After Hours

10 tips for dealing with armchair IT experts

When you run into people who are trying to show off their tech expertise (and show you up), these tactics may come in handy.

I have been writing about technology since the mid 90s and speaking at the occasional technology conference for the last several years. One thing I have come to learn is that whether I am delivering a presentation or reading the message boards for my latest article, there are almost always people who want to prove that they know more than I do.

When I stopped and thought about it, I began to realize that the corporate world isn't really any different. Any time someone tries to pitch a new IT idea, there is usually someone else who takes issue with it.

With that in mind, I thought that it might be fun to talk about some ways of dealing with wannabe IT experts. Most of my ideas came about from public speaking, but they can easily be adapted to other situations as well.

1: Be prepared

The number one bit of advice I can give anyone with regard to speaking or writing about IT is to be prepared. Make sure that your information came from a reliable source and that it is not outdated. Otherwise, someone is sure to call you out on it. Being prepared and knowing your stuff are the most important things you can do to avoid confrontation with those who have a point to prove.

2: Learn from them (if you can)

Although it is often the jerks who will publically challenge you, you can't automatically assume that the person who is questioning you is an idiot. About a year ago, I sat in on a session that a friend was presenting, and someone stood up and challenged him during his presentation. My friend told the guy that we were all here to learn and that if he had something to add to the material then to go ahead.

The person who was challenging my friend actually made a perfectly valid point. It was a little bit outside the scope of the presentation, but it was good information and it did not directly contradict anything my friend was discussing.

3: Give them enough rope to hang themselves

I once gave a presentation and had someone stand up and tell me that everything about my presentation was wrong. At that point, I had two choices. I could have called for security to have the guy removed, but that would have left everyone in the room wondering about the validity of his comment. My other option was to give him the floor.

I asked the guy to be more specific and to tell me exactly what I was wrong about.The guy thoroughly embarrassed himself and was soon put in his place by other attendees.

4: Use humor

Sometimes, you might be able to use humor to defuse a situation.  A couple of years ago, I was at an IT conference in which two attendees got into a heated debate with each other during the middle of a session. The speaker defused the situation by telling them that he needed to move on but that since we were in Vegas, he was sure they could find a place to mud wrestle later on that evening.

5: Set the ground rules up front

If you suspect that someone might heckle you during a presentation, one thing you can do is set some ground rules before you get started. For instance, you might say something like, "I've got a lot of material to cover in a short amount of time, so let's try to hold all questions and comments until the end."

6: Work the clock

Another way to deal with someone who is trying to put you in your place is to use the clock as an excuse. It's a bad idea to completely dismiss someone's question, because that can cause others to doubt your credibility. Instead, it is better to give a brief answer and then tell the person that you need to move on but will be happy to discuss the issue with them after the presentation.7:

7: Don't be afraid to concede minor points

If someone keeps trying to correct you, don't be afraid to give way on minor points. That may be enough to get the person to back off. Of course, some of the more brazen critics will only be emboldened by this and will make additional attempts to hijack the conversation. In either case, though, being willing to concede a minor point or two shows the audience that you are willing to be fair.

8: Ask for proof

If someone challenges you on a point you are making, you can always ask them to prove it— nicely, of course. The way to accomplish this is to say something like, "I hadn't seen that, but would you mind emailing it to me?" This allows you to keep the presentation moving because you have just taken away the supposed expert's ability to further argue the point.

9: Use the nuclear option

As an absolute last resort, you can use what I like to call the nuclear option. Confront the person who is trying to challenge you.

Last year at TechEd, I attended a session in which someone in the audience kept interrupting the speaker. After a while, the speaker had enough and told the heckler that the people in the audience had paid a lot of money to be there, and that he was wasting everyone's time. If memory serves me, I believe that the speaker's tirade ended with something to the effect of, "Now either sit down and shut up or leave."

While I wouldn't normally encourage the use of the nuclear option, It seemed appropriate in that situation and it kept the speaker from being interrupted again.

10: Stay out of it

All the ideas I have presented have revolved around what to do if someone interrupts you and claims that the information that you are presenting is wrong. If such a direct assault occurs, you usually have no choice but to respond. However, not every situation calls for a response.

For instance, as someone who has been writing for the better part of two decades, I can tell you that people talk trash about me in the message boards all the time. Tempting as it might be to respond, it is better to just let it go.

The same thing can be said for conversations. For example, I have someone in my family who doesn't work in IT but is constantly giving others bad IT advice. It's tempting to jump in with the correct information. But in the interest of not starting a fight, I usually pretend that I didn't hear the conversation. If someone directly asks me my opinion, I will most certainly give it to them, but otherwise I try to mind my own business.


Brien Posey is a seven-time Microsoft MVP. He has written thousands of articles and written or contributed to dozens of books on a variety of IT subjects.

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