Saturday, June 2, 2012

Non-Answers and Annoying Terms

There are some words that just drive me up a wall. Well, actually, it's not the words themselves as much as the way we tend to use them. "Peruse" is one example, especially when we use it to mean something like "to read quickly or carelessly", when it actually means the exact opposite: "to read with great thoroughness and attention to detail". I mean, come on. When Baha'u'llah says, "Peruse thou the Kitáb-i-Íqán...", do we really think He means for us to read it quickly and with little attention?

But that's just one example.

We seem to be filled with examples, like "How was that presentation last night?" "It was successful." It's almost as bad as "Your talk was good."

Those are what I call non-answers. They sound great, but they give very little useful information.

Let's look at that first one: "successful". It means that you have achieved success in an endeavour, that you have succeeded in doing something you set out to do. So what does it mean to succeed? It means that you have achieved the desired result or goal.

"How was your presentation?" "It was a success." In other words, I set out to give a presentation and succeeded in doing so. The fact that only 1 person showed up, and they fell asleep does not impact the success of this endeavour. I gave the talk.

You see, the impact of the success wholly depends upon the goal you set out to accomplish. If your goal was either unclear, or very low, then "success" may not be all that great.

There is, of course, another problem with it: If you don't succeed, then presumably you fail, and this success / failure paradigm is not all that useful. More on this particular theme can be found in a previous article I wrote about learning to learn, so I won't go into it here.

Instead, I'd like to give a little example of what I'm talking about.

The other night I went to this wonderful presentation on human rights which used the Baha'is in Iran as a case study. It was thought provoking and insightful.

It also had a number of people who attended.


Right there!

Of course it had a number of people who attended. What else could it have? (Well, if you're Roman it could have a letter of people attending, but I digress.) That number may have been 2, or even 3, and you would never know. That was a tidbit of useless non-information.

Anyways, the number in this case was very interesting. The program was scheduled to begin at 7 (it actually started at 7:02, so that was pretty good), and at that time there were 42 people who were present. They were the ones who heard the beginning of the main presentation. 42.

I know. I counted.

By 7:45, when the whole presentation was almost over, that number had risen to 76.

Again, I know. I counted.

Now you might think it useful to know that 76 attended, and it is. It is wonderful information. Far more useful than "a number of people".

It is also useful to know when these people showed up.

When I wrote to one of the organizers, praising his efforts, and encouraging the committee to do a similar event next year, I wrote the following about these numbers: "...nearly half of (the attendees) were late, some significantly so. This can either mean that the program began too early for people to get there on time, either due to having to eat dinner at home, or traffic conditions, or some other unavoidable delays, or that people in this community just show up late. For next year this can mean either considering starting later, or having an "opening act" so that those who are late won't miss the "main act". Whichever way is decided, this should be noted, and observed next year. If, for example, they decide to try starting at 7:30 in another venue, and a large number are still late, then the actual start time may be irrelevant."

You see? This, to me, is more useful than just saying, "Oh, your event was successful." Instead, it looks at some data and draws some reasonable conclusions from it upon which we can act. (At least the organizers of the event can act on it.) It also doesn't presume that the first conclusion is correct, nor the only possible conclusion.

I also remember a time a few years back when I was asked to give a report on a conference I hadn't attended. Not one to give up so easily I decided to interview some people I knew who had gone. When asked how the conference was, every one of them said, "Oh, it was good."


Upon interviewing them some more, asking what they had learned, or what they recalled, I discovered that all they remembered were the two artistic presentations.

On a whim, I decided to begin interviewing many people I knew who had attended conferences over the years, and in nearly every case it was the only the arts that they remembered. Interesting, non? It sure changed the way I presented at future conferences.

You see, dear Reader, there are certain answers that we tend to give to questions (myself most definitely included) that don't really give any information. And I, for one, have to wonder what we are missing when we don't take the time to delve deeper.

That's it. I set out to write a little bit about this issue, and I have done so. I guess I was successful.

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