Tips for Customizing Your Communication

I have a personal pet peeve: technical folks harp on one another to improve their soft skills, but fail to offer concrete suggestions. Soft skills do not hide in the mysteries of a dark art! As an attempt to pull back the veil, here are some tips for adjusting your communication to your audience that we’ve learned in our consulting work.

Audiences do not come with neon signs to tell you how they best consume information and many are not sufficiently self-aware to know if you ask. We generally think of the following tips as a set of tools for clarifying ideas or getting conversations moving again when they’re stuck, rather than as something that you can deploy with a priori knowledge.

When establishing credibility, people either look for a well-structured thought process or a history of performance.

Credibility unlocks capabilities for data professionals. It can buy you resources for doing good work. More importantly, it makes people willing to act on your work. People who do not know your field need to assess your competence based on what you tell them. To inform this assessment, some people want you to explain how you think, while others want to hear about how you’ve performed in the past.

At one point, I had two sales conversations back to back with some extreme personas in marketing and finance. The finance conversation went swimmingly. I presented my approach to the problem, answered questions, and felt that I’d impressed my counterpart. In the marketing conversation, we were in separate worlds. The marketer kept asking me whether I had done the work before. I was confused, because I was describing in detail how I had thought about the work — for me, the best way to show that I had done it. In thinking about these conversations, I realized that the marketer didn’t care about my thought process. In that conversation, the evaluation depended on how precisely I could describe the story of my previous work.

I have no magical litmus test for knowing which camp a person falls into. As a general matter, people who do analytical or numbers-based jobs favor understanding your thinking, while those who tell stories and write favor past performance. I now approach conversations with short summaries of each type. Usually, by watching reactions carefully, you can see which one gets more engagement and shape the rest of your presentation accordingly. You can also listen for key questions that indicate one category or the other:

Mental frameworkPast performance
What does a good result look like?Who was involved?
Tell me about how you did that in the pastTell me about a time when you did that
How do you show that XYZ is correct?How did you convince people of XYZ?

Some audiences prefer information written, while others only understand it live.

Communicating about data work requires a story wrapped around a set of graphs and diagrams. Sometimes you and your colleagues share an implicit understanding of that story, so you can jump straight into the numbers. In most cases, in order to consume your work, your audience will need to follow the story and analyze the data you’ve presented: a high cognitive burden compared with most conversations. Given this mental workload, it helps to give people information over the medium that works well for them. Some need the time to read and digest, while others process through verbal interaction.

At one point, we’d been working on several long-term projects where we were treated more or less as part of the clients’ internal teams. We got pretty used to communicating mostly live in standup settings. In another project, one of the folks who was evaluating our work missed large parts of our progress updates because he had too many things competing for his attention. He would later look at what was documented and be upset that substantial things were missing, while we thought we had covered those topics in our meetings with him. Having realized the disconnect, we put in a big push to write more things down. In our next project, I was very proud that we’d learned our lesson. We delivered a 40 page report at the end of a short engagement. No one read it. We spent the next several weeks in meetings delivering the same information we had written down. Lesson learned: the right way to communicate is the way that your audience will hear.

You can usually tell if live conversation works well for someone. It’s quite rare that someone can consume information effectively live unless they actively ask questions or otherwise control the pace of the meeting or conversation. They need time to look critically at graphs, plots and tables. Similarly, if you give someone a report, it pays to have a conversation about it later so you can discover their level of comprehension.

In technical conversations, some people understand things by discussing concrete examples and then generalizing to principles, while others need to go the other direction.

Most people need to go from concrete to general, but there are plenty of exceptions. You can think about this particular customization a bit like learning a new data tool. Some people like to read the documentation and others dive right into the tutorial. At some point, you need both hands-on experience and conceptual understanding to really master it. It’s helpful to think about your technical conversations, particularly the ones that cover new content, like the docs for tools: how can you facilitate taking people along for the tutorial ride or through the documentation as needed?

Even if you’re in a mixed group or you don’t know how folks like to think about technical topics, switching between tangible examples and principles is always a good trick to have in your back pocket. Sometimes it’s a great way to get a conversation that has gotten bogged down with disagreement or misunderstanding up and running again.

Different audiences need different levels of technical detail.

You’ve probably heard this one many times before: give the right level of technical detail for your audience. A C-suite executive usually needs just the takeaway, while your direct boss often wants all the details. This particular nuance gets articulated far more than our others, so we won’t dwell on it. However, it’s an important first line of defense. We’d recommend making sure you calibrate on this axis before diving too deep on the others.

As Ted Lasso says, “All people are different people.” We all know this truth (and it must be true when delivered by so great a sage), but sometimes it takes bumping up against the different types of people to understand how they’re different and what to do about it. Hopefully our elbow-rubbing experience helps you. We’d love to hear about your experiences with communication in the data world. Drop us a note at hi(at) (Yes, you: we do mean you!)