English Trumps Geek Speak

Raise your hand if you’ve been in the audience with me when this has happened:

There’s a CTO from a big company doing a presentation.  He’s talking, you’re listening, the audience around you are all nodding their heads.  This guy on the podium owns them.  You keep listening and you keep wondering when the guy up front is going to say something that you actually understand.

“Wow!” You say to yourself. “This guy must really be smart.”  After all, you’re an experienced, half-way intelligent industry professional, yet you only understand every third word this guy says.  I mean, this guy works for a big company, he’s got a great job, he’s got this speaking gig at this, THE Industry Event of the Year.  Heck, if this was a rock concert, this would be Woodstock, and this guy would be Jimmy Hendrix, Janus Joplin, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young rolled into one.

Or just maybe…just maybe…he’s  Milli Vanilli.

Let’s face it: sometimes the reason you don’t understand what the guy is saying is because what the guy is saying makes abso-friggin-lutely no sense.  Maybe this guy is like the Streaker Emperor (do you whippersnapper kids even know about streakers?)  in The Emperors New Clothes.  Spend time with that guy and you’ll find out he’s naked.

So how do you make sure that you’re not that guy (or gal)?  Five simple tips for speaking in English instead of in tongues:

    1. Keep It Simple – Don’t use a $50 dollar word when a 50 cent word will do.
    2. Target An Elementary School Audience – Pretend you’re explaining this to a sixth grader.  Don’t assume you are talking to your peers from the hallowed halls of geekdom.
    3. Start At The Bottom – Don’t start with large conceptual theories.  Start with the building blocks.  Start with a simple, singular, relatable use-case, and build the concept a block at a time on top of that.
    4. STFUWTAA – Shut The F*@k Up With The Acronyms Already.
    5. Be Human, Be Vulnerable – It’s OK not to be the smartest person in the room.  Tell your story, impart your knowledge, and don’t try to be Superman.

It takes talent to present a complicated technical concept and explain it so that a grade schooler can get it.  In my experience, the best thinkers in tech can make the most complex ideas seem simple and sublime.

So, the next time you have an opportunity to present, don’t act as if you are applying for an honorary Ph.D. from MIT.  Don’t be the tech-weenie with the PowerPoint slide-deck from rubric-cube hell.  Ask yourself, “Am I using my knowledge as a weapon or as a guide?”  And then go ahead and use your powers for good instead of evil.