Totally Concrete (Issue 921)

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. I was speaking with a senior HR manager about a competency study and strategic training plan she needed. “With impending strategic changes that management is contemplating,” she said, “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 a new learning management system in the fourth quarter this year.”

She looked at me with the confident calm of someone who felt she’d been completely comprehensible and that I should totally understand her, but I felt like I’d missed an inside joke. I was with her on “curriculum structure” but stumped on which possible meanings she intended with the words “total architecture perspective” and “frameworks”.

So, risking my own mortification, I asked: “What, specifically, do you want to include in your final deliverable to your client?” She answered, “The architectural framework.” [Great, thank you very much, not helpful.] So, I had another go: “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.

Maybe you would have understood exactly what she meant for her organization when she said “frameworks” and “total architectural perspectives”. The point is, we can’t propose solutions to problems or requirements we don’t understand. When we don’t understand clients’ jargon, we should ask – break fluffy terms into discrete components. We’re more likely to align with and propose good ideas to our prospects and customers at the concrete level than we are at the total architectural level. Totally.

Nick Miller assists banks and credit unions to sell services to business clients through better sales strategies and execution. He is President of Clarity Advantage based in Concord, MA. Additional articles on Clarity’s web site.

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