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Simplify Your Message, and Repeat Often (nytimes.com)
166 points by andyraskin on Nov 28, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 60 comments



This is a really interesting point:

When I was a V.C. at first, I would just ask my questions and kind of poke, poke, poke, poke. And now I’ll say: “Look, I’m going to ask some things, and this might be kind of awkward, but I’m just going to say it, and let’s work our way through it. And it doesn’t mean I don’t believe in you and your company. I just want to understand where you are and what you think. I’m going to ask some things and they might be wrong, but let’s figure some things out together.”

--

I've noticed that people have different assumptions about what it means to ask questions. Some folks (like the interviewee here) just ask away, because they want information -- their questions have no malicious intent behind them.

But on the receiving side, this can cause problems. Some people, when asked probing questions (or any questions at all), will get defensive. Just the fact that someone is asking must mean they think something is wrong. Questions like "Why did you choose Node.js instead of Java?" can be (and I think often are) interpreted as "The questioner thinks I made the wrong choice, so I have to defend my choice now."

People in the tech community seem particularly affected by this assumption. Interesting that this VC ran into that problem too.


Here is a little hack around that to not put people on the defensive. Instead of asking "Why," say "For what reasons." It makes people less defensive. (Source: Was a qualitative market researcher for 10 years, learned this through hundreds of customer interviews).


"What do you think about..." works really well for me. Whenever I'm asking my team why they are doing something, I just ask them to tell me what they think about it. Instead of why did you use node.js instead of java? I ask, what do you think about node.js as a choice instead of java?


A crisis hotline that I worked for simply banned trainees from saying "why" or "I" during training calls. Omitting those two words makes it surprisingly hard to be judgmental or confrontational.


I'm going to use this when asking about legacy code. Thanks!


My go-to answer for questions about legacy code is: "We did it for legacy reasons." ;)


Or: git blame | grep exployees.txt

(pardon my lack of grep/git command line knowledge!)


In our post mortems we tried using "How come .." instead of "why" for a while but the wording was a bit to awkward.

"For what reason .." is a great starting point I think -- thanks a lot!

It really shifts the perspective to objectively look at the "thing", without having too much ego on the line


Thank you very much. This is great advice.

I will use it for my conversation with my teenage son. I think many times before asking the "why" questions. Many times I simply don't know how to ask. Your suggestion is excellent.


> People in the tech community seem particularly affected by this assumption.

Not just people in the tech community!

"Why did you like that movie" almost seems like an accusation and will put people on the defensive.

"What did you like about that movie" is much better.


> The questioner thinks I made the wrong choice

There is that implication if the questioner mentions a specific alternative. Compare the simple: "Why did you choose Node.js?"


people need to stop being so sensitive and emotional.

seems a reasonable person can answer any question properly; calmly deriving and ignoring the intent and just simply answering the question as truthfully as possible.


I was listening to Joe Rogan and Scott Adam's podcast interview from a few days ago-- Scott thinks that people act irrationally and emotionally about 90% of the time, and are only objective maybe 10% of the time, and under narrow circumstances.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from a salesperson at my dad's office space. He said something like: "We're smart people here. And the clients we work for-- even when they're not objectively dumb, they still don't have as much experience as we do in the area we work in. It would be easy to throw up our hands and say 'phe! I can't worth with these idiots! They need to educate themselves and then get back to me.' But that's the thing. If you're the smarter one, you ought to be able to teach them and do a deal with them, despite their flaws."

So let's say that you have mastered being objective, but you still have to work with people who are stuck with their emotions. Why not prime their thoughts so that they can think more objectively? That's all John Lilly is doing-- he's recognizing the situation and helping them along.


> If you're the smarter one, you ought to be able to teach them and do a deal with them, despite their flaws.

While I agree with the premises, this is mostly not true in corporate environment. Most of the advice is ignored in favour of unrealistic goals which obviously are not met. But none the less it allows them to keep their jobs a little bit longer and when shit hits the fan, consultants gets blamed.

Toxicity of corporate environment is so unbelievably high.


It's not that simple. These sensitivities don't come out of nowhere. People learn to communicate in different environments, and so in a new environment, they can often make a lot of incorrect inferences.

If someone is defensive at what you think are innocent questions, it's probably because they're used to communicating with people who only ask questions like that when they think something is wrong. In that context, trying to work out what the other person thinks is wrong and respond to it is potentially a more effective way to communicate than simply answering the question as posed.

So if you encounter such a person, you can sneer and blame their inexperience if you like (and you're probably correct), but it's probably more effective to try and adapt your own communication.


This Q&A really hit home for me.

Q: Early leadership lessons for you?

A: I didn’t understand the role of simplicity and messaging early on. One of the things that happened at one of my start-ups was that I would get bored saying the same thing every day. So I decided to change it up a little bit. But then everybody had a different idea of what I thought because I was mixing it up.

So my big lesson was the importance of a simple message, and saying it the same way over and over. If you’re going to change it, change it in a big way, and make sure everyone knows it’s a change. Otherwise keep it static.


The best thing I've even seen in this space is the Brand Strategy Canvas. It's like the Lean Canvas or Business Model Canvas but walks you through the positioning and messaging for a startup.

At my last company, we didn't use it and had pieces of a strategy, message, and an awful name. Then we sat down and spent ~2 hours and worked through it block by block. It was painful but on the other side, we had a better name, a clearer Vision, a simple way to describe that Vision, and lots of sound bites to use in conversations, blog posts, etc.

My only complaint is that we didn't do it a few months earlier.

Here's a video of the creators walking through it: https://vimeo.com/112098978


This is super interesting and great timing for me but I can't seem to access the PDF anywhere,

Various links that I have found through google all point to what seems to be an old half used domain...

Any suggestions?


Looking for a copy of it.. drop me an email and I'll see if I can dig up a copy.


Thanks for posting about this, more people should know about it!


It's a delicate balance between refining the message to make it simpler & clearer, vs changing it because you're getting bored. At the beginning of the project it's probably important to try different approaches, but then stick with the message once you have it. Many people would say that it's best to A/B test different messages in ads, and track which one works best. I'm finding it important to pitch the idea to 50 people first, get a feel for what resonates in the room and then test the messaging in an ad.


I wish the interviewer had asked a follow up question about the value of a constant message vs constant wording.

My interpretation of the advice is that it is important to stick to a focused message, but would be okay to continually refine how the message is communicated. For example, I've been promoting the message "open source will help us to be more competitive" but have had to tailor how I communicate that message depending on who I'm communicating with. Same message, tailored messaging.


I too have this problem, or rather a different version of it. I fear my audience would get bored with the message so I unnecessarily vary it. I've since come to realise the true power of repetition, regardless of how many people think me a broken record...


Do they actually think you are a broken record, or do you think they do?

Whenever I hear someone repeat something, it does give me a sense of confidence in that person's belief,and the more I hear it, the more I think that they may be right.

Carthago delenda est.


Same audience every time?


I'm currently nearing the end of David Marquet's "Turn The Ship Around" [1]. The author talks about this same point in his book. One of the points he makes is that different people will get the message at different stages. So repeating it and being consistent are important. As far as I remember, Simon Sinek goes through the same idea in his "Start With Why".

By the way, "Turn the Ship Around" is a great book, and pretty easy to read.

[1] http://www.davidmarquet.com/


The POST Notes of the Parlimentary Office of Science & Technology are interesting examples of simplifying complex messages. Over the past few years I've tried to follow the POST Note model when creating introductory messaging or executive summary analysis.

http://www.parliament.uk/postnotes


The Lean Manufacturing A3 method promotes summarizing a change proposal or problem solving project on a single sheet of A3 11x17 paper. I've provided a Wikipedia reference below, but recommend searching for better references beginning with the keywords "Lean A3" and exploring from there.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/A3_problem_solving


> The other thing I would say is to stay close to professions that create and make things, and stay away from derivative professions like finance. I think makers increasingly have the power in our society.

Wow, interesting words from someone who works in finance.


Like for example speaking at a 4th grade level and having simple four word slogans?


FTA: "I remember when I was in second grade, we needed a new TV. All my friends would just go to the store and buy one, but my dad bought a Heathkit, and we had to put together the parts."

What an awesome parent.


Although message consistency is important, what message are you trying to communicate, and to whom?


Please let's ban paywalled articles or else change the link to a google search so that the free version can be clicked.


The web link is the google search. Paying for news is arguably one of the ways to improve news quality, and quality news is valued by many HN users. The submission includes the source. If you don't want to visit a paywalled source, HN already provides you with the information you need to make that decision.


> Paying for news is arguably one of the ways to improve news quality, and quality news is valued by many HN users.

The NYT has lost its position as the paper of record and has lost so much credibility. I used to be close to re-subscribing, but the horrible coverage of the 2016 election has helped me vow never to subscribe again. The NYT is America's Pravda and it continues to disgrace itself by trying to create a narrative to supports its political interests (Judith Miller, etc.)

Posting paywalled stories is an attempt to help the organization generate revenue, much like posting a link that adds an item to cart and funnels the user right to the checkout page.


I don't understand your point.

- Is paying for news categorically bad, or is it OK?

- If it is bad, why do you think volunteers will magically produce better results than paid journalists/editors/etc.?

- If it is OK that news gets paid for, why do you object to posting paid news sources on HN?

- If you do not object to paid sources, but only to some sources, and the sources are indicated when the link is posted, why do you think they should the system should prevent the links from being clicked rather than let users choose which sources to visit?


> Is paying for news categorically bad, or is it OK?

Imagine if many HN posts were links to academic journals with subscriptions costing $250 per year. There's nothing wrong with it, but it's not fun to continually click on links and be greeted by a paywall.

> If it is bad, why do you think volunteers will magically produce better results than paid journalists/editors/etc.?

It has nothing to do with how the writers are paid, it has to do with how the publication generates revenue.

> If it is OK that news gets paid for, why do you object to posting paid news sources on HN?

I simply don't like clicking on a link and finding myself at a paywall. I'd prefer to be able to filter out all such links and avoid ever knowing they're there. They amount to teaser clickbait headlines for content that is not free to read.

> If you do not object to paid sources, but only to some sources, and the sources are indicated when the link is posted, why do you think they should the system should prevent the links from being clicked rather than let users choose which sources to visit?

The source is low contrast and I rarely notice it when skimming the home page. My suggestion of converting the link to a google search to allow the content to be freely accessed would solve the problem.


FWIW, I believe outlets are shutting down (or have already shut down) the Google search loophole.


I'm curious if you could recommend some alternative sources for news?

Every media source has bias - is the NYT really any worse than others?


> I'm curious if you could recommend some alternative sources for news? Most of the stories are readable for free in an incognito window if you google the article's title.

> Every media source has bias - is the NYT really any worse than others?

The NYT is far worse, simply because great measures are taken to make the content seem like actual unbiased news. Nobody minds editorial content on the editorial page, but the NYT has grown increasingly bold with its "narrative" where stories serve to reinforce a predefined worldview, which is essentially a form of propaganda.

The paper runs a small number of actual unbiased articles, and a small number of quality stores about progressive causes, but those serve to help disguise its true nature.

Ever since the Judith Miller fiasco the paper has gone down hill. What was previously simply omission of newsworthy content has become outright promotion of ideas.

I suppose one explanation is that the NYT has "fans" of a worldview who simply want to pay for a specific narrative. That's fine, I guess, but it's not actually news.


You still haven't mentioned any alternatives - I would be interested in knowing if there are some unbiased and reputable sources for news out there, though I am doubtful of their existence.


Wall Street Journal is my favorite. It is obviously pro-business and more conservative, but it doesn't try to hide that fact. I enjoy something that's a little out of my worldview as long as its not trying to be deceptive.


The only journalist I currently respect is Glenn Greenwald. Others succumb too easily to the temptation to include too many small "in group signals" followed by ad hominem attacks and weak arguments.


Good way to get around NYT is open an Icognito window and paste the link, or use mobile which has a different article count already viewed.


[flagged]


Please don't add politics to a thread unnecessarily. HN is not the place for that.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


IMO, pointing out the similarity between what Lilly preaches and what was — love it or hate it — a successful strategy in another field (that happens to be politics) is relevant and apolitical.


Technology is intertwined with politics. Perhaps if engineers and technologists engaged more, and more effectively, with the political process we'd see better representation in government.

The way we discuss politics likely needs an adjustment in order to move away from win-lose thinking and debate to win-win thinking and collaboration.

Edit: I do agree that it is makes HN less enjoyable when off-topic discussion overwhelms article-focused discussion, so generally favor on-topic posts. Often, the policy and governance issues relevant to posts are both value-added and on-topic.


Agreed all around.

The way we discuss politics likely needs an adjustment in order to move away from win-lose thinking and debate to win-win thinking and collaboration.

This is the crux of it, I think. I've been thinking about this topic a lot, and watching how discourse develops here at HN (nothing scientific, mind you). I've seen plenty of others make similar comments.

Something I've amused myself with is how often I come across a comment that I agree with, and then find it's made by someone who I disagree strongly with on some other issue. Which isn't all that surprising really, given how evenly split the election was. Humans aren't binary: there's got to be a lot of overlap there. A lot of common ground to build on.

Anyway, this is far off-topic now. I appreciate your thoughtful comment!


I would love to see this rule applied consistently.


I agree. HN isn't supposed to have so much political content.

Help be part of the solution. Flag politically charged articles. Call out in a civil, non-partisan way comments that are injecting politics needlessly into the conversation. Submit and upvote tech articles you find interesting.


I am glad I am not the only one who feels this way. I love a good political fight as much as the next person, but there is a time and a place. I come here for tech discussions.

I can't flag yet, but I'll do all the rest.


The guidelines do not ban politically charged content; they only ban political content that is not "evidence of some interesting new phenomenon." Flagging all political content is not consistent with that.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


Yup. There's no ban on political content across the board. Which is why I specifically said "politically charged articles". I'm in no way suggesting flagging all political content. If you think I am, please let me know what gives you that impression and I'll work to be clearer in the future.

From the guidelines:

Off-Topic: Most stories about politics, or crime, or sports, unless they're evidence of some interesting new phenomenon

Please avoid introducing classic flamewar topics unless you have something genuinely new to say about them.

I think flagging politically charged submissions—particularly those that have shown themselves to lead to largely repetitive non-constructive flame wars—is consistent with the guidelines. That second quote is from the comment guidelines, but I think it's fair to apply the same standard to submissions as well.

Edit to add: Are there recent topics on HN that you think have been unnecessarily flagged? Some that you've found particularly useful?


Political content worth talking about pretty much by definition is politically charged, or so it seems to me. If it isn't, then what is there to say?


We prefer to (and have to, anyway!) rely on the community for this, and this case is a good example of the downvoting and flagging mechanisms being well-used.


> Off-Topic: Most stories about politics, or crime, or sports, unless they're evidence of some interesting new phenomenon.

The Trump phenomena is a new, interesting phenomena, though. People still have no idea how he won, I sure as hell don't.


I thought the exact same thing. In fact, I clicked through and was disappointed that the article was not an analysis of Trump's strategy…


I think I get it. Let me try:

"Make America Great Again!" "Make America Great Again!" "Make America Great Again!"

Ok. Got it.


Spot on. Simple focused. Connecting on the deepest possible level. It was sad that the vehicle carrying it was not the best one. But it is incredibly strong and potent.


#FightingForUs, #StrongerTogether, or is it #ImWithHer today?

>The importance of a consistent message is all the more important given the candidate Clinton is on a collision course to face in November: master promoter Donald Trump. --Boston Globe, May 2016




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