To be or not to be an expert

“Filmmaking is not about the tiny details. It’s about the big picture.” – Ed Wood, American filmmaker (1924-1978)

The fast evolution of technology and the explosion of knowledge has led to an age of specialization. As a result, more and more of my tech industry colleagues carry the title ‘expert’ on their business card.

I have mixed feelings about this trend. Of course, knowledge is power, we’re all trying to be the best in our jobs and we’re all experts in our own little niches. Just the fact that I have written more than 200 posts on this particular blog, makes me kind of a business communications expert, I guess… I leave it up to the readers of to judge if this is true or false.

But, there’s also a popular statement that says that an expert knows more and more about less and less until he or she knows everything about nothing. As difficult it may be to become a respected expert in a specific domain, as easy it is to be an accomplished specialist in your own field but a blithering idiot in all other matters. Many languages even have a word describing this type of person: ‘vakidioot’ in Dutch, ‘Fachidiot’ in German, ‘fakki-idiootti’ in Finnish, ‘専門バカ’ in Japanese… Much to my surprise, really, there doesn’t seem to be an English or American equivalent for this term.

Image: Nick Youngson, Alpha Stock Images (CC BY-SA 3.0)

I have been working in high-tech companies for the past 25 years and though I have developed a huge respect for all the subject matter experts around me, I am convinced that in science, technology and business we need more people who can communicate the broader picture in a compelling and comprehensive way. You may call us generalists, evangelists or storytellers. As I wrote in a previous post, I’m not a big fan of the over-used thought leader term.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. And, if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old (or to your mother-in-law, in case you have no young children around) you don’t understand it yourself. Although it is questionable whether this words really came from Leonardo Da Vinci and Albert Einstein, the wisdom behind is indisputable.

If you’re writing a paper or creating a presentation about some expert topic, here are a few tips for making your content broader, simpler and better digestible:

  • Get the big picture. Always start by understanding the problem space. Selling or promoting technology because it’s sexy or new doesn’t make (economic) sense. What’s wrong or missing in today’s world? What can or needs to be done better?
  • Research your audience. Identify a specific problem or compelling use case. Where and how does your technology, product or solution fits in. Remember that value only exists in the eyes of the beholder. So, what’s in it for your readers or listeners?
  • Make abstraction of the internals (the inner workings) and the interface (the part ‘users’ get to see or interact with). Focus your communication on the latter one. This is where, ultimately, the value resides.
  • Reduce the number of details. Less is more. Separate the ‘need to know’ from the ‘nice to know’. Make your audience only remember what really matters to them.
  • Fill in the gaps. As an expert, some details may sound trivial to you, but may not be known by your audience. Make sure you give them the complete picture. Covering technology and business context.
  • Watch your language. No acronyms. No difficult words. No long sentences. Refrain from technology, financial or business jargon. Avoid complex drawings (but don’t make the too cloudy either).
  • Be practical and concrete. Examples, real-world use cases and live demonstrations will help you explain the problem, show the solution and convey its possible value.
  • Tell a story. A good story can put your whole brain to work. It makes the complex simple and the message more memorable. People tend to forget figures, lists and bullet points. Stories help to persuade where facts can’t.

If you found the above tips interesting, the following posts on this blog may be worth reading too:

Do you speak jargonese?

“In a world crowded with complexity, simplicity stands out. It brings clarity instead of confusion, decision instead of doubt. And the rewards are real. Simplicity inspires deeper trust and greater loyalty in customers, and clears the way to innovation for employees.” ― Global Brand Simplicity Index 2013, siegel+gale

Lately, I was listening to a conference talk about “an UART implementation on FPGA using VHDL.” And the presentation certainly rang a bell with me. Not the “Ah, that’s interesting!” bell, but rather the “Help, what am I doing in here!” one.

Although I have worked in tech industry for more than half of my lifetime and I have listened to hundreds of this type of presentations, enthusiastically embraced by engineers, I still suffer from acronyphobia or fear of acronyms.

OK, the presentation became a lot ‘clearer’ to me when the speaker expanded the accursed four-letter abbreviations into “Universal Asynchronous Receiver/Transmitter”, “Field-Programmable Gate Array”, and “VHSIC Hardware Description Language.” (yes, sometimes an acronym may hide another one.)

But then, I was gripped by a sense of hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia. Why didn’t the speaker explain in simple human language that he had used a programmable chip to build a new piece of computer hardware? OK, I admit that I am more of a software guy, which may be a an explanation for why I was not appreciating the hardware design jargon. Though I’m pretty sure that I was not the only VHDL layman listening to this presentation in jargonese.

Here are a few public speaking tips for this (without any doubt) highly qualified hardware engineer ― and for the rest of us techies  too:

  • Don’t overestimate your audience. Even if there are few experts in the room that fully understand the technical details on your slides, the majority of your listeners may not (very often it’s not the engineer, but rather his or her manager that attends a conference…)
  • Apply the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. No acronyms (hehe, do you see the joke?) No difficult words. No long sentences. And refrain from technology/financial/business jargon.

acronyms

Image courtesy of Manu Cartoons

  • Avoid complex drawings with detailed architectures. As a speaker you will need too much time to explain them, your audience will spend too much energy to understand them, and most often the text on the slides will be too small to read anyway.
  • Prove to your listeners that you have the “right to speak”, that you’re a person of interest and an authority on the topic you are presenting. Win their attention ― as well as their respect ― by telling interesting things instead of difficult ones.
  • Don’t just copy & paste text from a written document to a PowerPoint slide. Sentences will be too wordy and too structured. Never use your slides as your teleprompter.

So, next time you’re start preparing a technical presentation, keep Arthur Schopenhauer‘s advice in mind:

“One should use common words to say uncommon things.”

Here’s some more reading (not only for UART designers):