Communicating For Geeks

by Steven J. Owens (unless otherwise attributed)

In a mailing list conversation on when to use Flash and dynamic HTML, a friend, Mike Stone, prefaced his response with some fun language:

"when pigs make scheduled flights over Satan as he gives ski lessons in Hell."

But Mike's later comments, explaining his strategic use of hyperbole, struck me as very insightful:

"I used to work hard to express things in moderate terms, and to keep the debate inside the bounds of normal, rational discussion. Then I spent a year working as a corporate manager. It took me a while, but eventually I learned that moderate, rational argument has an unfortunate side-effect when used in situations of strong disagreement: it doesn't change your opponents' minds, it just make them think their positions are strong enough to require reasoned debate.

The strength of your reaction seems to be a signal in its own right, completely independent of whatever you actually say. The words mush together and fade away, but the listener remembers that they were generally negative. If they also remember that your tone was fairly casual, they decide their idea is just slightly off from center."

Pretty insightful and useful thoughts. Up until now I've been using a quote by Horace Greely, editor of a major Chicago newspaper around the turn of the century, to sum up my thoughts on this matter.

At the time there were two dominant newspapers in the area. Greeley's paper was unabashedly partisan and opinionated, and extremely influential. The other paper positioned itself as the newspaper of the intelligentsia and prided itself on rationally examining and reporting on all sides of the issues. It had almost no effect on popular opinion. Greely once commented along the lines (paraphrased into more modern english) "You can't influence opinion unless you have one."

Mike's comments explore this issue a bit more thoroughly. I think part of the problem (so to speak) is this animal hindbrain perception that the speaker must have strong (and probably irrational) feelings and any attempt to discuss the topic in a "reasonable" manner is subconsciously discounted as hiding these feelings.

"I also found, rather contrary to expectation, that hyperbole doesn't seem to do lasting damage to anyone's feelings. of course, part of that comes from from jumping up and down in ecstasies when someone gets something right. ;-)"

I recently paraphrased this (actually misquoted it, until I came back and reread it) as "everyone has two different volume knobs for their microphones, one logical and one emotional" and you have to learn to adjust your message to the listener's settings. Maybe Mike used that metaphor in a later post that I don't have archived here. Either way, I think it's a good summary of the idea.

As to why it works, I think the trick here is Mike's creative use of language - hyperbole being a good example - combined with strong positive nonverbal cues about the person he's speaking to, to avoid prompting a defensive emotional state.

In other words, this is a positive and honest use of an otherwise dishonest, deceptive technique that I find incredibly annoying when sales types try to use it on me - usually in response to a technical question.

Essentially he's saying one thing with words, while saying another with nonverbal cues. Typically a dishonest salesman combines this with phrasing that's superfically accurate but when you examine it in detail is in fact incorrect. For example:

Me: "Does this product support using Enterprise Java Beans ?"

Salesman: (smiles) "Yes! This product fully supports servlets, java beans, and JSP. It also supports using our proprietary technology to blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah..."

But if you analyze their answer carefully, you note that in fact their "Yes" contradicts the rest of their statement, which doesn't include the fact that it supports Enterprise javabeans. This is another favorite subcomponent of this technique - javabeans is not the same as enterprise javabeans, but is quite commonly confused with them.

In Mike's example, he's using a similar technique to defuse and blunt the emotional conflict with nonverbal cues, while giving a somewhat complicated verbal answer, with amusingly exaggerated language that takes them a fraction of a second to parse.

By the time they catch up to what Mike verbally said, their subconscious has already read Mike's nonverbal answer and put them in an agreeable state of mind. But the verbal answer is on the face of it an obvious exaggeration, so it's not perceived as dishonest. Which it isn't, since this is all in the service of conveying an honest answer.

Damn, people make it hard to tell them the truth, sometimes.

Steven J. Owens

Original posts:

From: Mike Stone 
Subject: [WC] Re: Flash vs. DHTML
 
> I'm just looking at opinions as to which postion each of you may take
> regarding using either flash or dhtml on a website. 
 
against.   completely.   by default.   overridden only in circumstances
where the project demonstrates a clear and unambiguous need for features
not available through stock HTML.   the desire of a graphics person to get
paid big bucks for techno-masturbation explicitly does not count as
'need', nor does a salesman's calculation of the difference in
commissions.
 
> And do you feel that your position may change in the future and when? 
> (Just curious)
 
when pigs make scheduled flights over Satan as he gives ski lessons in Hell.
 
with few exceptions, flash and dhtml are usability disasters.   they
subvert the default premise of the web.. that it is a pull-driven
medium, e.g.: the users decide what information they want to see.. and
attempt to turn it into a push-driven medium, like television.
 
philosophical issues aside, any attempt to establish a business based on a
fundamentally incorrect interpretation of the business environment is
doomed.   its core premises contain a vulnerability which is addressed
only by wishful thinking.   any shift in the conditions of the environment
will throw stress upon the structure of the business, just as any motion
by a person sitting in a chair with loose joints throws stress upon the
chair.   in most cases, even casual adjustments of the environment are
enough to tear the system apart.   sudden, abrupt changes are likely to
trigger a catastrophic failure.
 
the banner ad market is an example of the principle in action.   everyone
wants a portal so they can sell banners.   but banner impressions are
generally cheap enough that you need user volumes in the hundred thousand
to million per day range to be profitable.   sites with that volume are by
definition unable to meet the needs of specific users, so the market is
inevitably driven to bland, homogenous, commodity information, in faceless
homogenous portals.   meanwhile, users are gradually developing a blind
spot for animated graphics in the standard banner size and position.
that drops the unit value of banners, requiring even more user volume to
offset the loss.
 
the introduction of a popular, free browser that allowed users to
automatically cut out requests to domains like doubleclick.net would send
the internet sector of the stock market into a tailspin.   the technology
itself would be trivial.. probably a hundred lines of new code in any
existing browser.   meanwhile, the increasing demand for content ratings
and child-safe browsers puts precisely the same technology into new
generations of browsers.   if self-limiting browsers become widely
adopted, it will only be a matter of time before someone takes the trivial
step of establishing a banner-blocking service.
 
flash and dhtml, while superficially adding features to the browser's
display, are actually steps backward in terms of communication.   they
don't make it easier to share information, they make it easier to restrict
access to information.   and as the old saying goes, "the internet
interprets censorship as damage and routes around it".
 
----------------------------------------------------------------------
From: Mike Stone 
Subject: [WC] Re: Flash vs. DHTML
 
>> when pigs make scheduled flights over Satan as he gives ski lessons in Hell.
>
> That Mike... we can always count on him to be subtle and understated -:)
 
*laugh*
 
i used to work hard to express things in moderate terms, and to keep the
debate inside the bounds of normal, rational discussion.   then i spent a
year working as a corporate manager.   it took me a while, but eventually
i learned that moderate, rational argument has an unfortunate side-effect
when used in situations of strong disagreement:  it doesn't change your
opponents' minds, it just make them think their positions are strong
enough to *require* reasoned debate.
 
the strength of your reaction seems to be a signal in its own right, 
completely independent of whatever you actually say.   the words mush
together and fade away, but the listener remembers that they were
generally negative.   if they also remember that your tone was fairly
casual, they decide their idea is just slightly off from center.   a
couple of minor tweaks, they think, and their idea will be ready to go.
that leads straight into the endless reahashing of why the idea is still
just as bad as it was last time.
 
eventually, i decided that artifically minimizing the strength of my
reactions was bad communication.   i tried inflating my reactions, just to
see what happened, and found that it worked.   people got an accurate read
of my opinion, and if they brought an idea back for a second go, it would
be significantly altered.. usually for the better.   i also found, rather
contrary to expectation, that hyperbole doesn't seem to do lasting damage
to anyone's feelings.   of course, part of that comes from from jumping up
and down in ecstasies when someone gets something right. ;-)
 
it's turned out to be a very effective tactic for me as a consultant.
i'd heartily recommend that everyone give it a try.   just remember that
it does take a bit of getting used to, and that large, important issues
are probably a bad choice for the first try. ;-)
 
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