Don’t tell me how to build the clock! Just tell me what time it is!

This article’s title comes from something that a former manager used to tell me all the time — often enough that he seemed very fond of saying it. Nevertheless, it’s an important message. This is not the first time I’ve written about this issue, but it’s something that occurs all too frequently. It is a problem in technical and business communication, and the issue is something that bears repeating.

I was reminded of this during our daily status update meeting this morning. The gist of this regularly scheduled meeting is that everyone has a short time — usually no more than a minute, if that — to provide a brief update of what they have going on. The key word here is brief.

One person proceeded to go into detail about some of the projects he had going (he has a tendency to do so). He’s been pretty good about keeping his updates short and to the point, but he wasn’t always like that. It took several long meetings and complaints to the manager to get him to tone it down.

For whatever reason, this morning, he reverted back to form. He started getting into details about his projects that, while important for the projects themselves, were unnecessary for status updates. It got to the point that I stopped listening to what he was saying and pretty much just zoned him out. I don’t know how long he took, but I’ll guess that he took three times longer than anyone else. Or at least it seemed that way.

This is something that everyone does (yes, I admit to doing it, too — ironically, even this very article may be too long). And it is a big problem in communication.

A part of the issue stems from human nature. We all have a limited attention span. The length of that attention span varies, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume that it’s short — say, no more than a minute (sometimes, that might even be too long). If we’re communicating something, we need to make sure that it’s short and simple — and it had damn well better be efficient.

This is why people in roles such as technical, business, UX/UI, media, and marketing communication have jobs. They are in the business of taking large amounts of information and boiling it down into a format that most people can understand.

Whenever I’m writing a user or step-by-step guide, I follow a general rule of thumb: if an instruction cannot be understood within a few seconds, it has failed. That’s when I go back and rewrite the instruction.

Most of the time, people don’t want — or don’t need — or don’t care about — details. Unfortunately, too many people trying to communicate ideas don’t understand this (and worse, they often don’t care). As a result, horrible documentation (or, in some cases, absence of) is pervasive.

Too many people don’t understand that reading is work. It takes effort to read and comprehend documentation. One of my big pet peeves is any time someone tells me, “it’s right there in the documentation,” yet when I look at it, the information I need is buried someplace where I have to fight through the noise of other irrelevant text to find it.

This issue is the basic tenet of my presentation about talking the language of technology. People don’t want detail. They just want the information they need. If they need more information, they’ll look for it.

Good communication makes it easy for a recipient to quickly get whatever information (s)he needs. Don’t make someone have to work to understand communication. Don’t tell someone how to build a clock. Just say what time it is.

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