Communicate as if ‘on one foot’

In the spirit to communicate well is this story.

One famous account in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently, and this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Shammai, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said:
"What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!"

The perspective of Shammai reminds me of the stereo sales agent who talks in terms of features: 5.1 sound, number of speakers, bass output, whatever. Hillel meanwhile is the person who understands the job to be done – just make it sounds good.

Customer Acquisition Cost Communication (CACC)

One way to change the CAC is to change the communication. When an organization communicates well it clearly frames the exchange which helps people ‘get it’.

It happens in politics. It happens in emergencies. It happens in sports and in investing too. When asked why he didn’t bring part of his business to a new venture, Bill Miller replied, “We are only interested in having clients that understand you’re going to get volatility. We try to monetize the volatility.“

The simplest form of this is the dating advice: be yourself.

Who is the message for and how would they like to hear it? At Duolingo the how is short.

“Any page on Duolingo has the minimum amount of text, the minimum amount of instructions and an intuitive simple interface. That’s in contrast to how language is traditionally learned, which is in a textbook, which usually begins with a conjugation table. What works better is to let the user jump into the exercise, get some hints, answer questions, and then we unlock new concepts.” – Cem Kansu, The Science of Change, October 2021

In sports the idea was unlocked with images (like heat maps). In investing the idea was unlocked with shareholder letters. It’s the same thing over and over – it’s just finding a fit. Kansu said they’ve run hundreds of experiments, on probably every part of their service. Part of those are how to find a good way to communicate well.

My own version of this is the sixty-two ideas drip. Like this post, it’s a short daily email about an idea. Communicating well is one. It’s five bucks.

Excellent endocrinologists

In Average is Over Tyler Cowen predicts that future jobs will reward people who work well with machines and humans. There will be good careers for people who understand people and data.

For instance, a doctor spends years of her life in medical school and residency and attends continuing medical education courses to ‘know a thing’. But she also must convince her patients. The way we do each of these will change with time but these are the two parts any job. Put another way, it doesn’t matter how good the model is if people don’t follow it.

“The (diabetes treatment) model we created beats 95% of primary care physicians, not because they aren’t smart, but they don’t go through the six million (treatment) combinations in their head. For endocrinologists there’s a top quintile who get results as good as the best output of our algorithm. They don’t do it by choosing the best algorithm, they use their humanity to talk to their patients about adhering to the drug regime. They are getting results a different way.” – Len Testa, Causal Inference, October 2021

Good convincing outperforms better medicine! This is why financial education does not work. Action does not follow information like a tail follows a dog.

Testa doesn’t elaborate how the doctors describe the diabetes deterrents, but it’s probably in the listener’s language. “Excise the statistical jargon,” said David Spiegelhalter and communicate better.

Sounds like a JTBD post no?

Forever communicating well

One way to think about good communication is to think about information theory. Or copy machines. Each copy of a copy loses information.

We usually use words as the idea delivery vehicle. Works work, but maybe not as well as we sometimes hope. We can do better.

One way to communicate better is to prioritize trust over understanding. The world is as you say, I don’t have to understand because I trust you. That communication tool works best in time restricted situations.

Another way to communicate well is to consider what ‘language’ the listener understands:

“If you look at (Boris) Johnson’s speeches during the Brexit campaign, they are almost all carefully framed entirely in AngloSaxon words because he knew damn well who he was talking to. That’s always been the key in English or American politics. The idea that someone can speak to the ordinary people not as some quasi foreign elite, but as one of us, is deeply potent to the English and their American cousins.” – James Hawes, The Spectator’s The Book Club podcast, November 2020

But ‘one of us’ isn’t just the words we use. Visuals, emotions, and figurative languages matter too. Sport analytics, for instance, works better visually.

A third aspect is the culture around communicating well. For instance, part-of-the-reason the English language changed was the culture of London. Stable relationships offer little wiggle room for new expressions. But, “In an area like London, where there is a less tight-knit society and consequently lower societal pressures, it opens up language (and other cultural factors) to extensive change.”

To communicate well in that London meant expressing oneself in new ways. I wonder if they would have pronounced it gif or jif?

Modern English is only five-hundred years old and that change in London is why elementary students have to learn about homophones like meet and meat.

How to communicate well REDACTED

Spoilers ahead for Andy Weir’s book, Project Hail Mary.

Chapter seventeen opens on the spaceship Hail Mary with Rocky staring at Grace as he wakes up. “Food! Coffee!” Grace tells the computer. A robotic arm appears with both. The food on Hail Mary is good. So is the computer. “It’s kind of cool that the arms will hand me a cup when there’s gravity, but a pouch when there isn’t,” Grace says.

Grace begins eating, then, “I look at Rocky, ‘You don’t have to watch me sleep. It’s okay.’ He turns his attention to a worktable in his portion of the dormitory. ‘Eridian culture rule. Must watch.‘ he picks up a device and tinkers with it.”

Ok, that settles it. “We have an unspoken agreement,” Grace explains, “that cultural things just have to be accepted. It ends any minor dispute.”

The heart of communication is one individual’s information becoming another individual’s information. Sometimes this is done explicitly. Tom Sachs made a video to encourage communication like “message received”. James Mattis wrote that the critical intent is summed up in the words “in order to”.

Another way to communicate is visually. Good visuals, for instance, are crucial for sports analytics. Don’t tell players what to do, but do show them. “This is always the point that gets made,” said Mike Zarren in 2019 ,”how do you integrate analytics into your organization such that is doesn’t feel like something alien.”

The structure of someone’s communication is probably related to their cadence (is it a pool builder or movie distributor?). For Mattis and the military it had to be fast and firm. For Sachs it has to be clear and certain. Grace and Rocky too have a high cadence, they have problems to solve.

Good communication is a great destination with no singular path. It doesn’t matter how an individual shares their information about the world so long as it becomes someone else’s.

The ‘Job’ of what is said

“I thought hard about what other people are trying to accomplish and I tried to shape my language in a way they could hear it. That’s half of what I talk to founders about. It’s just that, how to build the API to the other person’s brain. It doesn’t matter what you say. It matters what they hear, and it matters how they feel.”

Sam Hinkie, ILTB

That expression has a real JTBD-ness to it. It’s not the how something is done but the what, and if it’s the right what.

Tracking Tom. After a monster of a game, Tom Brady is 162 yards ahead of pace, his largest difference of the year. If Brady plays the rest of the games he’ll likely hit the over and our speculation will be wrong but our reasoning continues to hold, though maybe less than we should have suspected. One question comes to mind:

Did we think about base rates wrong? The key to base rates is to choose the right reference class. Brady seems fanatical about his health, and maybe we should have taken a page from Morey and made a cross-class comparison to Lebron James.

There’s still more ‘zero’ outcomes than not. Tampa could clinch a playoff spot, or be eliminated. Brady could be injured or rest before the playoffs.

We speculated at the start of the season there were a lot more zero to 200-yard games (injury, rest, offense, etc.) than 400+-yard games. That’s held in the data, Brady’s median yards per game is 11 yards less than his average. It feels incredibly odds, but we’ll be wrong for the right reasons.

Playing telephone with Bill Miller

Bill Miller spoke with Barry Ritholtz about active management and the importance of stakeholders.

When Miller departed from Legg Mason and then bought out the residual partners, he didn’t take any of the institutional clients.

“We brought the mutual funds along but I did not bring the institutional business along. We have some separate accounts but we don’t really take institutional money, not that we won’t take it, but we aren’t actively trying to grow it. We are only interested in having clients that understand you’re going to get volatility. We try to monetize the volatility. “

Part-of-the-reason institutions are more difficult to work with is the people. Not only investment committees, but investment committee boards. Not who Miller talks to, but who they talk to.

Around the same time as the Miller interview with Ritholtz, Hannah Fry spoke with Shane Parrish about the algorithms in our lives. Counting leads to coding and our interaction with algorithms, automations, and augmentations is accelerating. One approach (often wrong) is to educate people. Tell someone the number of calories in a Starbucks drink and they don’t opt for the smaller size.

Fry highlights this. It’s not realistic to expect that an outsider has the time, talent, and tenacity to interrogate a source code. They are numbing numbers. If something is too hard to understand, often instantaneously, then it may as well not exist.

The most ubiquitous parts of life are complex. This was a good book about the iPhone but I don’t remember much other than it truly is a global supply system that makes the device in my pocket work. Mix in some YouTube videos about cellular networks (it’s ‘cell’ as in which hexagon from our tessellation map is this person in?) and relearning what the UV spectrum is and I kinda-sorta-get it. There are videos too about repairing a screen. A layperson can do that, but jailbreaking or writing apps? How much does, or should, one person know?

Back to Mr. Miller. He’s not explaining the physical world (Mediocristan), a mostly stable place where the UV spectrum has held relatively constant for hundreds of years. He’s operating in the social world (Extremistan), a mostly unstable place, and it is hard to communicate there.

When asked what he wished he knew when he started, Miller said:

“The thing that I am constantly realizing is that the world, the economy, and the markets are so much more complicated than you have any idea. Having dogmatic views and pontificating about the world as this way or that is a complete waste of time because nobody has any idea about what’s going to happen in the future.”

Listen to Ted Seides’s podcast and you’ll hear that investment committees get this. Institutions employ smart, thoughtful, well-rounded people. However, it’s the next level when the alignment of communication, incentives, and priorities breaks down. It’s how the game of telephone works. Someone can read and watch and kinda-get-it. That same person cannot pass it along.

The alignment of stakeholders is why investment letters (and to another degree, podcasts) are so important. It’s a filter. If someone can read a letter, consider the ideas, and still wants to invest then that person gets it. It’s reading the source code. It’s succeeding at the game of telephone. It’s communicating well.

Your work with stakeholders depends on communication and your communication depends on how clearly you see the world. In the latest pay-what-you-want piece we look at advice from Tyler Cowen and my grandmother. The gist? If you see the world as you wish and not as it is, you’re in for a rude awakening. Get it here