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Experts Offer Tips to Technologists in Persuasive Storytelling

Gaining project approval or a budget bump often comes down to knowing one’s audience and how to deliver a message in a way they can understand. The insiders offered their insights during last week’s California Public Sector CIO Academy.

Lloyd Levine of T-Mobile, Al Arboleda of the California Public Employees' Retirement System, and Miriam Barcellona Ingenito of the Government Operations Agency sitting in a row on a panel speaking.
From left, Lloyd Levine of T-Mobile, Al Arboleda of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, and Miriam Barcellona Ingenito of the Government Operations Agency offered “storytelling” tips during the California Public Sector CIO Academy last week.
Mike Driessen/Industry Insider
For government technologists seeking project approval or a budget addition, the ability to tell a persuasive “story” can be the key to success.

That was the takeaway from a seminar held during last week’s California Public Sector CIO Academy* in Sacramento. Two panelists from state government and one from industry offered their keys to telling a persuasive story to those whose approval they may be seeking. The panelists offered varied perspectives:

  • Miriam Barcellona Ingenito is the newly named undersecretary of the Government Operations Agency, which encompasses the California Department of Technology, among other key departments. Ingenito is a veteran of state government and was the founding director of the Financial Information System for California (FI$Cal), a role in which she had to testify before the state Legislature for budget change proposals and other initiatives.
  • Al Arboleda is the chief information security officer for the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the nation’s largest public pension system, and his previous experience includes overseeing information security for large university systems.
  • Lloyd Levine is T-Mobile’s national senior executive for state government strategy in technology and telecommunications, and his background in business and policy is broad. He served for six years in the California state Assembly, where he was among those deciding whether to allot more money, for example, to a state government department pitching a tech budget increase.

The panelists, though their backgrounds vary, shared these key points:
  • Know your message and how to convey it simply and without jargon. A manager seeking project approval from a chief information officer needn’t explain how the product was developed or what language of code it uses; the CIO needs to know only what the product will do and how that will help the line of business.
  • Know your audience. A department director seeking legislative approval for a budget change proposal should speak in a language that an elected official understands. And read the room: While delivering a pitch, regardless of the audience, the technologist should watch the audience for signs of understanding — or confusion — and react accordingly.
  • Look at your message through their lens. When an agency director or secretary or legislator is being asked to approve something, they need to know specifically not how the proposal works, but how it will improve a service or other desired outcome.

Ingenito said that when she was named FI$Cal director, she came in with a background in finance and other disciplines — but she quickly made clear to her staff that she wasn’t a technologist.

“I used to tell my staff that I don’t need to know how to build the system. You are going to build it; this is what I want it to do.” She recounted a time when she had been on the job for only three months and had to explain to the Legislature why she needed $265 million for the project. She prepared for that by making her case in layman’s terms — “being a translator” between the technologists and the decision-makers, and not getting bogged down in the technology.

Levine emphasized that communication has two parts: the message one wishes to send, and the one that the recipient receives.

“Who is my audience?” he said. “What is their sophistication level for technology, in this case? So for CIOs — this is the CIO Academy — not all agency directors … are technology-savvy, but they’re use-case savvy: ‘How is this going to help me do my job better?’”

Levine also said he prepares by “reverse-engineering” his pitches, starting with his desired outcome and then explaining what’s needed to get there, rather than starting with the details of the process and building his case in a linear way.

Arboleda explained that in information security, the desired outcome is to minimize any malicious penetration into the system, whether it be phishing or some other approach. One of the challenges of his specialty is that he can’t be too public about his tools and techniques, which he said makes it especially important that non-tech people understand the outcome and not necessarily the steps he takes to get there.

*The California Public Sector CIO Academy is hosted by Government Technology magazine, a publication of e.Republic, which also produces Industry Insider — California.
Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies including USA Today in Washington, D.C.