Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Uninitiated

I remember once reading an American police report on the practical effectiveness of different martial arts. They would pit a street-fighting brawler against a black-belted sensei. Time and again, the brawler would deck the martial artist.

As he got up, rubbing his bruises, the guru would complain: “he attacked me all wrong. If he had used the right moves, I would have beaten him easily.”

As I recall, they found the most effective martial art to be jujutsu: judo with the dangerous stuff re-introduced.

Yesterday I was reminded of the helplessness of expertise in dealing with the laity as I presented our modified Metro Ethernet design to a client meeting, mostly comprising non-telecoms people. I was horrified to discover that my normal calm, authoritative delivery had been replaced by a disconcerting tentativeness, a kind of insidious lack of conviction.

I dug within myself to find the source of this unaccustomed lack of composure. I had already explained the evolution of our design to technical experts without the slightest problem. I realised that the problem I was having here was that the audience really couldn’t be expected to understand why we had made the changes I was describing.

Just as we are ridiculously nervous as we pass through customs, even though we have committed no crime whatsoever, there is a sense of the ground going soggy beneath one’s feet in front of a suspicious audience.

I realised that because they couldn’t know why we had made the changes I was describing, they might be assuming all kinds of nefarious motives:
  • we had made a mistake the first time round;

  • we were cutting back on the functionality to save money and not coming clean about it;

  • we were repositioning the project in a new, hidden direction for self-serving motives.
Probably the audience felt none of these things. But because I couldn’t rely upon technical arguments to convince them of the merits of our new position, I couldn’t guarantee that they weren’t having any such thoughts. And so I felt my confidence ebbing away.

This may be the reason why TV presenters have such different personal characteristics to the real experts in a field. Or to put it another way, there had to be some reason for the invention of marketing.