Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, August 17, 2020
I wonder why it is so hard to give “a straight answer.” I often see this behavior when I am pitched on a deal or an investment by entrepreneurs. Obfuscation along with fuzzy thinking seems to be agnostic to age. And like COVID, there does not yet appear to be a vaccine to cure it.
When I am seeking simple answers (to questions like “who is your customer”), I sometimes feel as if I am in an episode of “Perry Mason” or “Law and Order.” The attorney approaches the witness, rests his arm on the docket and says, “Mr. Jones, please answer the question, did you or did you not kill your wife?”
I recently had a call with a big software company, and based on their website, I approached the interaction with a neutral inclination. I could not tell if there was a competitor or an ally. After 75 minutes of me having to probe like a prosecuting attorney to finally get to the factual skill set that they could provide, I was convinced that they were an asset. But getting to a clear presentation required me to ask the same questions multiple times to determine what their true core offering was. I had to help them sell to me.
I see this all the time in board meetings, particularly when the session turns to uncomfortable questions. “Why are sales so lousy?” The CEO then does a pretzel dance in which he bobs, weaves, straddles, throws someone under the bus, blames it on a solar eclipse, but never says, “Well, the product we built does not solve the problem we thought existed, and no one wants to buy it.” I am a big fan of facing the darkness directly. It makes it much easier to find the light switch later on.
This uncommunicative tendency is virulent in the world of email. You send an email that lays out a series of questions or concerns and when the answers come back, they are at best tangential, or at worst irrelevant. Allow me to offer a modest solution to that dilemma.
When I am the one answering, my personal technique is to parse each sentence in the email and write my answer to that particular sentence in either boldface or red letters right after it, so that it does not inadvertently get lumped into the body of the original email. In that way, you do not miss addressing each point — even if you have to say in certain cases that you do not know the answer at this time. The issue is clarity. The question “what shoe size are you” is not answered by “I wear loafers.”
I also have a technique of writing an email with numbered sentences, so that each number relates to one idea and says only one thing. Regardless of whatever technique works best for you, I am urging you to be direct. “I rest my case, your honor.”
However, there is also a subtle paradox related to directness. The Harvard Business Review recently posted a study that proved that when you are negotiating a point, the warm and friendly tone does not work as well as the more forceful one. But by the same token, firm messages got more outright rejections (“take it or leave it” has the clear risk that they will leave it), but in general, negotiators who “toughened up” experienced better economic outcomes.
In those uncomfortable moments, our entrepreneur dances the dance of the seven veils, leaving the revenue and customer expense reality to the imagination of his audience. It is the best of Penn & Teller, who are the magicians of misdirection. And sure enough, after some bobbing and weaving, the hour is up and we all go to the next Zoom call and the unspoken remains just that — unspoken. We’ll take that up at the next board meeting.
I confess that I am a bit ADHD, and my attention span is limited, so being very direct is a default style for me. I also confess that at times, no one on the other end of the call wants short and sweet, and on those occasions, I often get tossed on my behind. But at least I don’t have to remember which lie I told to whom.