Totally Concrete (Issue 536)

In which we are reminded to clarify terms we don’t understand before presenting ideas.

One person’s golf is another person’s word play – meaning, I love a good pun as much as my golfing friends love a good drive or putt.  I love rough puns a lot more than my friends enjoy hitting balls into the tall grass.

Anyhoo, a couple of weeks ago, during the “warming up” stage of a conference call, a few of us on the line began fooling around with puns and plays on words we remembered hearing from our elementary school children.

One of the group offered:

Two fish swim into a concrete wall. The one turns to the other and says, “Dam!”

The folks on the line guffawed appropriately.

Another offered:

A vulture boards an airplane, carrying two dead raccoons. The flight attendant looks at him and says, “I’m sorry, sir, only one carrion allowed per passenger.”

I snickered appreciatively, wondering how he got it through security, but….  deathly quiet…on the conference call.  Then, someone asked, “So what does that mean?” We discovered that she did not know the meaning of the word ‘carrion’ and could not work backwards contextually (from ‘vultures’) to figure it out.  She had to ask. I admired her courage; she must have felt mortified to ask a group of colleagues to lay out the term for her.

I had a similar situation in a sales call.  I was speaking with a senior HR manager about a competency study and strategic training plan she needed developed. “With impending strategic changes that management is contemplating,” she said, stiffly, “we have to re-look at our framework broadly, from a total architecture perspective. We’re also looking at curriculum structure, planning to put in an LMS in the fourth quarter this year.”

My vocabulary is pretty good, I’ve been around the training and HR biz a long time, and I had no idea what my prospective client was really saying.  I got “LMS” (learning management system), but I was really stumped on “total architecture perspective” and “frameworks.”  ..

Despite the fear that I might bury my credibility, I had to ask, “What, specifically, do you want to include in your final deliverable to your client?”  And when she answered “the architectural framework,”  I asked her, “Could you break that down into the component parts you see in the document?”  At that point, she responded in concrete terms – job descriptions, critical skills, etc. etc. Perfect.

So maybe you would have understood exactly what “frameworks” and “total architectural perspectives” meant in this conversation. The point is, we can’t propose solutions to problems or requirements we don’t understand. When we don’t understand our clients’ jargons, we should ask “unbundling” questions – break the slippery and fluffy terms down into components. For purposes of proposing and contracting, we’re more likely to hear, understand, and align with our prospects and customers at that discrete, concrete level than we are at the total architectural  level.

Like, totally.

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