagues to think just like we do. To understand why what they want is sometimes difficult and/or impossible, or perhaps just ill-advised. It’s unfair and, as one of my favorite truisms goes, it’s like trying to teach a pig to sing: it’s impossible and it annoys the pig. 

Instead of trying to teach the pig to sing, remember:

  1. Sometimes there are different ways to do things. Not better or worse, just different. My husband and I differ on how to do laundry and and fry bacon, but our clothes still get clean and, well, bacon.
  2. Other people sometimes have reasons you don’t understand. You never know until you ask, ideally in a non-judgmental way. You might just learn something.
  3. Cultivate empathy. I imagine I’m talking to my mom when I’m trying to explain something to a less-experienced user. My mom is a very smart woman; she’s been a Registered Nurse, a college professor and a successful real estate agent. But she isn’t particularly interested in technology and doesn’t understand it, so I have to explain things in simple terms; no jargon.
  4. Analogies are gold, but be sure they are relatable. I can understand nearly anything — except maybe math — if you can translate it into baseball terms. But a football example? You lost me.

As communicators, it’s important that our focus is on the ones we serve, not ourselves. That we understand and value differences in thought processes, aptitudes and points of view. And most of all, learn to see things through others’ eyes.

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