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“Explain it to me Iike I’m a four-year-old…”

by Heidi Wachs  |  April 10, 2013  |  1 Comment

I attend a lot of conferences. I mix and mingle with technologists, educators, attorneys, and privacy professionals and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard them all say “we need a translator.” This may have been true as all of these fields collided, but in 2013 we shouldn’t need a secret decoder ring to communicate with each other.

In every project, meeting, or crisis I’ve confronted a team of people with diverse backgrounds was required to bring the issue to resolution. Privacy professionals are often unwillingly thrust into the translator role, but I don’t think it should be one person’s job. Effective communication involves each person breaking down their own vocabulary so that things can be easily explained regardless of whether the letters following the name on your business card are CISSP, CIPP, PhD, or Esq.

When I think about ways to overcome this communication barrier I’m often reminded of the movie Philadelphia. Denzel Washington’s character, attorney Joe Miller, asks people throughout the movie to explain things to him as if he’s a four or six year old. Children, and attorneys, don’t need to be able to understand the intricate details of an ERP system, but they can understand that there is software on the computer that tracks how package A moves from location X to location Y. And children, and technologists, don’t need to understand the differences among all the various data privacy laws, but they can certainly understand that there is information about individuals that needs to be protected from someone using it badly, and when that happens, we have to tell the people so they can protect themselves.

Changing the way we communicate overnight is far too daunting, so achieving this goal takes small steps. For starters, the next time you send an e-mail, take a moment to reread it before hitting send. The most powerful question to anticipate when preparing communications in these cross-functional situations is “why?” Don’t simply state that something needs to be done. Explain the cause and effect, the rationale.

Broad questions are often met with broad answers. Consider communicating with more detail, explaining why you need an answer. I’ve found that bullet points in e-mails can be extremely helpful in focusing the exchange. Find a partner in this process who works in a different field or part of the organization than you and develop your communications with each other. As you’re discussing things ask, “Was that clear? How could I have explained it better?”

The challenge here is to not expect one person to translate among all of our languages, but rather for each of us to choose our words more carefully when we’re collaborating. I know this is not an easy task. Putting this level of effort into communication does not come easily to most people. But technology, privacy, and the law no longer operate in silos. If you want to be part of the solution, you have to be able to speak to the rest of the team with words they understand.


Tags: privacy  

Heidi Wachs
Research Director
2 years at Gartner
8 years IT industry

Heidi Wachs is a Research Director on the Gartner for Technical Professionals Identity and Privacy Strategies team ...Read Full Bio

Thoughts on “Explain it to me Iike I’m a four-year-old…”

  1. Ken says:

    Jeremy Irons in the movie Margin Call: “explain it to me as if I were a child or a golden retriever”.

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