My ability to communicate effectively especially to a larger audience is something I’m continually working on. Its part of the reason why I’ve volunteered to present so much recently in work, combined with the fact that I’ve been inspired by what I’ve been working on both at work and in my spare time.
I’m naturally a shy person who doesn’t particularly enjoy being the centre of attention so talking to an audience especially about something that splits opinion or which people disagree with my view on is something I’m not particularly comfortable doing. I know however it is a key part of being a good developer especially if you want to progress. Currently I’m in the process of desensitising myself to the fear of criticism by taking every opportunity to present and lead and I can definitely feel it becoming easier.
As I mentioned in a previous blog I’m reading 12 EssentialSkills for Software Architects by Dave Hendricksen and the second skill he talks about is the ability to communicate. Some of the things he talks about really struck a cord with me as they’re something I’ve learnt myself through experience. He made me examine my communication style and I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learnt.
The Importance of Really Listening
I know it’s old news. How many times have you heard that good communication is two way and involves good listening as well as speaking skills but I can definitely think of situations where I think I’m listening properly but I’m not. Instead I’m thinking about how what is being said affects me and what I’m going to say when I respond. I think this is often the case if I’m having a conversation where I feel out of my depth or that the topic being covered is something I have limited knowledge about. The key is trying to make yourself stay in the moment and focus in on what the person is saying. It allows you to absorb all the information they are providing and process it. Staying in the moment is something I’m trying to apply throughout my day. Working and having a toddler limits your spare time so in order to have time to look at things I’m interested in I need to make effective use of my time. Where possible I work my standard hours and when I have spare time to look at things I try to avoid distractions. Working standard hours does not mean I’m not willing to go the extra mile for a project but it’s about focusing and getting the maximum output from my time in work. I’m not pretending it is easy, modern technology makes distraction all too easy but being able to spend quality time with Luke before and after work is important to me and drives me to be more effective.
Knowing Your Audience
Tailoring your communication to your audience allows you to communicate your message more effectively. Tailoring occurs on lots of different levels. One aspect of it is understanding the role of your audience and their place in the organisation. This enables you to identify their goals and present the information in a way which strikes a cord with them. A junior programmer might require a lot of technical guidance but only need to understand from a high level the business drive (Note: they need some understanding of the business drivers so they learn that a project is not a success just because code is successfully delivered) A project manager requires less technical details and more information on how it affects the business. This information needs to be conveyed in a concise manner. Managers need to be able to trust you to have the technical knowledge to make the right decisions. In order to be given technical responsibility you need to be seen as someone they can trust and who delivers consistently. During my time as a developer I have learnt that part of building this trust is being realistic about timescales and open about issues even if it isn’t what the manager wants to hear. No manager wants to be surprised and making them aware early on sets the correct expectations and helps stop issues escalating.
You might be someone whose worst nightmare is working in sales but the bad news is there is no escaping being able to sell a solution especially as an architect. You need to be able to influence people at all levels and get them to buy into your solution. As well as knowing what matters to them you need to appreciate what they respond to. Is it visual images, a compelling argument or being able to see your passion and investment in a project? It might well be a combination of the three. I’ve given a couple of presentations recently to a group mostly consisting of grads and placement students. One talk was on selecting a product and the other on the book ‘Seven Languages in Seven Weeks’. I felt passionate about both things. I’d loved being involved in product selection and I was keen to explain what I’d learnt from it and interesting it could be and I’d loved being exposed to seven different languages and was eager to share what it had taught me. My first presentation on product selection was a bit of a fail. I knew it was a tough sell compared to something technical but that should have driven me to find creative ways to deliver the information. Instead it was a bit blah. I should have invested more time in creating great slides and given antidotes to bring it to life. My second presentation I went out of my way to do this. Better slides, wittier and more engaging content and a better reaction. It wasn’t perfect but I had definitely learnt from my last experience.
Be prepared to be Questioned
I had a really enjoyable piece of work before I went off on maternity leave investigating possible workflow and document management systems for a product we were creating. It was great to have the responsibility of selecting and demoing products and building relations with suppliers and it allowed me to work for one of the principal architects in the organisation for the first time. In my first meeting presenting back the information from my initial investigations the principal architect came up with a load of great questions that I hadn’t thought about. It was a brilliant learning experience and taught me about the importance of thinking beyond the information you want to present. Now I try to think about what are the things my audience care about? What areas are they likely to want to delve deeper into? It is a great way of making yourself gain a deeper understanding of your topic. It’s also good to understand how your decisions impact on the business. It shows you are more than a techie and actually appreciate that it’s not about creating the prettiest, shiniest piece of technology. There is a bottom line.
The Importance of Body Language
Both when listening and talking body language is another tool for getting your message across. It can help you get across your passion and express your feelings on a topic. There may also be times when you need to be aware of it so you don’t display body language which is negative and unproductive.
I always try to actively listen with my whole body. Part of that is out of respect fro the speaker as they’ve gone to the effort of gathering information and presenting it to me, the least I can do is support them and listen attentively. I also find it helps keep me in the moment and means I listen more effectively.
Looking at the body language and tone that other people use can give you a greater level of understanding of how they feel about a topic and be another tool for tailoring your message.
Don’t take things personally
Sometimes you need to step back and avoid being defensive whether in a meeting, a review or a general conversation. In IT we are constantly critiquing or getting critiqued. I’m a perfectionist and while it can be a good quality that drives me to do things to a high standard it can make negative feedback difficult and make me want to avoid doing things which I find difficult and where I feel I might fail. Over the years I’ve taught myself to ignore the inner scared voice telling me to avoid situations and to try to welcome criticism, view it as being constructive and use it to improve. It’s important not to instantly react but to listen and hear what the person is saying and why they are saying it. Sometimes it is valid and gives you a reason to improve other times it is not. When it is not sometimes it is not worth arguing and you just have to respect the person’s differing opinion. Other times, when it is more serious and perhaps calls your integrity into question, you need to listen as before, check you’ve heard the person’s message correctly and then provide evidence about why it is not the case.