Weekend Journal: Know Your Nerd Audience

Weekend Journal: Know Your Nerd Audience

One benefit to being part of a large(ish) corporation is purchasing power (not super large, but big enough to turn a head or two). You get lower part costs, you get more guarantees of delivery and you get better support. And sometimes as part of support, you get to talk to some very smart people (hardly exclusive to when you’re an important customer).

Well, let me back up a little bit. Sometimes you get to talk. And sometimes you only get to listen. My issue comes up when vendors come in and say they want to talk. That they want to have a ‘conversation with their valued customer’…and then proceed to plow through slides that you have no interest in. This happens all the time and I dutifully sit through them, especially if they’ve bought me lunch (I can be bought with food, doubly so for good food).

My problem came a few days ago when I got to meet with a large semiconductor company and some of their very smart people. As in the ones who develop the technology used for the next 5-10 years (sometimes referred to as “technologists”).  The session was prompted with the promise of a conversation. Very Smart Guy (VSG) got up and began talking about the finer points of semiconductor processing. He told us all about the deposition and epitaxial growth and oxide etching and all those fun things. Really, I do think they’re fun and interesting; I was talking with Jeri Ellsworth about some of these very things this past week on The Amp Hour and I used to work in a chip fab. But that wasn’t the problem. The problems was that I wanted to have a conversation that I was promised.

45 minutes into the presentation, one of the other representatives cut in and stopped VSG from the roll he was on, talking about all manner of process techniques. “Relief!” I thought. But no, after a very brief discussion, down we went, back into the depths of how to make sand into chips. What was my response to this? Did I stand up and shout about them filling up my precious schedule? Did I storm out of the room? No, of course not. They brought cookies, silly! I sat there and munched delicious treats from a wonderful Italian bakery and I jotted down some notes about my frustrations. So let’s go over why this approach did not work, with me, nor from my colleagues (I didn’t survey them afterwards, though may later).

  • Know the end use — In my case, I found myself thinking, “We are not process engineers, we are product designers!’ This is not always the case and there are some people that would love hearing about the spectacular new things you are doing with your process. I’m just not one of them, or at least I wasn’t today (see above). I imagine me (as a product designer) going to a customer and talking to them about how I designed it when in fact all the customer cares about is how they can use your product.
  • Know your audience — As in, try to actually know them. This can be done lots of ways (stalking comes to mind), but the best in the scenario I was involved in would have been to ask the local sales rep about what the company does and how we are using your products. That way we can skip the part of the presentation where you tell me about using some exotic part I’ll never be able to use and we get my feedback on the parts of yours we use every day! And we can even hear about the new parts or tell you what we need that we can’t get currently. Added bonus: it doesn’t feel like you are being paid per slide (“Let’s just get through these last slides”) and instead feels like you care about what we want.
  • Feedback isn’t just meant for op-amps — Truly the speaker didn’t know us; unfortunately he also ignored my awesome advice (published after the fact) as mentioned above, in that he didn’t talk to the local people. What’s the next best thing? Asking your audience!  Right at the beginning. Just say, “Hey, so what do you guys and gals want to hear about today?” In the end, they’re selling us stuff, so that makes it customer service, right?
  • Break it up — Feedback works not just at the beginning, but throughout the presentation. Though I’m sure VSG was prepared to talk the entire time, it’s ok to ask if the stuff being presented is relevant (and if not, skip it). In the event that something is explaining building blocks of a topic–so that later concepts can be understood–it’s ok to ignore requests to skip past a subject. but if you’re talking oranges when your customers only buy/need apples, you’re wasting everyone’s time. And even that can be more valuable than a couple slices of pizza sometime.
  • Push your audience to speak up — Usually the problem in these kinds of presentations is that the speaker usually posits questions like, “Do you have any interest in ______ ?” With a room of engineers, you’ll usually get one person who is curious about damn near everything (or just nods a lot). It’s not always best to talk about it, especially if it means you’ll run out of time and have to skip the good stuff later (remember, you should know your audience and what they work on before you walk in the room). And if you get silence, that usually means “no”. My advice is that this means “ask again”.

As a final note, I’d like to say that even after all of these finer points of getting a point across to a nerd, I still appreciated the fact that I got to talk to them. First off, they were really smart people. Second, hearing about technical stuff usually leaves me enamored with the people passing on their knowledge, because I’m…well, a nerd. And once the conversation kicked in and we started having some meaningful back and forth, it was quite a pleasant experience. If I had been told I had at the beginning that I just had to sit through an hour of presentation regardless, I might have been a little more forgiving (but wouldn’t have had anything to write/complain about). So remember, if you’re a vendor and heading in to talk to some engineers, be sure to be up front with them about your real expectations. And bring cookies.

What about you? Have you had similar experiences? If you’re someone that has to go in and hold the attention of engineers, what tricks do you have up your sleeve? Let us know in the comments!


Thanks to John Hall & Associates for the picture


Excellent advice, Chris. Every semiconductor vendor employee who visits customers needs to read this. I’m on the other side of the table, which means I often have to present to customers.

At every section of the presentation, I ask the engineers if this type of product is relevant to what they’re doing. If not, then I skip it. Or I’ll ask them what method or product they use for function X. I try to tailor my presentations as much as possible to the needs of the customer.

One time we had a lunch presentation at a large and well known customer. Someone else in my group was presenting, and I arrived late. There were three people in the room. Two of them were eating the pizza we provided faster than I thought humanly possible, and the third was sitting in a chair fidgeting and twitching. My coworker was droning on and on. The local sales rep was playing with her pen, and the local FAE was staring off into space.

When I came in, my coworker had to stop the presentation for introductions, business card swapping, and so forth. The pizza-eating guys left rather quickly. The third gentlemen looked like he had some things he REALLY wanted to talk about, so after we were introduced, I asked him what was on his mind. He started talking about this new design that he was required to develop, and he wanted to know if there was a chip that could do it. I happened to remember there was a similar part but it was outside my product area. We talked about it at great length (to the disgust of my coworker, who eventually unplugged his laptop from the projector). The sales rep set up some followup calls, and the FAE promised to bring samples.

This would never have happened we had simply continued through a boring presentation which wasn’t relevant to the interests of the audience.

Great example, Eric. That is exactly the kind of thing that a.) will get you some serious business and b.) is what I expect out of vendors. Talking beats presenting any day.

Not engineering specific, but I’ve given presentations, and I’ve sat through them. The easiest way to give them in my opinion, is let the audience do it for you. You will actually have to know the topic, and be able to field a wide variety of questions, or risk looking, very un-expert like, but it means you spend a lot less time filling up the clock. And for the audience, actually participating in it, turns it into something fun, and informative, instead of 5 minutes into it, mentally running down your grocery list, planning your vacation, etc.
These things always get so boring, when the presenter is plowing through their script, like they have so many times before, and the audience is fighting off falling asleep. Passive presentations seem pretty useless to me, and give everyone in the room reason to just tune out, even the presenter.

About six months ago I was working at the company that makes the most popular open source software for VoIP.

We had a tutorial introduction on Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) from one of the biggest local router manufacturing companies. His presentation was aimed towards what he knew best, SIP for routers.
The presenter ended up knowing far less than our tech support guys about anything else SIP, and pretty much wasted our time.

The bigger problem here is that presenters need to know their audience!

Its seems that the second rule, know your audience was not considered. Its seems from your story that VSG just wanted to get up and talk about his work and not as it related to the value chain.

I had this experience once. I was with a collegue in Japan with a client installing a pilot technology line (who is fluent in japanese and the expert of the technology; I was the equipment grunt). We had too other collegues coming over who were supposed to show how we could extend the business. Like VSG they talked and talked but did not consider the vaule chain and forgot about the extending bit and talked about pretty much everything that our company can and could do.

My friend was less than happy especially as he had to field the aftermath when our collegues returned home. He gave the same message as you did but in very blunt fashion (i.e. he gave the clients impression unaltered which was not a good impression to say the least).

I currently have to present technical items at Seminars for visitors as well as give presentations to customers on a one to one basis. Many of the other people I see giving similar death by PowerPoint presentations never make the content interesting and as you say never engage the audience.

I never hide behind the lectern but walk out and talk to people and simply start by saying hello and waiting for a reply. I relax and despite having a number of slides to go though approach the presentation as a friendly chat between engineers. Keeping it honest, direct, to the point and encourage questions and interruptions.

I look at the audience response to topics. It’s not too hard to spot people who don’t understand – if you do, ask if there are questions on the last point. Make eye contact with people talk to them not at them.

Your totally right that unless you engage them you will not pass on your information and they will not buy into your ideas. Your are there for them, not for a sales pitch. I find engineers spot marketing BS and salesmen miles off and will switch off from them. Keep it simple and let the conversation direct you, not your slides.

I agree. “Feedback” is the key to the whole thing. The rest is a means to that end. I wonder if people tolerated this sort of thing in the days when more media were one-way, i.e. there were four TV channels and the only way to comment on them was to write a letter to a magazine or the station.

I have never had a vendor carry on about the finer points of device fabrication. That would be so odd that it would almost be interesting just because of how unexpected it is. After a few times, though, I suppose it becomes a dubious benefit of working at a big company. I rarely saw anything like that at Jabil Circuit, but maybe vendors knew we were sometimes more Jabil Circus than Circuit and skipped the device fab details.

This reminds me of my first un-conference, which I attended this weekend. The very first thing they said is feel free to walk out of any presentation and feel free to discuss whatever topics you want. The un-conference event went surprisingly smoothly. I wonder if that will be a trend and what you experienced is relic of the past.

Crocodile salesmen (or Alligators depending on where in the world you come from). All mouth, no ears.

There is one key skill that virtually no engineering school teaches, and I suspect sales training courses are even worse. It is a skill in which medical doctors and legal specialists are trained, and who continue to refine their abilities long after graduation. What is it?


Most vendors treat it like they are simply some 3D holographic video recording. Wheel on the sales engineer and press [PLAY]. Unfortunately, unlike YouTube videos and DVD players, they don’t come with a fast forward button.

I guess benefit of being self employed is that I don’t have to put up with sales lectures. I do still get the “We’d like to come and talk to you about what we offer” but most of them have learned not to bother now.

Hi Chris,
Great advice. I would also add that it is the responsibility of the sales person coordinating this presentation with VSG to prepare VSG with your group’s background and desired outline/meeting goals. I find the best way to begin a meeting is to review the “reason we are all here…” usually when introducing VSG. It provides a great framework for all to be sure we are having the right meeting at the right time. If anyone speaks up at the introduction/stated purpose of the meeting, we can change direction right off to have a meeting that is mutually effective.

Your description of the meeting leads me to think that the sales person may have been intimidated by VSG and did not take control of the meeting.

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