Talking with Phil Simon, author of “Message Not Received”

Phil Simon and I are kindred souls. He comes out of tech, has written seven books, and hates jargon and doubletalk with a burning passion.

When he’s not appearing in commercials for Breaking Bad he’s out there fighting the good fight. Here’s my interview with him.

Your main point in the book is that most business communication does not work. Explain what you mean by that.

We often think that we’re being clear at work when we’re not. This is why I titled the book Message Not Received. To quote George Bernard Shaw, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Thanks to far too much email and loads of jargon, business communication simply doesn’t work in many instances these days.

You and I agree that most workers these days are overwhelmed with information. What’s your evidence? And if you’re right, what does that mean for the work they do?

Radicati reports that the average worker today receives 120 to 150 emails per day. What’s more, that number is rising at 15 percent per year. That means by 2020, expect nearly 300 messages in your inbox each and every morning. I cite more stats in the book but to me there’s no question: We’re inundated with information.

Constant interruptions result in errors and generally inhibit our best work. We can’t reach what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow in his eponymous book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

I argue in the book that we would work better if we used less jargon and embraced truly collaborative tools. There are plenty of affordable alternatives to email; this isn’t 1998.

You may be the most intrepid jargon fighter out there. Why do you think there is so much jargon in our workplace communication?

Thank you. I don a cape at night.

There are many reasons. Some falsely believe that excessively complex words mean that they sound smart. They’re wrong. Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” He was pretty bright.

Second, many people forget that the word communicate means “to make common.” Think about it. For their part, management consultants spew utter nonsense to attempt to justify their exorbitant rates. I understand their rationale: Who’s going to pay $400/hour for very simple advice that might work?

Next, others use jargon at work to try to fit in. They parrot the actions and words of those in senior positions. Finally, many people are afraid to call bullshit or at least raise their hands if they don’t understand a new term. Yes, language changes—and always will. Still, in an era of rampant technology, why not occasionally speak in plain English and not use some of the terms I describe next.

What jargon have you noticed lately that’s especially pernicious?

Jargon is out of control. I penned a book about platforms and won’t even use the word today because it’s been bastardized beyond belief. (I recently saw “platformization” and “replatformed.” Ridiculous.)

Beyond that, why say size and shape when you can say “form factor”? “Use case” is almost always misused. Shoot me if I ever say “net net.”

I’m serious. I won’t press charges.

Email is basically the circulatory system of most organizations. Everything flows through it. And yet, you say it’s not a good tool for collaboration or efficiency. What’s wrong, and how should we fix it?

Yes, you’re right. Email begets more email—not necessarily a solution to the problem. Plus, a great deal of valuable institutional knowledge lives in an inbox where no one else can find it. That makes no sense.

Adopting collaborative tools such as Slack, HipChat, and Yammer just makes sense. We already use social networks so the “too-much-training” argument holds zero water. Most information ought to be accessible throughout an organization. Obvious exceptions include performance reviews, salary information, and other HR and personal data.

In my book, I detail three organizations via case studies that have minimized email or eliminated it altogether. I believe in not just telling, but showing.

You’re a fan of inbox zero. I just let it all flow by me—my email inbox is where I find whatever I need. What’s wrong with my strategy?

Email is an invaluable tool and I can’t imagine a world without it. In the book, I detail the reasons that it has become the default means of business communication.

It’s key to remember, though, that any text-based, asynchronous form of communication suffers from significant limitations. Email lacks subtext, not to mention non-verbal cues. Many times, a five-minute conversation obviates the need for a six-email chain. If we want to communicate more effectively at work, then we need to stop relying on email.

To answer your question, perhaps nothing is wrong. Let me counter with a question: Do you engage in twenty-message threads and believe that they’re effective as true conversations? I hope not. I won’t go down that road. I invoke my three-message rule frequently—and some people don’t like it.

You and I wouldn’t be doing this interview if you only chose to engage me a few months ago via email. We had a nice chat and here we are. In my talks and seminars, I encourage others to embrace the phone for something other than texting and email. It’s downright silly for us to treat email as a Swiss Army Knife. It was never designed as a project- or management appliation. It’s only one club in the bad.

What’s the worst sentence you’ve ever read in a business setting? And how would you reword it?

This one is up there from a book I tried to read a few years back:

The nextwork sends and receives information at blinding speeds, creating an efficient human switchboard and network that in theory and in practice, outperforms telephone, terrestrial, cell, emergency, and Web networks for the speed and precision at which relevant experiences are shared and re-shared.

I couldn’t construct a worse sentence if I tried. I wish that I could reword this morass of words but I can’t. It’s totally nonsensical and incomprehensible. I would kill the sentence altogether. I don’t know how a reputable editor let this slip here.

Honorable mention goes to this Microsoft memo from CEO Satya Nadella. I like what he’s doing but this is awful:

Microsoft has a unique ability to harmonize the world’s devices, apps, docs, data and social networks in digital work and life experiences so that people are at the center and are empowered to do more and achieve more with what is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity—time!”

At 47 words, it’s a great sentiment but his sentence is a mess. Here’s how’d I do it for Mr. Nadella:

Never before have we kept our documents and data in so many places. We at Microsoft know that your time is an increasingly scarce commodity. Our products allow users to get it back.

At 33 words and three shorter sentences, my version is far easier on the brain.

Since you published your book, have you seen any hopeful signs that the world is getting better?

In short, yes. Atlassian (maker of HipChat) went public last month and its stock exploded. I keep reading more case studies of organizations that have finally moved to the very tools that I recommend. Still, we’ve got a great deal of work left to do. Jargon and email are rampant.

 

 

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