Sometimes I rhyme slow sometimes I rhyme quick, quick, quick, quickSometimes I Rhyme Slow, Nice & Smooth
Sometimes I rhyme slow sometimes I rhyme quick, quick, quick, quick
“When you use big words people don’t understand, it makes them feel dumb, and they don’t like that.” While this time it was explicit, I’ve faced the thrust of the feedback throughout my career. Stop using big words.
In my case these big words were words like “heuristics”, “taxonomy”, “signifiers”, “differentiated” and phrases such as “contextual multi-armed bandit”, “moments of truth”, and “information hierarchy”. Though I’ll admit, I’ve used ontology and game theory in a talk or two.
In short. Don’t talk that way.
I grew up in Baltimore.
I went to public schools.
Slang wasn’t allowed in my house.
At some point. I heard the question “why you talk white?”
As I got comfortable with myself I learned how to better navigate both worlds. In fact, I’ve heard the question surprisingly few times in my life given the struggles in Black inner-city communities with the question.
Before you react and feel bad for me and think how cruel and uncultured those kids were. They were right.
I was integrating into a shared culture and so much of culture is captured in language. And I hadn’t yet developed an ear for the culture. I spoke Meridional French in Senegal, Castilian in Mexico, Jazz band without swing.
I spoke with a formal tongue in informal circles. Cómo está usted?
I wanted to move within a domain. But I didn’t speak or care to speak the language.
Edward Tufte is a thought leader in data design and information design and communication. Since I struggled at Microsoft speaking without the “big words” that made people feel some kind of way. I joined one of his workshops to get some religion on the topic.
It was there that I first became aware of how little thought we put into what I later learned were genres of information. The way to think about it is Documents, Presentations, and Spreadsheets are all genres in the way a comedy and a drama are both movies but of a different timber. We know this and we use them all the time–but we don’t do a lot of reflecting on how to match the genre with the message we aim to communicate or action we seek to drive.
While I went into the workshop expecting to leave with the full religion of “dumb it down” and 10-20-30 presentation rule I left with something else. A new flow.
Tufte introduced to me a new philosophy for good communication. One quote stuck with me:
“Never do lowest common denominator design [sic]. Your role is to make people smarter”
If the goal of communication is for everyone to leave smarter. How do you accomplish this goal? My choice was simple. I’m going to speak the language of the domain.
Going forward, I’d happily translate and make each topic approachable and relatable. But when we problem solve or make decisions in a domain, we’re speaking the language of the domain.
If I’m problem solving in the Engineering Domain, I’m going to speak about microservices, restful apis, and graphdbs. If I’m problem solving in the design domain we speak about signifiers, affordances and cognitive walkthroughs.
With finance I’ll speak EBITDA, business models and sensitivity analysis.
We’re not going to spend five months talking about the “algorithm” in machine learning project updates. We’re all going to get smarter. We’re going to explain that we’re using a contextual multi-arm bandit and what the benefits we’re looking to achieve with this approach over others.
Bishop G, they told me I should come down, cousin
But I flatly refuse: I ain’t dumb down nothing!Dumb it Down, Lupe Fiasco
One benefactor or one thousand headnods
During my time at Microsoft, I was the primary author of an internal book, The Ownership Experience.
I received a lot of flack—no one is going to read this.
I told them they were missing the point. I wasn’t looking to move a lot of people a little. I was looking to move some future reader a lot.
Movement and action require active participation on both the sender and receiver. To get past the initial inertia you must challenge.
Often people lose sight if their goal is to achieve one thousand nods of approval, or one benefactor.
What’s interesting from this journey is how common the tired troupe of “simplify, simplify, simply.” Simplifying a message has become a stand in for effective communication.
You can spot a Churchill quote from anywhere. You can tell New Yorker article from New York times. Maya Angelou distinctly from Nicki Giovanni. Each great at communicating their story. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis contemporaries with different voice.
Malcom Gladwell is a great speaker. And so is Anna Rosling Ronnlund who literally quizzed her audience. Each are effective communicators with their own voice. Their own flavor.
Language and Hip Hop
Take the genre of hip hop. You have Tupac who wrote in a simple poetic voice before adapting to an aggressive prose. Outkast brought the south to the forefront with a style that was unapologetically Atlanta.
Ah ha, hush that fuss
Everybody move to the back of the bus
Do you wanna bump and slump with us?
We the type of people make the club get crunkRosa Parks, Outkast
They spoke their language. And if you wanted to ride along. You willingly caught up.
What the conversation misses in the quest to get everyone to simplify their message. Is that the crux of good communication is resonance.
Does your message resonate with your audience?
What drives the strength of resonance in my view is the authenticity of the commicator and their comfort with their style, not the language itself.
Steve Jobs described Apple as technology married with the liberal arts. He described the iPad as a Post-PC device.
But his authenticity, and style makes the message resonate.
So if some of the world’s greatest communicators aren’t simplifying their message, but are instead winning through authenticity and style, how do we explain this aversion to big words?
I think it comes down to two things.
1. Not every style is for everyone.
Some rap artists are involved listens, some are background music. If you’re not willing or able to be an active participant in the music–some artists like Aesop Rock just won’t be for you. And that’s ok. But asking Aesop Rock to simplify his style to generate appeal, misses the fact that Eminem is a similarly dense emcee and that every message isn’t for every one at every time.
2. A lot of what we call complex communication, is simply bad communication.
Now think of an academic whose writing you find hard to digest, even if his or her ideas are perfectly sound. In nine cases out of ten, I’ll wager, you will find the following:
– The author writes in an impersonal voice (the pronouns I and we might crop up occasionally, but could just as well be absent).
– The author makes no attempt to engage in a direct conversation with the reader (no humor, no asides, no engaging anecdotes, no you).
– The author writes paragraphs in which nearly every sentence either has an abstract noun as its subject (“this study,” “the observation”) or, thanks to grammatical sleight of hand, no named subject at all (“it can be seen,” “the patients were examined”).Sword, Helen. Stylish Academic Writing . Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.
As someone, who has more than a passing curiousity for philosophy, I’ll share that even the giants aren’t exempt as Heidegger (through translated text) is one of the greatest offenders:
At the beginning of our investigation it is not possible to give a detailed account of the presuppositions and prejudices which are constantly reimplanting and fostering the belief that an inquiry into Being is unnecessary. They are rooted in ancient ontology itself; and it will not be possible to interpret that ontology adequately until the question of Being has been clarified and answered and taken as a clue—at least, if we are to have regard for the soil from which the basic ontological concepts developed, and if we are to see whether the categories have been demonstrated in a way that is appropriate and complete.Heidegger, Martin (2013-01-30T22:58:59). Being and Time . Kindle Edition.
Styles upon styles upon styles is what I have…
On my journey through finding my voice I’ve resolved to three truths.
1. You have to find your style. And it’s yours. But don’t think finding your style is an opportunity for complacency. Does your style resonate? Mastering your voice. Mastering your style is a journey with no end.
I put periods–where they ought not go. Maybe I shouldn’t. But it’s my voice.
2. If it doesn’t resonate, it’s likely not you or them. When we are participants in a communciation, we need to embrace that when a genre or style doesn’t resonate with you fault is likely neither with you or the style. It just does not fit because you are you and the style is the style.
It’s your accountability to get the goodness of knowledge and perspective from the world whether the style is or isn’t your preferred.
3. Bad communication is too often a form of gate keeping. On the topic of bad communication we need to all recognize it and challenge it. Too often bad communication is a form of gate keeping information to reinforce existing power structures. So while it’s fair to expect us to learn the language of the domains we move in, it’s on the domain to be learnable.
If you ask for an explanation or for a message communicated in a different way and someone offers, “I just can’t explain it”–the fault is not with you. It’s likely they don’t understand the topic nearly as well as they believe.
Styles upon styles upon styles is what I have.
You want to dis the Phifer but you still don’t know the half.Buggin Out, Phife Dawg
And I’ll talk however I please.
about the author
Mikal is a reformed startup CEO and experienced Product Executive based in Austin, TX. After years leading product teams at Microsoft, Nordstrom and most recently VP of Product at RetailMeNot, he now serves as a product coach helping teams in growing tech markets work their way up The Product Team Ladder.
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