Be a Communications Consequentialist

You just hit post.  You put a lot of thought into your message, you laid it out carefully, and look forward to people’s reactions.  You start getting emails telling you that people have commented, so you excitedly check them to find… that somehow they completely and utterly misunderstood you.  It happens.

One of the worst examples I’ve seen is when American Atheists put up a tongue-in-cheek billboard quoting a Bible verse that endorsed slavery, they were misunderstood as promoting slavery themselves.  Oops.

It’s tempting to blame the audience at times like this, isn’t it?

“How did he miss where I covered that?  There’s a whole paragraph refuting that!”
“She couldn’t possibly have read all the way to the bottom of the post before commenting.”
“Did he think for half a second before opening his mouth? See the quote!”

It’s especially tempting to react that way with misunderstood sarcasm.  I nabbed a screenshot of this image getting praise which says, “Intelligent people understand sarcasm does not equal anger.  Sarcasm is cleverly disguised humor.  It’s not my fault if you ‘don’t get it’.”  That’s the tack a lot of people took after the American Atheists’ billboard – blame the offended people for being stupid.  But does it make sense to blame them?

There’s a vague sense in society that writers and readers each have certain responsibilities. Writers need to use proper spelling and grammar, state their view, and provide supporting reasons. Readers need to read the whole thing carefully and charitably. If someone doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain, any misunderstanding is their fault.

And it IS frustrating when people aren’t reading closely enough, or don’t respect your argument enough to spend the time reading it fully.

But we only have control over what we do, and there are things we can do to entice them. We need to be communications consequentialists – The question we should be asking is: am I doing what I can to maximize the chances of getting my point across?

It’s not enough to do our part and hope readers do theirs.  With a few possible exceptions (graduate-level coursework, Immanuel Kant) readers will stop reading something that’s dense and tough.  Or even worse, they’ll walk away with the wrong message.

If we’re trying to maximize our success, we need to go further and help make it easier for readers to understand us.

Ways to help readers:

Here are some steps I’ve come up with to make it easier for readers to come away understanding.  Since my talents lie in writing over artistic design work, I’ve focused on that:

  • Shorten posts. Presenting readers with an epic saga and expecting them to read it all carefully is asking a lot. Ben Radford has an interesting post bemoaning that people don’t read. It’s 1,380 words – appropriate for some audiences, not for others. If my posts get over 1,000 words, I look for ways to trim them or break them into separate posts.
     
  • Write for human brains – Your readers are human. So write in a way that humans find engaging. The Heath brothers have a good framework with the SUCCES principles: ideas are easier to grasp and remember if they’re Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and Story-driven. Engaged readers will be more likely to read everything, and read it attentively.
     
  • Break up large blocks of text – I still remember reading Les Miserables in class and facing a three-page-long paragraph. It’s daunting! Without paragraph indentations or images breaking up the text, I know my eyes are prone to sliding. On that note…
     
  • Place key sections where people will see them - People don’t read, they usually skim. Eye-scan studies found that people are most likely to read a horizontal stripe near the top of the page, a second stripe slightly further down, and then down along the left side – in a vague “F” pattern. Make sure that you’re using that prime real estate for engaging hooks and key points. Bulleted lists, bolded words, and subheadings also get attention.
     
  • Use subheadings if necessary – As people’s eyes skim and scan the page, descriptive subheadings can help frame the information and help readers keep the flow.
     
  • Eschew Avoid Obscure Words – See what I did there? Seriously though, while readers *can* look up new words in a dictionary, there’s a good chance they won’t. Besides, studies have found that using big words needlessly doesn’t impress people – you’ll seem more intelligent if you express yourself simply.
     
  • Doublecheck words with ambiguous meanings – You can cause a lot of trouble when you use the word ‘religion’ to mean the culture and institution, but people think you mean “the set of beliefs“.  A lot of words, even in context, can be taken multiple ways by a reader who doesn’t already know what you’re thinking. If possible, see if you can replace ambiguous words with their intended substance.
     
  • Be careful with sarcasm – I guarantee that some people will miss it.  Think about whether the joke is worth those misunderstandings (and sometimes it is.)
     

If we write long posts with unbroken blocks of dry text, ignoring everything we know about our human audience, we can predict failure. Even with these tips, success isn’t guaranteed.  But we have reason to think that things like this make readers more likely to walk away understanding us.

And that’s our goal – being understood, not finding someone to blame.

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22 Responses to Be a Communications Consequentialist

  1. Barry Galef says:

    So much sense! Very shareworthy. Incidentally, SUCCESS was such a long and unfamiliar word that I quit reading after the first six letters. At least, I assume the word was SUCCESS. I probably came away with the wrong impression altogether.

    • Jesse Galef says:

      Haha, about that – in Made to Stick, the Heath brothers write:

      A clever observer will note that this sentence can be compacted into SUCCESs. This is sheer coincidence, of course. (Okay, we admit, SUCCESs is a little corny. We could have changed “simple” to “Core” and reordered a few letters. But, you have to admit, CCUCES is less memorable.)

  2. Elizabeth C says:

    Well-written and great points! I disagree a bit with your take on sarcasm; while I think irony, parody, and dry wit are subtle humor, sarcasm is angry and hostile, generally not at all funny, especially to its recipient.

    • Jesse Galef says:

      Huh, interesting! You’re pointing out some vague associations with the word ‘sarcasm’ that I hadn’t thought about carefully.

      I don’t make strong distinctions between irony and sarcasm, but you’re right – the latter has a stronger sense of being “cutting” and aggressive. I’ll think about that when I talk about using humor, thanks!

      • Elizabeth C says:

        I wouldn’t say they are “vague” associations. Irony is “a. The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning.
        b. An expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning.
        c. A literary style employing such contrasts for humorous or rhetorical effect.
        2.
        a. Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs:
        b. An occurrence, result, or circumstance notable for such incongruity.” (Merriam-Webster)

        Sarcasm, however, is marked by its intent to hurt, cause pain, mock, or make someone a butt of the joke. While sarcasm can be ironic, it isn’t the same as irony. I looked in a number of dictionaries, which all agreed on the hurtful intent.

        Anyway, as you point out so well, the joke, or irony, often backfires. I’d say sarcasm always backfires.

  3. gussnarp says:

    Absolutely dead on. There’s nothing more annoying than the notion that “it’s not my fault if you didn’t get it”. Yes, actually, at least some of the time it is. It takes two people to communicate, and any failure has at least something to do with both sides, so why not try to make yourself understood as much as possible to as many as possible of your target audience. I would also add that it’s a very good idea to try to learn from the situations in which people misunderstood you.

    Although every once in a while, you’re just dealing with a complete idiot.

  4. evansaysblah says:

    Love this article :)

  5. I agree with Elizabeth. Sarcasm is a form of humor, but used in a way to make fun of something/someone (thus inherently negative). Most people will see it as an attack (on whatever it is being made fun of), so instead of trying to understand our point of view, the readers get defensive about theirs. It’s never the best way to show/share an idea. The only thing it does is confirm that other snarky people agree with you.

  6. Max says:

    I run into this when I make analogies for logical fallacies. For example, take the argument that “X is safe because I use it and I’m still alive.” If this argument is valid, it should apply to any X that doesn’t kill you quickly, so I substitute tobacco for X. But this usually goes over people’s heads, and they think I’m saying X is as bad as tobacco. But in fact, X could be water, and their argument would still be a fallacy.

  7. Zen Diva says:

    Great points! I definitely need to keep reminding myself to be brief! I want to give every detail to convey the flavor of an experience and all my emotions. I work on increasing frequency to reduce longevity. Thanks!

  8. Doug Molitor says:

    I like to think of humor as a pyramid. Irony and wit are at the top – they make the point without offense. Sarcasm can be funnier, but also contains anger. But it beats insult comedy. Which beats actually beating someone.

  9. Thom Landon says:

    Jesse,

    I think that your overarching principles of cogency, persuasion and outcome allow us to measure effective communication and remove the hyperbole surrounding rhetoric.

    I think this applies doubly for subjects such as reason v theism.

    It may be fun and it may feel righteous, if you’ll pardon the turn of phrase, to display superior intellect against an opponent. watch or read anything by Christopher Hitchens for examples. But although it is satisfying to watch him use his mind like a scalpel to destroy illogical arguments, the questions remains about his effectiveness.

    Thom

  10. Tim Willoughby says:

    Thinking about the value or not of long/complicated words, you might rather enjoy this;

    http://www2.kenyon.edu/Depts/Math/Milnikel/boolos-godel.pdf

    Godel’s 2nd incompleteness theorem explained in words of one syllable.

    The piece is made a little more complicated than it needs to be in order to be monosyllabic, but I like the overall notion we can explain things without resorting to words that not everyone within a conversation might understand.

    One good stress test that I like to perform on my writing is to periodically give it to someone who is unfamiliar with the topic, and potentially has English as a 2nd language, to find where I’m making life difficult on them to keep up.

    • Jesse Galef says:

      Great suggestion – having someone else unfamiliar with the topic read over writing is huge (and helps overcome the curse of knowledge.)

      I’ll definitely have to check out the Godel piece – his incompleteness theorems have fascinated me but I don’t feel I have a strong enough grasp on them. Perhaps having it explained in monosyllabic words will help! Seriously, what a great idea. Thank you!

  11. Nikki Stern says:

    What a cogent, even-handed look at how we communicate (and ought to communicate), particularly when it comes to challenging, controversial or little-understood points of view.

  12. Pingback: Having Less, Giving More « War and Words

  13. Dave J says:

    Excellent points. Living overseas, I would add that humour is culturally based and that sarcasm often travels poorly between cultures. Compounding that, if your reader is working in their second or third language, they may miss “commonly understood” points. All the more reason to use simple words and explicitly say what you mean.

  14. Grognor says:

    I have agreed with this *completely* for some time and I usually sum it it up with the following quote:

    “Maybe it’s my fault I don’t understand, and maybe it’s your fault, but anyway it’s probably some combination, and moreso assigning blame isn’t going to solve the problem.”

    HIGHLY recommended reading: Wiio’s Laws – http://www.cs.tut.fi/~jkorpela/wiio.html

  15. grognor says:

    What I forgot to mention in my previous comment, though it’s unrelated, is that it’s important to emphasize to oneself that communication is a cooperative endeavor, no matter how adversarial it feels sometimes. Periodically reminding oneself of this can be a major temperamental improvement.

  16. Great tips! Good reading is damn hard writing.

    The only tip I would add: Eschew (that’s right, I used it) verbiage. Which you covered in the length tip. Concise writing is good writing and unfortunately rare.
    Well done, Jesse.

  17. Good morning,

    Part of the issue I have with this is that our shortened communication blocks, (1000 words is too many?), our limited vocabulary (in Shakespeare’s day the average vocabulary was 4 times greater than ours. So we want to eschew words now?) is having an effect on the neuroplasticity of our brains. I will concede however, that one major difference might be the monitor and the effect the electronic platforms has on our eyes and brains.

    The same can be said in politics. Communications is being turned into bumper sticker talking points, and the result is bumper sticker mentality: your basic tweet. Look where that has gotten us.

    I would advocate that we increase our vocabularies, that we once again learn critical thinking skills, and that we actual teach ethics and character development as school subjects, so that in any matter, be it intellectual or emotional, art or science, religion and politics, the average human would have a grasp not only of the concepts but of the vocabulary as well and be able to communicate with their fellow man and reduce the chances of having the wool pulled over their eyes.

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