It's a Project Manager's World Newsletter with Dr. James Brown
      August, 2011 Full Moon Edition      

Why you should never “Dumb It Down” for the Customer

I cringed when I heard a project manager say he had to “dumb it down” for a conversation with a stakeholder.  In my opinion there is no such thing as “dumbing it down.” There is only effective communication.  When someone says or has the mindset of “dumbing it down” they are implying or believe a certain level of superiority.  There is more to communication than words.  If you have lived long enough you probably have had an encounter with someone who was “dumbing it down” when talking to you and odds are high you felt/feel negatively about that person.

I love statistics and math.  A lot of people hate these subjects… usually not because they are difficult but because the teachers they had for these subjects were poor communicators… the difficulty is primarily because of the poor instruction they received.  In my experience the best teachers were always the ones who could communicate their points so everyone understood.

Do your communication skills pass the 7th grader test?

If you have ever attended one of my classes you have probably heard me say “no matter how complex the idea/point is we should be able to speak or write about it at the seventh grade level.”  If you cannot do that the person whose knowledge is in question is your own…  because if we truly understand something we can communicate it in simple terms without leaving an impression of “dumbing it down.” 

If you can’t pass the seventh grade communication test, then you need to increase your own level of understanding.  Yes… when I say this I sometimes receive looks of doubt from Solution Architects, PhD engineers, PhD geologists and other highly technical people…  but equal numbers of highly technical people agree with my seventh grader communication principle.  The ancient African proverb “He who learns, teaches” applies here.

Communicating simply is a valuable skill!

This month I attended a conference on “Advanced Analytics” and heard Anne G. Robinson, PhD, Director, Information and Data Strategy Customer Value Chain Management for Cisco speak on how Cisco is using analytics.  Anne hires PhD scientists and basically stated: “the key question when interviewing a job candidate for her group is to ask them to explain a complex subject in simple terms.”  If they can’t do that they are not a strong candidate because they won’t be able to communicate effectively with the customer which is essential for success.

Strong communication is always on the customers terms!

In fact even though it was a conference focused on “Advanced Analytics,” surprisingly, most of the presenters (who were all high level leaders with technical backgrounds) talked about the importance of people relationships for success.  A common failure scenario is to let the focus/euphoria of the tool/data/results overshadow the people relationships.  

Effective people relationships require strong communication.  Strong communication is always on the customers terms and that is not from a position of superiority.  Don’t “dumb it down”…simply communicate!

Dr. James T. Brown, Author, The Handbook of Program Management, McGraw-Hill

Copyright 2011 All rights reserved.

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