Monday, November 7, 2011

Profanity in Technical Presentations and Business

This post started out a little unusually. My normally scheduled blog time was interrupted by an inconvenient support call from one of my customers (DST FML) and the whole mess of digging through databases and log files really ruined my NaBloPoMo motivation.

So after struggling against writer’s block for too long, I put the call out:

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And it was answered:

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Crap, indeed. Then, this happened:

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Who am I to deny one of my personal tech heroes, Scott Hanselman?


Profanity in Technical Presentations and Business

I think people are generally very good at tailoring their behavior (speech, language, etc.) to their surroundings. That’s probably why, after noting a few encounters with presenters who didn’t follow this social norm, Hanselman was compelled to record some excellent points on the topic.

The simple fact is that the overwhelming majority of interactions we have with each other are professional and courteous. That’s how norms are established, after all. So, is crude language appropriate in professional settings? I think it’s better to look at language as just one of many aspects of how we interact with others.

For example, my vocabulary varies with my audience. I don’t use terms like lock escalation or time complexity with my sales people. Similarly, I avoid using terms like value add and thinking cap (yes, I actually hear that one occasionally) when talking to fellow programmers. I’ve even learned to live with people calling computers hard drives and mixing up Office and Windows (hi, Mom!) because that’s the jargon that’s appropriate when talking to people (e.g. my mom) who simply don’t care about technology all that much.

If we view language on a scale, we can adjust aspects of it to suit our surroundings. When I’m in a meeting with a bunch of higher-ups, for example, my language variables look like this:

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I play it safe because to do anything else would be odd and possibly counterproductive. During the work day, with my closer coworkers, the dials move up a bit:

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And then after work, at a code-a-thon, or in smaller groups, things max out as I turn into a child who just learned forbidden words and can’t shut up.

My point is, normal people constantly tune these social variables. Intentionally setting them out spec is a tactic that can be employed for dramatic effect, but I rarely find it necessary to do that in the work place. About as far as I’ve gone with such things was during my last tech talk presentation. As I was doing the overview stuff I remarked on the obvious absence of anyone from management. I joked that they were too busy golfing to learn something new and removed my dress shirt to give the remainder of the talk in the geeky t-shirt I was wearing underneath. I’m so baller, I know.

I think making inappropriate jokes or using bad language is, more than anything, distracting. I’m sure it offends some people, too, but I think the bigger issue is the effect it has on your signal. If people are busy thinking about how you said something, they aren’t thinking about what you said.

I think Scott’s right to focus on language as the essence of professionalism in the work place and during presentations. In other settings it might be something else. For example, commenters on Reddit crank the normal, dispassionate language option for crudeness to 11; it’s like an f-bomb blizzard where every snowflake is some different invocation of the same hyper-flexible word. But there heads explode if someone makes a typo or uses improper grammar.

So the next time you want to build a rapport with your audience or jazz up a boring topic, do what I do: tell self-deprecating jokes until you get sympathy laughs and move on to the cool stuff everyone came to hear about. If you think you need four-letter gimmicks to earn people’s time, you’re doing it wrong.

And they were ponies the whole time.