Sunday, August 24, 2008

Using Inferior Language

I was having dinner the other day with my wife and son at the local Cracker Barrel. My son is graduating this semester from UNC-Pembroke in Religion and Philosophy. At one point, the conversation turned to blogging and writing in general. My son loves the Puritan writers such as Jonathan Edwards as well as the writings of Charles Spurgeon. All of them are great writers, but not easy reads.

My son is enamored with language, which is a good thing. Since he will soon have to turn to learning biblical Greek and Hebrew when he enters seminary next fall.

But the conversation was about communicating and using the language he has learned in different venues such as his blog, or in papers he writes.

He was saying that he didn’t like to use inferior language, but preferred to use the more descriptive terms and scholarly language that he had learned through his study of the Puritans and other great authors of the reformed movement.

He asked me what I thought and I explained to him that what mattered was being a good communicator. While the Puritan writers were great communicators in the language of their day, that is no longer the language of the day now.

I explained to him that to me, inferior language is not the use of common or modern terms, but using words and examples your intended audience does not understand. For instance, if you are speaking to a group of 1,000 people and you use language that 500 don’t understand, you have an audience of 500, and are failing to communicate to the other 500.

He thought that really made sense. Dad strikes another blow for old people wisdom!

And that leads me to the subject of giving expert testimony. The expert in the Lacy Peterson trial is a great example of how not to give expert testimony. His testimony was so disjointed and laced with so many terms that he assumed the jury would understand, that I had trouble following it. And I do understand the technical terms.

You can read an excerpt of his testimony here at Postcard Mysteries.

One of the ways that I use to explain technical concepts is through analogies. For instance, defragmenting a hard drive:

Imagine that you are holding a roll of quarters in your hand and you toss them up in the air. Now, if you need to get 3.00 in quarters back, you have to go all around the room and pick them up one at a time. That is a very slow and inefficient process. But if you go around the room and pick up all the quarters and put them back into a roll in your hand, getting 3.00 in quarters is very fast because they are all next to each other again. That is what the computer does when it defrags the hard drive. It puts things next to each other again so it does not have to go all over the hard drive to get something it needs.

In my mind, explaining technical concepts using easy to understand language and analogies is a far better way to communicate to an audience, the jury, when you do not have any idea of their baseline of technical expertise.

I consider using the technical jargon of my field in general conversation as speaking Klingon. I can only effectively communicate like that if I am talking to other people fluent in Klingon. And the people I normally most need to communicate with are not fluent in Klingon.

When I interviewed someone the other day for a position with our company, I asked him to explain to me what a router is and what it does. On the condition that he explained it like I was his Grandmother who never used a computer.

Because that is what you are dealing with when you talk to laypersons about technical concepts in the computer and forensic fields.

Just because computers are everywhere these days and a lot of people use them, it is irresponsible to assume that means they understand how they work.

Lots of people drive cars and have no idea how they work either


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