Five Tips for Talking With IT People

Technical professionals have a different way of looking at the world than the rest of us. Non-technical folks sometimes find talking to them to be awkward. To help you through the rough spots, here are five tips for having smoother conversations with your IT people:

Tip #1: Don’t call them “techies.”
Technical professionals are about as fond of being labeled with a group identifier as any other group. What should you call them? Use their names. That usually works pretty well. 

If the situation demands a group label, use “engineer.” It has a respectful sound to it. “Techie” (or even worse, “technician”) sounds disparaging.

Tip #2:  Beware of stereotypes.
Stereotyping technical professionals (engineers) is about as useful as stereotyping any other group of people. The generalizations are just good enough to get you into trouble. 

As a group, technical professionals are just as diverse as any other group, although maybe a bit smarter. They don’t all play World of Warcraft in their spare time. They don’t all know how to hack into DoD computers. They’re no more likely to be liberal or conservative than anyone else, and they don’t all read science fiction, either. There’s just no shortcut for getting to know them as individuals. Sorry.

Tip #3: Expect them to analyze things more deeply than you do.
This isn’t a personality trait. It’s a vocational requirement, and a survival skill, too. If you’re an engineer and you don’t peel the onion quite a few layers when figuring out how to make something work, you’re well on the way to becoming a former engineer. 

So when you’re talking with someone who plies a technical trade, don’t get annoyed when they dive into the details. These are the folks most likely to get burned by ideas that look really convincing on a PowerPoint slide, after all. Mostly, they’re helping you stay out of trouble. Although they could also be showing off a bit, too.

Tip #4: Be interested in what they know.
See? Technical folk really are the same as everyone else. Think about your own reactions. When someone asks you to talk to them about what you know, it feels good, doesn’t it? 

Same thing. 

Another version of this same principle is to respect their subject. When an engineer hears someone say, “Explain this to me - I’d like to understand it better,” they figure this is someone they can work with. And oh, by the way, once you decide to give the subject your attention, you just might find it actually is pretty interesting. 

It’s the people who say “Spare me the technical details” who get consigned to the “Not smart enough to bother with” pile.

Tip #5: Flattery helps too.
Engineers are paid to be smart. In most companies, compared to the workforce taken as a whole, they are pretty smart. And unlike a lot of the population, which views being smart with suspicion, these are people who take pride in their intellects. 

So phrases like,” I don’t know how you can keep track of all that,” can go a long way.

How do you talk to engineers? The same way you talk to anyone else. Their subject matter might be arcane. But they’re still just people. Treat them that way and you won’t go wrong.


Four Things NOT to Say When Pitching Your Book to a Publisher

When authors pitch their book to a publisher, they are essentially selling. But many authors are poor salespeople when it comes to books — not because they’re incompetent but because ideas that may seem innocent or even positive to most people suggest something else entirely to publishers.

I have easily reviewed several thousand proposals and have identified the four most common statements that authors make but should avoid:

1. “Given that the number of [teenagers/graduates/entrepreneurs/young parents/etc.] is currently estimated at [enter numeral] million, the market for this book is huge!"
There really is no such entity as the “general" marketplace, and writing for a (sufficiently large enough) niche is actually a good thing. People have so many choices -- the more specific a book is in catering to their particular needs or tastes, the more likely they are to buy it.

Example: Mock it all you want, but Fifty Shades of Grey focused on a readership that no one even thought existed ("mommy porn"). Since it was the only book in that arena, it didn’t even have to be well written.

2. “I envision a series of books that use this approach in different --"
Committing to a series of books is a scary thing for a publisher. If the publisher contractually agrees to a series, he or she is obligated to publish follow-up titles even if the first one bombs. No publisher wants to commit to that kind of long-term loss. Don’t say anything about a series -- you don’t need to. If your book is successful, your publisher will come begging for a series.

Example: Keep in mind that the most successful serials (such as the For Dummies series or the Chicken Soup for the Soul titles) were not initially pitched as serials, but the first books sold so well that the publisher decided to make them so.

3. “Given the popularity of books such as [enter name of New York Times bestselling title here] or the books of famous authors such as [enter name of bestselling author here], this book will inevitably draw an audience."
Not exactly. The popularity of a particular issue or subject is important to some extent, but in most cases, books in the same arena as yours sold because the author is popular or appeared on Jon Stewart’s show (or something similar). The author is the draw, not the subject matter. So unless you’re as famous as that author, the fact that you are writing about a related topic makes little difference. Also, an author who doesn’t bring anything new to the subject matter but just parrots what someone else said and adds in a few minor details just shows a lack of originality.

Example: When Rhonda Byrne’s bestseller The Secret started racking up sales in the millions, every self-help author suddenly had a take on the law of attraction (the generic philosophy Byrne’s book was based on), and the marketplace was flooded with “Me, too!" books. All of them were summarily ignored -- and bombed, as they should have.

4. “To promote the book, I intend to build a dedicated website, appear on radio shows, utilize social media, and speak as often as possible."
Here’s the problem: intending to do anything offers no guarantee that you will, nor does it guarantee that you will be successful. I can say that I will ask the queen to endorse my book, but it remains unlikely that she actually will. Publishers can go only on what authors have already achieved, not on what they intend to achieve. An author wont suddenly become a social media maven or a successful speaker appearing on nationwide media just because he or she now has a book. Remember this rule above all else: books do not start movements; movements start books.

Example: Almost every (nonfiction) bestseller had its momentum building well before the book came out. From Freakonomics to The Secret to Free, these books were written by authors who were actively speaking and writing about their work first. The book was just the capstone. And regarding social media, how many requests have you had to “like" someone’s Facebook page? Do you even bother to go back and visit the page even if you do "like" it? Remember that a top author can boast over 5,000 such "likes," but a farting cat can garner over a million. So, yeah, your competition is a farting cat, and it's beating you senseless. And how many times have you bought a book because of the author's Twitter feed? Think of how many authors you know -- and how many of their websites you have actually visited.