The Glamorous Geek's Guide to Surviving the Real World
Winning Money, Success, and Love on a Planet Full of Jocks and Charmers

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Some truthy things to say to nerds.

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Aug 27, 2015   [permalink]

Public Speaking

Even when you're not joking, you can still be a horse's ass!

In the working world, you'll frequently be called on to speak in public. I don't mean standing behind a podium and delivering a lecture (although that may happen as well), but simpler things like speaking up in meetings, answering customer questions, and explaining to the boss' boss what the hell went wrong with that project you were supposed to complete last month.

Geek Speak

All tech jobs will require you to communicate clearly with Luddites and Cave People. (Courtesy of Art Line)

So, here are some easy speaking lessons for you, in order of importance.

Lesson 1: Fess to your sins. Don't lie, evade, make excuses, or attempt to lessen the importance of whatever's happened. If the first words out of your mouth are "This was my responsibility, and I screwed it up," you immediately put your audience in a more sympathetic frame of mind, so when you do get around to explaining how things went off the rails, it sounds like a sober forensic analysis rather than a stream of lame excuses. I can't emphasize this enough; even if you've committed a firing offense, you're a lot less likely to get fired if you're honest about it. Conversely if you're caught in a lie, you'll not only lose your job but also any chance of a good reference. And you need a good reference!

Even where you haven't committed offenses or made overt mistakes, you should never be afraid to admit you don't know something. No matter how inexcusable bone-headed your ignorance may seem, it's better to get it out there and address it than to pretend it isn't there. Paradoxically, if you fess to ignorance people will respect you more and even see you as more knowledgeable. I know, right?

Lesson 2: Don't ramble. Your explanation is not a theoretical proof, where you first need to lay out all the evidence and then gently lead your audience toward a conclusion. This may be normal (or normal-ish) in academia, but in the business world speaking this way just makes you sound like a weasel. More importantly, if people could come to a conclusion themselves, based only on a trail of raw data laid out before them, they wouldn't need you. They're asking for your distilled opinion because you are the expert on this particular issue. Ergo, when someone asks for an explanation, you need to treat it like a press release: the first sentence contains the conclusion. Second sentence provides time, location, or other critical context. The next few sentences provide the detail to back up your answer. If there's time, and people are still listening, the last few sentences provide the background on how you came to this conclusion. That's all they need. If you want to have an airy discussion about the nuances of it all, say: "there's more to it than that, but we can talk about the details later, offline, if necessary." Business guys love that shit.

Lesson 3: Don't mumble. Speak in a clear voice, loud enough to be heard by everyone in the conversation. Adjust your volume for background noise. This is so basic it's hard to believe anyone actually needs this advice, and yet the business world is full of techies who talk like they have food in their mouths and are afraid it'll fall out.

Lesson 4: Don't eeeeenuhnceeate. You know that slow, nasal, precise and vaguely archaic way that some of us speak? Comic Book Guy isn't a caricature at all; you and I both know people who talk exactly like him. Don't.

Lesson 5: Before and after you speak, listen. Hell, take listening breaks in the middle. Sometimes people who ask your opinion also expect you to ask them theirs, and may be offended if you don't. Also, if you spew information like a firehose without stopping to check how much the person actually wants to hear, you're not really communicating at all. Talking to people is a lot like skiing: you've got to read the terrain and adjust your course, and sometimes even come to a hard stop and pull out a map when you discover an obstacle. A short speech delivered by an active listener is roughly one billion times more effective than a long speech delivered by a robot.

Lesson 6: Be confident. Some people—particularly academics but also cops, judges and the occasional government inspector—seem wired to interpret confidence as (a) aggression, (b) deception, or (c) a delusional belief that we can actually control outcomes in a world of inherent uncertainty. My advice: to hell with these people. The business world has a really low tolerance for ambiguity, and if you're not comfortable saying whether Plan A is going to work or not, you need to stay the hell out of business. To hedge your bets (a good and nerdly thing to do), it's perfectly acceptable to say something like, "Plan A has a better chance of working than anything else we've looked at. I estimate the chance of success at 70%."

If you're nervous when you say this, well, so be it. We all get nervous sometimes, and that's not what I mean by "confidence." The point is, you're taking a stand. If you're genuinely unsure, or really don't believe Plan A is going to work, then you can say, "Guys, I think we need more time to look at this. Give me two days to run some experiments/models/trials/equations/whatever, and see if we can boost our confidence, or possibly come up with something better. Failing that, I guess Plan A may be our only option." Do not say, "I don't like your plan, and I won't be held responsible for its outcome, but I also don't have a replacement." And no, studying the problem indefinitely is not a plan, for anything but failure.

To put it another way, if you're an A-level performer you should be comfortable speaking frankly with other A-level performers. If you are, it shows. If you're not comfortable doing this, it may mean you're a B-level or even a C-level performer. That's not the end of the world, because the world needs spear carriers as well as spear designers and metallurgists, but it is something you should know about yourself, so you can be realistic about your prospects.

Lesson 7: Keep your ego in check. Yes, people want your opinion or projection or whatever. They do not, however, want to be lectured, told what to do, or criticized for asking the question. Being the expert does not make you the boss, or entitle you to talk down to people. It's like how your doctor gets to tell you that smoking and fast food are unhealthy and will take years off your life, but does not get to order you to stop enjoying them. Not her job, not her place, capisce? Just provide the information the bizfolk need, and then step back.

Lesson 8: Don't be a hostile witness. If you find people asking the same question two or three different ways, trying to drag the information out of you, it means you're underexplaining, or undercommitting to your explanation. The second time you answer, try filling twice the amount of time. The third time, say four times as much. Under no circumstances are you entitled to withhold information from your employers.

Lesson 9: You don't get to decide when the conversation is over. Someone is paying your nerdy ass, and they will decide when they've heard enough. You don't get to keep talking past that point, or clam up prior to it. With partners, peers, friends and lovers—people who don't pay your bills but do have some claim on your time—there is slightly more leeway, but only slightly, so don't abuse it. Really.

These 8 rules may seem a little simplistic, but if you actually follow them you'll be better off than 90% of the nerds out there, and at least half of the non-nerds. You still won't be cool (sorry about that), but you'll be way less annoying than your default setting. If you break one or two of the rules occasionally, or even consistently, that's probably OK as long as you're providing good value overall. The mumbler may never make Vice President, and the rambler may never be asked to attend public seminars and mixers, and the egotistical jerk may not have any coworkers he can count as friends outside the office, but I'm guessing nobody's getting fired over it.

But if you routinely violate more than two of these rules, I can virtually guarantee trouble. You know that nervous, evasive egomaniac who never answers a straight question and yet never shuts up? He's toast in the next round of layoffs, no question. Again, this seems so basic I feel silly even saying it, but there are an appalling number of people out there who don't seem to grasp basic reality. Not just nerds, either, although nerds are perhaps more likely to get the short end of it.

More anon.

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