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Sunday, 14 October 2018 16:25

The art of technical storytelling

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Communication is an important skill for any leader. Splunk’s chief technology advocate Andi Mann gives his top tips on how to get your message across.

Communication has two parts. It’s not sufficient to simply speak; if your hearers don’t understand your message then communication has not happened.

Mann is an Australian-born, Colorado-residing, globe-travelling technology advocate, who spends his days speaking with passion about the value technology can unlock, while also speaking with customers about their concerns and innovations, and reporting feedback to the Splunk product team.

“Technical storytelling” makes up a big part of this. “I work for a data company enabling data-driven decisions,” Mann says. However, “people are bad at numbers but good at stories. We’re oral, imaginative, and visual people.”

An example is the invention of zero. “For millennia, zero didn’t exist. You could have one sheep or 50 sheep but it didn’t make sense to say you have zero sheep. For me, storytelling is a way to translate concepts of numbers at scale, or risk, into something with meaning and value for humans."

“Being able to help people understand change and deal with change and be comfortable with change is a big part of what I try to do.”

iTWire asked Mann how IT managers and chief information officers, and indeed anyone, could hone their skills to similarly paint clear visual pictures to their own audience, becoming technical storytellers also.

Advocate, not evangelise

To start, Mann explains, his title has been deliberately chosen – chief technology advocate, not evangelist. “An evangelist is outbound and preaching. It’s not a conversation. As an advocate I take a position and help people understand what that meaning is,” he says.

Focus on the human side

Focus on making the connection between technology and stories, Mann advises. You need to understand what humans are good at and what they need to understand to deal with new concepts, and deal with and process internally. You then tell stories about this.

“I’m a data geek and a technical guy,” he says, “so it’s easy to get into the weeds on technology and not think about outcomes and value. Bringing it back up is a hard thing to do, to bridge the gap between technology and what it means to a human.”

Be authentic

Stories can be fiction or non-fiction, however “if you start conflating truth with lie, a fact with fiction, it doesn’t help people understand,” Mann says. “It can be a useful literary device, and a dramatised version ‘based on real events’ can be fun, but it doesn’t help understand as they get lost in what’s real or not.”

Instead, he says, “focus on being an authentic human and telling authentic stories.”

“I don’t make stuff up. I learn from other people and help relay stories.”

Listen

It’s very important to listen, Mann says. “One of Splunk’s core values is to recognise humans have two ears and one mouth and should use in that proportion.”

To many, Mann is a stage presenter, speaking to audiences of thousands, “but in a meeting, I am listening to a team - maybe five to one - and their need,” he says.

“A lot of the innovation in Splunk doesn’t come from us totally. We have smart people, but it also comes from product managers and from myself listening to customers.”

Referring back to his Advocate title, Mann says “I also take meaning from my customers, taking inputs and being informed. It helps me reflect and to put that content into my business - that’s what’s happening in their world, I understand this is what customers want, I have to make this change to our strategy.”

“We say to customers we will triage problems and find answers. They say ‘what do we do to fix it?’ So we have to figure that out,” Mann says.

Splunk’s acquisition of VictorOps is an example of an outcome to have Splunk act on a problem, Mann says. “It was a way to deliver to our customers on what they asked for.”

“Storytelling goes back to real business outcomes. It’s a two-way thing.”

“People see the big evangelist storytellers like Guy Kawasaki, Peter Hinssen, Robert Scoble, and so on and just see the storytelling. I’ve spoken to them and listened and understood how they get the story - you have to read, listen and get inputs.”

“If all I did was tell stories I’d be useless in six months,” Mann says, “as all my stories would be told.”

“That’s why it’s important to be a listener.”

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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