New Myths

26 August 2009

Intellect & the Communication Barrier

One of the things that often strikes me is the frequent incidence with which very intelligent architects totally lack the ability to communicate effectively.  To be clear, the poor communication skills of technologists is a longstanding lamentation of employers and universities, but the issue goes beyond a simple lack of understanding around the basics of technical writing.  This was most clearly illustrated to me today in an email from a very intelligent co-worker – his question was simple and to be honest, shouldn’t have warranted my involvement.  Regardless of the actual question’s validity, my interrogator included a fairly lengthy monologue (roughly two full pages) on a tangential topic.  This monologue essentially outlined this individual’s theory on application design in what can only be described as a rambling stream of consciousness, including areas where he felt that perhaps he hadn’t thought issues through thoroughly enough.  All in all it was a fascinating read, but as the work of an architect, it failed in one key area: I, another architect, required multiple re-reads to understand the full point of the work.

I spoke with several of the architect’s peers (at the time, this individual was unfamiliar to me) and found that this was a nearly universal opinion: the individual in question is clever, has good ideas, but lacks the ability to effectively (and succinctly) convey these ideas.

So how does an architect develop the ability to communicate admittedly complex ideas in a way that is simple, succinct and compelling?  The most obvious answer is practice and feedback – lots and lots of feedback, much of it critical.  Beyond this, there are a few things that I’ve personally found useful:

  • Err on the side of explanation – If there’s a chance that anyone might be unfamiliar with some term or concept, take a break and explain it.  Many people avoid this as they feel it detracts from the overall narrative, and in some cases, this is true.  However, taking a break to explain a difficult concept can be accomplished through an adjacent call out box or even a footnote.
  • A picture is worth a thousand words – Most, if not all, architects are familiar with the value of diagramming a complex situation.  What many find difficult is abandoning technical schematics in favor of pictures that are vastly simpler, focusing on a few key concepts rather than strict technical completeness.
  • Steal from the best – One of the best way to jumpstart your own ability to communicate is to study those who have already reached a level of mastery.  The number of books and blogs on the topic of information design are legion, but you don’t have to take the traditional route of study.  There are numerous magazines and newspapers that offer the opportunity to learn by example (USA Today, the New York Times and Wired magazine all regulatory feature great approaches to information design).

Regardless of how you approach the act of communicating with partners and peers, it is absolutely critical that you approach this part of the job as being equally important to the actual creation of a solution.  After all, if no one understands what you’re proposing, it doesn’t matter how brilliant it is.

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