Have you ever had somebody describe something to you and wondered, “Huh?” Sometimes it’s getting driving directions. “Just drive past the old mill there and it will be right on your left.” How about describing something over the phone to someone? That gets tough. Have you ever tried to describe a sunset to someone over the phone? It’s hard. But you can get pretty close to putting the person there with just a little bit of extra thought and care.
The purpose of this article is to help you realize that often times when you are giving instructions to someone or describing something to someone, that you are not sharing enough detail with them for them to do what it is they need to do. This isn’t true in all cases of course. Sometimes you do want to be brief. But I’m talking about collaboration and work where no stone should be left unturned.
I’m in an “act on inspiration” mode right now. As such, I have a meeting where I am going to break what I was going to do and spend most of the time showing the rewards of detailed description, particularly when you are trying to inform someone who will be creating what you describe.
Anybody can call something an orange. But the higher learning – the path to more than just getting by is taking a step beyond that. To describe the orange in such a way that there is no question about it AND there is much more value to be received from it through your description. The purpose of this article is to increase your capacity for describing something to someone so that person can create more value from your words or written text.
The Orange Description
The following is a prediction of the dialog that will occur this Monday between me and a member of our product team at work. The product team comes up with awesome ideas that the company website should do. They convey these ideas to the software developers. These are the computer nerds who go and program what that is.
The point of this dialog is to show that it’s not an instinct to give all the necessary details to someone when describing something.
Me: “Bill, what is an orange?”
Bill: “It’s a fruit you eat.”
This is usually where the discussion ends. A brief answer is given that just doesn’t cover the details enough…
Me: “What else is an orange?”
Bill: “What do you mean?”
Me: “There is a color orange as well. But let’s talk about the orange that you eat. What do you do with an orange?”
Bill: “You eat it.”
Me: “Do you just eat it like it is?”
Bill: “No, you peel it first.”
Me: “Peel what?”
Bill: “The skin.”
Me: “The skin of an orange, what is that?”
Bill: “It’s the outer layer.”
Me: “Is it thick or thin?”
Bill: “It’s kind of in-between.”
Me: “It’s either or, choose one, thick or thin.”
Bill: “It’s thick.”
Me: “So you don’t peel the orange then, you peel the skin of the orange. And the skin is thick. How do you peel it?”
Bill: “With an orange peeler.”
Me: “Is that the only way?”
Bill: “I’m sure there are other ways…”
Right about this time I suspect that Bill is growing tired of this dialog. He might not see the point of describing the orange in such detail. But we’ve just scratched the surface of describing the orange. We could potentially spend hours talking about a single orange, but I’m not going to go that far.
Me: “Sure there are, you could use your finger nails. But could you do it with short finger nails?”
Me: “That’s right. It’s nigh impossible to peel an orange with short fingernails. What happens after you peel the orange?”
Bill: “You get to the inside.”
Me: “What is the inside?”
Bill: “The part that you eat.”
Me: “What is the part you eat called?”
Bill: “The inside.”
I then proceed to give a few more details of an orange to finish up.
Me: “The orange itself – the inside of the orange is called the fruit. The fruit has vitamin C. It is good for you. It is segmented into pieces called segments or carpels. These have a white stringy substance called the pith running through them like veins. Oranges grow in temperatures ranging from 60 degrees F to 85 degrees F. An orange peel taken and put through a sinks garbage dispenser will release a sweet citrus smell. If you’re not careful how you eat an orange, a bite will squirt juice around you.”
I proceed to email the product owners a document with two sections: one with the orange description being very brief, the other with the description showing the details discussed here. I tell them, “Think of the orange description before you come up with work for the developers to do.”
This is a higher learning challenge. When you are sharing something with someone, explain it well enough that there are no questions. Allow someone to understand completely what you are saying. This will increase your value. As people understand you, they will be able to execute on your directions. What a powerful thing it is to have people create more quickly and with more quality what you want.