If you’ve spent long in an office job you probably know by now several ways to make yourself seem important and engaged in any meeting, no matter the subject. You can stand up and walk around the table. You can draw a chart—really any chart will do—on the white board. And if you are too lazy for that, you can pick from any one of about a hundred stock meeting phrases to utter at the appropriate moment:
- “Does it scale? What’s the expected ROI?”
- “I think [Colleague not present in the meeting] knows a lot about this subject. Can we get her input?”
- “Do we have any data on this?” [Best used when you know that we don’t]
- Anything involving the words “take a step back” or “look at the bigger picture”
- Vague, generic and unhelpful advice like “I think we need to tighten this up a bit”
Don’t worry, I’ve got rants about some of the other ones for future columns, but today I want to address the last one. The request that everything be shortened, tightened, or made more concise.
Look, I love things that are quick and easy as much as the next person. Who wouldn’t trade Joyce’s Ulysses, which requires 4 years and a graduate degree in depression and pretentiousness to complete, for Eliot’s The Waste Land, which basically achieves the same thing in a tiny fraction of the word count?
And if I could convert all practical information in the world into the format of St. Thomas Aquinas’ writings, which answer thorny questions like “Whether the devil is directly the cause of man's sinning?” in a single page of short paragraphs and Q&As, I would.
If you’ve ever seen a government grant form, tried to get a mortgage, or glanced at the disclosures or legal documents involved in something as simple as taking your kid to a play gym, you’ll understand that in many times and places we really do need to trim the meaningless fat on top of our word salad.
But in many professional contexts I think we frequently go too far.
We’ve taken the truism that most modern people are distracted and harried by their phones, by the news, by deadlines, and by other obligations and made it bizarrely normative.
We play to the lowest common denominator, assuming that no one can be convinced to pay attention to anything more than the headings of a document, the three-word slogan of an organization (“WE MAKE CHANGE”) or if we’re lucky the one paragraph “executive summary”.
In fact, it’s best if you don’t really use words at all. Simply reduce everything to an infographic. And of course, when you do that, and people read the infographics, the circular logic completes itself. “Look,” says the CEO, “people only want to read shiny infographics.”
In reaction to the many bureaucratic documents of daily life—job applications, lease agreements, liability waivers—filled with, well, fillers and jargon that add nothing to our comprehension of a topic, we’ve decided that it isn’t desirable or even possible to go beyond the most basic outline of anything. And so instead of replacing fillers with more meaningful content, we’ve just stripped out details, nuance, and depth entirely.
The consequences of this philosophy go far beyond filling the lives of office drones with painful Power Point presentations. Take the education sector, where for many years the cardinal sin of a teacher has been to give a lecture. Lectures, aspiring teachers are told, are a poor way for students to learn, because they won’t pay attention to you or absorb the information. Thinking that you can give a class a lesson in lecture form is just a form of self-centeredness, being a “sage on a stage” when you should be fostering collaborative learning, using visual and audio aids and diverse activities for different types of learners, and checking for comprehension after every third sentence you utter.
Put aside the fact that so-called “learning styles” aren’t real and that group activities don’t lead to the acquisition of knowledge. Put aside the fact that the people delivering this information to teachers are usually doing so while speaking in a narrative way to a group (lecture!), frequently quoting from some inspirational commencement address or Obama speech from 2010 (lecture!), after driving to the school while listening to an audio book (lecture!).
If sometime in the past 50 years students started failing to understand or pay attention to lectures, a mainstay of education from the political speeches of Ancient Greece to 21st century universities, what happened? Maybe it was not that lecturing was an inferior form of educating, but that but teachers stopped being trained to give good lectures. And so listless students rebelled not against the form, but against poor examples of it.
It is much the same in business, I suspect. Because the junior associate in charge of drafting the strategic marketing plan couldn’t possibly put together something readable for more than a couple of pages, then plans of more than a couple of pages are declared an out of date concept altogether. We’ll just jazz up one page of content with sweet graphics, big headings with the word “solutions” in them, and bar graphs of “impact”.
This is the true contrarian brilliance of the Jeff Bezos policy of beginning meetings by silently contemplating a six-page memo written and prepared by the presenter. It’s not just the silent reading or the condemnation of Power Point, it’s the forced length. If the junior associate can’t put together six thoughtful, well-constructed pages on an idea, then the idea is probably not worth the company’s consideration.
A lot has been lost. After all, Eliot could only make The Waste Land succinct by littering it with allusions to dozens of works that would take most of us a lifetime to consume. And Aquinas’ neat syllogisms are in fact each a small step in a grand philosophical staircase, each concept built on the foundation underlying it, constructing a system that dominated the thought of a continent for hundreds of years.
I’d say more, but I’m reaching my word count limit.