Every Tuesday afternoon my team heads across the street to have beers at the Bellevue Rock Bottom Brewery. Mostly we just talk shop, but these are some smart people so the topic often turns to subjects of broader interest. A few months ago we started in on the sorts of linguistic issues that non-linguists are aware of and interested in like regional accents, the relative expressiveness of a language over time, and how people’s way of speaking advertises their social identity. Because I was the only one there with a degree in linguistics, I found myself to be the expert on the spot, and had to think fast on my feet in order to summarize complicated theoretical ideas, dispel misconceptions, and sometimes admit that I just didn’t know the answer. I’m good at this sort of thing because I enjoy it, but it’s not easy. Explaining your area of expertise to non-experts is an art, and it takes discipline. Here are some aspects of that discipline. Think of them as a vow of chastity that helps keep you honest.
- The non-experts have to be peers. Undergraduate students in a class you’re teaching don’t count. The power differential will prevent them from asking hard questions and sticking to their guns when you try to bluff your way past one you can’t answer. This needs to be an instance of what at a previous software job we called “Rude Q&A”.
- You’re not allowed to use jargon. The entire conversation must be conducted in everyday language familiar to non-specialists. If for clarity or concision’s sake you need to employ a technical term from your field, you must be able to explain it in a few sentences. If you don’t have a snappy illustration for “phoneme”, “entropy”, “reify”, or “postmodern” at your fingertips you need to take a step back and ask yourself if you really know what that word means.
- Be convincing even when you’re right. At some point you will know more than your non-expert friends. There will be some counter-intuitive point on which you will be right and they will be wrong. If there isn’t, what the hell were you doing all those years in grad school? When this happens, though, it is not sufficient to merely state your position with confidence. This is just Appeal to Authority, which is a logical fallacy even when you are the authority and the point is uncontroversial in your field.
Finally, and most importantly…
- If they fail to understand anything, it’s your fault, not theirs.
If you can do this half drunk in a crowded bar with a bunch of computer programmers whose favorite mode of interaction is to shout each other down, all the better for you. The most important thing to realize is that these kinds of interchanges are as much for you as for them. Sometimes it’s the educated layman who is best positioned to point out the flaw in your logic, the ossified dogma, or the arcane technical term that, when you think about it, doesn’t really mean much of anything. Popularization is heavy lifting, not indulgence. I cut slack for people who aren’t good at it, but I get very impatient with people who don’t realize its worth.