A decent sized part of my job most weeks involves writing. I’m often teaching writing, editing writing, or helping others develop strategies for communication that involves writing. A common question from most people, whether spoken or implied, is, will my argument succeed?
People hope to be correct. They hope to convince everyone with whom they communicate. And of course this never fully happens. Of course our arguments fail, at least a little, when they meet real ears, real minds, real hearts. A word is out of place, or worse, offends. A phrase is overly complicated and leaves a jumbled mess in the listener’s mind. Sound and meaning clash. On the diamond of language, there are so many ways to swing and miss. (For example, that last sentence. Its wrongness began when I didn’t specify that I was talking about a baseball diamond. As a reader, your mind likely went one way — perhaps toward marriage or at least toward jewels — until the image of swinging and missing jerked you back, like a curmudgeonly dog owner, toward my intended meaning.)
I call this process — of failure — the car buying theory of communication. The second you drive a new car off the lot, it loses value. The second you press send on an email, the second you begin speaking at a microphone, the second you publish a book, your intended communication begins to degrade.
But you’ve read Refreshing Wednesday before (all six of you), so you know there’s a silver lining, an invitation, call it a silver invitation because it’s Friday and the sun’s out. At the point of failure, at the point of the degradation of your communication, your opportunity as a communicator begins.
Talk and you’re going to learn about what people don’t understand. Write and you’re going to learn about what people fear. Propose and you’re going to learn about what people would prefer to ignore or the ways they are absolute geniuses at avoiding change or discomfort. Speak and you’re going to learn about people, in general, and your audience, in particular. Communicate and, best of all, you’re going to set the stage for something more important than your own outbound marketing, your own pushed notification, your own needs, your own knowledge. You’re going to set the stage for listening and learning.
The car loses value once you drive it from the lot, sure, but you get to drive it. You get to experience what it feels like to have actual wind in your actual hair. To move with someone from point A to point B to point C. These are good things, deeply human things.
I wrote this creative essay for some of my favorite people in ed. storytelling: Jessica, Ann, and Ari. Their vision is pure. Here’s a sound recording of the essay if you’re into that kind of thing. As you read, see if you can find the line from Robin Wall Kimmerer. I reveal it in the sources at the end.
A few months ago, I tweeted from the sideline of a soccer practice:
My son’s soccer coach just worked his team through the same play for 20 minutes. He then said, “that might happen once in the game tomorrow, but it could change the outcome one way or the other.”
I noted this scenario — publicly — because I thought it was a brilliant example of teaching. In a high stakes situation, you can only expect to be able to do the things you have practiced. Luck isn’t a viable strategy. I left the field seeing my own work in the classroom with a bit more clarity.
Again this week I had an experience where someone with a job title other than “teacher” reminded me of some very effective teaching practices — and pushed me to both consider and extend my own. For me, the lesson was heightened because it snuck up on me. I wasn’t expecting or looking for professional development. I was expecting to make ravioli from scratch.
Specifically, my family had signed up for “a cooking class where chefs and farmers from Agriturismo Constantino [would] teach participants how to make ravioli from scratch with ingredients found locally in the Calabria area.” At exactly noon on President’s Day (a day off from school), we connected to Zoom and heard the chatter of the Italian language mixed with English phrases and the clanking of chef’s tools. And after some quick introductions and orientation, we were up to our literal elbows in mounds of soft flour and dripping eggs. Exactly, in other words, where we wanted to be.
Looking back, it was clear that the chef wasn’t trained as a teacher. He forgot to think ahead a few times, forgot to tell us to get the water boiling or that we would need to convert some ingredient measurements. His skill and intuition and ability to improvise in the moment, no doubt, worked against some teaching basics: breaking down and presenting steps, articulating hidden or seemingly obvious knowledge, uncovering the uncommon parts of common sense. To butcher a bad phrase, those who can do, often can’t teach.
But, again looking back, that wasn’t quite right. Our chef turned out to be an especially good teacher in three particular ways.
1) Anticipating and heading off errors
As he led us through the recipe, the chef often stopped to predict our mistakes and redirect us. At one point, for example, just as we were about to set our dough aside, he told us we would probably need to add a little water to the mass to prevent it from drying out too quickly. A few steps later, right as I had dropped a blob of filling into a ravioli shell, he said, “some of you will just drop the filling onto the shell, but you want to roll it into a hard ball first. This will help it stay together when you put it in the water.”
We need teachers, of course, because the path to knowledge and skill acquisition is sometimes hidden or counterintuitive. You either have no idea where to walk or have to be told that what feels like the right way is actually the wrong way. A good teacher is there to point to the path, to walk with you until you’ve picked it up, and to watch with great interest as you begin to move on your own, maybe somewhere the teacher has never been.
2) Offering feedback at critical moments to ensure things are “up to spec”
At one point, the chef said, “now show me your sauce.” My daughter lifted our pot up to the camera and waited. When the chef looked at ours, he said, “it’s too thick. Add more milk.”
My daughter was disappointed. She wanted to impress this guy — a genuine Italian chef. But she had such a clear path forward, such a direct line to the improvement she sought, that she didn’t dwell on the tiny shame that pinked her cheeks. She added more milk, stirred the sauce, added a bit more, and then went back to the well for more feedback.
By this point, I was paying more attention to the teaching at hand than the ravioli. This chef had a standard in his mind. It wasn’t personal — he knew, through long research, what kind of sauce a ravioli wanted to swim in. Your sauce either had the right consistency or you had to make some kind of adjustment to bring it closer to spec. It didn’t matter if you were forty-something or eleven. If you were in the kitchen, you were worthy of feedback. The chef kept things moving, kept things light, but never took his eye off the gap between where his students were and where they needed to be.
3) Connecting with each and every student
I also noticed that, when transitioning to a major step in the process, the chef wouldn’t move on until he checked in with every student. He went student by student, calling them by the name in their Zoom frame, and made us show him our dough, our filling, our sauce, the final shape of our raviolis. Every student, and every student’s work, was seen, acknowledged, paid attention.
Miraculously, we were also “on the clock” — few tasks are as time bound as cooking — and the chef had a big event at the back end of our smaller event. He may have rushed a step or two in the process, but he never rushed past a student.
So here’s where I’m a little envious of the chef from Calabria: the meaning and relevance of his lesson was literally baked into it. He ended class by making us eat our own cooking for homework. If our process worked, we had a great lunch. If our process was flawed, our lunch would follow suit. In my house, our ravioli was a bit chewy; the dough was too thick. We made a note on the recipe before tucking it into our favorite cookbook. Next time, we’ll cut the recipe with some 00 pastry flour and work the rolling pin more industriously.
As for my teaching, my note to self is more challenging and less certain: How can I design lessons that produce student work that has relevance and meaning for students? How can I help my students eat their own cooking and update their own recipes in response?
Here’s Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor who studies global, virtual workforces, in conversation with Kevin Delaney. I like that she differentiates between “digital tool usage issues” and “etiquette” and refuses to compromise on the latter.
[When] people send an email, it could be even an FYI email—you better acknowledge it, in a remote environment, and say thank you. ‘Got it. Thanks.’ It’s something so small, but it conveys that I hear you. I see you. I appreciate it. To send out emails, or some emails, people have labored to generate it. And there’s no acknowledgement for it. It’s a big fail. It’s okay in an in-person environment where you see people. You’ll run into them, you’ll have lunch, you’ll have meetings. But in a remote environment where you hardly see people, that is unacceptable. Some people say, well, I can’t handle saying thank you. And to all these people: if you have digital tool usage issues, then that’s a whole other problem. But our etiquette has to be different in a remote environment in order to instill confidence in others.
Morgan Housel has taught me a lot about writing and communication. He knows the value of a good story and manages to explain complicated subjects — especially involving money and psychology — in simple ways. Writing about ideas that “changed his life,” Housel points to “multi-disciplinary learning” and uses communication as an example:
Once you see the roots shared by most fields you realize there’s a sink of information you’ve been ignoring that can help you make better sense of your own profession. I didn’t appreciate how important communication is to providing investment advice before reading about how many doctors struggle to communicate effectively with patients, leading to patients who don’t stick with treatment plans and are resistant to lifestyle change.
Below you will find some other angles on the skill that’s as important for doctors as it is for finance professionals as it is for teachers as it is for parents (as it is for humans). Here’s the collected Refreshing Wednesday posts on Communication:
- Communication, luckily, is a practice.
- Once you learn about the transmission and ritual view of communication you’ll start to see it everywhere. H/T to Jay Rosen.
- Same topic (immediacy and communication), but this time the insight comes from . . . a CVS receipt?
- A simple formula for communication that is actually really hard. H/T to Monsignor Paul Tighe and Aric Jenkins.
- Everything I know about email communication. H/T to Reshan Richards and Eric Hudson. (And here’s a bonus tidbit from Tsedal Neeley who is soon-to-publish what looks like an important book on remote and hybrid work.)
This is a great read for science teachers, science students, researchers, and anyone interested in communication. It’s about the difference between being an authority in a field and being able to communicate, clearly and at the right level, outside of that field.
Here are some of the author’s beliefs:
Communicating science beyond the academic bubble is necessary to enhance public understanding of health and environmental issues and help individuals make well-informed personal decisions.
[Scientists] who engage in science communication must acknowledge that their area of expertise is deep but narrow, and recognize the limitations in their own knowledge.
It is equally imperative to emphasize that being an expert on a topic doesn’t automatically make a scholar qualified to communicate it to a nonscientific audience.
Science communication is a science in and of itself, one that requires rigorous training and instruction.
The mere title of “scientist” lends us a certain authority, and with that authority comes the responsibility to ensure that our communication with the public is accurate and clear.
H/T to Tomorrow’s Professor Postings.
A quick flip through the index of Blending Leadership shows that Reshan and I devoted a small percentage of our text to the topic of obsolescence (pages 147 – 148, 151, and 154-157 to be precise) .
Here’s a good summary of why we thought this topic needed to be on the mind’s of leaders:
[Let’s] turn our attention to to tech integration’s unruly cousin: obsolescence. Though it is true that there are always new tools emerging, it is also true that some of the tools upon which we come to depend — habitually — change continually or even disappear completely. Blended leaders must be prepared to grapple with the effects of obsolescence on communities of practice; they must be prepared to think about and manage through the demise of those online applications and services that have gained a user base with their schools [or businesses]. Sometimes you spend a lot of time getting people online, into a space, only to have to move all of them off. (147)
I bring up obsolescence today, was prompted to bring it up, in fact, because of a story I noticed recently. Here’s how it was reported in Slate:
Adobe Flash went dark on Dec. 31. The software had been flickering out since 2017, when Adobe announced it would discontinue Flash with three and a half years’ warning.
Reminder statements, press attention, and pop-ups warning about Flash’s discontinuation all followed. But despite the ample time to prepare, multiple government and corporate systems across the world were still caught by surprise when the Flash plugin finally died.
The article goes on to discuss how planned and publicized obsolescence of Adobe Flash set off some rather nasty dominoes at places as established and varied as China Railway Shenyang, the South African Revenue Service, and The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Like most children, I’d imagine, my children ask me this from time to time: what do you do all day?
They know that I teach one English class and that I’m also a school administrator. They know that I squeeze in some writing when I can. But they have no idea what I’m doing when I’m in meetings, which take up a lot of my days and sometimes nights. On the surface, especially when we’re at home sharing work spaces, it looks like I spend a lot of time just talking with people.
That’s true . . . with a twist . . .
I spend a lot of time asking people questions so that they will talk to me, think out loud in front of me, uncover solutions or opportunities within earshot of me. I spend a lot of time, in other words, converting what is hidden or silent or garbled into something to which I can listen deeply. If I reach that point, my highest point of contribution is usually complete (the speaker figured it out) or just about to begin (I offer what I can offer).
Here are some questions I asked this week that led to particularly generative listening moments for me.
- Are you looking for input on your decision or input on the planning that will result from your decision?
- Where do you think an organization like ours should put its energy and resources over the next few years?
- What, specifically, are you practicing in order to get better in this area? How do you know it’s the right thing to practice? What does the practice actually look like?
- Are we talking about first order effects or second order effects?
- What would you write if you had to deliver this memo in the next thirty minutes?
- What would the meeting agenda be if you had to write it in the next fifteen minutes?
- What can we take out?
- If they could only use their attention on one part of that assignment, what part would matter most? Why not cut out all the rest?
- How was that argument constructed to be convincing to you? Now that you’ve thought about that, are you still convinced?
- If you could only keep three ideas from that presentation, what would they be?
- We know how it works now, but in what ways is it also beautiful?
- I just gave you some honest feedback . . . what words specifically express how you are feeling right now?
- Anyone else I should talk to about this?
- Are you looking for an opinion or just an ear?
- We’ve seen what stress looks like for you — you worked really hard at _____ — so what does rest look like?