Things not to say on stage – and what to do instead
This is not about trigger words or discriminatory expressions. There is a lot of information about this available, and even some excellent linting tools for your texts. It is also not about unconscious bias. Or well, maybe it is. Learned bias for sure.
This is about some sentences used in technical presentations that sound encouraging. In reality they may exclude people in the audience and make them feel bad about their level of knowledge. These are the following sentences and I’ll explain in detail how to replace them with something less destructive:
- “This is easy…”
- “I’ll repeat quickly, for the few of you who don’t know…”
- “Everybody can do that…”
- “X solves this problem, so you don’t have to worry about it”
- “As everybody knows…”
- “That’s why Y (your product) is much better than (competitor) X”
- “This is just like we learned in school…”
- “This can be done in a few lines of code…”
- “If you want to be professional, do X”
None of these are a show-stopper and make you a terrible presenter. There may even be ways to use them that are not confusing and destructive. This is language, and in some cultures they may be OK to use. I’m not here to tell people off. I am here to make you aware that something that sounds good might make people feel bad. And that’s not what we’re here for as presenters.
As a presenter your job is not only to give out technical information. You also need to inspire and to entertain. Often you overshoot the mark by simplifying things and trying to hard to please.
It is important to remind ourselves that we can not assume much of our audience. The room might be full of experts, but the video recording is also going out to everybody. Explaining things in a simple fashion is not dumbing them down. It may actually be the hardest task there is for a presenter.
It is stressful to be at an expert event. As an audience member you don’t want to appear less able than others. As a presenter, it is worse. Presenting is a balancing act. You neither want to sound condescending, overload the audience, make people feel stupid, appear too basic … and, and, and…
I’ve heard the following expressions at a lot of events and I always cringed a bit. Often they are OK, and no harm done. But, to get better as presenters it may be a good idea to be more conscious about what we do and what effects it can have.
“This is easy…”
We often try to calm down the audience by making what we show appear simple. The problem with that is that what is simple for us might still be confusing to the people in the room or online. Add peer-pressure to that and people will neither speak up that they don’t understand, nor feel empowered. The opposite applies – by saying something is easy and people failing to grasp or apply it, we make them feel stupid. If you make me feel stupid, you may inspire me to get better. But I don’t do it for the right reason – I do it out of guilt and self-doubt. Even worse, depending on who you are, making you feel stupid may inspire you to attack instead. Often you see people shoot down things in flames as stupid and not needed because they don’t see its usefulness.
The worst way to use “this is easy” is when you rely on a lot of abstractions or tools to achieve the easy bit. Each of those could be a stumbling block for people applying your wisdom.
- “Here are a few steps how to achieve this…”
- “By using these tools, which are all well documented, you can…”
- “The way to get this done is…”
Using these you send people on a journey. They don’t tell them that the end result is already a given. Who knows, they may find a way to improve your “easy” one.
“I’ll repeat quickly, for the few of you who don’t know…”
This expression fell at a conference I attended and it made me cringe. The presenter meant to be encouraging in a “hey, we all are already on board” way, but it came across as arrogant. Even worse, it already singles out those who do not know, and makes them feel like they are under a spotlight.
If the intention is to do a quick intro on what you want to build upon, it is better to phrase it as a reminder, not a “you already know, what am I doing here”.
- “Just as a reminder, here is what X is about…”
- “As you may remember, X is about…”
- “We’re building this using X, which is…”
This adds your repetition into the flow instead of being an excuse.
“Everybody can do that…”
If everybody can do it, why do I listen to you? Also, if everybody can do it, how come I never managed to? If you use this you either present something basic, or you over-simplify a complex matter. The latter can appear to be empowering; you take away the fear of approaching something. But, it backfires when people can’t use it. Then you exclude them from “everybody”. And that hurts.
- “If you know your way around X, Y and Z, you should find it rewarding to…”
- “Once you managed to do that, you’ll find it makes the rest of your work more enjoyable…”
- “It is a very effective way to work, if it works for you, tell others about it”
This again makes it a reminder and a starting point of a journey. Not a given that is redundant to repeat.
“X solves this problem, so you don’t have to worry about it”
Hooray for your product – it solves everything. Now buy it and impress people with wisdom you don’t have. And feel worse when you get praised for it. This is a classic sales pitch which works with end user products. As a developer you should worry about what you use in your products as each part can become an issue. And it will be up to you to fix it.
- “X solves the problems around Y, so you can build Z”
- “X was created to make Y easier and is used in production, the results are encouraging…”
- “Here are the steps you can do by hand that X does for you…”
Pop open the hood, show how your product works. Don’t sell all-healing remedies.
“As everybody knows…”
Common knowledge is a myth and relies on your environment, access to information, time to consume news and the way you learn. Presenting something as common knowledge may make people think “so how come I ever heard of it?” and stop them in their tracks.
- “This has been around for a while and was explained wonderfully in X (X being a resource you link to)”
- “Tests have shown that X is a given for a lot of solutions (point to research, give proof)”
- “I base this on the fact that X, as proven many times by… (and add a list a resources)”
“Citation needed” is a wonderful way to say something and prove your point. You show people that you did your homework before you make an assumption. And you give those who did not the tools to do so.
“This is just like we learned in school…”
This assumes everybody went to a school with the same curriculum as you. A lot of people have not. This is especially destructive when it applies to knowledge that was part of a Computer Science degree.
- “This has been part of Computer Science teaching for years, and for good reason because X”
- “This should look familiar to anyone who went to a similar school as me, and for those who didn’t, there’s truckloads of information available online about it at X”
- “You might remember this from school – now you see how it can be applied in a real job. Who knew?”
A lot of people create the web. Not all took the official path.
“That’s why Y (your product) is much better than (competitor) X”
This is common in advertising, especially in America. You show off your product by making others look worse. This is pointless and only invites criticism and retaliation by others. As a tech presenter, you should know that the other product is also built by people. Final decision of what gets shipped are not always based on technical merit. It is a cheap shot.
- “Here’s how to do that with product X, we took a different path and here’s why…”
- “There are many solutions to this. We found that some were lacking a feature that made us more effective, which is X”
- “You can use whatever makes you happy to achieve X. We added the following, as we found it was missing…”
Showing you know about your competition prevents questions about it. Showing how they differ allows people to make up their mind which is better instead of you telling them and hoping they agree.
“This can be done in a few lines of code…”
The amount of code has become a contrived way of showing how effective our solutions are. Almost always the “quick and small solution” blossoms into a much larger one once it is used in production. It makes much more pragmatic sense to tell people that this is inevitable, and praise the small starting point for what it is – a start.
- “As you can see, starting this is a few lines of code. I simplified this to show here, the source code is available at X”
- “For now, this is all that is needed to achieve this. No doubt, you will need to add more to it, but it is a starting point”
- “By abstracting some of the issues out, we can cut down our code to a few lines”
- “As we rely on functionality of X, this means our implementation can be very small…”
A lot of times, this solves our own issue of showing only a few lines of code on a slide. Instead, let’s write understandable code that we explain in sections rather than one magical tidbit.
“If you want to be professional, do X”
People have different opinions what a “professional” is. Whilst we worry about quality and maintenance, other people put more merit on fast delivery. The state of the art changes all the time, and a sentence like this can look silly in a few weeks.
- “X, Y and Z are using this heavily to deliver their products. Here are some case studies that show the positive results…”
- “Using X gives you a starting point you can rely on and makes it easier to explain to your replacement how to take over the product…”
- “The benefits of X are Y, which makes it a professional tool to use…”
You achieve professionalism with experience and by learning about new things and retaining them. Things people say on stage and define as “best practice” need validation by professionals. It is not up to you as a presenter to define that.
A quick check
There are more unintentional destructive expressions. Read through your talks and watch your videos and then ask yourself: “how would I feel listening to this if I didn’t know what I know?”. Then remove or rephrase accordingly.
Fact: Our market grew as fast as it did by being non-discriminatory of background or level of education. Granted, most of us grew up in safe environments and were lucky enough to have free schooling. But there are a lot of people in our midst who came from nowhere or at least nowhere near computer science. And they do great work. I’d go so far as to say that the diversity of backgrounds made the web what it is now: a beautiful mess that keeps evolving into who knows what. It is anything but boring. There is never “one way” to reach a goal. We discovered a lot of our solutions by celebrating different points of view.