0425 – replace hyperbole with precision

I’m learning that I have a habit of using hyperbole in my communication. I sometimes describe things as the “best things I’ve ever read”, for example. Which is rarely a true statement, or a useful one. It’s unhelpful, even damaging.

## Why does this habit exist?

I think this is a vestigial habit from Facebook and other minimal-stakes social interactions. Hyperbole demands (but does not command [1]) attention. It’s handwaving. It’s the equivalent of raising your voice because you have a weak (or non-existent) argument.

It was how I was operating in a low-stakes, low-accountability environment. I was judging my ‘performance’ based on the Likes and Shares I was getting.

There are two problems with that, both connected. The first is the problem of silent evidence, and the second is that not all Likes and Shares are created equal. Short term “wins” in one area can be simultaneously sabotaging longer-term, bigger wins elsewhere. The unthinking brain doesn’t differentiate. Thinking has to intervene if I want superior outcomes (which I will define as having a real impact on real things with stakes, outside of recreational outrage circles… may need more precision here. See and refine: What I Want).

I realized this when writing “sociopolitical commentary”. You can get a lot of responses and reactions by pandering to populist sentiment, or by pandering to anti-populist sentiment- in both cases you’re aligning yourself to some pre-existing group rather than thinking for yourself from first principles.[2]

I have since stopped writing commentary for now, because I was getting hooked on all the useless feedback, and I wasn’t really making the world a better place. In the backburner of my mind, I’m developing ideas for writing that would be useful. I’m imagining that sociopolitical commentary should help people recognize the difficult decisions and tradeoffs that need to be made, and help to focus people on the most important priorities and next steps. But that’s hard, and I don’t yet have the ability to work on those things while simultaneously juggling my work and my primary writing project. Yet.

## What must I do to change this habit?

It’s always easier to remove than to add. The first thing is to just avoid posting things mindlessly. I have successfully done this in some spheres of my life- I have less fruitless conversations with people I don’t really respect about things I don’t really care for. That much is (relatively) easy.

The harder next step is to have less fruitless conversations with people I DO respect about things I DO care about. And being more precise and rigorous and ruthless about who I respect, and what I care about. (This makes the problem less byzantine to solve.)

OK, even with fewer people and fewer topics, I’m still going to run into the same problem- hyperbole.

How do I address that?

The first thing that comes to my mind is to respect people’s time. I would personally rather read “Hey Visa, this article talks about how to effectively use X to do Y, which you said you were interested in” rather than “Hey Visa this is the best article on X ever”. [3]

The first is easier for me to slot into my to-do list, it’s easier for me to decide whether I should read it or not, and it gives me more context for what I should be looking out for.

The latter is a little costlier- it might be interesting to learn what you define as “best”, and there’s a chance that you might be right and the article might actually be useful. But the first approach is clearly superior, so much so that I hope I find myself cringing if I ever neglect it. [4]

## What is the challenge?

So my challenge to myself is: whenever sharing something ANYWHERE with ANYONE, I should assume that people are really busy working on really important things, and that if I’m going to interrupt them (even asynchronously- it’s still information in their feeds) I better have a really good reason, and articulate that well.

## Why am I doing this?

There are so many reasons to do this. It’ll wean me off the addiction to populist response, which is a losing game / has diminishing returns. It’ll make me a more reliable source of information to the high-value people who I want to surround myself with [5]. It’ll make my thinking more rigorous, which is practically an end in itself, as well as means to all sorts of ends that I can’t even conceive of right now.


[1] Here I’m borrowing an idea from Elliot Hulse, who made a video talking about how you can either demand or command respect. (Related-ish link.) Demanding something doesn’t mean you’ll get it- in fact it often means you’ll get the opposite. Or maybe you’ll just people going through the motions (especially if you have some sort of power over them and they have no choice but to comply), but you don’t earn the deep respect that’s actually worth having. Commanding respect requires solid fundamentals that nobody can argue with. I would rather have the latter than the former. This requires hard work.

[2] I suppose this is part of the central challenge of running a media company, when you need $$ to stay afloat, and $$ often comes from advertising revenue and audience size. But I’m not running a media company, I’m just running my own brain. Though I suppose it’s slightly interesting to recognize how the impulse to be populist exists even in individuals pursuing personal interests, without any clear profit motive. Makes it even clearer that running a good media business must be goddamn hard. I don’t envy them.

[3] Here I’m reminded of an article by Xianhang Zhang about “the most useless forms of help“. People already have thick reading lists, if you’re going to add something to it, it better be good. I agreed with the article when I read it, so it’s interesting to see that I’m still guilty of perpetuating the mistake.

[4] Here I find myself thinking about my own approach to writing blogposts for work, and my advice for content marketers. Readers are tired, busy and overwhelmed, so you should present them immediately with the most relevant information- what they should do, why, how, and show them an example. Give them concrete numbers and talk about implications right in the headline. Don’t bury the lead. Initially this way of writing requires effort, but over time it becomes a new default way of seeing. Congratulations, you’ve leveled up as a communicator.

I don’t deliberately do these for my word vomits, but it is something I think about. I would like to be able to write word vomits that meet my own strict criteria for what determines an effective piece of writing. But this project is focused on volume of output. I’m optimizing for a different thing. Still, I bet the two will converge. When I can sit down and spit out a vomit that’s written with great communication principles, I will have leveled up again as a writer.

[5] I wrote in an earlier vomit that I find it a little sad that I’m not useful to the people I most respect and admire in the world– people working on really hard, really important problems. I would like to be useful to them. But there are a lot of intermediate steps between where I am now, and where I want to be. This is one of them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *