Use the Language of Your Audience

The other day, I was on a call with other members of an oversight committee. We were talking about the high level project plan for our new products and I asked to see a version that showed key deliverable dates. The chair of our small committee agreed, suggesting that the project manager add a diamond to the dates or otherwise indicate when the various deliverables would be completed.

But the project manager replied that the deliverable dates were in the detail of each “sprint” (the project was being managed using agile management techniques). We were looking at a higher level and he would be happy to show us the plans for each individual sprint.

I told him that I understood that the deliverables were in the sprint-level detail, but needed to see the deliverable dates on the higher-level project plan. Without that, I would not be able to see whether the plan was acceptable and the products would hit the market at the right time. For example, I could not see whether the timing of it made sense to work on deliverables serially or in parallel, or when oversight activities needed to occur.

His response was that he couldn’t run the project using two different project management techniques. Implying that my requirement was old-fashioned (I admit here that I have been managing or overseeing major projects since he was in grade school), he reiterated that he was using agile project management.

I tried to tell him that agile is how you run the project day-to-day, but for oversight purposes I needed to see the big picture – especially when the deliverables were to be completed.

Noting my rising tone, the chairman intervened and suggested that the project manager take the chart he was showing us and simply overlay the deliverable dates. He needed them as well.

The lesson here is that I, as an oversight and big picture person (at least in this role on this project), was talking a different language than the project manager.

I respect the project manager for his expertise and experience in running projects to successful completion. But, he was unable to put himself in my shoes, understand my needs, and then express himself in a way that communicated what I needed to know.

The same issue applies when technical experts, whether in finance, information security, risk management, internal audit, or other area, need to communicate with people in a more senior management or board position. They tend to think and talk in technical detail, while senior management and board members think and talk in terms of the bigger picture.

My advice:

  1. Understand the questions that senior management and the board need answers to.
  2. Answer those questions directly.
  3. Only provide additional detail when necessary to answer the questions – to their satisfaction, not yours – or when asked for more detail.
  4. Get to the point quickly.
  5. Stop.

For example, when a risk, security, or audit practitioner is talking to an executive officer, recognize that they want to know (a) is there anything I need to worry about, (b) is there anything I need to do, and (c) is there a need for me to continue to monitor the situation. They don’t need to know details when there is nothing for them to spend time on.

I welcome your views. If you can share experiences and stories, that would be appreciated.

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