Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Ni jiang yi yang de hua ma?"

Last week, I wrote about the necessity of having a clear message. Because this topic is so important I decided to follow-up with another entry on this general subject. This week we will approach it from another angle.

(For the curious, the title says "Do you speak the same language?" in pinyin, which is a transliterated Mandarin Chinese.)

Recently, a good friend of mine (who is Chinese, ironically) and I were playing pool. He had to bank the 8-ball in the pocket to win the game, and since it was an informal game and bank shots are my area of expertise, he asked me for advice.

I told him, "you just need to strike the cue ball with medium speed so that it hits the 8-ball right in the middle." He didn't believe me so we marked the positions of the balls, and then he took his shot only to watch the 8-ball sail past the pocket.

"A-ha!" he exclaimed. "I told you it wasn't that easy." But when we reset the positions and I made an attempt the ball went right in the pocket.

So what went wrong?

The problem is in my use of the word medium to describe the desired speed of the cue ball. Such subjective words have, by definition, a wide range of meanings depending on how the listener (or reader) wishes to interpret them. Problems down the road can be avoided by using words with precise definitions, and standards like ITIL attempt to clear the confusion by strictly defining IT process concepts such as incident, problem, known error, etc. You don't need to wait until ITIL can be used, though, since the idea of precision in communication has applicability everywhere.

For example, can you imagine the following scenario?

CIO: so why should we buy your product?
You: because it does a lot of great stuff.

"Great?" "Stuff?" Vagaries such as these are a recipe for disaster, and it is for this reason that presenting a business case is essential in sales: they describe, in quantifiable terms, the exact benefit (typically in dollars / euros / pick your favorite currency) that a business will receive.

How about this situation?

Interviewer: so why should I hire you?
You: because I've can do amazing things for your organization.

Is this any better? Of course not. The response deserves some credit for attempting (in spirit) to sell the value of the person, but it falls flat on its face for not being specific at all. (Note to self: tell this to my wife who writes out the vaguest grocery lists and then yells at me for not buying the right brand names.)

Being able to recognize the possibility for gross misinterpretation takes practice. You could say "red ball" and people may point at different shades of red as their definition. This isn't a disaster (in my opinion) even though your red and their red will likely differ by some amount. At least you can have some degree of confidence that they would not select orange.

When you are answering questions or presenting your side of an argument, choosing your words with surgical precision has irrefutable benefits. Maybe you are hoping to close a large sales deal; receive a better job or promotion; or just give directions (to your house for a fĂȘte; to install a newly purchased software application; etc.). Your chances of success increase exponentially when care is taken in choosing the words you use.

No comments:

Post a Comment