Finding more tools in the box

My goal is to communicate in a way that is most beneficial to the audience. At first, the Question & Answer Technique seemed to provide the perfect mechanism for that. But the Law of the Instrument told me otherwise: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it’s tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail”.1Another famous formulation is: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” You can find this “law” attributed to many different people and presented in many different forms. The Question & Answer Technique was my new tool but, as tempting as it was, not every communication could – or should – be hit on the head with it.

Some exceptions were pretty obvious, once I started to think about it. Others required more thought to uncover. Together, they led me to develop a rule that has served me well: Reveal the essential message, unless you’re faced with the FBI.

    Reveal the essential message as soon as possible (using the Question & Answer Technique), unless you’re faced with one of the following:
  • Feelings: If your aim is to elicit emotion, rather than convey information, let those emotions guide your telling of the story.
  • Bottom line: If you don’t yet know yet what that conclusion is – or there isn’t going to be a conclusion – the Question & Answer Technique isn’t an option.
  • Instructions: If the audience doesn’t know enough for a high-level description, you should list out the instructions step-by-step.

Reveal the essential message, unless …

If you are writing a murder-mystery, you don’t want to start by revealing who the killer is. But, of course, it’s not just mysteries and thrillers where you wouldn’t want to reveal the ending. Most narrative depends on the way the story unfolds: the very essence of the narrative is contained in the twists, the turns and the timing of the reveals.

That’s true even for simple anecdotes. We all have friends or family members who can “tell a good story” and those who just can’t. The first group can find the narrative interest in something as mundane as a trip to the supermarket, whereas the latter group can recount an event of life-altering significance and make it sound ordinary.

Here’s an anecdote about the writing of this website. If the story had turned out differently, so might this website!

Like most people these days, I do my writing at a keyboard. But I almost always plan my writing with a pencil and paper. I don’t know why. But it seems to work better. It’s not unusual for there to be several A5-sized pieces of paper on my desk (almost always A5, I have no idea why).

The ideas for this website were scribbled on just such a sheet. It sat on my desk for several days, as I added thoughts, crossed some out and moved others around with arrows snaking across the page. By the time I had finished, it looked a mess, but it made perfect sense to me. And I’m not sure I could have recreated the note if it had ever been lost. Which is exactly what happened. Somehow, it slipped down, out of sight, into a narrow gap between my desk and a cabinet.   

When I noticed it was missing, I thought I must have thrown it away along with other papers that had served their purpose. I looked in the waste paper bin behind my desk. Empty! My cleaner had been round that day.

The discarded papers from my office were now in with all the other rubbish from my apartment, including the kitchen waste, awaiting the weekly refuse collection. If I wanted to retrieve the notes for the website, it seemed that I would have to trawl through it all.

And so began a futile search through the detritus of the past seven days’ living. As ill-luck would have it, the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag had been emptied out as well. The fluff and dust made it harder to see what was what. I had no trouble, however, recognising the tangerine that I had ditched a few days earlier when mould had started to grow. A lot more fungus had developed since then and the smell made sure I noticed it.

When I couldn’t find the missing piece of paper despite my painstaking search, I became desperate and went back through the rubbish once more – this time even more meticulously. It made no difference to the outcome, of course. How could it? The paper I was looking for was still in the gap between my desk and the office cabinet.

Finally, after a very thorough sanitising of my hands and arms, I had the good sense to look more carefully around my desk. In future, I will take a photo of any important notes that I have hand-written.

My reason for recounting this story is to make a point about the way in which I chose to tell it. The Question & Answer Technique would be no use for this story because it would push me to reveal, early on, that I succeeded in finding the missing note, whereas the narrative drive for the story was the unnecessary unpleasantness I put myself through by looking for it in the wrong place. The two are in clear conflict on this occasion.

The most instinctive way to tell the story – as is so often the case – would be to follow the sequence of events in the chronological order that I experienced them. The paper goes missing … I search through the waste (twice) … I can’t find it … I go back to the office and look again … and there it was all the time.

But I knew I had to reject that approach also. The essential difference between the approach I chose and the chronological approach is that I brought forward the big reveal: I told you very early on that the note had never left my office. I wanted you to know that because the emotional impact of sifting through the filth and the fungus would be heightened by your knowledge that it was all being done in vain. Without that extra bit of knowledge, your expectations would have been – just as mine were at the time – that the search would be successful. The searching is implicitly less disgusting if it is expected that there will be a crock of gold at the bottom of the rubbish bin.

The chronological approach throws up a second challenge: when the reader gets to the end of the search, they still won’t know where the missing note is. The story isn’t complete until I revealed that I found the paper (and where it was). But that final part of the chronology is – let’s face it – a major anti-climax. Much better to get that out of the way early on and focus the story on the emotion, not the mystery. The maximum emotion is at the point where I was fumbling around in the filth.

Professional story writers have many techniques at their disposal to heighten the tension. One of the most powerful is to marry-up a story’s emotional elements with the sequencing.

Feelings

My way of telling the anecdote of the lost note also illustrates that sometimes the emotion used to engage the reader needs to be different from the emotion experienced at the time of the actual events. My own emotions were hope, disgust and despair, followed by relief. But a stronger narrative was gleaned from these events by making the reader experience the futility of the search whilst it was being described, even though I, myself, hadn’t realised the pointlessness of it until sometime later.

It’s not just storytelling where I have found that I might need to manage the emotions of my audience. There are times when I have a serious message to convey, but I know the audience simply won’t listen to it if they are told the conclusion at the outset. A typical example is when the person I am directing the message to has an in-built bias against what I need to tell them.

Imagine trying to convince a stubborn person to take a course of action that they have always said they will never pursue. If you begin by telling them that they need to make an exception to their long-held rule, you risk getting shouted-down before you get the chance to make your case. If you fear that may happen, something else is required.

Suppose, for example, your employer needs to invest in a major new piece of equipment and you’ve been asked to survey the market for the best option. It turns out that the only option is made by a company that your boss has famously said he will never buy from. It’s probably not going to be a good idea to lead with the news that the hated company has the ideal piece of kit. That’s when you get hit with the cliché: “If you think [X] is the answer, you’re obviously asking the wrong question!”

Instead, you might start by identifying the criteria that you think the equipment will need to meet and ask the boss to confirm that you have assessed that correctly. If you get the green light to the criteria, you can explain that most suppliers in the market don’t have what the company needs, before revealing that, in order to meet all the criteria, there’s only one option available and it’s made by [whoever the unacceptable company is]. And then you can let the boss decide …

The bottom line

In addition to those cases where it’s best to delay the key message, there are also occasions when there aren’t any key messages – or, if they exist, you may not yet know what they are. You can assemble the relevant facts, but it will have to be someone else who decides what stands out as the highlight or the conclusion.

By way of an example, consider a variation on the earlier scenario. This time, your employer needs to replace a piece of equipment that is wearing out. You know that there have been huge steps forward in technology since the current one was bought, but neither you nor your boss knows quite what they are. As you start to investigate, you find that the new features include some interesting surprises, but you aren’t sure which of them your boss will consider important or desirable. You can set out the facts, but you can’t make a recommendation, at least, not yet – not until you know how to rank the new features.

It’s not a difficult problem to fix. You could, for example, simply choose to set out the criteria in a neatly-designed table and list the products that meet each one. Or you might request an interim discussion in which you enlighten your boss on the newly-available features and ask for guidance on which of them they want to prioritise. Then you can do some comparisons of your own and come back with a suitable recommendation.

Instructions

The very interesting cases are those where a decision about how to present what you have to say depends on who your audience is and how much knowledge they already have. This arises most often when explaining how to do something.

Let me illustrate with a simple example. When you see a cooking recipe, it always starts with the ingredients and then describes what to do with each ingredient and in what order. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that recipes are set out that way so that anyone can follow them, even if they have minimal cooking knowledge. But would you always want to describe a recipe in that way, even when talking to a skilled cook?

The recipe for Beef Wellington – to take a dish selected completely at random – can run to 40 separate steps. But, when describing it to someone you know has lots of experience in cooking, the conversation could easily take place at a much higher level:

Beef Wellington is a fillet of beef on a bed of pâte de foie gras, rolled in a shortcrust casing, glazed and baked and served with a Madeira sauce.

Those 29 words may be all that is needed for the cook to prepare the dish for themselves. If not, they might ask for enlightenment about some stages of the cooking process. But they are unlikely to request that all 40 steps be set out for them … and they may be rather offended if you offered to do that.

The same can be said for almost every other type of instruction. Think of travel directions. When describing a route to someone who doesn’t know the area, we almost always set out the directions as a series of steps (“third turning on the right”, “second on the left” etc). But, to someone who is familiar with the general area and just needs to know where a specific location is, the description could be as simple as “take the M40 to junction 8” or “in the High Street, opposite the cinema”.2In the UK, the first of those two directions will get you to the City of Oxford. The second depends, rather obviously, on which High Street is being discussed!

Any form of explanation creates similar options. For that reason, it is always a good idea to know whether you are providing information to an inexpert audience (“follow these directions in the order I tell you …”) or adding a bit of knowledge to someone who already has a solid base of relevant information (“just add this extra titbit of information to what you already know”).

By the way, I see this website as a medley of instruction and story-telling. I wrote it employing elements suited to each.

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