DIY

Avoiding the two extreme errors in explaining things


What possible connection does Greek mythology have with desktop support? Plenty, in terms of avoiding problems when you have to explain a technical concept to your customer.

In his classic work The Odyssey, Homer described two monsters who sat on opposite sides of a narrow strait of water. One of them, Scylla, devoured any ship that sailed too close to it. The other, Charybdis, created a whirlpool by sucking in the water. A ship that sailed too close to Charybdis, therefore, risked being destroyed by that whirlpool. In order to survive the passage, a ship had to avoid either extreme of this strait.

When explaining technical concepts, information technology professionals sometimes fall into two corresponding extremes. I call them the "Scylla of jargon" and the "Charybdis of condescension." On the one hand, we use jargon and acronyms, talking at the "tech level." On the other hand, we (even if unintentionally) condescend to the customer, talking as though that person is three years old.

Put another way, you generally have a "window of communications." Within that window, your explanations are meaningful to that customer. You're neither talking over the person's head, nor are you talking down to them. Of course, every customer has a different level of expertise. A reasonable explanation to one might be a problem for another.

How can you avoid these extremes? The easiest way is to ask or check with the customer if your explanations are making sense. If you're talking in person with that person, you could check his or her facial expressions, to see if that person is frowning or if the eyes are glazing over. If that happens, stop and ask if you're communicating clearly enough. I used to ask the other person, "Do you understand?" but have concluded that kind of question could be taken the wrong way.

Regarding "jargon" and "buzz words": If you're going to use them, define them first. The same acronym can mean different things to different people. During the Vietnam War, a young woman brought her boyfriend home to meet her father, a retired Marine. When the father asked what the boyfriend was doing, the latter became defensive, because he was a conscientious objector to the war. However, when he answered that he was a CO, the father clapped him on the back, smiling broadly. He thought, of course, that the boyfriend was a commanding officer. In the same way, for example, "ASP" can mean both "active server page" or "application service provider."

Taking a few steps to review how we explain things can save us time and aggravation later.

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

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