August 23, 2017

7 communication tips for nonprofit technology professionals

You wear many hats when you work for a nonprofit. I’m sure this is not breaking news for you. As an IT professional, the one hat that I wear every day is my “communications” hat.

The following tips are bite-sized truffles of hard-earned wisdom intended to help the IT professional communicate with staff members more clearly about technology projects.

1. Be an active listener

Have you ever been thinking of what you are going to say while you are looking directly at the person who is talking and giving you information you asked for? We have all done this. Seriously, active listening is a difficult skill that requires full concentration and practice.

The best definition of active listening I have found is, “the act of mindfully hearing and attempting to comprehend the meaning of words spoken by another in a conversation or speech.” This means that you look at the person who is speaking in the eyes (not in a creepy way) and focus your mind on the words they are speaking.

Active listening works best when you, the listener, review and restate what was said: a recap. Something like, “Okay, let me see if I understand correctly. So you need a membership report of all Californian constituents over the age of 45 by next Wednesday? Is that correct?” Active listening saves time, reduces stress, increases your colleagues’ confidence in you, and decreases the margin of error. It also takes a lot of practice, so start today!

2. Use plain English

Yes, plain English (sometimes called plain language) is a thing. The goal of plain English is to communicate in a simple way using common language so your message is easily understood. Simply put: use easy-to-understand language and cut the technical terms if you can.

Remember, the goal is not to display your vast knowledge of technology and look smart. We have all had an experience when a tech person totally spoke over our heads using tech jargon. That is exactly what we want to avoid. It is our job, as the communicator and tech professional, to make sure the recipient understands your message. Much like being an active listener, end your conversation with a recap to make sure that all topics have been covered and understood, and expectations have been set.

3. Set expectations right away

Misunderstandings happen but they can be minimized. It is always uncomfortable when you are working on rolling out a project on Monday that everyone expected last Tuesday. It’s stressful just thinking about that scenario.

One way to minimize misunderstanding is to set clear expectations right away. Expectations are not just what they should expect from you, but also what you expect from them. For tasks and smaller projects, a quick but thorough recap should do the job. I created a web form to keep track of my requests (see tip #4 below) and I have my colleagues fill it out every time they have a request – even if we had a meeting. For large projects, I suggest you draft a project charter and have all stakeholders sign off approving the project. For more on project charters, do an internet search for “project charter template.”

4. Set up a system and stick to it

We all like to be the hero and fix the problem right away. Whether you are a project manager, solo IT person, or an IT Director, your time is limited and you must prioritize in order to make deadlines.

The way I keep track of my requests is by using a web form. All my colleagues must complete this form and they must spell out what they want and how urgent the request is. I established an internal policy that all requests must be approved by a supervisor prior to submitting the web form request. This gives the staff member time to thoroughly review their requests resulting in a more complete form and fewer questions. This process may seem kind of corporate but it works for me.

5. Make no assumptions

Early in my previous career in sales, a mentor said to me, “If you were giving travel directions on the best way to get to your office, what would be your first question? Where are they coming from? You would give different directions to someone who is traveling from Portland than the person who is driving from San Francisco.”

The same goes for providing technology solutions. You must find out where your people are coming from before you start to provide instructions.

You also may want to confirm if they know where they are going! Knowing the end goal is always very important. Many of us miss this step; we assume that the person we are communicating with is tech savvy. Take the time to find out and make no assumptions.

6. Use standard operating procedures

We all use standard operating procedures (SOPs), right? If you do not, you need to get on it! SOPs are comprehensive instructions that are so clear, you could hand the instructions to a first-day employee and they would be able to perform the given task.

SOPs take a while to write but once done, they will save you hours of time. Make sure to include lots of pictures, arrows, comments, and tips and make sure to update them when processes change. I recommend using Snagit Screen Capture by TechSmith to snip and insert notes of anything on your screen. There are many free tools out there, including the free Microsoft Snipping Tool. I encourage readers do a little research to find the best tool for their needs.

7. Use your tech tools

Do you want to look like a technology rock star? Than you have to stay on top of your respective field by staying up to date with blogs, newsletters, old school print magazines and most definitely the NTEN community. Two tools that I use daily are Google Search Operators and Google Advanced Search. This will narrow down and speed up your search times tremendously.

 

The ability to communicate clearly and effectively will never go out of style. These seven tips have helped me and I hope they help you also.

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Robert Mendoza
My official title is Director of Data and Technology. What I really do is project manage software launches and create sustainable workflows, processes and procedures. I am also the steward of organizational data, manage membership and technical vendor relations. I've been in the nonprofit sector since 2009 and my background is Marketing, direct sales (B2B and GSM) and Business Development.