In the wise words of Elbert Hubbard “logic is a tool for furthering prejudice.” On this week’s episode of the Postlight Podcast, Paul & Rich unpack this quote and talk about how best to communicate facts and logic. We share some tips on how to communicate facts in a way that actually engages people and talk about why using rhetoric rather than fact is a better way to get your point across. And in the end, we of course tie this all back to software.
Rich Ziade I’m vacationing this week, Paul, but I decided to read a book about the Swine Flu pandemic by the pool.
Paul Ford Well, you gotta wind down.
RZ Don’t judge. [Rich laughs] You gotta wind down. [music fades in, plays alone for 14 seconds, ramps down]
PF Yes, Richard?
RZ How are you?
PF Ohhhhh, doing great. Doing great. Getting by in a crazy pandemic world.
RZ We’re having breakfast and I make homemade oatmeal. I do a really good job with oatmeal. I experiment.
PF Are you a steel cut oats kind of guy?
RZ You know the steel cut thing pisses me off. That’s like pole caught tuna is another one that I love.
PF Yeah, you got to work hard. I mean, the thing about steel cut, because I make it almost every week is you’re looking at an hour.
RZ Yeah, what we do is we pre-cook it and refrigerate it.
PF Mhm, that’s what I do too.
RZ It comes as globs of stuff and then we take chunks out and reheat them. But that’s not what this podcast is about. You know what this podcast is about?
PF Not oatmeal!
RZ Not oatmeal! My son was eating oatmeal, beautifully prepared oatmeal. And he turned to me and he said, ”Dad, how many cars are in the world?” And I go, ”Hey, Google” because I have a Google Home sitting right behind me. ”How many cars are there in the world?” And Google bless its heart says, ”According to the website, blah blah blah.org, there are 112 million cars in the world as of 2018” or whatever.
PF There’s so many more, there’s so many more.
RZ But I realized something. I realized what has happened…
PF 1.4 billion, for God’s sake.
RZ Okay, I was paraphrasing Google, I apologize.
PF Google has the nicest voice. She’s the nicest.
RZ It’s a he.
PF Oh you have a he?
RZ I have a he. We switch it up every so often. So anyway, what I realized was this, and it made me think about, you know, for those listening to this podcast 20, 30 years from now we’re in the middle of a pandemic, a COVID-19 pandemic. And it made me realize how we perceive what Google has done to our perception of the finality and accuracy of information that you can ask a question. And you can and I’ve done this I’ve done I’ve done it in ambiguous ways, man, and it is frightening because I’ll type red haired guy from that movie about the action.
PF Yeah, but that’s Google language.
RZ Yeah, fine.
PF We’ve all learned to speak in that weird algorithmic search language.
RZ It’s incredible.
PF Animal, yellow hair, big cat. And it’s like yeah, Lion, but your brain isn’t getting a lion.
RZ Can we pause a moment? Okay, we can let’s put aside the ethical questions and the moral questions and whether it’s too big of a company and if it should be broken up.
PF 10,000 Twitter accounts just got launched because you said that. [Rich chuckles]
RZ Yeah well good for Twitter.
PF Can’t put it aside.
RZ Fine. But!
PF Okay, but anyway, regardless…
RZ It’s incredible, right? It’s utterly incredible. And then it made me realize something else and it made me realize when the pandemic started, this guy comes on CNN and he explained to me exactly how to wipe down my Chinese food containers when they came into the house.
RZ And then I thought to myself, ”wow, that’s really great, accurate information.”
PF Mm hmm. From CNN, yeah.
RZ Right. And then yeah, weeks go by, and then it turns out I don’t have to wipe down my containers.
RZ Or wait no, it’s first It started with don’t eat the salads eat the hot food because the hot temperatures will kill the virus.
PF No we wiped down all of our groceries when they would come into the house.
RZ Yes, now I’m hearing Well, no, don’t don’t worry about that.
PF Then there’s always a question like what do I do with this melon right? Because Am I gonna put a bleach wipe on the melon? [yeah] How good is the skin?
RZ All of it, right. And it made me realize something and I’m actually gonna bring this back to Postlight and software. Believe it or not! Okay, though your melon comment derailed me here badly.
PF Sorry about that.
RZ No, it’s okay. What it made me realize is that that we’ve become conditioned to seeking out information or seeking out anything in neat, tidy packages, like clear answers, concise answers. Millions and millions of computers are thinking really hard to give me the right answer. I want the right answer. I want it now. And it better be right. And we’re finding is we this is a brand new virus, relatively speaking, we’re still learning about it. It’s mutating. That’s the best part. I wonder if Google’s algorithms have factored in, well, you know, it wasn’t as contagious. Now, it’s more contagious because it mutated. I’m like, Really? Really, dude. Yeah, seriously, that’s where we are now. So it’s mutating and etc, etc, etc. So we’re learning constantly, and there is no true accuracy. I close my eyes and I see curves on charts.
PF Mmm, mhm. Yeah. Those little arrows that pointing up to the right, those are bad.
RZ Yeah. And then the you know, it’s like this is today and then here’s where we predict it will go and then The cone of uncertainty beyond today is you could drive a truck through it. Nobody knows a whole lot, but people seek out and are so hungry for that information. So it causes a couple things to happen. One, misinformation, right? Because people seek that clarity and that absoluteness it gets filled by a lot of conspiracies that just are very tidy, right? They’re just neat. They’re easy to read, and whatnot. And I’m reading a book right now called Influenza, and it’s the exact same movie, dude. It’s the exact same thing and you would think computers and search engines, and all of it would bring us to a better place. And it’s the exact same thing.
PF Technology doesn’t change culture. The technology amplifies and accelerates culture, like in the in the how fast it changes and oscillates. But it’s the same stuff, man over and over again. It’s tricky.
RZ It really is tricky.
PF Let me give you something back, which is have you ever looked at an email you wrote 20 years ago?
RZ No. Ooof.
PF Okay, well, no, I’m not talking about…
RZ English is my second language. I just want to point that out.
PF Sure, sure. Great. Now like, you go back, I have an archive of all my old emails. And sometimes I’ll do a search and you know something about hypertext, right? It’ll turn out I was writing about it when I was 20. And I was or 22. And I was sending an email a friend with some big web ideas in the early days of the web. And I’ll go back, I’ll be like, oh, what was I thinking then? And you know, what I was thinking exactly the same thing I’m thinking now. Like, just, I didn’t have the information. I didn’t have as much knowledge. I didn’t have the tools that I have or the resources, but my brain was roughly the same brain thinking the same thoughts. Now, if you asked me before I went and looked at that email. You know, what were you thinking back then I’d be like I was, I was like a cave person. I had no idea what was going on. That’s not true. I had tons of ideas. I just didn’t have the context. And I feel this is also true of culture, which is just like we kind of keep reinventing the same patterns over and over. Again, and every new generation is like I just discovered television. You know, sometimes it’ll be on someone on Twitter. It’s just sort of like there’s this amazing show I love called The Sopranos.
RZ You know, I think what you’re touching on here is we’re constantly grappling like we’ll always be grappling, right. And I think when you’re in a position where you’re supposed to talk to the world, whether it be on Twitter, or whether it be frankly, and here’s how I’m bringing it back to Postlight, we’re a digital strategy design engineering, wonderful organization, global in nature, building amazing platforms and tools for that’s our marketing pitch. I snuck it into the conversation here.
PF Mhm good job, email@example.com. That’s the email.
RZ Whether you’re talking to your team at a company, whether you’re talking to your stakeholders, here’s the challenge. They seek that tidiness, they seek clarity from you, if you’re a leader, they seek it, they want it they want to know you did the hard work and that you’ve boiled it down for them. I want to give two pieces of advice. We often oftentimes try to steer towards advice and not just bitching and complaining on this podcast. One, parse your words, parse your words really carefully. Sit with them. Make the slide, write the words down, then get away from it for a day and come back to those words. parse the words very carefully, because it’s going to come down to a few words. What’s happened right now with, you know, bless Twitter’s heart. But Twitter is anti-workshopping is anti-editing, right, Twitter is blurted out, say it, and they keep score by impact, right. But when you’re talking to people, whether you’re a leader of a nation or a leader of a team of four, parse your words, and be careful with them, because they’re going to latch on to them, right, you’re leading, and it’s meaningful. And if you could be a customer, you could be a stakeholder, but your words are going to be they’re going to carry a certain amount of weight. So when I say parse What I mean is scrutinize them. Think carefully about them, replace them, workshop them effectively, because they’re really, really important. What that means is, if you don’t know for sure you need to bake that into how you’re communicating and how you’re talking.
PF Give us an example here, we’re getting very abstract.
RZ Okay. Let’s go back to the pandemic.
PF Okay, communicate something to me.
RZ The scientists are boring. They’re so boring, right? They’re trying to say words and it sounds like the same words over and over again. But what they’re actually trying to do is fold a big long document and new study into some advice. Like they’re trying to boil it down, right? They’re trying and it’s not interesting. It’s not clickbait-y, it’s just shitty summary that hopefully is good for you that they’re trying to hand to you and so that you can take it forward and use it usefully. Right? And that is hard to do. Because a they’re competing, they’re competing with conspiracy theories and all kinds of like, really exciting information that is going to garner emotion and they’re just trying to boil it down. Right? That’s hard for them to do right now, because they’re getting up in front of what happens to be a president that really likes that kind of fiery language, right? Exciting language that’s going to get you motivated.
PF Here’s what you’re getting at, right. Like you’re pointing out that when you’re communicating outward about something big and important in one of these moments, and I’m assuming this also was true in 1918, as well, right? The facts actually aren’t on your side, people are overwhelmed. And so you actually have to stimulate and interest them to a degree that and I’ve seen this as a technical communicator over and over again. People are like, the facts are on my side. Science is on my side. I know what to say. And I’m going to say I’m going to say it is clear and straightforward way as possible. I’m going to tell you what I’m going to say. I’m going to say it. I’m going to tell you what I said, God help us because I believe in human beings. They’re going to hear me and they’re going to understand the way forward and that could be how we are running a business, that could be how we are responding to the pandemic, that could be what you need to do when it comes to wearing a mask. The absolute damn truth of it is and this is as someone who is well regarded as a technical communicator, first of all the facts don’t matter. Get the facts right but then throw them out of the piece and then just go rhetoric all the way.
PF Point to one chart. Be like ”you see that chart? That chart reminds me of my childhood.”
RZ Yeah, I need to tip ExxonMobil’s agenda three degrees to the left because of climate change. If I cannot go and plop an 800 page study into the lap of the CEO of ExxonMobil. I can’t do that. Right. In fact, that guy is used to getting like five minutes snippets of information to make decisions on, right. How are like that process of translating all of that information, all of that science down to something that’s going to A, connect emotionally for someone right? He has to connect to it. It’s not just pure, he’s not a computer, such that he’s going to make a slightly different decision that could actually impact the climate because he’s ExxonMobil, right? How are you going to boil that? That’s so hard to do. I mean, the big consulting does this, right? They give you that, you know, the smaller the deck, there’s that saying smaller deck, the bigger the engagement. [mhm] It’s like three slides and twelve bullets.
PF That’s not a saying. You said that.
RZ Oh. [Paul laughs]
PF It’s good. I’ll take it.
RZ No, someone said it. I heard it elsewhere. It might have been a dream, Paul. [Rich laughs]
PF No, I think he just shared Postlight’s business plan. [Rich laughs] Okay, but that, no, no, but hold on.
RZ You, let me restate what you just said. The facts are meaningless. Boil it down, literally boil it down to rhetoric and use that.
PF This is real. I used to work with very, very good editors. And I was editing a piece and I’ve probably told told the story in the podcast before but one of the most important stories I’ve learned about communication, and every fact lined up, I got the writer to kind of support everything we were reading and it was going to get factchecked. Like it was an accurate piece. And I watched as the editor who was my boss just cut all the actual statements of fact, out of the piece, national magazine. He’s like, if it’s here, why do we need it? Right? Like, well, I’m always gonna favor the rhetoric. I’m what I refer to that in my head, I always call that jazz hands. People who know me as a writer, think of me as a technical communicator. But it’s about 10%. And the pace is very slow. You can only get one or two ideas on a page, max. And their little ideas, not big ones. And what happens is people get very intellectually stimulated and excited by communicating in general, they’re like, I have to get what’s in my brain out to the world. And you see this in a business and professional context all the time. I’m going to give you all 500 slides so you know how smart I am and you know that I’ve done my homework and then we’re going to go forward.
RZ It’s worth saying this out loud. You’re still telling the truth.
PF Of course you’re telling the truth! You better be.
RZ Because there be there are people who are brilliant rhetorical speakers that manipulate the truth. That falsify, right?
PF They figured out the hack, which is I don’t even need facts. I can just go straight for the rhetoric, do whatever the hell I want and get the same impact. But what happens and this is our more scientific friends, what they tend to do and are more engineering focused friends, they tend to go the counterbalance to this are statements of truth. [hmm] And humans don’t give a shit. And I hate to say it about humans because I’m a big fan of them in general. But when you when you drop truth bombs on them, they go…ehhh.
RZ We live in New York State and our governor’s Andrew Cuomo.
PF There’s a lot to unpack just right there.
RZ But he did something interesting a couple months ago, he really you know, the idea of wearing a mask is key right to containing the pandemic. [yeah] And he, he shifted gears. He’s like, we’re gonna do a contest. I want ad agencies to come out and make 30 second ads and if you’re the winner, we’re gonna air your ad, and we’re going to read it like I think they wrote a song. He had been every so often he comes out and it’s just a big, it’s a big tapestry of masks knitted together that made a curtain behind him that they made the quilt. Yeah, he’s he’s done with the scientific argument. He’s like, I just got to get this out.
PF Think about those sessions. What do you remember from his press conferences every day? What I remember is him going and now a personal note. [yes] Right. And he would talk about his daughters. It was ridiculous. And I mean, God, Cuomo, whatever your opinion on him, we can all admit, he’s got weird divorced dad energy. Just spraying out of him. Right. [Rich laughs]
RZ But I think he understood, he’s like, I just need to get I need to get people to do this. And I know I can’t send links to New England Journal of Medicine. That’s not going to work. Right. And I think everyone, anyone, frankly, you don’t even need to be a leader if you’re interacting with others, right? How are you translating what you know, as pure knowledge, that is just just wisdom. And it’s right. How are you translating that for your audience? Right. How are you getting it through?
PF Let me blow it up for you even further, I found a quote not too long ago, written by this person named Elbert Hubbard who is kind of a…
RZ Oh, the Scientology guy?
PF No. [Rich laughs] Uh…a late 1800s sort of capitalist, socialist entrepreneur writer up in upstate New York. Complicated person, one of the most famous people in America at the time, they’d sell their books in these catalogs and have these heavily illustrated quotes. And the quote was something like logic is a tool for furthering prejudice, which means, you know, you think you’re being logical, you think you’re sitting down and outlining exactly what people need to know and to think and really what you’re doing is kind of encoding the set of rules that, you know, they all need to follow. And you actually you saw that where everybody’s like, you know, we don’t need masks, or it is you know, they’re like, you know, the science shows it it’s irrelevant to have masks and then suddenly, there’s this about face. Oh, everybody needs to wear a mask right away. No one was trying to kill us. Right, but they were They were just kind of like trying to make their case based on this logic. And it’s very Yeah, well you got to do is just assume that the facts are a little less reliable than you ever thought they were and make a good case and figure out a path forward. [yeah] Which we’re being very meta, so we got to bring it back to actually doing things. What are we doing? We’re trying to get people to build their software dammit.
RZ Look, I don’t think we have to apply it. I don’t think we have to ground it. If you’re in sales. The most powerful tactic I have is listening and listening and listening for a really long time. And then there is one sentence that I call it the punch in the mouth, right? That it’s distilled down so much thinking and it’s it’s assertive. It’s a very strong, powerful thing to say to someone, especially someone that’s thinking you’re selling to them right like that you’re going to complement their shoes, but it is so massively powerful. So in that context, and when we’ve had we’ve said in the previous podcast, you’re always selling you’re selling to your boss so you can get budget sign off, you’re selling to a prospect because you want them to sign a contract. You’re selling to your spouse, this is life. Like to me getting someone there is not going to happen through brute force, right? It’s going to happen through having them somehow connect to what you’re saying, be ethical, be truthful, to your point. But to me, that stuff applies. I mean, if you want me to go on a rant about leading a software team this way, I could do that. If you want me to go on a rant about closing a deal. I could do that. Because this is fundamental stuff. It is about communication, right in a very fundamental way.
PF Right? But can you also you have to appeal to the other party’s interest.
RZ That’s a great point. It’s a great point.
PF You cannot force them to see things your way. That was one of the great advantages of going into business with you after being a writer for so long is as a writer, what you learn, people have a lot of fantasies about what that job is and how you get to tell people what to think. [mhm] As a writer, what you learn is you’ll never tell anyone what to think he’ll know they will connect with you as long as it is in their self interest and as long as it helps them further their own agenda, you’re a way for them to explore the world the things that you know are a way for them to learn about the world. And nothing else. It is not about you, it is about them. And so that’s your audience. So you’re sitting there, the great sign to me of leadership. And the executive level is almost an anti-sign. It’s someone who no longer has anything to prove. It’s always because it’s been that has been beaten out of them. Like it’s never because they’re just absolute natural. It’s because they finally learned to just shut it. [yeah] And go what do you guys think?
RZ You know, this is this has been one of the more kind of abstract intellectual of our podcasts but I this actually, you could have a series of podcasts off of this topic, in my view, because I think this is the this is the secret sauce. This is the fundamental stuff. I’m convinced a lot of this thinking is part of Postlight’s success. I think it’s it’s part of a lot of people’s success professionally, personally and the like. And we’re in such a time where communication is abused in such radical ways and amplified in such radical ways. Is that it’s disheartening, frankly, I don’t think we need to tie it to software. But can we tie it to software?
PF The reality is yes, he really can. Here’s how. And it actually is part of the ethos of software. People talk about empathy for the user and giving the user what they need, and you know, issues around accessibility and so on. Those are actually doing this. That is this, where you are saying, hold on a minute, let me stop showing you all the data I have. Let me shut stop showing you all the signal.
RZ Empathy. You said the word.
PF And then it comes back to simplicity. And what is simplicity really? There’s a lot of nonsense about what simplicity is all we’re doing is giving them the power they want without having to show them our power to convince them how cool we are. Right. So the best example of this early, earlier days is not anymore because a jam adds in your eyeball every time you do a search. But Google early days, it’s magic. You go in you type, you type a couple of words, and it’s like, oh. Are you aware that you talked to 50,000 servers over the course of last month? No! You got one box and then they then they’re going to give you all those ads so you got to pay that you got to pay the toll but boy does it feel magical when you first have that experience.
RZ Can I close this with one more tip to your point that you’re making right now?
PF Oh yeah, you’re the co -founder.
RZ Never pull up a spreadsheet in a meeting.
PF Ooof. The tough one. [Rich laughs] A tough one. You want to, you want to show all that work you did. I’ve done it.
PF I’ve done it, I’ve many times in my life I’ve been like and here is the spreadsheet.
RZ Well that’s about you then right that’s less empathetic isn’t it?
PF Well, what I will say…
RZ Not you specifically, Paul Ford, speaking just, you know, generally.
PF Alright, let me give, well the advice I give is you know, you don’t have to fight all there. You don’t have to totally you know, to take a screenshot of this bridge. [Rich laughs]
RZ You can tap in? You can’t click it on the cell?
PF No. Nope. Drop it in there and say obviously we did a lot of work building this model. That’s okay. Let them see that that there has been a lot done. It’s okay to brag and show off a little bit, and then bring the focus back to the audience.
RZ Fair. That’s fair. [Paul sighs]
RZ On that note, we are Postlight. I think I snuck in a pitch on who we are and what we do. We build big, sprawling, amazing platforms, great clients, MTA, largest transit system in the world in New York City and Goldman Sachs and Vice Media, a lot of great case studies on our site, visit Poslight.com, you’ll learn all about us. And if you want to reach out questions, thoughts about anything firstname.lastname@example.org.
PF Oh, you know, something people should check out go to mailchimp.com/developer. We partnered with MailChimp to rebuild their developer experience.
PF It’s a very subtle, large system for helping people get a lot of work done. Alright, let’s get back to it.
RZ Have a great week.
PF Bye! [music ramps up, plays alone for 3 seconds, ends.]