We don’t have that problem. Our flies aren’t that big.

During the shooting of his film “The Flying Doctors of East Africa” Werner Herzog made an interesting discovery about how humans perceive images (emphasis mine):

One of the doctors in the film talks of showing a poster of a fly to the villagers, who had never seen photographs or images of any sort. “We don’t have that problem,” they said. “Our flies aren’t that big.” It was a response that fascinated me, so we took the posters – one of a man, one of a human eye that filled an entire piece of paper, another of a hat – and conducted an experiment. I asked if they could identify the human eye, and most of the villagers couldn’t; the images were just abstract compositions to them. One man thought the window of the hut was an eye, and another pointed to the eye and said, “This is the rising sun.” It was clear that certain elements of visual perception are in some way culturally conditioned, that these people were processing images differently to how Westerners might.

Obviously, “cultural conditioning”, as Herzog calls it, plays a major role in how we perceive, decode, and understand images. We should not assume that these differences are relevant in the African steppe, only.

The media we consume, the conversations we have, the experiences we make, these all contribute to our cultural conditioning. How we see an image is influenced by this conditioning – apparently up to the degree that it’s not even given that we see the same things in an image. Let alone, decode their meaning in the same way.

So, if people don’t get the joke of our clever marketing campaign, it might be that they didn’t even have a chance to get it. They were conditioned differently and so they see the image differently.

(Of course, on the flip side, this can be turned into a powerful tool to address a specific group of people who you know will get the joke.)

The laziness of confusion

I’ve seen so many ideas being buried because the communication was confusing. Lack of clarity stole the impact and influence that many of these ideas would have deserved.

The bitter truth is that often it’s a form of laziness that’s to blame.

Because let’s face it: If we don’t focus on a clear message, we’re basically delegating that task to our audience. We’re asking our audience: please figure out for yourself what’s so great about my idea.

The thing is: We might not be too happy with their choice.

I deeply believe that the ability to focus and find clarity is among the most important skills of any communicator. When we do work that matters, one of our most important tasks is to do the hard work of focussing ourselves. It’s our very own job to make our audience see why it matters, what’s so brilliant about it, and how they can make use of it.

Why does your idea matter?

What to do when people don’t get our message

When people don’t get our message, we’re used to adding more detail. Give more examples. Explain it a little longer. (And louder.)

And in doing this we dismiss the possibility that that’s exactly the problem.

It’s been too complex from the start. Too much detail. Too much information.

Too much.

We made it harder than it should be to get what we mean.

Instead of cutting to the core, tuning in to our audience’s language, and focussing on what matters to them, we bombarded them with more and more stuff.

But that’s the lazy thing to do. Adding stuff is easy. What’s much more work is to listen carefully to our audience so that we get them rather than forcing them to get us.

And when we do get them, we can find that perfect story that just nails it and gets their attention right from the start.

Of course, finding this one story often is a lot more work than finding those thirty halfway decent ones. But it’s so much more worthwhile.

Speaking our customer’s language

A few years back, I stumbled upon the above image of a car.

I’m pretty sure that no other sales copy would have sold that car more successfully than this short shoutout: “Runs great!”

Whoever is going to buy this car is looking for a car that brings them from here to there. A car that just runs, preferably great. No professional photo-shooting with a star photographer would have resonated any better. Neither would an elaborate diagram with all the statistics about the car’s technical details, such as energy efficiency etc.

The story “runs great” just resonates with the people who this offer is for. It attaches to what the buyer already believes in. It doesn’t try to sell them something that they don’t want. It sells them precisely the thing that they do want and frames the offer in these terms, using their language.

A lot of frustration in marketing stems from trying to sound more professional when our customers are just looking for someone who speaks their language.

Don’t get killed!

When my daughter had to learn the traffic rules for her biking exam, she felt quite overwhelmed by the sheer number of rules.

I asked her what she thought the rules were for. A quick discussion expanded which led her to realise that basically, there’s only one rule for biking: Don’t get killed.

When we dug deeper, we decided to append a bonus rule: Be kind.

From that moment on, learning the rules was easy. Suddenly, it made sense to have a look over the shoulder. It wasn’t just a rule. It protected her from getting killed.

Using her arm to signal a turn wasn’t just a rule. It was there to inform a car that she’s about to change direction so the car won’t kill her.

Staying right wasn’t just a rule. It exists so that vehicles on opposing lanes don’t collide and kill each other.

Learning is a lot easier when we understand the why.

Similarly, making our audiences see why we do the things we do is a lot easier than having them sit through hours of details.

If I’d be you

“If you understood everything I said, you’d be me.” – Miles Davis

I can’t look inside your head. I can’t know what you think of when you say “blue”. Or what images pop up in your mind when you say “butter”. What feelings you have when you talk about the “2nd quarter of 2020”.

You can help me see what you see and feel what you feel by being specific and describing in great detail, using analogies, examples, stories, comparisons, definitions.

Yet, this is only the first hurdle. Once your thoughts are in my mind, they still look different than in yours. I associate different things with the same images than you do. My memories and experiences are different than yours. When your images meet my context, when your thoughts meet mine, I might understand them differently than you do or come to different conclusions than you do – even if they are the same images and thoughts.

Keep that in mind when telling your story. You shouldn’t assume that others will understand every thought you pass along. If they would, they’d be you.

The art of saying what you mean

One of the most frustrating experiences about writing a computer program is when the computer just doesn’t do what you want it to do. This is why one of the earliest lessons you learn as a computer scientist is that there really is no use in getting angry at the computer about this.

The computer does what you tell it to do. Exactly that. Nothing more. Nothing less.

It doesn’t do what you meant. It does what you said. When something doesn’t work the way you meant it to work, it means that what you said was not what you meant.

The computer is always right.

There’s really only one way of getting a computer to do what you meant: Write the code so that it says what you mean.

This is also a great rule to apply when talking to humans. Granted, you might not want to speak to humans just the way you write a program. Your audience might consider you crazy. But, you can invest just as much care in making sure that what you say is what you mean.

(Although when talking to humans, things get even more complex because communication is not about what we say but about what our audience hears.)

Juggling with thoughts

Almost anyone can juggle two balls. Many can do three. Four is rather difficult. More is impossible for most.

Juggling thoughts by keeping several things in mind at the same time is quite similar … Two? That’s easy. Three? Still easy. Four is more difficult, and then it quickly gets really difficult. The more complex the things you have to keep in mind, the more difficult it is to keep multiple things in your mind.

Of course, that’s also true for your audience. If we juggle too many balls in a speech, it will be difficult for our audience to keep track. Sooner or later they will drop a ball … and while they’re still busy picking it up again, the next thought balls are already falling to the floor.

Unfortunately, most topics – especially those worthy of being the subject of a presentation – are rather complex. Usually, three balls just won’t get the job done.

Fortunately, though, thoughts have a property that physical balls don’t have. Thoughts can combine to form larger thoughts. Thoughts can trigger other thoughts.

Apples, pears, and bananas become fruit. Fruits, vegetables and grains become vegetarian food. Vegetarian diet has effects that you first illustrate through a story and then abstract to derive a specific dietary recommendation.

Yet, at any given time, we kept a maximum of four thoughts in the air so that everyone could follow along effortlessly.

Complex in nature, yet simple in narrative.

With a clear story and a great structure, we can get extremely complex things into the minds of the audience. We just have to make sure to build the complexity step-by-step.

The people changing business

When we write a report about something, our task is not to write a text but to inform the reader.

We must not stop at correctly and completely describing all aspects of the topic at hand but lead our readers to understanding. It’s vitally important that the reader of our report understands that the product will fail if we don’t manage to bring the tolerance down to .03%. It’s not sufficient to simply describe what we see. We must make sure that our reader sees it, too.

It’s always about the reader, never about the paper. The goal of a report is not to be written but to be understood.

The same is true for communication in general. Our job is not to write a speech, design a website, or create slides but to change people’s minds.

We are in the people-changing business, not the text-writing, website-designing or speech-giving business.

What’s the ideal number of slides for a presentation?

Martin Luther King didn’t need a slide at all. Dick Hardt used 50 slides – per minute! Both used the ideal number of slides – for the story they wanted to tell on that day to that audience.

Rather than with a number of slides it’s much more useful to start with a story and then add slides as we need them. A slide is needed when it allows us to communicate something better with that slide than without it. Sometimes, we need a lot of slides, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes a slide needs a lot of time to explain, sometimes it doesn’t.

In essence, the simple (though, admittedly, not necessarily easy) answer to the question about the ideal number of slides is this: You need as many slides as you need.

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz

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