Words are important – just not always the way you think

Recently I met someone who insisted on describing every department in his organization, all the acronyms and what they stood for. By the time he got around to describing how this whole thing related to me, he had lost my interest. (And I tried hard to hang in there!) He had given me too many irrelevant terms that didn’t relate to me.

We focus a lot in the free software community about what words we use: free software, open source software, free and open source software, …

When using words we should think not only about the meaning of our words but also about our audience. And what we want to teach them.

You don’t teach kids about magenta, mauve, carmine, you teach them about red. Then later you teach them the shades. And, unless you’re my grandfather, you are unlikely to teach them about magenta, mauve and carmine unless it comes up in a scene, in a story.

I’ve been talking about “web services” for a while and people often immediately tell me I’m using the term too generally and start defining web services versus SaaS versus online applications versus … While I think that’s important in some conversations, I think if your audience is only vaguely familiar with the term “web service” and has never heard of “SaaS”, you’ll lose them before you start if you insist on defining and using a whole bunch of new terms. (But I do agree that you should use each term appropriately.)

When you talk to someone who has said “open source software” for the past 10 years, and you use the term “free software”, they will likely think you are talking about something else. Something that is not open source software nor free software as you think of it. If you really want to teach, focus on telling your story rather than teaching a vocabulary lesson.

If you start out by defining terms, you’ll lose your audience. You need to explain meaning by either showing or telling stories.

So if free software versus open source software is important to you, tell as a story where the difference is clear. If web services versus SaaS is important, tell a story or give examples where the two are obviously different.

Tell stories, don’t lecture. (And yes, this post could use a few more stories and bit less lecture!)