If you're asked to explain your highly-technical job to a non-technical person, here's what you need to do:
1. Eliminate technical jargon. Banish too complex words that are exclusively used in the professional and technical contexts. Explain acronyms or technical terms in simple ways with analogies, if their usage is needed. Ask your listener questions during the development of your point of view.
2. Start your explanation by an analogy or a comparison that the listener understands. Answer as if you are explaining it to a 10-year-old. Put it into terms that others could understand.
3. Maintain the connection with your audience by checking for understanding as you go. Change course, solicit questions or simplify your message if you see puzzled looks on their faces. Be aware of what you’re saying and watch the audience’s body language to see if your message is resonating.
4. At the end of your explanation make sure to let your listener ask questions.
Christina Canters’s Example:
I have a friend who I once asked, “So what do you do?” and he said, “I work at a bank” and I was like, “that doesn’t help me; what do you do at the bank?” And he goes, “Oh, I’m a quantitative analyst” and I’m like, “I still have no idea what that means.” It was just so confusing. And I said, “How would you explain this to a 10-year-old?” And he thought for a moment and he said, “Well you know how when you go to the bank to get a loan, like a home loan?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well when you do that, all your data goes into a system.” He said, “I work on the mathematical algorithm behind that system that determines whether you get the loan or not.” And I was like, “Oh okay, I get it now.”
Here is Christina’s formula for explaining technical jobs:
First of all, you ask a question but you make it related to an everyday thing that everyone knows. So you might say, “Do you know when … ‘this’ happens?” So, you would fill in ‘this’ with whatever it is. “So you know when you see … XYZ?” And then you wait for them to nod.
Note: Like with the quantitative analyst example, “So you know when you go to a bank to get a home loan?” I say, “Yes, yes I do.” You have to wait for that “Yes.” If someone says “Mm … no” and you got to simplify it again then you’re going to go, “Okay, so you know when you want to buy a house and you need money?” and then they’ll say, “Yes.” Then you go, “Well you need a loan for that …” so, you get what I mean. So, you have to keep simplifying it until you get a nod and an agreement, because if you don’t and you continue on, you’ve lost them already.
So, you get a nod, then you say, “Well I do the … XYZ … behind the … XYZ …, which does … XYZ,” so you’re filling in all these blanks. You have to ask a question first that relates to a real-world experience or example that anyone could understand. When you get the nod and the “Yes,” then you say, “Well, I do the …” whatever and then you go on to explain it. You could potentially ask another question as well, depending on how complex your job is.
For more tips, please check out these articles:
How to Explain Highly Technical Ideas to Non-Technical People
How to Talk Tech to Nontechnical People
Christina Canters, confidence and communication skills coach, speaker and trainer
Leslie Stevens-Huffman, business and careers writer with 20 years’ experience in the staffing industry
Mac’s List Podcast. Ep. 078: How to Explain What You Do for a Living, with Christina Canters