Effective Communication in Computer Clubs

effective communicationThe early days of personal computing were exciting, and each computer was somebody’s personal project. There were small computer shops everywhere, garage manufacturers, many magazines, books, TV and radio shows, and computer clubs, all trying to keep up. Then, PCs were considered to be a hobby, but since then the situation has changed dramatically.

This article, The Need for Effective Communication in Personal Computer Clubs, was written¬†by Dick Maybach, Member, Brookdale Computer Users’ Group, NJ – read on…..

Computer shops have disappeared in favor of large Web businesses. Most of the machines are imported and many of the few remaining brands are just labels on commodity products. Much of the software is supplied by a few large vendors, whose market control has greatly reduced their need to innovate. TV and radio computer shows are almost nonexistent. Bookstore computer shelves now have just a few titles, usually on the same few topics. Most of the articles in those magazines that remain are puff pieces extolling the virtues of the latest offering of a dominant vendor.

Now most owners view their PCs as appliances and are no more likely to open the case to add more RAM than they are to open their washing machine to add a larger motor. For many, personal computers have become just a means of accessing the Internet, and this view is reinforced with the appearance of such products as the Chromebook and Windows 8, both of which encourage using a PC as a large-screen smart phone. Accessing the Internet is important, but using a PC in only this way wastes most of its potential. Certainly, we don’t need personal computer clubs if this is its only role.

These changes of climate in the personal computer, as well as the rise of the Internet, have contributed to a narrowing of focus. (The Internet is a wonderful resource, but only if you have some idea of what you’re looking for.) The assets that have declined were those that introduced people to new areas and new products, while the one that has risen has the virtue of making it easier to find out about specific products and services. Not surprisingly, the result has been a regenerative narrowing of interests among computer users, and many if not most, new computer users are unaware of the devices’ capabilities.

There are some bright spots. Single-board computers such as the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi have enough enthusiastic followers to have spawned vendors, books, magazines, and clubs. The Linux community is much like the PC world of the 80s, with small, innovative vendors (and a few large ones), and several magazines, mostly in Europe, where Linux is much more popular than here.

Personal computer clubs provide a means for members with diverse interests to spread them to others, and hence are one of the few remaining resources that can reverse the transition of a personal computer from a hobby to an appliance. It’s not important that these interests generate a revenue stream, only that they are useful or interesting. However, this is completely dependent on members being willing and able to do the communicating, that is, to write articles and give presentations. This requires that members don’t look on their clubs as a source of entertainment, but as an opportunity to communicate. They must write about their activities and projects and publish their work in their club newsletters, and talk about them in club meetings.¬† Even a paragraph-long note can help build enthusiasm in an area that needs it. Luring people into exploring some of the vast territory of computing can result in changed lives and is surely worth some effort. Your experience has certainly given you some topics that would interest and help fellow club members, such as:

  • a computer-related gadget that you recently acquired,
  • a program that you found helpful, especially one from a lesser-known vendor,
  • trouble-shooting, recovery, and repair techniques,
  • ways to use a computer in a hobby,
  • ways to improve your security and protect your privacy,
  • reviews of helpful Websites, books, and magazines, and
  • solutions to problems in popular software.

These are unlikely to appear in a medium concerned only with content that sells products from vendors with large advertising budgets.

You may be reluctant to write because you don’t consider yourself to be an expert, but this shouldn’t hold you back. Yes, there will surely be someone in the club who knows more about your topic than you do, but you’re writing for those who don’t. Moreover, by the time you finish writing, you will know substantially more, because it will become obvious that there are gaps in your knowledge.

If you’ve used personal computers for many years, you surely have learned something worth passing on. Indeed, the challenge of mastering their hardware and software is one of the reasons for your interest. Your acquired knowledge and skills would help others, but these are lost if you don’t present them. In a poll taken some years ago, many people were more afraid of making a speech than they were of dying, and my experience suggests that the same is true of writing. Interest in PCs as a hobby is declining partly because most people feel there is little new in them. I believe there is more going on now as in the early days of personal computing, but because many doers are reluctant to document their activities, most people are unaware of it. If just a few people would write about a new application they found useful, a hidden feature in a popular program, or an interesting piece of hardware, others would discover how dynamic the field is. Often, a short note is all that’s needed. It’s a sad comment on you, if in 20 years of using computers, you haven’t acquired so much as a paragraph of knowledge that would be useful to someone else.

You can choose to present your work either in written or spoken form. A talk can be longer and allows for interaction with the audience, but only those present will hear it. Written work will be shorter, but probably more polished, will persist long after it first appears, and because APCUG distributes newsletter material among all its member clubs, it can be seen by many outside your immediate club.

I believe that verbal communication is most effective when the group is small, because each member has a chance to participate. Talks to large audiences become one-way, and writing is more effective here, because the readers set the pace that is comfortable for them and they can reread difficult passages. In my experience, a live demonstration of software is not effective if it lasts more than a very few minutes. By the time the task is complete, the listeners have forgotten how it started and all the detailed steps that followed. A presentation with key screen-shots is usually more effective. I think the reason the live demo persists is that it requires little preparation, but the result is too often a waste of time for all.

Making a verbal presentation takes more skill than writing an article. You can take as much time as you need to prepare both, but an effective speaker must interact with the audience and be prepared to make drastic changes if they are needed to get the point across. This is another argument against the live software demo, where it’s seldom possible to skip over intervening steps and go directly to the result.

In preparing a talk, you should treat your audience’s time as being just as valuable as yours. For example, plan on spending eight hours to prepare a one-hour talk to eight people. It’s obvious when a talk is poorly prepared, and the audience is justified in concluding that the speaker is arrogant. You should spend the same time preparing the material for a talk as you would for an article, then you will need some extra time to rehearse the talk.

Those personal clubs that succeed in getting their members to share their skills using effective communication will thrive. Those that do not will continue to decline as their members’ age and they fail to attract new ones.