They Don’t Get It because They’re Stupid

Let’s imagine for a second that you have been managing/implementing some project for the IT department of some super-company and at the end you have to give a presentation to top management. Let’s furthermore assume your project is a skyrocketing success, for a technical stand-point: everything moves fast and is automatic, unit tests/functional tests/stress tests were passed with flying colors, the code is clean and modular and it would take a comet hitting the Earth to make the system you designed glitch. What could go wrong, right ?

First things first: you and your audience have different backgrounds. I don’t mean slightly different. I mean different as in reptiles and mammals (pun intended).  You know more about server-side technologies, network protocols, operating systems and programming languages than they probably will in a lifetime. And they know more about marketing, sales and financials than you’d ever care to know. Of course, you’ll must probably ignore that gap. Thus, you’ll focus on whatever makes you tick: how you’ve managed to optimize code, how cool those neural networks you implemented in JBoss are, how you modified encryption algorithms to be more reliable.

The first catastrophic result is that they don’t care. They won’t care. You were not speaking their language, you were not engaging them into a conversation. You gave a presentation for yourself and not for them. And it’s not because you couldn’t speak in layman’s terms when it came to technology and it’s not because you couldn’t emphasize the business advantages. It’s because subconsciously you wanted to show them how stupid they are and how their business suits would be squat without your brains. Which of course leads to …

The second catastrophic result. You say to yourself “I worked my ass off for three month. And they didn’t get it because they’re stupid”. If I had a nickel for every time someone with a bachelor’s in computer science said, suggested or thoughts that, I would have been so rich I wouldn’t have considered starting up a company.

Believe it or not, most presentations given by those with a technical background suck because the speaker wants to pose as a victim. It’s not because they don’t have the skill or the insight on how to flip it in their advantage. It’s because they feel unappreciated and they want to show themselves how smart and meaningful they work is. And there is no better way to prove you’re a genius than making no sense to anyone in the room, right ? Some people give speeches as if their boss/client/whatever-audience would be the enemy. “If you’re in the audience and I’m in the spotlight, it’s because I’m smart, you’re dumb, I speak, you listen”.

Think about how your presentations would change if you’d realize the speaker and the audience need one another. A presentation is a collaboration process. Once you get in front of some people, you assume the responsibility of explaining something to them so that they understand. So what if they have a different background? So what if they don’t care about your technical mumbo-jumbo? Try to bridge the gap and reach out towards them. And if your ego still wants to prove you’re better than your audience, consider this: you’re only better than someone if you get his side of the story alongside yours.

On several of the speeches I gave I failed to connect with the audience. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t know enough about them (or their background). The important thing is always to take responsibility for the successful or unsuccessful outcome. It’s not because the audience was unprepared; it’s because you failed to make your concept accessible. It’s not that they weren’t paying attention; it’s that you failed to seize that attention. The point is to stop finding excuses regarding the state, the background or the feedback (or lack thereof) from the audience. As a rule of thumb, it’s never the fault of the audience.

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