A recording of the webinar panel discussion I moderated yesterday is now available here.
Bridging the gap between software development and localization
If you’re involved in software development, localization, internationalization, or globalization, you should watch this for a great introduction to the issues particularly with regard to stakeholder awareness, education, commitment, and communication—it was a lively panel with more than a few “hot button” topics getting lively debate, featuring a number of industry experts:
- Val Swisher, Founder & CEO of Content Rules
- Danica Brinton, Senior Director of International at Zynga
- Dale Schultz, Globalization Test Architect at IBM
- Edwin Hoogerbeets, Senior Internationalization Engineer at Palm
- Adam Asnes, CEO & President of Lingoport
- Erin Vang, Principal Pragmatist of Global Pragmatica LLC®
Free sample of Erin Vang’s work as a moderator
If you’re in charge of setting up panel discussions or conferences for your company and you’re wondering whether engaging a professional facilitator as your moderator for the event is worthwhile, you might want to watch this as a free sample—see how I work to make the conversation more valuable for the audience members and panel participants. I work as an audience advocate to ensure that the event delivers the content that was promised, that it’s lively and interesting, and that we get past the buzzwords, spin, and hot air right away—we get right into the content.
Erin Vang moderates panel discussion on software l10n
So, you’ve developed a new software application, and have high aspirations in terms of selling your application to a global audience. Now what? Problems often arise between developers, localization managers, and business managers due to perceived lack of support, time, and money.
This lack of understanding can lead to great frustration within the development tiers. Join us for an hour long online panel discussion and learn how some of the best known industry thought leaders are contributing to bridging the gap between software development and localization.
The panel features the following industry thought leaders and experts from the software development, content development, internationalization, and localization industries:
- Val Swisher, Founder & CEO of Content Rules
- Danica Brinton, Senior Director of International at Zynga
- Dale Schultz, Globalization Test Architect at IBM
- Edwin Hoogerbeets, Senior Internationalization Engineer at Palm
- Adam Asnes, CEO & President of Lingoport
Online Panel Discussion: “Bridging the Gap Between Software Development and Localization”
Date and Times: Wednesday, August 3rd at 9:30am PT / 10:30am MT / 11:30am CT / 12:30pm ET
Registration: Register for free @ https://www1.gotomeeting.com/register/964415249
Where: Your desktop
Erin Vang, Owner of GlobalPragmatica will be facilitating the online panel discussion. Erin has over twenty years of experience in statistical software documentation, quality assurance, project management, and localization, most recently as International Program Manager for the JMP Research and Development at SAS, and previously with Abacus Concepts and SYSTAT. She is currently designing a localization program for Dolby Laboratories.
This presentation is intended for technical managers, software engineers, test engineering managers, QA managers, internationalization and localization managers, technical writers, content developers, and anyone wanting to learn more on how to optimize their global software releases.
We’d love to hear from you. Please send any questions or topics you’d like to have discussed during this panel to Chris Raulf @ chris (at) lingoport.com.
Update 4 August 2011
The recording of our panel discussion is now available here.
This article was originally published in slightly-edited form by Multilingual magazine, September 2010 and is reprinted here with permission. Erin Vang would like to thank Multilingual for graciously consenting to republication of this article in the GlobalPragmatica blog.
In 1998 I planned a trip to Norway and set about educating myself. In addition to the usual stack of guidebooks, language books, and cassettes, I picked up a copy of Norway: Culture Shock! A survival guide to customs and etiquette. I hate being the Ugly American when I travel, so I wanted to learn some of the little niceties that would help me blend in.
I enjoyed the book, but it felt inside-out and backwards to me somehow—all kinds of behaviors and cultural details that I considered normal were explained as if they were completely bizarre. It was astonishing to me that, for example, the book went to the trouble of explaining that you shouldn’t ask Norwegians how much money they make. You shouldn’t expect Norwegians to divulge much about themselves to strangers, or even for that matter to friends. When visiting a Norwegian family in their home, you should decline offers of food and drink at first and only relent after repeated offers are made. Further, an offer of “coffee” doesn’t mean a hot beverage. “Coffee” means a full lunch spread, with open-faced sandwiches, a variety of side dishes, perhaps some fruit soup, and at least an assortment of cookies if not cake for dessert. If you’re lucky, there will be leftover dumplings and ham, sliced and fried up together.
Well, duh! That’s normal, isn’t it?
I should probably mention that I grew up in the snow belt of North America in a series of small towns settled in large part by Norwegian and German immigrants and still populated mostly by their descendants, who tell Ole and Lena jokes and would call a Norwegian-Swedish couple a “mixed marriage.” It turns out that I grew up with a Norwegian sensibility about things.
Eventually I turned to the “About the author” section in the back of the book and learned that she was an Asian woman who had married a Norwegian man and moved to Norway.
So the book was inside-out and backwards for me! Ostensibly it described Norwegian customs, but I learned more about which Norwegian customs seem odd to an Asian and in turn what the Asian norms are. I also learned how my sense of normal differs from the rest of North America, because the very things she pointed out about Norwegians are the traits that have made me stick out since I left the snow belt.
North America from the outside in
I’ve since had the privilege of traveling quite a bit in Asia and Europe as a localization program manager, continuing my inside-out cultural learning over dinners and drinks with my localization teams and in-country colleagues.
What particularly strikes me about Japan is its quiet, compact order and elaborate attention to manners, and upon returning home from Japan I’m always startled by how big, messy, and casual we Americans are. We think nothing of taking a sip of a beer as soon as it arrives, and if we pause for a toast, it’s just “Cheers!” with much noisy banging of glasses, and no attention to whose glass clinks higher or lower. We walk down office hallways talking in full voice, we’re more likely to call something sarcastic into our colleagues’ open doors than to notice whether they’re busy, and by the time we’ve gone past three people’s offices, we’ve walked past more space than a dozen comparable Japanese office-workers would use, and all of it is messier.
Over dinner in Korea one night I learned what I’d never noticed before in years of sampling Korean music, dance, and theater: that it reflects millenia of sadness. Korea’s long history is full of invasions, wars, cultural loss, and great deprivation. Korea’s classical and folk arts express the reserved, wary sadness of a people ravaged for tens of centuries by neighbors in every direction. A Korean attending an arts festival in North America would be stunned to see singers smiling, actors laughing, dancers frolicking, and performers of all types making joyful eye contact with their audiences. Korean arts serve a more important purpose than entertainment and fun: they remember loss and struggle, they record perseverance, they offer perspective about daily challenges in a context of surviving the unsurvivable.
North Americans think we are familiar with Chinese food until we actually visit China and are confronted with the real thing. Theirs is a cuisine of poverty, making the most of scarcity by using parts of the animal we call scraps, using plants we call “weeds,” and using elaborate techniques and richly layered flavors to make them all palatable. We might think that “American food” would seem simple and decadent to Chinese visitors, but in fact they are as perplexed by our foods as we are by theirs. The thing that puzzles them the most? That our foods come in big hunks and separated piles—think of a dinner at a typical American steakhouse, where your plate comes with a huge hunk of meat, an enormous baked potato, and a pile of one vegetable, all arranged so that nothing is touching. I was startled to discover that the foods my Chinese colleagues preferred were those that mingled meats and vegetables in one dish, all in one-fork pieces, such as a casserole. Their comfort had nothing to do with the flavors and everything to do with shapes!
North America from the inside out
What most North Americans probably don’t consider is that we are all outsiders in North America. Our planet’s third largest land mass after Asia and Africa is home to twenty more nations besides the biggest three, Canada, the United States, and Mexico. We are all outsiders in twenty-two of those countries. Narrowing the focus to just the US, our nation’s young history is one of myriad immigrant and native cultures settling tiny pockets of a vast continent. Cultures have blended to a certain extent with those of the other peoples in the vicinity, and the resulting regional identities persist to the present. The lines are starting to blur in the age of national and global television, radio, and internet, but the potential for cultural conflict and misunderstanding is far greater than many people realize. I’ll share a few of the more amusing examples from my own life.
When I left my Norwegian enclave in the snow belt and arrived in Chicago for grad school, I couldn’t figure out why my friends never offered me anything to eat or drink when I visited. It wasn’t until some fellow Norwegian-Lutheran-Minnesotans from my alma mater joked about our common tendency to turn things down three times before accepting that I realized what the problem was. My friends did offer me drinks and snacks, but out of Norwegian-American habit, I always said something along the lines of, “Oh, I’m fine–no, thank you.” But that was that! My friends didn’t realize that the first three times you offer something don’t count!
I spent about a dozen years working for SAS and traveling frequently to corporate headquarters in Cary, North Carolina. Much later I found the Culture Shock! series book on the American South and finally began to understand some of my experiences there. When my colleagues had responded to one of my ideas with, “Bless your heart!” they weren’t gratefully commending my cleverness—they were saying, approximately, “Oh, you poor baffled freak… you just don’t understand anything.” When they called me “Yankee,” it wasn’t a slight as I thought; they were just acknowledging that I was different. When I jokingly called myself a “damn Yankee” once, I was corrected with a smile: “You’re not a ‘damn Yankee’! You’re just a Yankee. Damn Yankees are the ones who don’t leave.”
We’re all outsiders
When a friend of yours grieves a death in the family or is recovering from surgery, do you send flowers?
What on earth for? What good are the flowers going to do anyone? Where I’m from, we make a tuna noodle hotdish complete with crumbled potato chips on top, and we bring it over to the house, hot and ready to serve, in a casserole carefully labeled with our last name on a piece of masking tape. We do this whether we like tuna noodle casserole or not, because it’s what is done.
Being an outsider in North America is not a privilege reserved for visitors from other countries.
Previously I wrote a response to Adriel Hampton’s thought-provoking blog post entitled “Five Reasons to Kill ‘The Meeting'” in which I argued why I think live meetings, preferably in person, are valuable, even though many of us hate a lot of them. Now I’m going to share some tips on how to make your meetings better.
I’m writing this primarily for people who run meetings, but most of these ideas can be used to good effect by mere “powerless” attendees. These are all classic facilitation concepts, and while a designated, trained facilitator will have advantages that attendees don’t, attendees can often speak up and “facilitate from their chair” with astonishing effectiveness, and in some groups, a peer will be far more effective than any authority figure.
What people hate most about meetings is feeling powerless.
But it’s usually the same thing.
- We all hate going to meetings where we’re talked at and nobody notices or cares if we fall asleep.
- We all hate meetings where the decision has already been made, but nobody’s being up-front about that.
- We all hate meetings where the people who need to hear the discussion aren’t in the room, or aren’t listening, or just don’t get it.
- We all hate meetings where we know we’re going to have the same old fights and end up in the same old impasse, and nobody’s going to make a decision (or realize that their plan hasn’t been working and isn’t likely to).
- We all hate meetings where only one point of view is important. I don’t really care if the CEO thinks this is the only way to save the company, if I know it can’t be done in the time and budget allowed, or if I know that the customers hate it when we do that, or if I know that’s the right thing to do but key stakeholders are too proud to accept a change in plans, or, or, or, or…
Meetings slow things down, and that’s good. (Sometimes.)
Central to many arguments about meetings is a premise that meetings slow things down. Certainly it’s true that many meetings are a waste of time for at least some if not all of the participants, and it’s not uncommon for people to have so many regularly-scheduled meetings that they effectively have only a one- or two-day work week. (More on that below.)
However, I question the premise that speeding things up is a good thing. The more important an outcome is, the more important I think it is to slow down and make sure it’s the right outcome.
“Go slow to go fast” is a facilitator’s mantra. It is far better to waste an hour in a meeting than to proceed with a plan that misses an important detail or a team that isn’t in full agreement.
A single team member who disagrees with the plan can sabotage an entire project. A good facilitator discovers who that person is and makes sure that person has a chance to voice their concerns. A good facilitator helps that person get the chance to explain what the others might not be considering.
Sometimes that person is just a nuisance. But even the troublemakers usually have useful points to make, even if you don’t like the way that they make their points.
When this person’s concerns are heard respectfully, and restated by others so that the person can be confident s/he was understood, then the group can weigh those concerns against the known constraints and competing concerns in a way that either incorporates those concerns or at least enables the person to go along with the plan. Even if the group reaches a different decision, if the dissenting concerns are acknowledged and weighed in a process that is transparent and is consistent with the group’s agreed-upon decision-making method, usually the dissentor(s) will be able to commit to the plan.
More on both of those ideas!
Transparent doesn’t mean public.
When I say that a group (or leader) needs to have a transparent process, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody is in on everything. It only means being clear and honest about how information will be explored and how decisions will be made. For example, a leader can say, “I want to get your feedback and ask for a show of hands on the different options today, and I will take that input to next week’s meeting with the directors, who will make a decision.” Most teams will accept that happily, but if they think they get to make the decision and then someone else does, they’ll be angry.
Transparency also requires following through on the stated process and being candid about any subsequent change of course.
Transparency and accountability means not pointing fingers at the team who tried to talk you out of it if it eventually turns out you were wrong. It might kill you to say it, but acknowledging that the team was right and you were wrong will buy you tremendous team loyalty—so much that I’d almost recommend doing that on purpose once. Almost!
Agree on (or at least announce) a decision-making method.
Decisions don’t have to be unanimous or even consensus or majority-rule. Many decision-making methods can work. The most important thing is to have one, and the next most important thing is to have group agreement or at least a candid announcement about what it is.
How do you decide how to decide? It depends on what’s at stake. Generally, the more say a team has in the decisions that affect them, and the more confident the team is that everyone on the team accepts the decisions, the more conscientious that team will be about executing on the decisions and being proactive about resolving issues that arise. The catch is that more say takes longer.
Here are some valid decision-making methods, from fastest and least engaging to slowest and most engaging:
- Leader decides and announces.
- Leader seeks input, then decides.
- Majority rule (discuss and vote).
- Consensus (keep at it until most people agree and those who disagree are satisfied that their concerns have been addressed or at least acknowledged).
- Unanimous (keep at it until everybody can agree with the plan).
Having a fallback is helpful. For example, “We want to reach consensus, but if we cannot reach consensus by the end of the week, then we’ll take a vote on Monday.” Or, “If the team can reach a unanimous agreement, that will be the plan, but otherwise I’ll make a decision based on our discussion today.”
When is something important enough to justify a meeting?
What is the value of a good decision, or an effective plan, or a group that agrees enough with the plan to remain committed to it? What is the cost of not reaching these? What is the risk of proceeding without certainty that everyone is onboard with the plan? That is the value of the meeting. The cost of the meeting is the number of people in the room, times the number of hours, times the hourly wage, plus any other costs such as travel, room rental, web-meeting fees, etc. You might multiply the number of hours by the number of people by an average cost of $50 per staff member or manager and $100 per executive or hired consultant. If the value is higher than the cost, you should have a meeting.
It’s often hard to estimate value objectively, but here are some subjective criteria that are probably good enough. Ask yourself these questions about the outcome:
- Will more than a few people spend more than a few weeks working on it?
- Will a customer ever see it?
- Could a bad result lead to a lawsuit?
- Is there anyone affected by it who might be silently disagreeing?
- Is anyone’s influence out of proportion to his or her competence and credibility? (For example, a CEO who doesn’t understand crucial technical details, or a chief engineer who doesn’t understand business constraints, or a sales manager who is purely commission-driven?)
- Are you worried about what you don’t know, or what you might not realize you need to know?
If your answers to any of these questions is yes, then it’s worthwhile to have a meeting.
Minimize the intrusion of meetings on the work week.
Meetings burn time, and not just the duration of the meeting but also the time it takes to get to and from the meeting and time spent with meeting logistics like calendar management, preparation, follow-up, and rescheduling other commitments. Worse, meetings have an interruption cost. If my work requires focused concentration for several hours at a time, then a meeting that runs from 10 to 11 am pretty much destroys my 9 am to lunchtime shift. The most I’ll be able to get done from 9 to 10 and 11 to 12 is handle some email and maybe an expense report or travel reservation. There is no way I’ll be able to debug and fix some code, or write a proposal, or intervene in a staff problem, or persuade my manager about something. If I have another meeting from 2 to 3, then my afternoon is also shot, and my most important responsibilities—the things I’m paid to do—will be postponed another day, or I’ll be forced to put in some overtime that night.
Minimize how your meetings intrude on the work week. Some easy ways to start:
Have designated meeting days.
If you can get all of a team’s meetings out of the way on Tuesdays, that leaves the rest of the week free for focused work. Mondays and Fridays tend to suffer from higher numbers of absences because of people taking long weekends, so Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are better. Ask yourself whether your team benefits from having a break from work mid-week (making Wednesday a good day to meet) or from having several days in a row available to focus (making Tuesday or Thursday better). More important than which day(s) you choose, though, is that you choose, and you enforce the no-meetings-days goal as much as possible.
Have the shortest effective meeting.
Go slow to go fast—make sure everybody’s voice is heard when it’s important—but don’t waste time with unnecessary agenda items. Don’t hesitate to adjourn early. Offer breaks when people get restless, start yawning, or are clearly needing to check their messages. Start on time no matter who’s late, and never go over the allotted time without group agreement and permission for some people to leave. Don’t go overtime if it would deprive people who need to leave of their chance to be heard.
State the agenda and goals in advance.
Nothing is more frustrating than having to go to a meeting whose purpose is unclear, or worse, where some people might have (or seem to have) a hidden agenda. Send out a written agenda, with time allotments for each topic if possible, and with clearly-stated goals. The goals should be measurable and believable, and they should be nouns—for example, “a list of issues needing further exploration” or “a decision about how to proceed” or “a preliminary schedule with major milestones and goal dates.” Ask yourself how the group will know if they met the goal(s) of the meeting.
At the beginning of the meeting, check with the room: “Are these the right goals? Can we do this today? Am I missing something important?”
At the end of the meeting, even if you think you know the answer, ask the room questions like, “Did we meet this goal? Do we need another meeting? Is there anything for next week’s agenda?”
Protect your team from the risks of vague agenda items.
Your agenda might be vague or contain a vague element. If so, take steps to promote confidence that those vague areas will be handled efficiently and nobody will be ambushed by surprises.
For example, if you need to go around the room to get status reports, have everybody remain standing so that nobody will drone on and on. Add a fun element, such as “What progress did you make, is there anything you’re stuck on, and what’s the next movie you want to see?” (If you do something like this, include the list of movies in your meeting notes.)
Sometimes issues arise that might feel like an ambush to some people in the room. Do what you can to make people comfortable raising those hot-button issues, because sweeping them under the rug is never better, but take steps to protect people from unpleasant surprises becoming nightmare scenarios. For example, you might ask, “Does anybody need some time to research this before we discuss what to do next? Is there anybody else that we’ll need to include in this discussion?” Often the best course will be to allow time right away for the basics to be laid out, let people ask any immediate questions, and then schedule further discussion after people have had some time to ponder and research.
If the circumstances demand an immediate decision, do your best to let people be heard, to record objections and unsettled questions, and then take responsibility for the way you proceed. If you must make an executive decision, be transparent about that. Be honest that you’re making a judgment call with incomplete information, and remain accountable for it in future. Do what you can to revisit the unsettled points when time allows. If possible, plan ways to revise the decision as better information becomes available. If your decision turns out badly, be candid about that, too, and acknowledge that some people did raise pertinent objections.
Follow up with brief meeting notes.
Brief is the key here. All you really need is a record of the decisions and agreements, a list of points needing followup, an acknowledgment of any important disagreements or what have you, and a list of open action items with names and goal dates. Some action items might be incomplete, with names, dates, or other details to be determined. If you are ready to include the next meeting’s agenda and logistical details, great.
Always provide a method for people to correct your mistakes and omissions. For example, “Please REPLY ALL with errata and addenda. Have I missed anything important?”
Avoid detailed summaries of who discussed what or disagreed why; you can only lose at this game. Just record what was agreed and decided, and if appropriate also record the points that were left unaddressed, or the objections that were raised, or the points needing further discussion, without commentary. Ask yourself whether anybody who was in the room will be surprised by your notes or would state anything differently. Ask yourself whether somebody who missed the meeting will learn what they need to know.
Sometimes it’s helpful to consult with the room about what should go in the notes, as a way of preventing misunderstanding later on, or even as a way to bring discussion back into focus. For example, after a lengthy discussion or an uneasy resolution, you might ask questions like, “How should I capture this for the notes? Can somebody restate that for me? Does anybody disagree with this proposal? Are there any action items to go with that?”
Overtime costs a lot more than time-and-a-half.
Be especially careful about scheduling meetings that will force people into working overtime. Even if it doesn’t bring a direct labor cost increase, it usually brings a psychological cost increase.
Speaking for myself, I don’t think twice about working overtime to make up for my own poor decisions, for example, or to solve a problem that I just can’t wrap my brain around during the day. But I resent being forced to work overtime because somebody else wasted my time or made a poor decision. If I have concert tickets or a family obligation or am not feeling well, I resent it even more.
I will forgive my colleagues and take one for the team occasionally, and I’ll gladly go the extra mile when it’s the difference between success and failure for something I believe in. (And now that I’m a self-employed consultant who bills by the hour, I am extremely flexible about when those hours need to happen.) But if any work situation (or a social situation, for that matter) creates a pattern of abusing my time, sooner or later I will resent it. And that resentment will cost the organization in terms of my reduced commitment, my less-than-stellar attitude, my frayed nerves, my depressed health, and eventually perhaps even my departure. I won’t sabotage a project—I’m just not wired that way— but you’d better believe it that if you push some people far enough, they will sabotage your project. Maybe not consciously, maybe not deliberately, but they will find ways to undermine even their own success to get back at someone who has done them wrong.
Do you feel the same way? Do your colleagues?
I have some beliefs because of my experiences. You have had different experiences and reached different conclusions. I would love to hear from you!
What am I missing?
What have I gotten wrong?
What do you see differently?
What did I say that surprised you? Do you think I might be right, at least for some people or situations?
What do you think would surprise me? Can you tell me a story from your experiences that would help me understand your point?
Adriel Hampton wrote an interesting blog post entitled “Five Reasons to Kill ‘The Meeting'” that I felt compelled to rebut in his comments thread, and I thought I would write a bit more here on why I believe meetings can be more valuable—and less horrible—than Mr. Hampton and other victims of bad meetings believe, and in my next post, some tips for making that happen.
This post is an elaboration on the comments I made to his post.
Mr. Hampton’s argument is that groups can be more productive by replacing live meetings with online meeting spaces. His reasons are valid, and for many situations I agree with him. Certain kinds of topics can be explored and debated much more effectively in this way. I, too, have a lot of experience with virtual collaboration (in my case, internationally-distributed teams) and have even found that in many ways I can work more productively from a remote office than a common office.
However, even for topics that lend themselves well to offline discussion (such as a team wiki or shared documents), for anything that is important, I have found that final decisions are best made in a live meeting—preferably face to face, if that’s practical, but at least a teleconference. While anything is better than nothing, the effectiveness of the group’s interaction degrades along with the resolution of the meeting method. The most engaging way to meet is to have everybody together in a room—preferably with some social lubricants like snacks, games, a celebratory meal. This is far “stickier” than everybody scattered around the globe, wearing headsets, and distracted by who knows what else. Ask yourself how many times you’ve surfed the web or answered email during phone or web meetings, and then figure that a good portion of your team is at least as distracted as you have been.
Not everybody learns and communicates the same way.
The main point I made in response to Mr. Hampton’s post was that while his suggestions can work very well for visual/verbal learners and communicators, not everybody learns and communicates best by written word and graphics. Many people—in my experience, more people—learn and communicate best by auditory and kinesthetic means.
Here’s the comment I left on his article:
I agree that most work groups hold too many useless meetings, and for people with a visual learning/communicating style, your suggestions will be helpful for many goals that are not being met well by meetings.
The problem is that other people have auditory or kinesthetic learning styles, and they don’t grasp or convey information as comfortably through the written word as you might. Learning and communication styles also break down along another axis, logical vs. social vs. solitary (clearly your style).
If all of your stakeholders are visual, solitary learners, then shared written methods like you’ve described will work very well for a lot of meeting areas. But most workgroups have a mix of learning styles, and in my experience, auditory/social learners are the majority. Your strategies will tend to minimize their contribution.
Another problem is that even among visual, solitary learners, many important topics are best explored with real-time back and forth in which all participants listen as carefully as they talk, seeking to understand as well as to be understood, with clearly understood goals and decision-making methods. If that doesn’t describe the meetings you’re used to attending, I’m not surprised, and no wonder you feel this way! Most of us have attended far more terrible meetings than good ones—myself included.
Most groups benefit from some guidance and ideally instruction from a skilled facilitator. I have experienced for myself many times the incredible difference that good leadership can make, and if the meeting is about something important, hiring an impartial professional facilitator is something you can’t afford not to do. I greatly improved my own effectiveness as a program manager by learning and adapting facilitation principles and techniques, and I went from being someone who dreaded even my own meetings to someone who eagerly looks forward to facilitating for other groups.
Let’s break these ideas down a bit. First, about visual/solitary learners (writers and readers) vs. those other people (talkers, drawers, builders, tryer-outers).
Have you ever had an experience like this?
If you’re reading this article, then we probably have a lot in common. You write. You read. You think. Alone. And you’re good at it. Me, too.
But here’s what happens—right?
You carefully write up a proposal and send it around by email. You take pains to write a thorough discussion, detailed enough but not too long, with supporting illustrations and even good summary bullet points. You put a clear question or call to action at the end. You leave it in Drafts overnight and come back the next morning to fix up a few details before sending it out.
And then nothing happens.
You send another email. No response, or just a few one-liners come back. You phone a key stakeholder or ask them about it when you run into them at the coffee machine, and they say, “Oh, right. I read that, but…” and then they ask questions or raise objections that make it obvious they didn’t understand a thing. You’re pretty sure they didn’t even read it.
It’s frustrating! You know it was all there in your beautifully-written email, and you know that you covered all the most important points. But they don’t get it!
Try not to jump to conclusions. You’ll never know for sure.
- Some people weren’t paying attention.
- Some people read and understood but forgot.
- Some people got behind on their email and are afraid to admit it.
- Some people disagree so violently they can’t even think about your points.
- Some people are too busy.
I once had a boss who told me, “If you can’t get it down to one inch, keep it in Drafts until you can.”
Oh, my G-d.
I wanted to strangle her!
But eventually I learned. I found that the shorter my email, the better my chances that she’d sign off and support me later, or answer my question. The longer my email, the more likely I’d get a brusque response that made no sense, or no response at all.
At first I thought she just didn’t appreciate my attention to detail and the subtle nuances of the situation. Eventually I realized that she appreciated all that and trusted my judgment but didn’t have time to get bogged down in all the grey areas. That was my job, and as long as I kept her informed, she’d support me to the end.
I (eventually) figured out that the thing to do was get her on the phone and tell her I had a plan but that I wanted her ideas on this or that aspect of my plan. She was great at brainstorming solutions and seeing when my thought-framework was off.
She learned, too. She figured out that where she was good at plotting strategy, I was good at anticipating risks. Where she was good at selling ideas, I was good at making sure her plans were bullet-proof. And together, we were better at collaborating over the phone or over lunch, even though sometimes I needed to write an email to myself to figure out what I thought, and sometimes she needed to enjoy a cocktail and ignore my babble while I worked something through.
So what do we writers do about all that?
No matter how well you write, you have to face the fact some people just don’t take in written information. Some people need to:
- talk things out
- touch things
- draw pictures together
- make physical models
- conduct experiments
- listen to descriptions
- see people’s faces
- think “out loud” and ask “dumb” questions
- spell out the details of who, when, what, how
If you’re a good writer and you like working on things alone, in your own time, you might find this frustrating—I sure do!—but remember, other people find it frustrating having to read and work alone.
You’ll come out ahead if you take a variety of approaches.
I wrote more on the topic of written vs. phone and other communication methods in a Point/Counterpoint column with Tina Wuelfing Cargile.
Rather than dwelling on your frustrations, take advantage of people’s differing skills and preferences.
- The people who prefer talking things out are also often good at enrolling others in the decision and will enjoy presenting the plan to other groups (whereas many excellent writers would rather have a root canal than give a presentation).
- The people who like to draw diagrams together often bring new insights because of their superior spacial reasoning abilities.
- The people who like to build prototypes or conduct experiments will help you find the gaps in your plan, and often they’ll come up with improvements on your idea that you’ll wish you thought of. (Ask me how I know.)
- The people who just don’t pay attention to their email are likely to pay closer attention and ask good questions when you talk to them.
But not just any meeting! A good meeting!
And how to have good meetings instead of crappy meetings will be the subject of my next post: How to hold better meetings.
What do you think?
What have I missed?
Which meetings should be killed and which should be resuscitated?
What are the tools you’ve found that work best at replacing meetings?