Ask a stupid question…

Posted by Colin Higton

You must have experienced it.

You’re sat in a meeting, listening to what everyone is saying, and then somebody asks how this will affect the TUA figures for March. Suddenly you realise you don’t have a clue what TUA means.

You look around, slightly panicked, but nobody else has even paused. They’re all nodding knowingly and following the conversation, but inside you’re struggling to follow because you’re desperately coming up with words that begin with T, U or A.

Obviously you don’t let any of this panic show on your face – that would give the game away – but inside you’re feeling like an idiot and wondering if you really belong in this highly professional world where everybody except you knows what TUA means. So you keep quiet and keep your head down and soon the conversation moves on to safer ground and you mentally log that you must Google TUA later to find out what it actually means.

The problem is that when you do Google it, TUA stands for a hundred different things – from The Unauthorised Autobiography, through TUrkmenistan Airlines through to Total Unconditional Acceptance (all genuinely listed in Google by the way).

So what does it mean? That’s the problem with acronyms  – they are deeply ambiguous and just don’t tell you very much – but it’s a much bigger problem than just acronyms.

When I’ve been in this situation in the past with a colleague, I’ve asked them after the meeting what TUA (or whatever) meant. They obviously knew because they nodded and listened attentively when it was mentioned – but 9 times out of 10 they actually say “Oh! I was hoping you knew that – I didn’t have a clue”.

In truth, you will probably find that half (or more) of the people in that meeting didn’t have a clue, but everyone nodded and did everything they could to avoid looking like they didn’t know.

That’s why I’ve stopped nodding and decided to ask the stupid question instead. If I don’t understand I’ll ask and take the risk of looking stupid. You feel daft for a moment, then the person answers, and half the people in the room try to hide the sudden realisation “So that’s what it means”.

I do this to be more honest and direct – and for my sanity – but it’s also my job.

Good visual communication is about helping everyone to understand a subject – and if I don’t understand it after years of sitting in on these meetings – the chances are our audience won’t understand it either. Often our job starts with helping the client to see the wood for the trees, and even if everyone in that room (except me) understood, or even if everyone in the industry understands – it doesn’t mean your customer will understand.

For years I received letters from printers who would give me  a ‘Plant List’ of all the machines they had – as if simply telling me that would make me understand what they could do for me. It didn’t. I don’t know their machines and to be honest I don’t care – they need to translate.

If only someone in the meeting where they were pulling that list together had had the sense (or the courage?) to ask the stupid question “does that mean anything to our clients?”.

Only once you ask the stupid question can you clarify what your message needs to be – and start the graphic design to make that message striking, clear and memorable – but above all clear and understandable to the person it’s aimed at.

And if you’re wondering why I chose TUA for my example – bravo for asking the stupid question – in my mind it stands for Totally Useless Acronym (Google it).

Picture credit
Turkmenistan Airlines

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