Hiding Vague in Plain Sight

Published June 21, 2017 by monika


It’s all very well listening to someone give advice, but if you can’t actually implement it, it becomes frustrating more than helpful.

Consider the scenario, you listen to a keynote speech. Everything the speaker says sounds great. You feel inspired. You come back to your desk. You have absolutely no idea how to use what they said in practice.

Or, you attend a training course. The trainer gives you lots of advice, and tells you lots of things that are frequently done incorrectly. Yes! You think. Nail on the head. You get back to your desk the next day and you realise that actually, there wasn’t anything practical about what to do right, rather than just what not to do wrong.

And so it’s another experience of thinking the theory is all well and good but if the practical side is not there, then it’s useless. So we chain ourselves to our desks more, and don’t bother with so much training or with conferences because they become a waste of time.

So what goes wrong between these inspiring words and getting back to your desk?

We’ve already identified one thing; it’s often too theoretical. It sounds wise, but there’s nothing practical there to help you put it in place quickly or easily.

Secondly, we often don’t notice how vague things are, until we try to apply the advice.

Hands up who has written words like “regularly”, or “reasonably” into a report or policy? What does that even mean? Regularly could mean daily, it could mean monthly, it could mean yearly. Without understanding the specifics of a piece of work we can say all the right things but do none of them.

Another favourite of mine, especially in impact practice, is ‘collect relevant information’ or “draw conclusions.” Well of course, there’s no point in collecting data that is not relevant. But how do you know what is relevant to your project at that point, and how do you know you’re asking exactly the right question to collect it? A quick look at an example from @britainelects, shows how easy it is to get different data with a differently worded question:

impact of question phrasing

Top: On “reducing the voting age from 18 – 16”:

Support: 37%

Oppose: 56%

Bottom: On “giving 16 – 17 year olds the right to vote”:

Support: 52%

Oppose: 41%

Both questions could have easily been deemed ‘relevant information’ when written, but give significantly different outcomes.

If you’re in the middle of a piece of work, it’s very difficult to take the time to step back and give enough thought to the specifics of something.

For speakers and trainers it can be hard to give examples that are specific enough and advice that is practical enough. The vague ones sound good enough in the moment.

If you’re writing a project plan, or a policy, it’s easy to think that certain things are obvious. Is it still obvious if it is given to a new member of the team or to someone outside of the sector? Sometimes it won’t matter to use jargon and an ‘obvious’ framework, because everyone using the document will understand. But consider the above scenario, of thinking something sounds reasonable and then being stumped when it comes to the practical implementation.

If we want to make more of impact practice, the first thing that has to go, is being vague.