The Art of the Detail-Free Communication

The Trump campaign touted its candidate’s April 27th foreign policy speech—creatively titled, according to Trump’s own website, Donald J. Trump Foreign Policy Speech—as having been written by an actual speechwriter. Trump read it from a teleprompter and stuck very close to the written script. (Compare the Trump website’s text to the transcript published in The New York Times.)

Speaking with the aid of notes, we might reasonably expect the candidate to offer details about his plans. Not the nuts and bolts of $X billion here and $Y billion there—as I wrote yesterday, that level of detail numbs the mind—but the kinds of details that would establish his foreign policy goals by painting a memorable picture in his listeners’ minds.

Or not. According to CBSnews.com,

One of the members of Trump’s team, Whaled [sic] Phares, told the Associated Press beforehand that the speech would have “no details.”

And indeed, that proved true. Instead of using his words to paint pictures, Trump offered lists. Speaking of the Arab world:

…We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed. Civil war, religious fanaticism, thousands of Americans and just killed be lives, lives, lives wasted. Horribly wasted. Many trillions of dollars were lost as a result. The vacuum was created that ISIS would fill. Iran, too, would rush in and fill that void much to their really unjust enrichment.

They have benefited so much, so sadly, for us. Our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster. No vision. No purpose. No direction. No strategy.

The closest Trump came to specific policy declarations included:

“A Trump Administration will lead a free world that is properly armed and funded.”

“We will spend what we need to rebuild our military.”

“…we will look for savings and spend our money wisely.”

Few would argue against any of these sentiments. And that’s something I encounter often in my work with businesspeople. I call it “And then…?” Syndrome.

Client: “We want you to write an op-ed about how important education is.”

Me: “Great! What’s the second sentence?”

Now, I don’t expect my clients to articulate a comprehensive national education policy—that is, assuming they’re not running for president. But for me to do my job effectively, I need specifics. Education is important because: We need smart people to hire. We need a more diverse workforce. We need…what? Details! Preferably the kinds of details that arrange themselves into stories.

Businesspeople often want to “get to the point.” And the point, they think, is the pronouncement: Whether it’s my client’s “education is important” or Trump’s (and every other politician’s) “we’ll look for savings and spend money wisely.”

But pronouncements are easily forgotten; stories stick. Researcher Gary Klein talks about the ire faced when he boiled down a multi-day conference by extracting the stories the presenters told, rather than the recommendations they offered. As Chip and Dan Heath explain it in their book Made to Stick, the presenters “…felt that they’d invested countless hours into distilling their experiences into a series of recommendations.” But Klein said,

“We want to explain to them how meaningless these slogans are in contrast to stories, such as the one that showed how they had kept the lines of communication open during a difficult incident in which a plant was shut down.” [emphasis added]

Not only are stories stickier, they often the best answers emerge from a personal story. What’s the client’s relationship to the educational system? They’re the first in the family to go to college? Their parent taught fifth grade? They discovered their calling thanks to an attentive teacher?

How does that personal connection shape their perspective? That’s the value a businessperson—or any of us—can add to the debate on a national issue.

Managing the Class

After I’d plunked down tuition on my first training class at NYU but before I had actually begun said class, I had the opportunity to spend a day shadowing a trainer who was doing exactly what I wanted to do – teaching writing in a corporate setting.  The writing session was a one-day component in a weeklong training for up-and-coming businesspeople who had just been promoted at their company.

You’d think they’d be eager to hone their skills so they would be able to perform at the higher level required by their newly elevated status.  You’d be wrong.

These 30-something professionals were as sullen and uncommunicative as a roomful of high-schoolers.  Sitting in the back, I could see them web-surfing and working on spreadsheets. They stirred to life a bit when the trainer broke them into small groups, but snapped right back into inattention at the end of each exercise.

It didn’t take long for me to wonder just what I was getting myself into.  By the time lunch rolled around, I was the proverbial deer in the headlights.  And all I had to do was sit in the back and listen to the class.  Why in the world, I wondered, had I ever thought about leading one of these things?

Which is to say that classroom management skills were high on the list of things I wanted to learn when I began my training program.  Several classes in, I no longer felt like a deer in the headlights.  And then I encountered this strange beast called the online class.

Given the experiences I’ve had in this, my first taste of synchronous online learning, I would say that the greatest challenge in classroom management is that there is no classroom, there’s only technology.   And if the technology fails, as it has done to some extent in every one of the four sessions we’ve had so far, it compromises the classroom experience.

Where an instructor in a live classroom has a number of ways in which to corral students whose attention begins to wander, an instructor who is booted out of an online classroom due to technical difficulties loses the students entirely.  For how long depends on the duration of the tech blackout and the patience level of the students.

If I had not already amassed a reservoir of goodwill for my current teacher – based on two experiences with her in live classroom settings – I might have left the class long ago.  But not every student in an online class will have that background to draw on.  So “technology failure” has officially replaced “student apathy” as my biggest teaching-related fear.

Who teaches? Who learns?

My journey to teaching writing in a corporate setting continues: For the next month or so I’ll be blogging occasionally about issues related to designing and teaching courses online.

Most of the online training I’ve had so far has been very passive – clicking through screens full of text for hours on end (okay, maybe half-hours, but it sure seemed like hours) and answering the occasional multiple-choice question.  In that kind of asynchronous web-based training, the “teacher” remains invisible – the Great & Powerful Oz behind a curtain of html.  Web-based training was not a particularly rewarding experience for me as a student; I’m not a passive person. And it’s hard for me to imagine that it’s rewarding for the instructor/designer/creator (or if we’re sticking with the Oz metaphor, the Wizard).

One of the things I enjoy most about training is collecting feedback from the students.  Since all of the training I’ve done so far has been real-time, real-world-based, that feedback has come from seeing the light dawn on a student’s face or hearing well-reasoned answers to my questions.  So far, no applause.  But I’m still hopeful.  But Oz, our web-based trainer, will never get to experience those things.

Synchronous instructor-led online training offers slightly more feedback for instructors: they can see and hear the students and interact with them in something close to real-time (though the magic of technology can’t eliminate the awkward pauses of dead air in between speakers).  In instructor-led online training, instructors function in much the same way they do in classrooms: as facilitator, expert, authority, resource, coach.  Additionally, they are able to personalize instruction to clarify confusions or suggest additional resources.  And students are able to ask questions and enrich the “classroom” discussion with their own thoughts and insights.  These things are not possible with an asynchronous, web-based program.