Meaning Guide

How far is it OK to stretch the truth to make a point?

One of the most interesting jobs I ever had was when I was paid to tell lies. I didn’t see it that way at the time. I was running comms for a cost-saving programme in government, and the numbers we were (allegedly) saving were so big as to be meaningless to the average person. I asked the client “How far do you want me to push this?” and he replied “Don’t say anything that’s untrue, but beyond that, give me everything you’ve got”.

Think about that. “Don’t say anything that’s untrue.” But what counts as untrue when you’re trying to make a point?

I devised a campaign that compared our claimed savings with tangible things that people could relate to: The cost of building a new hospital, the cost of a new school, the cost of training doctors and nurses and so on. Instead of an infographic with meaningless numbers, we had posters with pictures of hospital wards and things. It was neat, and people got the message.

But was it true? Fifteen years later, the Vote Leave campaign tried the same trick, claiming that an equally dubious large number was enough to buy a new hospital every week. The BBC ran an article asking how much a hospital actually costs to build, and turned up numbers between £7m and £1.1bn, depending on the type of hospital. Who gets to decide what the word ‘hospital’ means? Or what should be included in the building costs? And how long did the campaign team spend debating these kinds of questions, before deciding they could proceed?

This takes us back to the meaning curve, which I talked about before here: How far is it OK to push a message up the curve before you are just telling an outright lie?

We could be charitable, and call these kind of examples “exaggerations”, “hyperbole”, “rhetorical effects” etc. But I’m only giving them to set the scene for a more challenging proposition, which is that we all engage in this kind of behaviour, to some degree, every time we communicate. Notice that I am not talking here about deliberate deception; neither am I saying that there’s no such thing as truth, I am simply talking about everyday conversation. Here are some things I’ve noticed myself doing:

  • When I’m explaining something in a meeting to people I perceive to be more senior or more expert, I tend to skirt around points I’m not quite sure about.
  • When I’m in the pub and I’m telling a story to make a point, I gently reconfigure events to emphasise what I want the story to say.
  • When I follow the rhetorical “rule of threes” to emphasise something, the three words I use often mean exactly the same thing.
  • When I’m citing evidence to back up a dubious argument, and I know instinctively that I need to refer to a range of examples, I will refer confidently to the example I know, hesitantly to a second I’m a bit hazy on, and completely fudge the third because it’s actually the same as the first.
  • When I know I might be on shaky ground but I still want to make a point, I use lots of “hedging” phrases – “it’s kind of like, it was something about, I think someone told me that, wasn’t it on the news or somewhere that …”
  • When I want to grab people’s attention I’ll exaggerate for effect, like I did with the first sentence of this article.
Sensemaking conversation

Do any of these sound familiar? I want to take a punt here and suggest that if you don’t recognise yourself doing at least some of these kinds of things from time to time then either (a) you are not very self-aware or (b) you are not very communicative.

So here’s a different way of looking at this whole area: Let’s see what happens if we start from the premise that all communication is a creative act, no matter how obviously true, false or dubious the propositions we claim. We are “trying some words on for size”, as Karl Weick might say, to see if they fit with what you think you think. If they do then your mental model will be reinforced, if not then it will be challenged. And of course, when you are in company, the feedback loop is augmented by the response of your hearers. As regular readers will be aware, I don’t think this is a hypothetical idea, I think it’s just a function of how brains work. But why is it a useful way of looking at things?

  • Firstly, it builds compassion for people who we might otherwise assume are being stupid, obnoxious or deliberately deceitful, just because they belong to a different social grouping that sees the world in a different way.
  • Secondly, if we see our communication as a model, then the fact that it’s wrong doesn’t automatically make it evil, because all models are wrong to some degree. The question is how right does it need to be, and what is the intention behind the speaking.
  • Thirdly, it triggers curiosity. As Kenneth Boulding once said, “the study of man is the study of talk. Human society is an edifice spun out of tenuous webs of conversation.” If we see communication as the externalisation of a model, rather than a series of truth propositions, we will ask more interesting questions about the purpose of the model, the intention of the communicator, the usefulness of the end result and so on.

I would love to live in a world where people can call me out, when I’m holding forth about something or other, to point out my hedging / dodgy examples / reconfiguration of personal history, and for me to see that as a gift rather than a challenge. A world where we each participate in a shared sensemaking journey, so that a challenge to a statement, or a request for clarification, is seen for what it is – simply information – rather than a challenge to the ego. The reality is that we tend to be surrounded by people who share our opinions anyway, so that the words we use feel more like a set of old clothes that we feel comfortable in, and we filter out contradictory points of view. I noticed this a lot when I used to do comms roles – after a while I had to believe the messages I was sharing, because I was so invested in the programme and the programme team, and it became hard to hear the good reasons ‘outsiders’ had for disagreeing.

This all sounds marvellously idealistic, but is it possible? How could you move towards this aim in your own work group / team / social gathering / family etc.? Well obviously the first thing is to start with yourself, the way you listen to yourself and others, how conscious you are of your own patterns of self-confirmation, your curiosity, the extent to which you move towards rather than away from confounding evidence etc.

But we also need to find means of surfacing and talking about this as groups. And this is where I think the meaning curve can help, as a way of externalising our perceptions of what people are trying to achieve in their communication, and raising it to consciousness. Or in simpler terms, of talking about talking:

We need to get beyond the idea that communication must be either top left (entertaining but factually dubious – the orator / comedian / raconteur) or bottom right (factually correct but boring – the scientist / engineer / pedant), and talk instead about how we can support one another to move collectively towards the top right.

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