Lies we tell ourselves about research (and one way of getting to the truth)

In an earlier post, I mentioned that “students (in general – not just law students) frequently have a much higher opinion of their ability to find things then their ability actually warrants.”  This is not just true of students – I believe many of us, both professionals information-finders and amateurs, think we are very good at finding information.  We may well be right in most cases, but in most cases we also may be looking for things that are very easy to find.  And as we all know, there are many ways for pieces of information to hide.

You can have information that hides in plain sight – the old saw about how a search for “Turkey” is just as likely to bring up recipes as it is travel guides is a true one.  Similarly, we may have many names for the same concept: “fair value accounting” is also commonly called “mark-to-market accounting.”  A search for only one of these terms may miss some very valuable information.

This is where I insert a plea for indexes and other finding aids.  “Targeted full-text search” sounds really, really good until you come up against a term like “securities fraud.”  It is a very useful descriptive term in its own right; however, it is also maddeningly general.  What sort of securities fraud are you talking about?  Do you even know?  How do you find out?  Well, one way is certainly to walk down the tried and true legal research method of consulting a secondary source like a treatise, a hornbook, an encyclopedia, or a nutshell.

Another way of approaching the search process is to consult the index of a publication (if there is one – unfortunately, they have been deemed expendable by many in the era of full text).  Now, if you have consulted my “About” page, you may say, “Oh – but you would say that: you work as an index editor!”  And yes, I do.  But I also used to use this trick as a law student, many years before I even knew what an index editor was.

When you look at an index, you are not looking at a haphazard assortment of keywords.  Usually you are looking at a selected set of meaningfully distinguished, specific terms set out in an organized way: a hierarchical map of the work in question.  And if there are two terms that mean the same thing, you will encounter a see instruction (e.g. “mark-to-market accounting, see fair value accounting”).

The clues dropped by an index can thereby increase the efficiency of a free-text search.  You can scan down the index entries for “securities fraud” and see the various types of fraud that an ingenious fraudster can commit – perhaps those would be more specific, fruitful terms for you to use in your search.  You can also get a sense of what alternate terms for your area of interest might be useful.

How often do the search terms we use initially really do the job?  Well, as in any enterprise, that depends.  But looking at an index is one way of helping to make the search process a targeted, fruitful endeavor.

“Drawing the sting”

When I was in law school, a trial practice professor of mine discussed a technique called “drawing the sting.” It referred to the strategic revelation of negative information about your client so the other side couldn’t stage a dramatic uncovering of the same information. The logic was simple: if it’s going to come out, let it come out in a way that allows the home team to retain some control over how the information is presented. This technique, when done well, also has the collateral effect of making you look frank and forthright instead of dishonest and sneaky.

The effect of drawing the sting can ripple outward from the disclosure, having impact far beyond the moment when the information is given. Therefore, whenever possible, the information has to be given in a straightforward, undramatic manner in an atmosphere lacking in emotional charge. The less emotional freight you load on to the revelation, the less it will travel.

As a topical example, consider the following scenario:

  1. Benjamin Boukpeti is the only member of the Olympic Togolese whitewater kayak team.
  2. M. Boukpeti was not considered to be a medal contender, both before the event and after the first run.
  3. M. Boukpeti’s last two runs had the kind of speed, strength, and athleticism that cause sports journalists to write things like, “heroic,” “epic,” and “fairy-tale.”
  4. M. Boukpeti won the bronze.
  5. This is the first ever Olympic medal for Togo.

Taken together, these pieces of information make a stirring, emotional story. Now add one more piece of information to that mix: M. Boukpeti has been to Togo once in his life. He was born in Lagny, France, and makes his home in Toulouse. His mother is French, his father is from Togo and Boukpeti himself holds dual citizenship. He trains with the French national team, but could not have qualified for the French Olympic team. Since he qualifies under Olympic rules to paddle for Togo, he paddled for Togo.

As I watched the coverage of his accomplishment on television, it was plain to me that this last paragraph of facts were all well known to the journalists covering the event, as they mentioned them in a matter-of-fact manner. When M. Boukpeti was interviewed afterward, he was frank and open about his background. As a result, many articles on him concentrate on his achievement rather than his nationality.

Contrast that with this report, which makes Boukpeti’s past and his representation of Togo look clandestine and shady, and imputes cynical motives to his representation of Togo. It acknowledges that his choice of nationality is within the letter of the Olympic regulations, but implies a violation of the spirit. It also implies that the facts of M. Boukpeti’s nationality are not well known and readily obtainable. (I can’t speak to the British television coverage of the event, but the information available on the Internet indicates that you don’t need a “former England & Great Britain kayaker…[and] something of an expert on the sport of canoe slalom” to “reveal… the real story behind a would-be fairytale.”)

If you mentally rearrange the order of the facts above to put the discussion of his nationality second in the numbered ranking, it probably lessens the emotional freight of M. Boukpeti’s accomplishment. The story becomes a bit less of a “fairy tale,” but no less of an athletic accomplishment. It is also how Boukpeti actually handled the facts, which seemed to smooth the ripples of most journalists’ stories about him as well. Now imagine what would have happened if those facts had somehow been concealed – the story discussed in the last paragraph would have been written everywhere, and it wouldn’t have mattered how legal his choice of nationality was: the focus would have been off the bronze and into the dirt.

Location, Location, Location

I’m going to apologize right up front here, because what I have to say is not particularly new. Unfortunately, it keeps getting repeated in different forms because people just keep getting it wrong. It’s about where you say something and how you say it. In this, the realtor’s essential mantra is also that of the good communicator:

Location, location, location.

You have a complicated story – perhaps it is technical or scientific. It is important that people understand what you’re bringing to the marketplace. So many people worry about the technical nature of their product that there are a million slide decks out there that have some version of this:

Some slide decks contain about ten versions of this type of slide. And just about anyone looking at someone else’s deck will say, “You need something different here. There are too many words, too many bullets, not enough white space in that slide.”

But the owner of that slide – he or she knows just exactly how complicated the story is, and that person is terrified of leaving something crucial out. There’s just one problem: if the story is that complicated, you are not going to explain it in a typical slide presentation. There is too much to absorb. There is certainly too much to read in the limited time available.

That’s where the realtor’s mantra comes in:

Location, location, location.

In other words: where can you put supplemental information that fills in the detail? The typical presentation is 20 minutes to a half hour. That’s an informational gatehouse with no indoor plumbing. You can’t house your weekend party of 12 guests in that kind of a venue. So what sort of communications real estate is appropriate for that 7-bedroom, 5-bath mansion of information and how are you going to direct your guests there?

White papers, journal articles, abstracts, federal filings, patents: all of these are structures where you can house those big informational galas. And the acreage you need is generally right there on your website. So do yourself and those sitting in your presentation a favor and use the presentation as a gatehouse to give out maps of the grounds and direct your listeners further up the driveway to your mansion on the web.

Silence, mortals.

Quick quiz: is the communications discipline a unique function, or is it integrated throughout a business?

Answer: both.

(Did I mention I have a law degree? Lots of my answers are variations on the theme of “it depends.”)

Digging deeper into the question, communication is always happening at all levels of a business. Unfortunately, what is communicated is often what the communicator would never intend. For example, silence is a form of communication, and a particularly pernicious one to many leaders. In the face of management’s silence, employees see only actions. In the absence of verbal messages to modulate these actions, they interpret, speculate, and talk.

Or, in other words, they gossip. When this gossip is handed from person to person, it gains an unmerited patina of credibility. As they’re waiting for a meeting to start, Robynn says to Neville, “I don’t know what’s going on upstairs, but there was a big meeting the other day that wasn’t on the usual management calendar: maybe we’re being spun off.” Later in the day, Neville turns to Fiona and says, “I’ve heard that we might be spun off,” while they’re both waiting for the microwave to free up. Two days later, in response to Chris’ frustrated rant, Fiona tells him, “They’re spinning us out.” In three easy leaps, like that grade school game of “telephone,” a bit of idle speculation is turned into an expensive problem as employees spend their workdays being distracted, worried, and unsettled instead of committing their energies to the corporate problems they are paid to solve.

Can managers always tell employees everything? The short answer is no. The long answer is a complicated and situational mix of what is sensitive, what is useful, and what is mission-critical. But a manager who continually and proactively communicates with staff gains a measure of credibility and a short period of silence is less likely to be filled with fevered speculation and gossip. The main key is the cultivation of a key question: “Who needs to know this?”

This sounds tremendously simple, it’s true – and once it is a habit firmly ingrained, it is simple. But like all good habits, it takes a lot of cultivation. Not every piece of information needs to be communicated to every person, and in the same way every time. Where many managers realize the need for communication in the big, sweeping situations, they often miss the opportunities for communications on smaller issues. The question that needs to become ingrained is, Who needs to know?

A compliment at a senior staff meeting on a project that is being handled by a subset of the manager’s staff? Who needs to know? At the bare minimum, the leader of that project should know. One approach: an e-mail to all staff members on the project, letting them know that their efforts are being noticed.

A technological change that might have some impact on the manager’s IT department? Who needs to know? IT is the obvious port of call here, but managing downstream effects is important also. Therefore, a call or quick meeting with the IT manager to make sure any necessary transition is handled smoothly – and communicated to those end-users affected might be in order.

A staff change at a major competitor? Who needs to know? What member of the manager’s staff is going to find this piece of information useful to fine-tune their approach to their job?

The daily result of such constant communication is trust. And when the spin-out is contemplated but can’t be communicated downstream yet and silence is necessary at the moment, that trust is going to be extremely valuable.

Hiring a freelance writer

Everyone has individual parameters for hiring a freelance writer.  Audiences are almost always specific, and a writer who excels at crafting speeches for senior executives may not have the requisite technical knowledge to create a software manual.

However, there is one thing that makes a freelance writer effective from your very first meeting with them: asking questions and really listening to the answers you give.

Sounds basic, doesn’t it?  But writers often like to talk even more than they like to write.  When presented with the opportunity to display their cleverness, they have a hard time passing it up.  It isn’t all about ego – a freelancer often wants to reassure you.  You’ve hired the right person for the job.  You are in good hands.  Never fear, this writer is so smart the stakeholders you are communicating with will be bowled over by the writer’s convincing way with words.

These well-meaning phrases that roll trippingly off the tongue can be a rabbit hole, however.  Valuable time can be lost while the writer goes haring off in various creative, possibly entertaining, but ultimately wrong directions.

So, the writer needs to give you the room to speak first.  They should ask questions and really listen.  Their follow-up questions should indicate that listening and be designed to elicit the core of the business problem you are hiring them to solve.  Only after you have talked for some time should the writer start making statements and offering up the beginnings of the scaffold of your new communications plan.