Can you Combat Technobabble using Improv?

“Parsing the program won't do anything, we need to calculate the auxiliary RX application!”

How do you respond when your IT person tells you this?  Well this is actually fake technobabble created by a technical jargon generator.  Hard to tell right?

Why do techies talk in a way that no one can understand?  And why do techies wonder, "why don’t my business partners seem to understand the importance of what I’m saying?"

Alan Alda (yes Hawkeye from M*A*S*H) thinks a little Improv can help you.  And in fact, he’s started a research institute that has proven it.  Alda’s hypothesis is “Could scientists become more personal, more available to their audience if they studied improvisation?”  Can the same thing that helps scientists also work for technologists?

Why does improv help techies communicate better?

Alda says “The mind and the heart have to work together for someone to understand us.” If we can engage the listeners heart and mind, we can create true engagement with what we are saying.

  • Listener empathy (Heart)
  • Understand what the listener is thinking (Mind)

Too often technologists see communication as a transaction.  “I need to deliver the information.”  They believe that if they said it, their work is done.  But if no one understood it, or understood the impact, was their work really done?

How can you use Improv to help with technical communication?

Alda has shown that a 5 minute improv exercise can dramatically improve subsequent communication.  Here are some simple things you can do to improve your team’s communication tomorrow.

  • Mirror exercise.  The simple act of mirroring creates empathy.  In this exercise one person leads and the other mirrors. You can do this with either speaking or movement.  This teaches the follower to really get in tune with the leader and the leader must make sure the follower is able to follow.  Tip: You can use this during your daily standup or status meetings.  Have people pair off and deliver updates in mirrored pairs.
  • Throw around an imaginary ball.  This only works in person.  Sit the team in a circle.  One person holds up an imaginary ball and tosses it to someone else. The next person can change the ball by showing the group the new size and weight, and then passing it along.  This exercise helps the team get attuned to each other.  Try this before your next status or backlog refinement meeting.  Pay attention to how the rest of the meeting changes as a result.
  • Avoid the sound of certainty.  Alda says “When you announce yourself as an expert, it diminishes the others to the rank of outsider.”  This was a big ah-a for me, as I have been so guilty of this myself!  Try to leave space for the listener to formulate questions in their mind, let them get curious.  Then go ahead and fill in the blanks.  This engages the mind of the listener.

Have you tried Improv at work? What did you do?