Leaders in technical organizations that want to advance their agendas must be able to communicate a strong vision and rationale for their implementation and technology choices.
Among those filling non-executive technical roles, enterprise architects, in particular, must be able to speak to a broad audience about a variety of topics. In these conversations, unlike discussions with their technical peers, enterprise architects need to provide adequate context and connections to get their points across and build consensus.
3 Challenges that Enterprise Architects Face
Talking about technology is extra challenging because there are many moving pieces and variables. There’s a huge range in people’s baseline understanding of both the underlying concepts and the specific details of each situation, so take that all into consideration when communicating with stakeholders, particularly when you’re asking for something.
1. Communicate with various stakeholders
Enterprise architects face a number of hurdles when they try to discuss weaknesses and shortcomings, share their plans for the future, or seek out the approval of others.
Unlike their typical cohort of like-minded and similarly educated colleagues, enterprise architects are required to work with a wide variety of stakeholders. While all stakeholders have a vested interest in the product and where it’s headed in the future, their commonalities quickly diverge in many directions, as does their background and understanding of how things work behind the curtain.
For enterprise architects to effectively communicate with an array of individuals, they must tailor their messaging accordingly and tailor their language to meet the stakeholder where they are in terms of technological fluency and individual interests.
To win over the array of stakeholders—who can kill, bless, and sometimes control the purse strings of a project—enterprise architects must illustrate how their plans will directly (and positively) influence everyone’s area of concern.
2. Stay up-to-date within your field
If there’s one constant in technology, it’s that it is always changing. Advances are being made every day thanks to rapid innovation and disruptions.
For enterprise architects, this presents a few challenges.
- You’ll need to analyze how these new changes will impact your own plans and technology stack.
- Take the time to communicate those technology-driven changes to the rest of the organization, with the appropriate level of urgency and clarity that each one requires. This requires a balance of being proactive and informative.
- Because you’re not the only one who reads the news and hears about what other companies are up to, you’ll get inquiries from individuals outside your group—whether they’re internal stakeholders or external customers—asking if you know about XYZ and what it means to the product architecture and strategy.
3. Avoid information overload
For stakeholders outside the technology organization, architecture updates and plans must be presented in consumable chunks or you risk drowning people in facts, figures, and terminology that they don’t understand. In fact, if you go too into the weeds there’s a risk of them either becoming obsessed with the small details or checking out as their eyes glaze over.
Finding the “Goldilocks” sweet spot of providing just enough information and context so they can make an informed decision isn’t easy, and it will vary from one person to the next. It’s another tricky piece of the puzzle to solve.
Why Storytelling is So Important to Enterprise Architects
Often, those outside of the technical “in-crowd” view investing in technology as a perpetual process that doesn’t often add much value to the business itself. The solution? Connect architectural elements and improvements to the business goals stakeholders care about.
When technology is made relevant by tying it back to specific KPIs, people can evaluate its impact on their own objectives and pain points. With a personalized frame of reference, stakeholders can better assess what it will mean to their teams and priorities.
To bring technical and architectural discussions to life, enterprise architects should embrace storytelling versus just “telling.” There’s a reason the earliest forms of human communication were cave drawings recounting the events of an exciting hunting party and not a diagram of the optimal seating arrangement around the fire. Storytelling adds a narrative element the audience can follow, provides helpful context and examples, and transforms what might be a dry and dull topic for some into an engaging thought process.
“Getting a change to happen in an organization requires a touchstone – some common belief or idea that everyone can relate to. It has to be more than a fact, and more emotive than a strategy. It has to be compelling, interesting, surprising, and easy to remember,” says Nick Malik of Infosys. “In my experience, every time an organization changed, there was a story at the heart of the change. In each case, there was a single story that helped people to see how the change would happen, how the customer would be happier, or illustrate how the new world would work.”
Every good story tells stakeholders four things:
- Where things are now
- Why things must change
- How those changes will happen
- What things will look like on the other side
3 Tips for Improving Your Storytelling Skills
Storytelling may not come naturally, and that’s okay. But with a few pointers, you can start spinning yarns that will be both educational and convincing for your stakeholders.
1. Know your audience
You wouldn’t read Goodnight Moon to a high schooler or show a slasher flick to a toddler, and the same logic applies to talking shop with different audiences. To create a compelling story you must learn a few things about who you’re talking to:
2. How much do they know already?
Don’t assume they’re well versed in the current technology being used and only focus on the new stuff. You might benefit from spending some time laying the groundwork by reviewing the status quo. If you’re not sure, don’t be afraid to ask, but do it in a way where it doesn’t put them on the defensive. People don’t want to appear uninformed, so be gentle and nonjudgmental when asking.
3. What do they care about?
Despite our best intentions, humans are pretty self-interested most of the time. As you tell your story, they will be constantly trying to connect it back to the things that matter to them— whether it’s security, speed, or profitability. If you already know what they care about, you can make those connections for them so they’re focused and engaged instead of searching for relevance and deciding how interested in this they should be.
4. What can they offer you?
You’re not telling this story for fun. Know what that is you want in return before going into the meeting and make sure your story gets you to the ask you’re planning to make. Do they have resources you need? Approval you require? Helpful information? Do you just need to keep them informed?
5. Craft a narrative
Every good story includes the who, what, where, why, when, and how, even yours! Humanize the story by introducing characters and their motivations. Explain what they’re trying to do. Explore how they can or can’t do it today. Describe the conflict or challenge necessitating a change. Convey how they would ideally be able to accomplish things. Then, wrap up on how you want to make that vision a reality.
Keep in mind, when you’re building this narrative, it’s shouldn’t be generic and vague. You want to really paint a picture. Here’s a good place to start:
Identify a persona
Give them a name
Give them a specific task they’re trying to accomplish
Walkthrough the steps they’ll take to get it done.
You’ll be surprised how much that adds a new level of relatability.
Just as important as setting the scene and fleshing out your characters is how your story ends.
Do you want to inspire your audience? Incite them into action? Instill confidence? Stoke fear?
Deciding what action you want your audience to take at the end is critical.
6. Cut the jargon
This is not the time to show off your extensive knowledge of three-letter acronyms and cryptic terminology. Keep it simple and concrete, use similarly straightforward visuals to aid in the comprehension of your story.
No one wants to feel dumb, and if you throw words at them that they don’t understand they’ll either be confused or just feel resentful and check out. Since your goal is to get something out of them, there’s no reason to alienate them at this critical juncture.
The exception to this rule is when you’re speaking to a similarly technical audience. In these cases, your deep familiarity with the subject matter and matching vocabulary can be an asset to both establish your credibility and build rapport while cutting to the chase and getting to a decision point that much faster.
Your First Draft is Just the Beginning
Unless you’re Stephen King, chances are your initial stab at creating a compelling and convincing story will have plenty of room for improvement. So don’t be afraid to try your storytelling out and gauge your guinea pig audience’s reactions, then continue to hone it after each telling.
When things resonate, emphasize them even more. When something falls flat, head back to the drawing board. The more you work on the art of storytelling technical information to a non-technical audience, the better communicator you will be.
There are more communication skills you can learn in our hit webinar, Managing Complex Requirements in an Agile World.