What’s on First

It’s happened. You’ve been abducted by space aliens. They march you to their leader, who looks at you menacingly—at least you think that’s what she’s doing, but you’re not sure those are her eyes. Somewhere, a mouth opens and it says,

“I’ve heard earthlings have something called a chair. What is a chair, exactly?”

Do you say, “Chairs save us earthlings from having to stand up all the time?”

I don’t know about you, but I’d be careful about giving such an answer. The last thing you want to do is annoy the alien-queen, and if I were her, I’d be mighty ticked off by that answer. Why? Because it doesn’t answer the question.

A more correct answer to “What is a chair?” might go something like this:

“A chair is a kind of furniture, used for sitting on. It’s distinguished from other kinds of furniture we use for sitting on by having room for just one person, often having a back, and sometimes having a place to rest our arms.” (I just made that up. Then I checked Webster’s New World Dictionary and found that I was pretty close: “a piece of furniture for one person to sit on, having a back and, usually, four legs.”)

The reason the first answer only succeeded in annoying the alien queen is that it answered the wrong question.

The question it answered, which I admit would be an odd one to ask, is “Why is a chair?” Why do you use a chair? To save you from standing up all the time—or sitting on the floor.

So when it’s time to introduce their company’s latest offering, “Convergence Tremors,”  why do so many communicators end up saying something like this?

Convergence Tremors will bring our company into the 21st century, allowing us to devote more time and attention to meeting our goals and leveraging our ability to share strategies across platforms in ways we never thought possible.

If I’m an employee (or a customer, or the judge of a “best company” award) and I’m in a generous mood, my reaction might be “Sounds great! But what is Convergence Tremors?” (If I’m not in a generous mood, my reaction might be to hit “delete.”)

To make things worse, the answer to “but what is Convergence Tremors?” often runs something like this:

Convergence Tremors streamlines systems and processes and promotes innovative solutions…


Let’s give our hypothetical employee a pop quiz.

Based on the information you’ve been given so far, complete the following sentence. Convergence Tremors is:

a)      a training program

b)      some kind of software

c)       a policy or set of policies for addressing operations

d)      a performance management system

e)      the new Tarentino movie

f)       none of the above

g)      I haven’t the faintest idea

Unless the employee has access to some inside information, the only possible answer is “g,” of course. That’s because the communicator in question made the same mistake you made when you spoke to the alien-queen. He answered “why,” not “what.”

So, the hapless communicator realizes his mistake and sends out an announcement explaining that Convergence Tremors is the name for an exciting new approach to working with customers. Great. Now employees and anyone else who might be interested have the what and the why. But there’s still one more bridge to cross: the how.

Specifically, what is it that Convergence Tremors does that will make it possible for us to “devote more time and attention to meeting our goals?” What is it that will help us “share strategies across platforms” (whatever that means)? In what way will Convergence Tremors “streamline processes and promote innovative solutions?”

When you gave the alien-queen the definition of a chair, the how was so much a part of the what that there wasn’t much more to say about it. But saying something is a new approach to working with customers (for example) still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Answering how in this case means describing what it is about the approach that allows it to convey the benefits you’ve described.

What is Convergence Tremors?

It’s an exciting new approach to working with customers. By broadening the responsibilities of some team members and moving many paper systems online, it frees us all up to focus more on planning and product development. At the same time, it provides customers with access to more expertise at every stage of the sales process. And it  provides more opportunities for career advancement all around.

That’s what Convergence Tremors is.

Contact me if you’d like some help with the whats and whys of your communication. And be sure to click “follow this blog via email” in the upper right column to keep those communications tips coming!


illustration courtesy of Steve Snodgrass



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