Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Ask away...

Funny thing in a talk today… Room full of technical people, plus a sales rep. Talking about availability. Put up a slide:
I explain it – I even put my hand on the LGWR circle, explain what it does – how it can send data. Go to next slide (question and answer slide – we are at the end). At that point the sale rep says “hey, can you go back a slide”. I do – he asks “what is that LGWR thing, is that a product, I’ve never heard of it?”

Much laughter at that point and he has no idea why. I explain what LGWR is to him (the rest of the room was mostly DBA’s and Developers, they already knew what it meant).

That reminded me of something I just read the night before in “The Tipping Point” – a book recommended to me by many others that I finished reading the night before. One of the stories in that book was about a test where people competent in some area were asked to develop a series of questions that were “hard but not impossible” to answer. They would invariably have questions about their area of interest.

They were directed to ask these questions to someone not competent in their area of expertise. The person being asked to answer would not feel “so smart” as a result (they had no chance of answering really). Afterwards the person asked the questions was asked to rate the intelligence of the person asking the questions – they invariably would rate them very high.

You can appear to be really smart if you know a little more than most of the people in the room. Or, you can appear to be speaking in a foreign language…

So, what is the point? This is why I believe there are no dumb questions – none. We all know what we know. We don’t know that which we don’t know. Ask away, nothing is too small to ask about.

I’m glad he asked – it was a chance to make lighthearted fun of him (self deprecating humor is always good), but he also now “knows” to some degree what LGWR means in the future. I’m not afraid to stop someone to explain an acronym/internal name of something when they are talking to me. It can help a lot actually – the presenter/people around the table will know from then on in “must talk in different terms”. As someone that talks to many different types of people, I rely on these cues to know how detailed to be about something. I think that others appreciate it as well.

Maybe this is why I get nervous if I get a ways into something and there are no questions – to me that means “I must be talking way beneath them, they already know this, they are getting bored”. Or, it means “I’m speaking in a foreign language, way above them and they are totally not getting a single thing”

It was a good call though – a 2 hour talk turned into a 4 hour conversation. Those are the best.


Anonymous Anonymous said....

Tom ... This is what I love about you most. You do have the reputation of answering any and every question without making those who ask feel stupid. This, in my opinion, is a sign of a true professional.

Tue Nov 29, 10:42:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

Tom ... This is what I love about you most. You do have the reputation of answering any and every question without making those who ask feel stupid. This, in my opinion, is a sign of a true professional.

Tue Nov 29, 10:47:00 PM EST  

Blogger Gleisson Henrique said....

It doesn't suprise me that you encorage people to ask questions. You are the guy behind AskTom.
"The only dumb question ,is the one that is not asked" might sound like a cliche but it makes much sense. Ask what you don't know.

Tue Nov 29, 11:45:00 PM EST  

Blogger jimk said....

I can't resist. What is the difference between a used car salesman and a software salesman? The used car salesman knows he is lying... (grin)

Wed Nov 30, 01:50:00 AM EST  

Blogger Tony said....

My mom is a teacher and she always said that if one person has a question then there is a good chance someone else does to. This may not have been true in this case, but I think it remains pretty accurate in most lecture scenarios.

Think about it, how many times have you been at a talk and someone else asks a questions that you yourself had but didn't ask?

Wed Nov 30, 01:52:00 AM EST  

Anonymous Mr. Ed said....

"Can you get Taste Loss from a Foosball table?"

Yes, there _are_ dumb questions. Just that most questions are not dumb, even if they are very basic.

Wed Nov 30, 02:36:00 AM EST  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

Tom, If you liked 'Tipping Point' check out 'Blink' by Malcolm Gladwell...it deals with the way we make instinctive decisions and its an excellent read.

Wed Nov 30, 03:31:00 AM EST  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

Hi Tom,

could you please provide a list of books you heartly advice to read (non technical books that you talk about in your blog from time to time ? It would be great as otherwise you have to scroll through all blog entries to assemble that. Thank you :-)

Wed Nov 30, 04:53:00 AM EST  

Blogger Rachel said....

I'm about 2/3 of the way through The Tipping Point (I think it was on your recommendation) and finding it fascinating. Who knew it took so little to make drastic changes?

The other thing I've found about questions -- I always assume that if someone is not getting it, it's not their fault but MINE, for not making things clear enough. I try to remember that there was a time when this thing that is so "obvious" to me, was not. Gets me into a better mindset to simplify my discussion when needed.

I also will put my own questions out as I talk -- "is this too basic?", and try to read the faces of the people I'm talking to (not always easy in a large room).

Wed Nov 30, 06:18:00 AM EST  

Blogger Noons said....

The worst for me is when I ask if they understood what I said and I get back the "vague eyes Yes!..." so typical of cultures where saying "No" to anyone is considered insulting.

It's so easy to ignore the cultural background of those one talks to!

Had I asked them something relevant to their culture, they'd have run rings around me.

The sales rep in your case could have run rings around any of the dbas in the room on matters to do with sales.

We have to always be careful that what we explain, knowing as right, is also *meaningful* to the audience.

Otherwise the risk of the "vague eyes Yes!..." is always there.

Thanks for bringing this up, it's good to be reminded of its importance.

Wed Nov 30, 06:21:00 AM EST  

Anonymous mahik5576 said....


I had a problem, i am having 10 tables , out of that 10 tables, i am reading the data from 3 tables mostly. Only reading no insertions or delitions on that tables.

How i have to improve the performance of those 3 tables only ?

Wed Nov 30, 08:30:00 AM EST  

Anonymous Andrew said....

Just for yuks, try this link;


Just sometimes, after one too many calls and it has been a rough day. . .

Wed Nov 30, 09:23:00 AM EST  

Blogger Thomas Kyte said....

If you liked 'Tipping Point' check out 'Blink'

Been there, done that :)

I'm about 2/3 of the way through The Tipping Point (I think it was on your recommendation)

Must have been someone else - I just bought and just read the tipping point within the last week...

But you are right - if the audience doesn't get it, it is not their fault, it is the speakers fault every time.

Nuno Souto said...

Indeed, I've written about that before as well. I try to be much more careful and not use "obscure" words in talks anymore. Not dumbing it down - but not using "fancy 50 cent words" (and you must avoid the use of expressions like 50 cent words as well :)

It took me a long time to understand "penny wise, pound foolish". In fact, it was't until my first trip to the UK that I "got it".

Wed Nov 30, 10:02:00 AM EST  

Anonymous Scot said....

Andrew I was just about to post the link to the Despair site with the demotivators, but you beat me to it. It is a wonderfully funny site though if anyone has a few minutes to browse some of them, quite funny.

Wed Nov 30, 10:27:00 AM EST  

Anonymous Bob B said....

For those who don't get "Penny Wise, Pound Foolish" (e.g. me until a few minutes ago):


Wed Nov 30, 11:57:00 AM EST  

Blogger Bill S. said....

Andrew said...

Just for yuks, try this link;

My boss's boss has one of their calendars in her office - I especially like the "consultants" entry ;-D.

Wed Nov 30, 11:59:00 AM EST  

Blogger Rachel said....

Okay, I figured it out -- you recommended Blink, I went to amazon to get it, while waiting saw The Tipping Point and got that from the library before Blink showed up.

So, in a very roundabout way, you did recommend The Tipping Point :)

Another tip when presenting (especially since I tended to aim my presentations to beginners) -- I tried to write/explain in terms that my Mom could understand. She was computer (PC) literate, so I wasn't talking way down to my audience but it did help get me to the right level.

Wed Nov 30, 12:02:00 PM EST  

Blogger Joel Garry said....

Ever since I first saw despair.com (maybe 6 years ago?) I can barely look at a real motivational poster without mentally changing the quote. That can be quite distracting in a job interview with those posters around, let me tell you. You can't share it with the interviewer, because s/he may have picked them out and may not get it!

There's a "teamwork" poster of about 60 parachutists linked up I used to see every day at one place, I couldn't help but think "group psychosis." Which kind of described the local dba myths, come to think of it.

But I must say, there are dumb questions. It's a question of context, both the range of experience of the group and the subject matter at hand. I would be unhappy if I paid many thousands of dollars for an advanced dba class and all the time was spent on really basic lgwr concepts - although I might be quite happy if it wound up delving into details not normally expounded upon. But how likely is that? It's newsworthy if it happens.

If I have a question, I usually assume someone else has it, so I'm not afraid to ask. But some people just ask to show off, and others unjustly accuse questioners of showing off. There is some solecism there.

Wed Nov 30, 04:45:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Senthil said....

Tom... I like the way you encorage people to ask questions i.e. answering every single question even if it is simple. While I am reading this the following Indian proverb came to my mind "what you have learned is equal to hand full of sand and what you have not learned is equal to a globe".

Wed Nov 30, 04:53:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

Tom, you're beginning to sound like Dick Hardt, lol!!! Excellent response. Identity 2.0 presentation???

Wed Nov 30, 04:59:00 PM EST  

Blogger Connor McDonald said....

Its the one time when being passionate about your topic can come back to bite you...you get so wound up talking about the stuff you love, you get faster and faster and more and more animated...until finally, right at the end in question time, someone says...

"I didn't understand the part of the presentation that came after 'Hi I'm Connor'"


Wed Nov 30, 06:36:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

Maybe your salesrep came over from Peoplesoft?!?

I used to sell for Informix and I sure better know what LGWR was to have a chance beating Oracle. Won some - lost some.

There really are dumb questions in a professional sales process. I hope you kicked his @ss afterwards.

Thanks for the laugh.

Wed Nov 30, 10:56:00 PM EST  

Blogger Roderick said....

I was teaching a class in Tokyo eleven years ago (almost to the day).

First part of the day, I thought my jokes were falling completely flat since I didn't hear a single giggle. I felt I wasn't getting any points across when not a single question was raised despite some prodding and encouragement. I was told the whole class understood English and they were sitting up straight staring at me very attentively. I was confused, and the lack of interaction was unsettling. The fact that half the class brought little voice recorders to preserve my apparent failure for eternity did not help matters.

I started to panic and called for a 15 minute break to gather myself and plan a new strategy. Once the room was empty, one student snuck back in to ask a few questions. Then I walked into the hallway, and another student asked more questions and commented how funny I was.

Finally figured out that this group was hesitant to ask questions during class. So I scheduled more breaks than usual the rest of the week and the class was ultimately successful.

Wish someone had warned me about that slight cultural difference.

Thu Dec 01, 01:24:00 AM EST  

Blogger melanie caffrey said....

you get so wound up talking about the stuff you love, you get faster and faster and more and more animated...until finally, right at the end in question time, someone says...

I am FAR too familiar with this scenario ... :(

Fri Dec 02, 12:51:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Anonymous said....

So... what does LWGR stand for?

Fri Dec 02, 02:54:00 PM EST  

Anonymous Bruno P. - France said....

Hi Tom,
I do agree with you. I was given the same advice when I began working, a few years ago, and I found out that 'dumb questions', in fact, open the doors of knowledge. Moreover, it's also a way to see if the person in front of you is willing to explain things or just willing to 'look smart', by just speaking a 'small language'. Thanks a lot for your so-so-good asktom website

Wed Dec 14, 03:49:00 AM EST  

Anonymous Ram said....


Long ago, I read in one of the novels (not English) - If you ask a question, you will be stupid (Read Ignorant) for 5 minutes (May be an hour), if you don't ask, you will be for ever.


Tue Apr 18, 09:43:00 AM EDT  


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