After Hours optimize

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 Make sure that your information came from a reliable source and that it is not outdated.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.

About

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.

74 comments
rduncan
rduncan

you can either deal with colleagues on the merit of your own expertise or you can't. Until then you can work the clock

HIS_Beauty
HIS_Beauty

Thank you Brien! When I pay to attend a seminar/ training; it is because I want to hear the speaker and not a grandstander.

khall-moore
khall-moore

I teach IT college courses and I can't count the times i have had the so-called "expert" in class that tries to do anything they can to show you how much they know. In my experience, "the more they mouth off, the less they know." I learned a long time ago that your expertise will show in the work you do. :)

dayen
dayen

The computer expert is here never fear ( he said as he walked in the door ) (should have know the day was going to go bad I was fixing a database for our company) three hours later our network is infected with virus turn out our expert turn off the antivirus program because it complain about his downloads, ever sence the name expert has left a bad taste in my mouth, the virus was bad enought but some how the server got formatted with no backup, I didn't get to go home that night and he had already left so I learn about severs on the fly

JustPerfect
JustPerfect

...with caveats. Body language is a great way to communicate incredulity without engaging a pompous buffoon directly. As do you, I believe it's best never to feed the trolls; however, it's sometimes great fun to poke 'em in the eye with a sharp stick or chuck a steaming cow pie in their direction and then watch 'em freak the f%#* out!

footprintless
footprintless

The article provoked a great batch of useful comments so this may be one of the best ever article-feedback combos on TechRepublic. Clearly one of the top skills of the author is getting smart comments from the audience but I wonder if he recognizes it. Funny that his techniques for squashing input while speaking got such great input from the online readers.

jayohem
jayohem

But you'd be amazed at how many fields of interest contain these people. Some are misguided, some just have to be jerks, but sometimes I think that these folks simply had too much Show and Tell as children. Happily most of them act informally rather than as "guest speakers" at lectures. One kind soul once told a group of potters to avoid cobalt carbonate, which in the raw state is lavender, when making a blue glaze because (and you super techies can see this one coming) it changes the glaze from blue to purple. Actually it's the addition of magnesium and a reduction firing that creates the purple cast. Cobalt sans magnesium is a reliable blue. Now, how's that for an interruption that's totally off the topic? You all being creative techies will naturally experiment to see whether this is true. But you needed a vacation from virtual reality and the cloud anyway. :-)

stuart
stuart

You are absolutely wrong on all accounts! :) (and I was joking < using one of your tips) Good advice. Thank you.

scrubbysue
scrubbysue

Nicely written! and I agree with a lot of the suggestions. I know our first reaction is to argue to defend ourselves but, it all goes back to the thought of "consider the source". This has helped me a LOT once I realized that some persons are just not worth debating. Especially if they know everything about nothing. Eventually, if you let them slack in the rope as you point out, they will definitely hang themselves. Another lesson learned is consider the knowledge that YOU have as a person. If you know that challenging someone with a lot more expertise MAY end up making you look like a fool, it usually does..LOL Been there...done that a LONG time ago. The only time I will actually stand my ground is when I absolutely know for sure that I am knowledgeable in the area and can prove it. Thanks for a great article!

bill
bill

I, in my early days of IT called my self an expert, BUT I quickly learnt that I may have been a good all rounder and there were others who were more knowledgeable on specific subjects. A technical guru (who really knew his subject) once told me that an EX-SPERT was just an "old drip under pressure" and that seems to cover most of the "self confessed experts" I have encountered. If people are good at what they do, it is because they have an open mind and CAN learn from others. Listen, learn and others will decide if you are an expert.............

coloracer2003
coloracer2003

I like to call this "The Beat Down." Get physical and you'd be amazed how quickly the conversation can go your way.

RMSx32767
RMSx32767

"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." True that. What if the person who challenges actually does know more than the presenter? No favors are done for anyone when false information, either through ignorance, or pride, is disseminated.

jimdr
jimdr

Silly Brien Posey, totally screwing up another important topic!! I would NEVER have used the method HE proposes, but maybe he hasn't studied the far superior, advanced solutions I not only espouse but, heck, probably invented! His logic in this article is so convoluted besides the fact that his techniques are so OBVIOUSLY completely outdated and inferior to my amazing intellect and ego that it is beneath me to fully read the material or bother trying to comprehend what lunacy caused him to write this tripe in the first place! I would spend more time explaining my brilliant solution, but Best Buy is opening soon and Geek Squad doesn't like it's junior techs to be late... :-) seriously, nice article Brien.

averville
averville

Just to give more emphasis on some of your tips, I have learned the hard way that using the term "but" in your answer is a sort of a "but...ton" that sends the message you are willing to fight it. I try to end my phrase on a positive thing that is more prone to put an end to it rather than returning the ball. Believe me it is not always easy and requires some practice. In that sense, I just rejoin #3 and #7 tips. Thanks Brien for the good advice!

settle.g
settle.g

A good way to quiet the impromptu experts is to ask them where they are presenting next so you can make it a point to attend. Also, any talk about IT is based in history as the IT industry moves so fast that by the time the presentation is ready at least some of the material is outdated.

billcavazos
billcavazos

Gee, nothing else to write about? Always listen to what they have to say.

tswartz
tswartz

Typically these are only self recognized experts, these armchair commandos describe themselves to their intended audience as experts in "everything IT". This is code for: I know so little that I don't know that which I don't know. How come these guys are heavy on break/fix and pc repairs in their CV? IT folks w/ broad expeerience encounter these naysayers fairly often. They always seem to have a better way, yet have never actually implemented said way. My most recent encounter was w/ a client who was lead to have a cloud discussion by one of these IT commandos. The self appointed expert said: for $30 a month you can have all of your IT in the clouds... and proceeded to show them... wait for it... dropbox???? Talk about setting unrealistic expectations. We patiently explained that while, yes, you can share documents that way, there is really much more invovled with hosting thier infrastructure elsewhere than a simple document sharing application, never mind security (financial services client), redundancy, and those pesky CRM/EMail/Client Management applications that they use.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

Allowing dissenters to try to make their case, and then fail is usually far more effective at selling your stance than anything you might actually say. And if the dissenters do make a decent case, then it means that you might have to re-evaluate yours. They might actually be doing you a favor, although it certainly won't feel like it at the time.

jamball77
jamball77

I've seen a few very confident presenters, after a series of interruptions, ask the audience should we ask this gentlemen up here to explore this topic briefly or should we carry on with the presentation you came to see.

flores.cm
flores.cm

LOL - dengyuany! I know you were probably sincere when you said "Thanks for sharing" but at my company that phrase is actually code to shut people up! You know if you participate in a conversation by asking a question or stating a scenario and you hear the response "Thanks for sharing" what it really means, Shut up, we don't care, will not address or give you an answer" We actually use it among ourselves as a joke:) Great suggestions! Thanks!

MartynInEurope
MartynInEurope

Charlatans in the audience, charlatans on the stage, leads to guaranteed confrontation between snake oil merchants. IMHO the word "expert" has been thoroughly debased in IT, Leave questions to the end, keep it simple, and don't b***s*** during the presentation.

Owen Glendower
Owen Glendower

The way you structure your presentation can often pre-empt objections from the armchair experts. For example, as early as possible--perhaps in your introduction--emphasize that what you are about to propose would not be appropriate for all situations; it would only be appropriate for Situation A. This will--hopefully--pre-empt idiotic objections like, "What you're proposing would be completely unworkable in Situation B or Situation C." And if someone DOES bring up the objection anyway, you are in position to reply, "Exactly right. As I said earlier..." Or you could be a bit more blunt and reply, "Were you paying attention earlier when I said..." In short, you should pretend that you're on a debate team. Prepare both sides of the argument.

dgilray
dgilray

When giving a presentation, one of the ground rules is my "parking lot". If there is a question that can be answered in more detail later, but doesn't fit the flow of the presentation, I write it either on the whiteboard or on a notepad in my "parking lot" of things to address in the allotted Q&A section of the presentation. Same idea as above, just adding the terminology that some presenters use.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

with simply a well-aimed question. B-) I've also had it turned back on me a few times...

jsargent
jsargent

Bloody experts. Aa world was a better place wi'out 'puters. Just as well ahhh retired b'for we got 'em in. Ya won't make tuppence wi'at.

jsargent
jsargent

How was it possible for an unprotected computer unregistered with your organization to do so much damage to your system? Did this expert have root/administrative user privileges? You'd probably let a novice rape your network though!

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

an armchair IT expert. They are all absolutely sure they are right and can prove it, as well.

cmcfarla
cmcfarla

When people used to refer to me as the expert I pointed out that I was only an expert in that I knew enough to know that I didn't know it all.

rhys
rhys

When I studied engineering it was a common phrase: "X is an unknown, a spurt is a drip under pressure."

dayen
dayen

And the Guy knows drunken monkey Kung fu, or Magic like me puff your now toad ain't good either way

LocoLobo
LocoLobo

convince me you're tougher than me. It may not. Whether I lose or not. It doesn't convince me you're right. Win or lose I will now go the extra mile to prove you wrong.

LilaWagner
LilaWagner

Depending on your size. As a petite woman, I'll stick with the tried-and-true non-physical methods, thanks!

DesD
DesD

There is always someone who knows more, somewhere. But the presenter of the moment is the person who has done the preparation and is putting themselves on the line right now. Simply knowing something doesn't entitle any audience member to preempt the speaker.

JJFitz
JJFitz

but I prefer to call it Counter Intelligence. :)

jgaskell
jgaskell

At any IT presentation there will always be at least one geek with no social skills who wants to show the rest of the attendees just how much he knows about the topic at hand (or any other topic that comes to mind). There is nothing more annoying to me than a presenter who engages with these people for too long and doesn't move on. If I attend a presentation it is because I want to hear from the presenter, not some random desperate attention seeker in the audience.

dayen
dayen

I like this one it's really good, I doubt I will ever get to use it but this could lead to real fun!, I will give this to our people who do presentation

FreeThinkerTX
FreeThinkerTX

One of my mentors taught me to say, "Thank you for caring enough to share; I promise to weigh it carefully." Which, naturally, meant: "F*** you very much for butting in." :-)

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Way too often expert in IT land means one trick pony, not always a good trick either.. Watch out for the ones who say "You should listen to me, I'm an expert." Instant red flag that one.

elangomatt
elangomatt

I was in a week long training session recently and the presenter used the parking lot method. There were quite a few things in the training guide that he thought were out of place. Since he has taught the class before, he knew much of what he would put in the parking lot, but he used it for our questions too. I think that using the parking lot on a white board also makes it apparent that the presenter wants to answer the questions, but just wants to put it off until a better time.

dayen
dayen

NT 4.0 and windows 98 and mother nature better fool who knows it all, an Administrator will to give administrative password to anyone called an IT Expert, back in that day most people only though virus were colds and formating was a way to clean a computer, Backup what that! reverse in the car

jsargent
jsargent

Socrates was forced to drink poison after saying things like that. He was tried for impiety ;)

RMSx32767
RMSx32767

If the presenter is presenting incorrect information he/she should be made aware of same. That can be done without being a "heckler". Of course I realize I don't actually know everything, and do in fact occasionally "mis-speak" and when I do so I hope it is brought to my attention. On the other hand, the IT world is full of experts who do not want anyone to correct them for any reason.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Then they replaced the equipment. Repeat, [i]ad infinitum[/i].

jsargent
jsargent

In the workgroup days before firewalls and stuff I do remember that used happen quite often.

JCitizen
JCitizen

; at least I was compared to anyone else for several miles! HA! But then I admitted I needed to be fired, because my job became obsolete. That can be the one thing about thinking one is an 'expert', one can become very quickly obsolete! Needless to say, I left that job to go to school, as I knew I didn't know the half of it, and still don't.