Do you need a technology translator?

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We’ve always believed that the ability to convey the business value of a technical innovation is critical to bridging the chasm between R&D and P&L. After attending the Canadian Cleantech Launchpad, the NREL Industry Growth Forum and the Cleantech Open Global Forum—all in the space of two weeks — we believe this more than ever. And we feel a renewed sense of urgency about the need for technologists to become better marketers and salespeople.

We’ve blogged about this before, but it bears repeating — especially if you’re a cleantech startup.

Game changing technologies and business models can be difficult to market simply because they are often difficult to explain. Technologists and scientists find it very difficult to talk about their innovation without going straight to the “gorp” — the technical language that makes a layperson knit his or her brow in confusion, or even exasperation.

Here are two suggestions that can help.

  1. Speak conversational English. Yes, we know “ferromagnetism” and “superlattice” are real words. They might even be in your dictionary. But we’re willing to bet they’re rarely said out loud. At least not in public. Leave the geek speak in the spec sheets and white papers, and talk about what you do as if you were addressing a smart friend or acquaintance who has no idea what you do for a living. And if a familiar metaphor will help someone “get it,” don’t be afraid to use it. It’s not about your knowledge; it’s about their understanding.
  2. Don’t confuse complexity with sophistication. Simplicity in communication is essential to understanding, and yet it’s anything but simple to achieve. At Posit, we love to allude to this quote, attributed to everyone from Abe Lincoln to Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Good one, isn’t it? It’s not at all easy to explain your technology in one minute, or ten. But it’s essential. And the only way to do it is to keep your story simple. What do you do? Why does it matter? Why will the person in front of you care?

Those are the principles. Here are some specific examples.

Don’t say: “…involves the reversal of flow through a membrane from a high salinity, or concentrated, solution to the high purity, or ‘permeate,’ stream on the opposite side of the membrane.”

When you can say: “…uses semi-permeable membranes to remove impurities from water.”

Don’t say: “…modernizing of the electricity delivery network using the latest digital and information technologies to meet key defining functions.”

When you can say: “…the Internet of energy.”

Be more straightforward with your explanations, and you’ll find you’re more successful in your interactions.

And if you don’t have the personal capability — or the internal capacity — to translate the former into the latter, or aren’t even sure how to tell the difference, consider adding a “tech translator” to your team. It’s okay to focus on “time to market” or “time to money.” Just remember they both hinge on “time to Oh!”

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