Communicate or die: Tech leaders who bring information security to life

3 engaging technology leaders, what makes them effective communicators and their tips for effective AI/cyber communication.

Effective CISOs often have to move out of their own comfort zones to become great communicators. The ability to align terms and expectations and to separate the “signal” from the “noise” is crucial in dealing with multiple tasks within an enterprise, driving budgets, motivating employees, educating boards of directors, and more.

I have learned the hard way what works and what doesn’t work as a TEDx and Google Talk speaker. Watching people’s faces light up or glaze over during my talks has provided invaluable data on what generates engagement. I also study how others, especially tech speakers, make complex terms and ideas easier for the non-tech person to understand and engage in.

Here are three such leaders and what makes them effective communicators.. 

Tip #1: Talk to people, not down to them 

Michael Hughes: CIO, Starbucks

In this interview, Michael does everything wrong as a speaker. He slouches in his chair. He sticks his feet out in a way that forces us to look at the bottom of his shoes. He breaks some of the cardinal rules that body language expert and TED speaker Amy Cuddy would advise against. But it doesn’t matter.

Michael is a great communicator in the world of cybersecurity. He impresses you with his knowledge because he talks to you, not down to you. You quickly surmise that his knowledge base is immense because he answers every question with thoughtfulness, no attitude, and in a way that you can understand. In other words, he listens before responding. And then he responds in a way that makes the other individual feel smarter without him having to prove how smart he is. The end result is that you know you’re listening to someone worth paying attention to.

Tip #2: Define your terms

Martin Fowler: Chief Scientist, Thoughtworks

Cyber babble reflects the use of multiple terms such as AI, IoT, and even cybersecurity that get tossed around with little agreement or alignment as to what these terms actually represent. 

As a speaker and writer, Martin has perfected how to engage as well as educate. The British accent doesn’t hurt and combined with his body-bobbing energy adds to his charm. But that still doesn’t make topics such as microservices any more exciting. What Martin does so effectively is to weave in his personality while taking the time to step back and break down terms that many tech folks would gloss over and assume everyone understands. For example, he begins a talk on microservices by pointing out the value of shifting from simply defining microservices to focusing on common characteristics. He does the same in his opening talk on Making Architecture Matter (link above).

Tip #3: Acknowledge the content of the question, not just the asking of the question

Adrian Ludwig: CISO at Atlassian

(The above video should start at the 2:49 mark; feel free to skip ahead if it doesn't)

So many people begin answering a question by saying “great question” and then never truly answering it. The secret of listening is to begin by acknowledging the content of the question before answering. This 2014 round table discussion hosted by Eran Feigenbaum, also a great speaker, demonstrates this point. Watch how Adrian Ludwig repeats a part of what was just discussed before answering. In doing so, he clarifies the value of a previous comment, which adds credibility to his answer.

As a sidenote, you will also know if you connected with your audience by the intelligence of the questions being asked. The smarter the questions, the more of what you said resonated with them and made them think.

Tip #4: Hands or PowerPoint

In another post, I explored the growing trend among tech leaders such as Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft; Oisin Hanrahan, CEO and co-founder of Handy; and Arjun Sethi, co-founder and partner at Tribe Capital on using their hands to effectively communicate.

For more tips on challenging your assumptions around communication, problem-solving, and decision-making, check out my recent book Challenge Your Assumptions, Change Your World.

Content or context?

In summary, is effective communication based on solid content or engaging context? The answer is “both.” Happy communicating.

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