How to Teach “Geeky Things” to “Normal People”

November 12, 2010

1. Stay Calm. Be Understanding.

Yes, your kindergarten teacher may have been right all along, when she taught you about sharing and not throwing your juice box at someone. Even when they put a giant block on top of the tower, and now it looks like it picked a fight with some large explosives and lost. Just like not all toddlers are budding physicists, not all adults chose to sequester themselves away from the rest of the world and stare at rectangles with shifting colors for days on end.

They may not know copy paste, and that’s ok. This is their opportunity to learn, and your kindness will encourage them to continue exploring. Remember, they’re probably intelligent in ways that you’re not. If you walked into an operating room and someone handed you a scalpel, you’d probably look like a blithering idiot, too. To go back to kindergarten for just one minute more, holding your buddy’s hand and rebuilding the tower together is much easier than trying to scrape globs of peanut butter out of your hair before the teacher comes over.

2. Find out how much are they interested in learning.

Do they want to learn the art of whispering tiny messages to devices around the globe to keep them beeping in angelic unison? Or do they just want to be able to send email so they can go back to doing what they’re best at?

Through one door lies the steps to mastery, an explanation of foundations, principles, and those who have gone before. Through the other door, “Type the email address. It will look like Yes, .org is ok, too. Did you type a message? Good, click on the send button.” There may be other doors, just make sure you’re going down the same road. Otherwise, you’ll end up in rush-hour traffic, they’ll be going through barren swampland, and you’ll both be wondering why your directions aren’t helping.

The good news, either way you will have someone delighted and overjoyed that you made everything work.

3. Don’t rearrange their mental furniture.

It’s easy to get tied up in wanting to fix all sorts of inefficient processes they may perform that have built up over the years. Mostly, these processes are not harmful, just annoying to your super-brain that could do this all in 9 nanoseconds. Stepping in to help can sometimes look like a guest coming into your home and promptly rearranging the living room. You’re liable to end up with an angry tiger on your hands.

Sometimes, they may want to learn. Knowing when to intervene relates closely to the prior step, knowing how much they want to learn. You’re a smart cookie, use your common sense, but just be aware that the tiger awaits you if you don’t listen closely to their goals and intentions. When in doubt ask, “There is a faster way to do this, are you interested in learning it or no?”

If they say “no,” bite your tongue, break a calculator, do what you have to. They’re happy. Leave it.

4. Use familiar analogies.

“Open up your browser and go to www-dot…”

“Wait, open my what?”

These moments are bound to happen frequently. They’re confused, and also intellectually curious, so they want to know the meaning of that strange word you just said.

*Dun dun dunDUN!* In comes an analogy to save the day.

For browsers, I like to use the car analogy:

“When you want to go to the grocery store, you get in your car and drive there. You can take any car. If you take a Porsche, your ride will be smooth and fast. If you take a Prius, your ride will be reliable and fuel-efficient. Either way, you end up at the grocery store. Browsers are like cars, and websites are like stores. You can use any browser to get to any website. Your experience may be a little different, but in the end, you get where you wanted to go.”

Simple enough. Then, here comes the hardest part for me. Inevitably, the analogy will break down, and you’ll want to start explaining things like, “except if you’re driving a clunker (IE6), then when you get to the store it may look like it’s been hit by a small asteroid.” This is relevant to you, your hated for IE6 may be ingrained into every fiber of your being. Here’s the kicker: they don’t need to know. Again, bite your tongue, find another inexpensive computing device to ruin, but don’t get into it unless you want to be talking about why the asteroid destroyed the store and what that has to do with your car for the next 30 minutes.

Analogies are like candy, they’re friendly, and everybody likes them. Use them often.

5. Listen, listen, listen.

No map exists to explain this process. Everybody starts out with a different existing skillset, and everybody learns differently. These are guidelines to follow, but if someone asks you a question that requires you to break all of them, do so with velocity and gusto.

Listen closely, ask questions, check in to see how they’re doing, and they will let you know everything you need. Not to worry, if you don’t pay attention to where they’re at, they’ll still let you know. It will just be less… pretty.

Use common sense, and all of that pattern-based logic that your geekiness has bestowed you with. Even Google may fail you from time to time on this adventure. (It’s social skills aren’t great, and it sometimes inadvertently lowers your search rankings while it’s fuming and frustrated in the corner. It didn’t like it when they sent an email through it in Comic Sans. Best not to ask it “human things,” yet.)

Play nicely, and you’ll have one happy person when you’re done. Don’t forget to listen to all of the “thank-yous,” too. You’ve made their life just that much easier, and that’s what technology is for in the first place.