The Art of Communication from a Software Engineer
When I joined the Edison program at GE, there were several parts of the curriculum that made the program very attractive. Rotating through different technical positions, a series of classes dedicated to learning a breadth of technology, external courses on soft skills and leadership, and a course on project management all seemed kind of eye catching. But, after going through the program, I can say hands down that the project management part of the program has proved to be the most valuable experience I’ve had in my career.
For the duration of the course, we’re given the opportunity to pitch for and allocate a small budget to solve a technical research problem of our choosing. In conjunction, we are taught how to manage a technical project to deliver to an internal (or external) customer. I’ve learned a number of things that have made managing a project a lot more effective, but there is one thing that ultimately makes or breaks almost any project: effective communication. Whether it’s giving a presentation, setting up a meeting, giving a quick elevator pitch, or a meeting to review progress with stakeholders, communication is one of THE key reasons why most projects either succeed or fail.
Based on my experience, here are my 5 key takeaways that can help anyone manage a project (or communicate just about anything) better to an audience.
1. Show some value before making an “ask”
This is very important, especially if there is no existing relationship. The best way to think of this is to view how a bank does business. Typically, banks lend to entities that have the strongest ability of paying a loan back. Most of the process for getting a loan is to ensure that the bank will get a return on their investment. The same is true for pitching an idea. The strongest pitches are the ones that can immediately state how they’ll generate value, and then ask for a little support (financial or otherwise) to multiply its effect.
2. Put the ask towards the beginning, not at the end
This is absolutely critical. When pitching your idea to someone (even more so for senior executives), put what you’re asking for or trying to accomplish at the beginning (preferably right after the value). When hosting a meeting, ground the conversation with expectations and an agenda. When writing emails, say what you want first, explain later. The bottom line is, people are busy and their time is limited. Get to the point to increase the probability of getting what you want quicker.
3. State the Value . . . Succinctly
If you can’t summarize the value in less than 30 seconds, then it’s too complicated and there could be something fundamentally wrong with the project. People need to get what you’re doing, and fast. Otherwise, they may become disinterested and tune you out.
4. Tell a story – People love stories.
Ever wondered why Hollywood rakes in the big bucks, or why airport concession stands are filled with all those best selling novels? Stories. It doesn’t have to be the Lord of the Rings, but it does have to sound interesting. If you tell an interesting story, people are way more likely to remember you – and it – than someone who simply gives the dry facts and a list of requests.
5. Be excited!
This is where I think a lot of people fail. Why would people want to buy what you’re selling if you don’t even seem excited about it? The truth is that people rarely buy into the idea alone. They buy more into the person as well as how the person communicated the idea. Most communication is non-verbal so beware J. If someone is knowledgeable, excited, and visibly enthusiastic about what they do, that in and of itself can be infectious and people will leave the room with a better impression and a willingness to support them in their endeavor.
These five things have helped tremendously in navigating through this class. But if I can sum it up in one sentence: “Don’t assume people know or understand what you’re talking about.” Take the time to put yourself in the other person’s shoes . . . no, really put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Think deeply about who they are, where they are coming from, and how they would like to receive the message, and that alone will take you a long way.
Below is a video of me sharing the story behind these 5 tips, check it out and let me know what you think of these five, and any other tips you have.