Last night I was talking with the young cashier who was ringing up my items at the store.
How are you this evening, he asked me.
Very well, and how are you? I replied.
He looked at me and asked if I wanted his answer on a scale of 1 to 10 or in words.
I hesitated while I thought about the options. The scale would give me quantifiable information but the words would let me know more about his character.
I’m a writer, I told him, I’ll take the words.
Really? No one ever chooses words, he shook his head in disbelief, well in that case, I’ll tell you. I’m just excellent this evening, I’m really excellent, thanks for asking.
Now even he had given me a 10, I wouldn’t have been able to get the kind of understanding or feeling I got from his “just excellent”. I also wouldn’t have been able to see his wit and enthusiasm. His response opened up a conversation that (while the groceries were being weighed and rung up) ran from the over use of the word awesome to his desire to one day be a writer himself.
Which brings us to the difference between quantitative information and qualitative information and when is one technique more effective over the other?
If I have the results of a poll, surely I want to get that information out as quickly as possible. Numbers are powerful, they defy argument, they establish authority.
But if I want to get people on my side and to establish dialogue, a little bit of smoothness is what is needed. Quality language is calming and friendly. It has a come over to my house sort of appeal to it.
It’s not easy to move between these two types of communication and the abundance of “cold” documents out there attest to that fact. We’ve all read papers that are lifeless but on the other hand we’ve also read documents that read like a used car-seller’s soliloquy. Neither are effective at getting their message across.
Many times writers fail by writing for themselves and using a style they are most comfortable with instead of what their audience needs. I know of one man who worked for a Governmental agency and when called into his manager’s office to be warned of his constant use of “million dollar words when a 10 dollar word would suffice” claimed that the fault lay in his readers. “If they can’t understand the words, it’s their fault for being so stupid”. His career as a writer was rather short lived.
I know that have also been guilty of this lack of transition. When I was deep in the trenches of technical writing, I would often write letters home that began,
This is what I would like to talk to you about:
- Bulleted list item 1
- Bulleted list item 2
This is certainly not an endearing (nor effective) form of communication (and trust me, I heard about it’s lack of effectiveness from my audience over and over).
In the end, which type of communication do we choose? Firstly choose the one that feels right, if you are an experienced writer you should have a gut feel by now if you remember for whom you are writing. If it’s not obvious, why not test your technique on a sample of your audience? Take a chance. Go ahead and ask them which method they prefer and why.
It might just initiate a “really excellent” discussion.