“Real Artists Ship”

Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for the ‘Communication’ Category

Historical Facts Don’t Exist

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

To historians, “history” basically means the (complex, disputed) knowledge that contemporary people have about what happened in the past. To the general public, “history” is the stuff that happened—about which contemporary people might have limited evidence, disputes of interpretation, etc. This can lead to confusion in communicating ideas about the methodology and ontology of history. For example, when I first came across people saying things along the lines of “historical facts change over time”, I thought that they were embracing a much more radical vision of history than they were. They were making the (important) point that what we call “facts” are based on incomplete evidence and biased by political/social/religious views and our biases coming from the contemporary world. I thought that they were making the much more radical claim that the subjective experience of people in the past changed due to our contemporary interpretations—a kind of reverse causality.

Exciting News (1)

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

First law of Exciting News: Inevitably, when you get an email from some company entitled “exciting news” it is going to contain an announcement that they have “merged with” (been taken over by) a “major partner” (a larger, rather more anonymous company), and that they are “looking forward to the opportunities that are offered by this exciting new development” (ready to make some more money from you by offering you a slightly diminished service level).

Kruft (1)

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

I often refer to the process of taking the content that I want to communicate and putting it into the 200-by-300 pixel box reserved for content in the middle of our University’s webpages as “putting the clutter in”. I get the impression that my colleagues on the Marketing and Communication team don’t quite see it this way.

“How are you?”

Monday, September 12th, 2016

It sometimes surprises me quite how formulaic the smalltalk at the beginnings of conversations is. I know that it isn’t acceptable to respond to the question “How are you?” with a list of your latest ailments and insecurities, but it is still sometimes surprising how much that part of a conversation is a cognitive readymade, without any ready deviation. I remember a couple of incidents in the days after my father died.

  1. Meeting a colleague a few days after my father had died. Wanting, gradually, to let people know what had happened, I responded to his “How are you?” with a “Actually, not so good.”, expecting to get a query back about what had happened. Instead, I just got the response “Great, I’m fine.”, as if I had said (as I would 99.9999% of the time) “I’m fine, how are you?”. Literally, my response hadn’t been processed at all. If you want some evidence for hearing being a process of anticipation then you’ve got it there. There’s no other response in the “repertoire” to “How are you?” other than minor variants on “Fine, how are you?”, so the brain doesn’t even really bother processing what has been said. Any response is just treated as the standard one.
  2. Speaking to my uncle a day or two after my father had died (I had already told my uncle). This time, he asked first: “How are you?”. My response, understandably: “Not too good.”. My uncle’s response—no criticism intended, this is just a point about how deeply embedded language structures are—”Oh, why is that then?”. I was, very unusually, struck dumb for a few seconds. For a moment I thought “Perhaps I didn’t tell him that Dad had died?”; for surely, someone wouldn’t say something so crass to someone who had just lost a parent—surely it would be obvious why I “wasn’t too good”. Eventually, I managed to stutter out “Well, you know, Dad died yesterday.” It is bizarre how fixed our linguistic patterns are that, even after one of the worst things that can happen to you, saying that you are anything other than “fine” causes our whole language generation system to collapse.

There’s no F in Strategy (and usually doesn’t need to be)

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

A while ago I read a little article whilst doing a management course that was very influential on me (I’ll find the reference and add it here soon). It argued that the process of building a team—in the strict sense a group of people who could really work closely and robustly together on a complex problem—was difficult, time-consuming and emotionally fraught, and that actually, for most business processes, there isn’t really any need to build a team as such. Instead, just a decently managed group of people with a well-defined goal was all that was needed for most activities. Indeed, this goes further; because of the stress and strain needed to build a well-functioning team in the strong sense of the word, it is really unproductive to do this, and risks fomenting a “team-building fatigue” in people.

I’m wondering if the same is true for the idea of strategy. Strategy is a really important idea in organisations, and the idea of strategic change is really important when a real transformation needs to be made. But, I worry that the constant demands to produce “strategies” of all sorts, at all levels of organisations, runs the danger of causing “strategy fatigue” too. We have to produce School strategies, Faculty strategies, University strategies, all divided un-neatly into research, undergraduate, and postgraduate, and then personal research Strategies, and Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all strategies. Really, we ought to be keeping the word and concepts around “strategy” for when it really matters; describing some pissant objective to increase the proportion of one category of students from 14.1% to 15% isn’t a strategy, it’s almost a rounding error. We really need to retain the term—and the activity—for when it really matters.

TIFU (1)

Saturday, February 6th, 2016

There is a wonderful subreddit called Dear Reddit, Today I Fucked Up… in which people post (usually fairly lighthearted) accounts of how they erred during the current day, beginning with the abbreviation “TIFU”. Here is my post there from today.

TIFU by starting to ask someone the question ‘So, where are you from?’, realising as I opened my mouth that it often sounds a little bit racist (with its implication of ‘So, where are you from *really*?’), deciding to draw attention to the fact that I know that it’s a stupid and clichéd question by putting it in air quotes, then didn’t really start moving my fingers until the last word of the question, which made it look like I was saying ‘So, where are you “from”?’ which made the question even worse.

Informality (1)

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

I am a fairly informal person, but occasionally even I get a surprise, like this recent email from HMRC:


In just a generation we have gone from addressing each other as “Sir” and “Madam” to the point where one of the stuffiest parts of government says “Hi!” to me. To people of my father’s generation, who struggled with their doctor referring to them by their first name, this shift would have been almost incomprehensible.

Seeming more Specialised than you Actually Are

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Sometimes it is important to present yourself as more specialised than you actually are. This can be true for individuals and for businesses. Take, for example, the following apparently successful businesses:

Woaah there! What’s happening here? Surely any decent web design company can provide a website for a doctor’s surgery? The specific company might provide a tiny little bit more knowledge, but surely the knowledge required to write a decent website is around 99 percent of the knowledge required to write a doctor’s surgery website. Surely, handling payments from parents for school activities is just the same as, well, umm, handling payments, and there are plenty of companies that do that perfectly well.

This, of course, misses the point. The potential customers don’t know that. To them, they are likely to trust the over-specialised presentation rather than the generic one. Indeed, the generic one might sound a little bit shady, evasive or amateurish: “What kind of web sites do you make?”, “Well, all kinds really.”, “Yes, but what are you really good at.”, “Well, it doesn’t really matter, websites are all basically the same once you get into the code.”. Contrast that with “we make websites for doctors.” Simples, innit.

So that’s my business startup advice. Find an area that uses your skills, find some specialised application of those skills, then market the hell out of your skills in that specific area. You will know that your skills are transferrable—but, your potential customers won’t, and they will trust you more as a result.

I’ve noticed the same with trying to build academic collaborations. Saying “we do optimisation and data science and visualisation and all that stuff” doesn’t really cut it. I’ve had much more success starting with a specific observation—we can provide a way of grouping your data into similar clusters, for example—than trying to describe the full range of what contemporary data science techniques can do.

Similarly with courses. Universities have done well out of providing “MBA in Marketing for XX” or whatever, when the vast majority of the course might be generic marketing skills. Again, the point here is more one of trust than one of content.

You Didn’t Need to Do That

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

This epitomises the idea “if you don’t have anything to say, you don’t have to say anything”. I think some people genuinely think that if there is a box on a web page for comments then they have been singled out from all the people on the web to make that comment, and so feel obliged to reply. Or, they were just being facetious 😉

"Can the new owners re-invent BHS?" "Don't know depends on who you ask someone connected with business mabe."

Language (1)

Monday, October 27th, 2014

When we are learning creative writing at school, we learn that it is important to use a wide variety of terms to refer to the same thing. To refer to something over and over again using the same word is seen as “boring” and something to be avoided.

It is easy to think that this is a good rule for writing in general. However, in areas where precision is required—technical and scientific writing, policy documents, regulations—it is the wrong thing to be doing. Instead, we need to be very precise about what we are saying, and using different terminology for the sake of making the writing more “interesting” is likely to damn the future reader of the document to hours of careful analysis of whether you meant two different-but-overlapping words to refer to the same thing or not.

Incomprehension (1)

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

A while ago I had a conversation with a colleague, that went something like this:

Me: “I’ve come across a new book that would be really useful to you for the module you’re teaching next term.”

Colleague: “I don’t really think I need that.”

Me: “No, it’s really good, you will find it really useful.”

Colleague (rather angry): “I appreciate your suggestions, but I REALLY DON’T NEED A BOOK ON THE SUBJECT.”

It eventually transpired that my colleague was interpreting “you will find this book useful” as “Because you don’t know the subject of the course very well, you will need a book to help you learn the subject before you teach it to the students.”. By contrast, I was meaning “you will find it useful as a book to recommend to your students“.

This subtle elision between “you” being taken literally and being used in a slightly elided way to mean “something you are responsible for” is easily misunderstood. Another example that comes up frequently is when I am discussing with students some work that they have to do on a project. I will say something like “you need to make an index of the terms in the set of documents”, using the common elision in software development of “you need to” to mean “you need to write code to”, not “you need to do this by hand”. Most of the time the students get this, but on a significant minority of occasions there is a look of incomprehension on the student’s faces as they think I have asked them to do the whole damn tedious thing by themselves.

Sp. (1)

Saturday, September 20th, 2014

Oh for God’s sake Grauniad, learn the difference between a “physician” and a “physicist”:

"he does not sound much like a theoretical physician"

Next time I get theoretically ill I’m certainly going to a theoretical physician.

Making Sense (1)

Monday, August 25th, 2014

Oddly, this sentence from a colleague’s email makes perfect sense:

Just to confirm that this meeting has been cancelled because it has already taken place.

Forms of Embarrassment (4) (“-ier”)

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Worrying about how to pronounce works like “bombardier” and “chocolatier”. Should these be said like “choc-o-lat-i-er” with a naff 6th-form French accent? Or, like “chocolateer”, which has a jolly-hockey-sticks weird 1950s vibe to it. Usually end up either (1) trying to find a compromise pronunciation, which is futile and ends up being incomprehensible, not least because the two pronunciations have different numbers of syllables, and them mumbling it anyway; or (2) obscuring the clarity of my sentence in a fog of “I’m not quite too sure how you say this, but”, “or however you say it” and similar hedges.

A similar argument applies to the word “Pho”.

“Who Bought you That?”

Monday, December 16th, 2013

I’ve noticed a communication difference between people like me, who grew up in small families without much of a tradition of present-giving, to people who grew up in big, richly-connected families where dozens of people exchange presents for Christmas and birthdays.

People in the latter group often ask the question “Who bought you that?” when enquiring about some day-to-day object—a scarf, a watch, a pen that I have. I always thought that this was a weird question—why on earth would you imagine that someone bought it for me? But, of course, to people from such a background, the idea that you would ever need to buy such day-to-day tchotchkes is weird. For their whole lives they’ve never had any need to buy all these little bits and pieces, every since childhood they’ve had an endless supply of little day-to-day objects in the form of presents from cousins and great-aunts. Of course, they are in an economically neutral position, as they have had to keep up their part of the exchange.


Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

I’m increasingly getting emails of this kind, which begin by apologising for not being spam and then spam you. Or, which say things like “We know that you signed up to not get any email from us, but…”

Hi, You probably get enough spam in a day, right? So, strangely, this is my attempt to avoid spamming you. I'm compiling my email newsletter list for my agency -

Old-fartery (1)

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

I’m been using email for over 22 years now. This isn’t long enough to be a proper old-fart who remembers when emails were delivered on punched-cards by carrier pidgeon, but long enough to have notices some changes in practice.

In the early days of my email usage, it was common for replies to emails to consist of replies interspersed between quotes from the original email, so-called interleaved reply. So, for example, an email like this:

From: personnel@rummidge.ac.uk
To: cgj@rummidge.ac.uk

Are you able to come to the interview panel on the 25th? If so, can you confirm any dietary needs for lunch.


Bob from Personnel

Would get a reply like this:

From: cgj@rummidge.ac.uk
To: personnel@rummidge.ac.uk

On 7th October personnel@rummidge.ac.uk wrote:
> Are you able to come to the interview panel on the 25th?


> If so, can you confirm any dietary needs for lunch.

Yes – vegetarian.



Which is clear and concise (provided you are familiar with this format) and doesn’t require a lot of typing. This kind of interaction-through-quotes is sometimes called bottom-posting, because the reply comes after the relevant quote. An alternative is top-posting, where (usually the whole) original email comes after the reply—basically, it is there as a reference, in case something is unclear, rather than as part of the email. Increasingly, default settings in email don’t quote the original message at all (instead, relying on people using threaded email clients).

I’ve noticed that I’m more-or-less only person I know who still uses this quote-and-reply style of email exchange. I’m thinking of giving it up. I’ve noticed it causes confusion: sometimes people think I’ve accidentally cut-and-pasted pieces of their email into my reply, sometimes people read it as if it is all my reply and it therefore doesn’t make sense, some people think it is rude to not formulate a proper reply email, etc. etc.

It is interesting to think about why this has gone from being a more-or-less standard way of replying, to a piece of old-fartery practiced only by email-grognards. I would speculate that this is because people don’t really get taught how to use email any more. This used to be part of what used to be called “computer literacy”; back in the day, computers were so unknown and hard-to-use that just sending emails needed people to go on courses (I have a delightful old book on my shelf somewhere called “Using an Electronic Mailbox”). Now, user-friendliness of systems and general familiarity with computers has rendered these courses otiose; instead, people learn by informal advice from others, trial-and-error, and RingTFG.

But something has been lost here. Alongside the practical skills of how to use your new-fangled electronic mailbox, these courses also taught the slightly more advanced soft skills around email: understanding quoting, knowing what cc: and bcc; are and when it is sensible to use them, the difference between reply and reply-all, and more generally how to interpret, and make efficient use of, emails: what we might call email-semantics.

This is a minor loss; we still communicate effectively using email. But, it is a loss nonetheless which still stings an old-fart utopian-oriented email-grognard like myself, as I mourn the passing of something that made communication just that little bit quicker and clearer.

Open Plan (1)

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

There was an interesting comment on open-plan offices in a feature on the BBC News site today. It is commonly asserted that open plan workplaces facilitate communication. Exactly what this means is rarely expressed, but it contains some aspects of vicarious learning (people new to a job observe how other people interact with each other and with external visitors, for example) and the idea that in an open plan environment it is easier to just casually ask someone a question without feeling that you are disturbing them. I’m not too sure whether these are true…but, anyway.

One form of this is where a boss shares a workspace with the people that they are responsible for managing. This sounds good at first, it has a glow of egalitarianism and “we’re all in this together”. But, as the article points out, it can actively inhibit communication. In the example, an employee was trying to persuade other workers to leave (presumably to start up a new company or something like that). Interestingly, it is suggested that with “an open plan office, Mrs Balliett thinks staff might have found it hard to come forward and tell her what was going on”. I can see how this might happen; in a closed-plan office it is easy to say “can I have a quiet word” and discuss something like this. In the supposedly more communicative world of the open plan office this was harder.

Perhaps open plan offices give the impression of more contentment because people can’t moan in the privacy of their own workspaces. But, is the quiet seething going on underneath this even more pernicious?

“You turn if you want to…”

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Interesting attempt by Labour to shift the use of the phrase “U-turn” in politics:

I’ve never really liked the aversion to “U-turns” in politics. I can see that we don’t want people flip-flopping between decisions, but too strong an aversion to changing your mind in light of changing situations and new evidence can leave politics very unagile and leaden. It would be great if politicians could say “in response to overwhelming public pressure / new evidence … / the shift towards … /etc. we have decided to …” without opening themselves to accusations of U-turning.

Enormous (1)

Monday, March 11th, 2013

There were five pages of this…