Edit: Motivation : The response I came up with was due to my experiences and observing the other much smarter technical people than me at the work place. Many times the interaction went something like this : Technical Person: Starts explaining the problem.... Non-Tec Person : I am not interested in the details, just tell me "When can you get it done?" or how long would Approach A take? followed by How long would the Approach B take?

By the way: I have been in both situations, were as a manager I really just needed to report back on progress and completion times, I had trust in the technical perosn, that all I really needed to know was "When?" or "Just layout the alternatives time cost".

So: Should every time start by laying out the details that the non-tech doesn't need or going straight to what they want to know and if they wonder about the basis of answer then explain it to them?

During a recent interview I was asked the question "How do you explain technical things to a non technical person?"

My Reply was : "Why? what is the point of explaining technical things to a non technical person?, instead of wasting their time with dumb down explanations wouldn't it be more beneficial to give them the information to them that helps them to make decisions?"

Considering : Non technical person usually means, Managers, Users, Owners etc. that have no interest in technical things to begin with and all they want to know is "How much? How soon? When would it be finished? What else do I need to buy? etc"

Seriously, what are the benefits of explaining technical things to non technical people if all they are interested is "When can I have it? How much more (time/money/man hours/etc.) is this thing going to cost me?"

I thought that is our job to hide (encapsulate) the technical and come up with what makes sense to the non technical people or we end up looking like a comical Sheldon when he explains String Theory to non Physicists.

I read this question and answers before posting, how ever I didn't see anything that looked at the question from functionality and benefits point of view, it is like asking how do you explain Refactoring to a Watermelon farmer. Yes, there are many ways to explain it with dumb down analogies, but what are the end benefits to the farmer?

Or You are having a brain surgery, do you want a simplified version of neural science or just the risks of having the surgery vs not having it? What is it going to cost you, what are most likely results at the end of it? will you still be able to walk, talk, if yes for how long? How does a dumbed down knowledge of Neuro Science help you to make a decision?

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    if i'm having brains surgery of course i'd want to know what's going on! And more! – easymoden00b Jul 27 '15 at 15:46
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    When the non-technical person is the one who signs off on your time sheets and who endorses your paychecks, you probably should consider being more cooperative and explaining to them in words that they understand what they are getting from you in return for all these shekels they are showering you with. – Vietnhi Phuvan Jul 27 '15 at 21:24
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    @VietnhiPhuvan : why presuming noncopration?, I have had on many occasions tried to explain technical stuff, just to be told to stop explaining , just tell me when this is ready, or I don't care stop wasting my time and just get it done. Because of such experiences I have come to conclude non technical people just want answers that fits their objectives. – jimjim Jul 27 '15 at 22:13
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    You've got it, don't give them more explanations that they are asking for. And give them explanations only when they ask for explanations. And don't give them explanations that are complicated. And remember, when they ask you what went wrong, they are not asking you for the technical reason why things went wrong, they are asking you for the MANAGEMENT reason why things went wrong. – Vietnhi Phuvan Jul 28 '15 at 0:12
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    @VietnhiPhuvan : Thank you, this is gold, just realised it because of you "And remember, when they ask you what went wrong, they are not asking you for the technical reason why things went wrong, they are asking you for the MANAGEMENT reason why things went wrong." – jimjim Jul 28 '15 at 1:13

Your non-technical person needs to make a decision. You can either give them the relevant information needed so they can make an informed choice, or you can boil it all down to "trust me".

Using your example, say I need brain surgery.

One doctor takes the time to explain what a tumor is, why it is bad, how they grow, why she picked the treatment she did, what treatments she discarded and so on.

I have enough information to follow her reasoning (& may wind up quite knowledgeable about one tiny bit of medicine), but I won't get or need the breadth of knowledge to earn an M.D.

Another merely says "trust me".

The one who takes the time to explain things so I can understand the immediate issue and the implications of any decisions I need to make will be the one performing the operation because they've earned my trust.

Part of that process is for the expert to pick and choose which information is relevant and which is not. A brain surgeon would probably leave out a lot of sub-cellular info that would cloud the issue, and might possibly leave out some esoteric alternatives that don't apply in my case. That's OK. I expect her to pick and choose what's important. If they leave out an important bit, I'll probably notice because the explanation will seem incomplete without it. If they flood me with too much irrelevant data, that's almost as bad as saying trust me.

  • Hmm, I never said trust me, I would put forward the benefits and costs / risks of available choices. – jimjim Jul 27 '15 at 13:34
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    @Arjang but how did you arrive at those benefits and costs? If the non-technical person now goes to the CEO and says, "We should invest $1 billion in X, not Y because look Y costs twice as much with less benefit", how will s/he answer if the CEO asks, "How'd you get those numbers?" Is s/he supposed to answer "Arjang told me so. No explanation was given, but I'm not technical so I just take his/her word for it." ? – Chan-Ho Suh Jul 28 '15 at 2:27
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    @Chan-HoSuh : How does that relates explaining technical things to non-tech people? That is resource cost management, most likely on a spread sheet or MS Project. The CEO is not going to ask why are we using tcp/ip instead of udp! Besides if they need costs they have purchasing/CFO. And yes when dealing with CFO we worked on all the amounts, sources and justifications in a statement of cost, financially justifying the decisions and their technical implication and requirements. But that is not explaining a technical matter to a non-tec, it is explicit transparent financial justification. – jimjim Jul 28 '15 at 2:39

During a recent interview I was asked the question "How do you explain technical things to a non technical person?"

My Reply was : "Why? what is the point of explaining technical things to a non technical person?, instead of wasting their time with dumb down explanations wouldn't it be more beneficial to give them the information to them that helps them to make decisions?"

Wow. I assume your answer wasn't well-received by your interviewer.

During an interview, whenever you are asked how you would do something, you aren't being asked if you should do it. The question tells you that you should assume that you are required to do so, and is asking how you would achieve it.

Besides either misunderstanding, or choosing to ignore the spirit of the question, you have also made a few incorrect assumptions.

For example, you said "Managers, Users, Owners etc. that have no interest in technical things to begin..." and "all they are interested is..." While their role in the company may not put them in the "technical" category, that certainly doesn't mean they aren't interested. Many times, Manager came from the technical ranks. Their interests don't disappear when they are promoted.

Additionally, you seem to be dividing the world into two parts - technical folks and non-technical folks. The reality is far more nuanced than that.

Your words also project an arrogance that would be best avoided during an interview. Some folks will interpret what you say as "I'm too smart to bother trying to talk to these stupid people. So I wouldn't bother trying." That's not something a hiring manager would want to hear.

In future interviews, try harder to understand the spirit of the question being asked.

To answer the question in your title, you should do both. You should explain technical issues to non technical folks as well as give them information and alternatives that would help them to make a decision.

You don't need to lecture them like Sheldon. Instead, you need to develop the communications skills necessary to deal with the less technical folks you will invariably encounter in your work.

  • Yes, that is very valid point. Thinking about something that doesnt need doing in the first place must be a requirement. – jimjim Jul 28 '15 at 2:41
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    During an interview, if they ask me how and I don't think it should be done, I should be honest and say I think it should not be done. I might have a more experienced/well formed opinion on the matter and me explaining why might actually be the reason for them to hire me. – Mr Me May 29 '18 at 14:18
  • "Uh, can you explain to me how you would jump on a grenade in a trench in WWII?" to which I would reply "Uh, I probably wouldn't: I would throw it back at the people that threw it at me!" And yes, one of aspects of a former job I had did include the possibility of jumping on grenades. – YetAnotherRandomUser Jan 31 '19 at 2:39

You completely missed the interviewer's point. You weren't being asked "How do you explain technical things to a non technical person?" You were being asked to demonstrate your communication skills. You did so, and your response was understood to be something like "I employ disdain and aloofness, and you probably should never put me in a position that requires talking to people."

  • Wooha! Let's see, the alternative would have been doing a classic Sheldon where I use similes and analogies of butterflies and ducks to explain what is involved between rewriting the rendering engine. I have been in other situation were I have tried to explain been hit back with why are you explaining this to me? – jimjim Jul 27 '15 at 13:32
  • Just tell me how many days does choice a takes vs choice b. Guess there is no winning answer cause what ever choice you make there is always someone who comes up with logic to negate it. The best I remember was being a technical guy in an interview were the person couldn't even speak English let alone communicate! The decision made was lets hire him he is cute! As a techie I got on well with the dude though but understanding him was like pulling teeth. – jimjim Jul 27 '15 at 13:32
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    @Arjang by bluntly stating, "You're telling me I have to make analogies to butterflies and ducks." you're actually presenting yourself as someone that doesn't try to understand the point being made or take criticism gracefully. One could speculate this is related to the problems you are facing. – Chan-Ho Suh Jul 28 '15 at 2:33
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    @Chan-HoSuh: fair enough, valid observation, I try see how I can better myself, thank you Chan. – jimjim Jul 28 '15 at 2:42

While I like the answers so far, there is a more general way to look at the solution.

When explaining issues, part of the dialog should be ascertaining the needs, motivation, and background of whatever person you are talking to regardless of whether the person is technical or non-technical. Yes, sometimes, you just need to communicate the "when" and the "how much" rather than the "how" and the "why". Other times, you must give details and may need to ask questions yourself, deep-diving into topics which are not familiar to the person you're talking to and exploring areas in their domain which are NOT familiar to you.

Is the context a weekly 20 minute meeting called by a professional PMP? Or is the context a strategic, problem-solving meeting with key decision makers? The context is very important.

Sadly, a lot of technical people have difficultly with context and get hung up on the idea of literally answering the question uttered to them. Don't be a "Sheldon." While it might be amusing in a television sitcom, any level of disdain or condescension will get detected instantly and be taken as a direct insult. At the same time, a terse jargon-filled response could be equally offensive.

  • Yes, so true, I should have been more flexible than trying to fit all the situations into one case. Yes depending on the context and need I should definitely try to explain what ever is needed without relying only on the past experience to dictate all the future encounters. How did I become so inflexible? Now I feel stupid for even asking this question let alone trying to defend my answer. Thank you teego , this explains the error in my logic. – jimjim Jul 28 '15 at 11:55

I like the other answers but I think it wasn't mentioned in either of them that also it helps them understand one thing that not all managers do:

Simple to say is not the same as simple to implement

If they give you a task that is not conceptually difficult but is practically very difficult it is worth explaining why you want to assign a week to the task.

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