How to speak geek and influence nerds. Wait…what?

David Gewirtz received an email message with the subject "How to Speak Geek and Influence Nerds." He responds, oh so gently. Yep, this one will leave a mark.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

I get a lot of email. Some of it is work related, a lot of it consists of press releases (usually unrelated to the areas I cover), and, of course, there's a lot of spam and phishing email. I seem to have a good friend who is a Nigerian prince, and he likes me so much he wants to give me millions of dollars. It's very nice of him, but I just don't have the time to dig up my banking information so he can make a direct deposit.

I even get a pile of Mickey Mouse email from the Ronald Reagan Library. Seriously. I'm not calling the email "Mickey Mouse." I'm saying the Reagan Library is promoting Mickey Mouse tie-ins. If you think about President Reagan's history in California, it actually makes sense, but I'm still not buying Mickey statues with presidential seals.

Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Michelle Obama seem to be on a first-name basis with me. Certainly, they send me a lot of email. I even get messages from some of their friends, like Jim Messina, who sends me email with subject lines like "This is crap." I must have friended someone on Facebook who knows someone who knows someone, because I sure wouldn't expect professional politicians to address me so informally.

Speaking of subject lines in email, today I got an email message with the subject "How to Speak Geek and Influence Nerds - Find out at DAM New York." Wow. I had to find out. Perhaps I'd been speaking geek incorrectly all these years.

So I opened the message.

As you can see below, it was a pitch for attendance at a digital asset management conference in New York City. Apparently, the very geeky-looking guy in the picture was giving a talk about, well, I could not begin to put it in his words, so let's let him say it for us: "Right out of a Dilbert comic comes the cultural divide between hipster marketing creatives and the genius geeks of IT."


Oh, where to begin? [leaning back, staring at my Lost in Space robot, looking for inspiration] … Okay, let's take the high road and turn this into a teachable moment.

Let's start with the easy part. Not all creative marketing people are hipsters. In fact, a great many mature companies would avoid hiring firms that appear to be run by undisciplined cooler-than-thou "creatives." There's a tremendous amount of money at stake in marketing and marketing science is as important as artistic skills. Being able to grunt "ah" to the naming of the right indy bands does not necessarily mean a "creative" can get millions of strangers to take action on their latest marketing outreach.

Next, not all IT geeks are geniuses. Well, actually, that one is true. You're all fritchin' geniuses. Resolving driver conflicts, porting Linux to anything with a display, configuring complex networks, prioritizing public vs. private cloud, and all the rest of the activities you do each day does show a level of smarts we shouldn't discount. Stipulated.

But the idea implied in the headline and the descriptive sentence is that IT professionals aren't creative and marketing creative professionals aren't geniuses. The idea that, today, that you can even universally separate the geeks from the artists is ludicrous.

I've got a computer science degree, but I've also been a designer and creative director for more than 20 years. I've designed product packaging, all sorts of marketing literature, book covers, and so much more. I also compose music and my sense of design permeates everything I do, from the design of my home to the presentations I give. In fact, my design and art skills manifested much earlier than my technical skills, but when I graduated engineering school I was able to relate the two (design and tech) together to build my career.

The melding of design and tech have touched every aspect of my career since my first day of work.

And I'm far from alone. Most of our IT readers have strong creative talents. You can't build apps without a creative eye, and not every app developer works with an outside team of designers. Many mathematically inclined individuals are also brilliant musicians. It goes on and on and on.

If you want one example you can feast your eyes on, I'd like to point you to our own Michael Krigsman. Michael is a recognized authority on the causes and prevention of IT failures and writes ourBeyond IT Failure blog. But that's not all. He's not just an IT genius. He's also an amazingly talented photographer. If you're logged into Facebook, take a look at some of his photos. There's no way you can look at that art and think that creativity and IT competence are in separate camps.

Or take Jeffrey Stephenson. I spotlighted him last year because he designs some of most beautiful, one-of-a-kind, handcrafted PCs you'll ever see. He's a former engineer, accountant, and IT director who I called "the Frank Lloyd Wright of PC case design" and who could probably go toe-to-toe in terms of design chops against Apple's iconic designer, Jony Ives.

The point, of course, is that you can't just dump one group of professionals into one bucket and another group into another bucket — at least in this day and age. Most ZDNet readers know that. But clearly, if this conference is headlining how to speak to "geeks and nerds," some people need them some educatin'.

So, if you happen to know some of those folks, point them to this part of the article. And if you somehow decided to google "How to speak to geeks and nerds" and wound up on this article, read on. This is for you.

1. You may not call us geeks or nerds. We can give ourselves that label if we want, but for you to do so could be considered a pejorative, and is rude. If you don't know how to speak to technically proficient individuals, start with the words "Sir" or "Ma'am" and we might consider not turning you into a sheep. Some of us will also respond positively to "My Lord" or "Darth" if we are addressed that way with absolute sincerity and respect.

2. Feed us. What? We like being fed. If you want to get on our nice side, some home-baked cookies or other treat won't hurt. It won't get you forgiveness for calling us "nerds," but we probably won't set your hosts file to Don't know what that means? That's why you need to be nice to us.

3. Be nice to us. Everything you do and everything you use depends on us. More now than ever before. Who do you think made sure your Foreman Grill doesn't electrocute you? Yeah, some geeks, somewhere.

4. Do not underestimate us. The richest man in the world (Bill Gates) is a geek. So is the richest child (Zuck). Your three-year-old knows more about what makes the world work than you do. Think about that. And be nice.

5. Geeks are more attractive than you think. And we do get the girls (or boys). First, we're gainfully employed (see #4, "richest man"). Second, power is attractive. Why else would you be considering attending a seminar on how to speak to us. That's like those seminars for people who want to marry a millionaire. Pretty much the same thing. Speaking personally, I'm married to a gorgeous woman who I love (and who actually loves me back), and I drive the hottest car in town. Am I "compensating"? Who cares? I can.

6. We are far more creative than you give us credit for. Not counting all of us polymaths (look it up) with both technical and art skills, we've also created all the tools used by your "marketing creatives." Photoshop? Yeah, geeks built it. iPad? Yep, geeks. Pressure-sensitive tablet? Geeks. Photography, digital or otherwise? Geeks.

7. We know everything. We know if you've been naughty or nice. We know if you've been bad or good. We know when you're sleeping. We know when you're awake. Whether you choose to think that's the NSA or your Fitbit, the fact is, we know all and we see all.

That ought to do it. There's obviously a lot more we can do — like we can make three-dimensional objects appear out of nothing more than coils of plastic. But you get the point.

Don't single out a group of people just by one or two characteristics. If you're trying to talk to professionals, be professional.

Psst. Hey, fellow geeks and nerds. Do you think I scared the muggles enough? Or should we turn one or two into sheep just to make a point? Oh, that's right. Most muggles are sheep. That's how we got where we are. 

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

Editorial standards