Feb 26, 2008

Communication Tips for Geeks and Other Experts

Information is what you say. Communication is what your audience understands.

Coming from a techie background (as a programmer, no less) I've been accustomed to the following tenet: if the client doesn't understand, then the client is stoopid. We've even got expressions for that: the problem is between the chair and the keyboard, this is an ID ten T problem (also known as ID10T), and so on.

As geeks, we often place ourselves above the fray, looking down upon the masses. We require our audiences or our clients to raise themselves to our level, to speak the same language we speak. If they are unable to do that, we consider them morons. We obfuscate our speech in techno-babble, to ensure that the "little people" clearly get our message: you aren't worthy, this is my domain, get out of my way.

This self-aggrandizing posturing is a mask for a geek's inability to speak in language that can be understood by most people, without making the listener feel stupid. It takes a lot effort to take your expertise and explain it in layman's terms. Few people do it effectively.

Seth Godin's recent post "The posture of a communicator " touches on this topic in a concise, insightful way.

A few tips to help geeks get their points across:
  • Ask questions. If your client or your audience or your listener doesn't understand, ask them what they don't understand. Also ask them what they do understand, to help you figure out what the gap is.
  • Use metaphors and other images to explain difficult concepts. It is harder to grasp a vague topic like directories and inodes; it is easier to understand folders and documents.
  • Put yourself in the other person's shoes. Think of something you can do, but not very well. In my case, that would be playing the guitar. I can make it sound like a guitar, but nobody would ever mistake me for a great (or even a good) guitarist. I can't fathom my reaction if in my first course, the teacher were to tell me: "What's wrong with you? A Gm7b5 chord is easy to play." (The chord is easy to play, I just can't figure it out without a picture in front of me.)

Feb 24, 2008

Oscars 2008

Here are some of the lessons (good and bad) from the 2008 Oscar ceremony:

Brad Bird, winner for Ratatouille: start with a story. His anecdote explaining why he made movies set the stage perfectly for the thank you's that followed.

Javier Bardem (Best Supporting Actor): he displayed one of the most important qualities of a great speaker: confidence. He spoke well, he spoke convincingly, he spoke in Spanish. At the risk of offending many people in the audience, he took position and said what he believed he should say instead of saying what he felt the audience wanted to hear.

Tilda Swinton (Best Supporting Actress): one word: humour. She messed up the beginning of her speech but recovered well from the moment she began comparing the statuette to her agent. Lesson here: even if you don't start off well, you can still deliver a good speech.

The Coen Brothers: speak only if you have a message. When Ethan Coen took the stage, he said "We..." looked a bit lost and then said "Thank you." I'm not sure if time ran out or not, but it didn't leave a positive impression. You undoubtedly have been in situations where a speaker ended his speech and you were left with one question: "Why did he even bother to speak to us?" That's what I felt. The second time he came to the stage though, he played humorously on what happened earlier ("I don't have much to add to what I said before."). That was pretty good.

Karen Baker Landers and Per Hallberg (Sound Editing): they had planned something and they blew it. So they dropped their script and ad libbed. Once in awhile, things go awry. It's not the end of the world. Suck it up, do your best and go home.

Marion Cotillard (Best Actress): she was a wreck! I thought I was about to see a train fall off a cliff. But she finished with a brilliant line, "It's true, there are angels in this city!" Great sound bite and flattering to the hosts. Nice conclusion.

Christopher Rouse (Film Editing) and Stefan Ruzowitzky (Foreign Film): don't begin your speech like most other people would.

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (Best Original Song): a great emotional moment and kudos to Jon Stewart for bringing Irglova back to say her thanks. That was a gracious move on his part. As an MC, his role is to make sure that everything goes smoothly. As I was sitting with my wife, her reaction was "Well that's cheap, they could have given her a few seconds to speak." She had a great message to say and was given the opportunity to do so. However, I felt her message lacked compared to Hansard. He told a story, and that is memorable. His message: even with a $100,000 budget you can still make it to the Academy Awards.

Daniel Day-Lewis (Best Actor): he epitomized eloquence. His description of the ideas sprouting from the mind of the writer was a thing of beauty.

Overall, a decent show. It didn't seem as long and boring as previous years. Eitherr that, or I was in a particularly generous mood tonight!

Feb 19, 2008

The witch is gone

Now that Barry Bonds has left the San Francisco Giants, the team has a chance to show what it can do without a superstar in it midst. Looking at the bottom line, Bonds has been an impressive baseball player. His career spanned more than 15 years, he has a number of records to his name. However, you can't help but wonder whether his attitude was helpful or hurtful for the team. With such a dominating performer, the Giants did not win the World Series.

This occurs in business also. There will be one or two people that outperform everyone else. They are good for business because they produce much higher revenues than all the others. However, their attitude can have an adverse effect on the employees' morale, and can adversely affect performance.

Bonds had a surly attitude with the media, but in the past, few if any Giants players complained about it. It is possible that his attitude was not the same in the dugout as it was in front of the cameras. That will be seen over time.

For now, it seems as though the attitude already feels less somber as they prepare for spring training. Time will tell if the attitude change will translate to winning on the field.

Feb 13, 2008

Is education getting even more expensive?

Interesting article in the Globe And Mail:

Cash for grades may be 'small price to pay'

I wonder if that would have worked with me when I was in school? I hated it and I did as little as I could in order to pass. According to the article, paying students a fee to do their homework seems to work. They also state that it works not just for the courses that offer financial incentives, but also for other courses.

I remember reading in Freakonomics that giving incentives to people who already love what they do, can actually backfire and cause a decrease in performance. It also can cause the person to dislike the task she used to like.

So is it possible that incentives work better when they are given to a person that does not like a task? The article points somewhat in that direction, although there is still a lot of analysis left to do.

Now, the question is: do I really want to pay my kids to get them to do their homework?

Feb 10, 2008

The band should play on

I watched a bit of the Grammies tonight, and saw when Kanye West received his award. His speech was too long, if the band-playing was any indication. Now, I don't know what the rules are, but I suppose nominees are given a list of guidelines for their acceptance speech. I know they do this for the Oscars. The actors are warned that should they speak too long, the band will start playing and they have to wrap it up.

At any rate, Kanye West gave his speech and the band started playing. West kept on speaking as if nothing was happening. At some point, he asked the the band to stop playing... and the band did. The audience applauded to show their approval.

The band should have kept on playing.

I have seen this too often in meetings. An agenda is set, time has been allocated to discuss specific issues. But some people in the meeting decide to take as much time as they want to state their views or opinions, and the meeting leader does not have the courage or the power to tell that person to shut up.

Net results? Meetings last longer than they should, some people are given more air time at the expense of others, and so on.

A successful meeting requires many of the same ingredients of a successful speech:
  • A roadmap: prepare an agenda containing a goal and the topics to cover.
  • An adequate amount of points to cover: too often, meetings or speeches try to cover too much ground. Having 14 bullet points is too much for a 60 minute meeting. More often than not, less is better.
  • Stick to the plan: if you realize that your speech is going to take more time than you expected, you need to cull on the fly. Same thing with a meeting. At some point, the moderator may need to say: "All right, we need to move on. We will schedule another meeting for this specific topic." Or: "We will not have enough time to cover everything we had planned to cover. I suggest that we complete the discussion on this important point and schedule a different meeting to address the rest of the points."
Doing so shows respect for everyone's time and will increase the effectiveness and usefulness of your meetings.

Feb 3, 2008

You Don't Abandon Your Team When They Are Down

So, the New England Patriots did not win the Super Bowl. I think it's too bad, because it would have been fun to see another team have a perfect season. Of course, there were a couple of incidents during this season, so maybe it would have been a perfect season with an asterisk.

Bill Belichick, the Patriots coach, made a questionable call during the game, and failed to act in a leader-like manner at the end of the game.

The questionable call came when the Patriots had the ball at the Giants 39 yard line. It was first down, and Belichick had to choose: try for a field goal to get three points, or try to keep the ball moving in the hopes of scoring a touchdown. He chose to go for a touchdown, but they failed.

In hindsight, getting the three points could have sent the game into overtime, and provided the Patriots with more opportunities to win the game. He made a tough call, he took a chance, it didn't work out. That's okay.

However, at the end of the game, while there was still one second to play and the Giants had the ball, Belichick chose to get off the field and returned to the locker room, while leaving some of his players on the field to complete the game. That is not the mark of a great leader.

Even if he was disappointed, even if the situation was difficult, as a leader he should have stayed on the field until the game was officially over. He came on the field with a team, he should have left the field with that entire team.

As the coach, he basically showed utter contempt for the rules of the game, and worst of all, for his players. It will be interesting to see how fans and players react to that behavior.