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A Geek’s Guide to Getting People to Hear You

Tech people love to talk, but does anyone hear what they have to say?

how to talk to geeks“Why Won’t Anyone Listen to Us?” was a very entertaining and informative talk given by Josh Bressers, a Security Strategist at Red Hat, at the RSA conference last week.

Bressers framed the issue right from the start. “We are all bad at talking to people and some of us don’t even know it,” he said. “This is why nobody takes us seriously or ever considers our ideas. As an industry we do a terrible job of making people understand who we are, why we matter and why security is important.”

Geez, whatever happened to warming up the audience with a joke? 

But the issue for Bressers is personal, and he wanted to get right to the point. He’s been doing security work for about 20 years at open source giant Red Hat where “we kind of say engineering runs the company.”

When he worked in the product security group, Bressers said everyone there “thought we were great and if there were any problems, it was because anyone outside our group was too stupid to understand things.”

But later when he moved to the platforms business at Red Hat, it became obvious that a lot of the security advice being given wasn’t sticking. “Once I talked to the field engineers, the analysts and others in the company, it became really obvious they aren’t dumb. The problem was that no one likes the security guys, and we weren’t being heard.”

Then he asked the audience rhetorically, “How many security people love talking to sales people? They don’t like us, and we don’t like them. There is no respect either way. That’s the problem. There is a conflict between groups that I blame on trust.”

Bressers says tech people tend to give too much negative feedback, like: “Why did you click on that link?” Or one he admits he himself is notorious for, “Do you have any idea how bad this code is?” Bressers amusingly described the three “brains” a conversation will activate.

If you start off or become angry, your basic survival mode—“lizard brain”—kicks in and you’re probably not ready to have a rational conversation. At that point, he says, there’s no chance of effective communication. Your best bet is to stop ranting and ask if you can meet later.

Beware the Monkey Brain

Bressers says we also all have a “monkey brain” that compels us to be social and interact with other humans.

But sometimes, for whatever reason, we just don’t like someone. Bresser recalled having to wear a suit for a press tour at a conference. One of his technical buddies invited him to meet some friends he works with, but when Bressers approached them, they literally stepped back because he was wearing a suit. “Oh no, don’t worry, he’s smart,” said his friend. That got a good laugh from the audience.

His broader point was to be aware of how people perceive you and if all else fails listen. “People love talking about themselves. Engage them. If you’re only talking about security you’ll lose them.”

Human Brain Nirvana

The third brain in Bressers’ trifecta is the human brain—which lets you engage in thoughtful, rational discussion with another person. Jokingly, Bressers said, the human brain rarely kicks in.

But a good way to get there—and what Bressers said was the most important piece of advice in his presentation—is to listen and ask questions. “You ask questions of people you like and trust. If people aren’t asking you questions you aren’t doing your job,” he said.

As he wrapped up, Bressers asked everyone in the audience to stand up and introduce themselves to a person nearby. While this is timeworn trick of presenters, the room was actually buzzing with conversations.

Apparently, human brains had been activated. 

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