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How to answer simple tech questions to beginners


If you've ever done much teaching, you know that the most difficult questions to answer are always the most basic ones. These are the things that long time experts just take for granted, and haven't given any thought to for years. So if a beginner asks you a simple question, don't be surprised if you make a mess of it, and are unable to explain.

As a software teacher, I prided myself on teaching the beginning classes. They were the most difficult for teachers to do, and that's why I was able to get a many sections as the school could give me (adjunct faculty are only allowed a certain number of hours). Of course, I did the advanced classes, too, which were much easier because the underlying concepts were already known by the students, and it was really just a question of detail. But I took teaching beginners as a challenge, and little by little I got pretty darn good at it. You can, too, but you will need to take some giant steps back.

• Take a look at whatever software, or hardware, you're about to explain and imagine walking up to it for the first time. The first question you would have would be "what is it good for?" That's the first question that you have to an answer for. If someone asks what something is good for, then your answer should be in the form of what it does for the user, not how "rockin' cool" it is.

• Compare it to something else, but be careful here. When I explained what Photoshop was for, I compared it to painting. When I explained Illustrator, I compared it to drawing. Everyone has a reference point. Students in my classes had all done some drawing and painting, so it just made sense. But be real careful about doing a lot of analogous stuff - you know, comparing things to things. I try to keep that stuff to a minimum, as it can be very distracting if you're comparing some software to the various stars in the sky, and the moon, when the moon is rising, over the ocean, etc., etc. What in the world are you talking about?

• Explain and shut up. This is the most difficult thing that there is. If someone asks you a question, answer it, and stop. Getting all excited and talking about this, and this, and this, and this, is just confusing to the person listening to you. And you don't need to explain it three different ways. If, after you've explained, you find yourself drawing a long breath and saying "in other words...", don't. If someone wants you to explain it again, use exactly the same words. But only if they ask you. Otherwise shut up.

• Explain and let the other person do it. And shut up. Good training requires a lot of silence, and patience. Let them do it. If they need more time, allow it. Don't fidget. Don't take it away from them. Don't tap your foot impatiently. Don't make impatient sounds. Be quiet. Don't talk. Shut up. It's their turn now, not yours. Did I mention that you should shut up?

People who can explain stuff to beginners are precious. Your parents did it when they taught you how to use a toilet. Remember that you were a beginner at one time, and how much their patience and understanding meant to you.