Let’s face it, as business operators, technologists, scientists, and humans in general, we want to be right much more often than we are wrong. We want to make the best decisions and be seen as experts in our domains, so it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that the most important thing is being right. I’d argue that being right is inadequate and isn't enough to generate impact - it's only half the battle. The other half is effectively communicating that knowledge to others so they can translate what you've shared into action. Sounds pretty obvious, I admit, but I’m shocked at how often I see the tradeoff exist in practice. I used to get frustrated when I firmly believed that I was right in what I was saying, but the counterparty would argue back and forth. Instead of blaming them (external locus of control), I looked internally (internal locus of control): what am I doing wrong. So, I created this mental model, and it’s served me well ever since.
Being right, but not effective
In many cases, people can be right about their point, but either their communication skills let them (and their audience) down, or their medium of communication was not ideal. Being able to effectively frame, socialize, and reinforce ideas in an appropriate setting is just as important as being right. After all, what good is being right if no one is listening? What good is being right if you haven't helped people translate that knowledge into a productive deliberation or even better an actionable next step? Let’s look at a few examples.
- Have you ever been in a meeting where someone is spouting off statistics and facts, but no one is paying attention? That’s because they were missing the second half of the equation – effective communication. It’s all steak, and no sizzle!
- Picture this for a moment: you’re in a meeting and you’ve just presented a solid argument for a new project. Your data is sound, your logic is unassailable, and yet, the room is silent. Nobody seems to be following your story. At the moment you know that something isn't sticking, and piling more logic onto what you've already presented - even if it is right - is certainly not the answer.
- Or how about this? You have an idea and you present it to your colleagues on slack/teams/etc, and it evolves in a way that you did not expect. Nobody responded and it was dismissed, or people responded harshly, or something else that you did not anticipate.
- Last thought experiment: You're a manager and are providing feedback to one of your team members as part of a quarterly review. You came in prepared. You delivered constructive feedback, with examples, and suggestions. You thought you did everything right, but your team member was shocked and took it personally.
In my day to day, I see this take place far too often. I often hear brilliant scientists who have worked on something really cool say “let the science/data/results talk for itself”. Robust data, scatter plots and analytics of their incredible work is crammed into a few slides, or worse 100 slide decks are used to detail every pertinent point specifically. In my opinion, simply letting the data speak for itself more often than not will not stick. If it doesn’t stick, it’s not effective. And if it’s not effective, you can’t win. And it’s not just humans that suffer from this limitation. I’ve also seen AI technologies that are being asked to replicate human level thinking/work do what’s right but in a highly ineffective way. Check out this example of Github Copilot solving a simple request in the theoretically right way, but in quite possibly the most ineffective way!
With that said, being effective at the expense of being right, is also a recipe for disaster.
Being effective, but not right
Being effective and not right is equally inadequate (maybe even more so?). What’s an example of being effective but not right? Talk to a charlatan and you will know. It’s all sizzle, and no steak! What are some examples?
- Listen to polarizing media that tells falsehoods or misrepresents facts and you will know.
- There are many examples of entrepreneurs that have rallied investors, business partners, and consumers with false promises - exciting them with the potential and the future and all the jazz, but lacking the fundamentals and substance. Think of Theranos, FTX, and many others.
The list goes on. For some, it is easy to be effective while not being right, but it is highly unsustainable and not the right way to operate.
The nexus: where you win
Living at the intersection of what’s right and what’s effective might seem intuitive, but as mentioned above, it’s oftentimes not practiced. Below are a few tips to help you:
Know your audience. Before you start speaking, think about who you’re speaking to. Are they technical experts or non-experts? Are they visual learners or auditory learners? Tailor your presentation to your audience to increase the chances of them 'getting it.'
Create a storyboard: handhold your audience down a journey to help them understand / empathize with your underlying message.
Don't be afraid to use humor. Lightening the mood with a joke or two can go a long way in keeping your audience engaged. Just make sure the jokes are in good taste!
Translate... then repeat. Use terms and examples that your audience will understand. Don’t assume they know as much as you do. And if they don’t understand, don’t be afraid to simplify your explanation. Then, repeat your message multiple times - this is key for the message to stick.
Show, don’t tell. Use visuals to help illustrate your point. A picture really is worth a thousand words. Encourage dialogue about how your audience will use the information you've shared in their respective areas of the business with real examples so you ensure alignment.
Use breaks/pauses: Having pre-set breaks/pauses is key to allow you to catch your breath, and the audience to digest. It could be an opportunity to ask if there are any questions for you, or to ask the audience a question to engage them. A pause can also be an anecdote that ties everything that you just said together, and can be used as a segue into the next section.
Listen and adapt. If your audience isn’t getting it, listen to their feedback and adjust your approach accordingly. Feedback can be verbal, but visual clues will also tell you whether or not people are engaged. They will likely have valuable insights that can help you improve how to get your point across.
In conclusion, being right is important, but being able to effectively communicate your ideas is just as crucial. You can't be the smartest person in the room if no one is listening, and you certainly can't drive operational impact that way.