Avoid "Just the Facts, Ma'am" :: Communication Matters #002

My daughter has recently started playing the guitar. This is a tremendous joy for me, as I love playing guitar, and it’s a super cool way that she and I get to connect. So here’s the situation: she’s trying to get better, and of course she’s a total beginner. And I’ve played for 20 years, so I actually know exactly how she can get better.

So imagine I tell her this: “Every day, go to your room and shut the door. For 5 minutes, play exercises to stretch out your left hand. For another 5 minutes, work on scales in different positions and then move to arpeggios. Then spend 10 minutes playing through one of your songs at 50% speed... no more. Every time you make a mistake, stop and correct the mistake.” And so on...

How’s that going to land? Remember, she’s 10 years old. Do you think she’ll even hear all of this? 

Nope. Not a chance.

Accurate, factual communication is often not at all effective [on its own].

Now I’m a developer explaining to a stakeholder why AWS doesn’t make it easy to simply cut off spending at a certain threshold each month. I could say something like this: “The problem is that just maintaining your EC2 instances, your CloudFront distribution and edge locations, and your RDS instances costs money. We can set up AWS billing to let us know when we’re approaching a limit, and we could even add a lambda function to start cutting off services and stop the S3 buckets from serving data. We could even adjust the ACLs on your services to restrict access to reduce traffic. But costs are still incurred by keeping up your other applications. Not only that, those costs could scale up because of your auto scaling policies, and overrun your limits.” And so on...

Yeah, if your stakeholders are much like mine, they’re going to lose interest about as quickly as my 10-year old. Why? Because this is accurate, factual communication, but it’s not at all effective. 

So here’s take two with my daughter: “OK. So the first few minutes are really to get your hands going. They’re like your legs in PE, you know how you have to warm up before you run just by walking a little bit? So just warm your hands up. Maybe a few minutes, that’s all you need.

“Then do the little spider exercises I showed you, where your fingers are like spiders? Yeah. Those. And once your fingers are warmed up and moving around, I want you to start working on your song. But don’t just play it fast, we’re going to do it differently. I want you to see how slowly you can go and still play it perfectly. Weird, right? But it’s like a game. So when you have it down SUPER slow, come get me me, and I’ll bring my guitar up to your room, and we’ll see if we can both play it together, but SUPER slow.”

That’s basically the exact same set of instructions, exactly like I give them to my daughter most days. So what’s different from the first take? Well, quite a bit:

  • There’s colloquial and conversational language throughout.

  • There’s a ton of metaphor. Note the example of warming up in PE class, and the idea of her fingers moving like a spider.

  • It’s revealing information progressively. I’m only telling her what she needs to know, and I’m not overloading her with unnecessary detail. Even if that detail is important factually, it really doesn’t matter to her, right this minute.

  • I’m also doing a little bit of gamification. I’m not just making a game out of things, but actually giving her a reason to care and a specific goal outcome (and one that isn’t at all intuitive, by the way)

There’s more, but this is a good start. I’ll actually end up writing a post on each of these–and more than one post in a few cases–but for now, I want to see how you’d rephrase the example to the stakeholder using these principles. Read through that above, and think about how you’d use conversational language, and metaphor, and progressive information, and gamification to the cloud example.

Lemme see what you’d do with the earlier explanation to a customer... leave a comment with your take. I’ll pick some of the best to work through in a future post and we can all help each other get better at this.

Brett McLaughlin