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Speed Kills; Stories Revive

Yesterday, as I checked my stock portfolio online, I noted that one of my accounts had lost over $10m. The news was at once disconcerting and amusing as my entire portfolio is worth far less than $10m.

Earlier in the week the same website, assured (?) me that my chances of a financially successful retirement was 0%. And while we have less than $10m stowed away, we have enough that I expect there is some chance we will not be starving retirees.

It turns out in both cases work being done on my accounts caused errors in the real time data it provided. My financial advisor assured me these issues did not occur when portfolios were updated daily, rather than instantaneously.

Likewise, I recently went to the doctor for some tests and the results went straight to my patient portal. I saw the results before the doctor and certainly before the doctor explained them. Reading the results, I was unsure if I was at death’s door or in the pink of health.

Both of these situations were caused by a quest to provide instantaneous information. The reality is that we almost never need second by second information. I am happy to see my financial situation with a 24 hour lag and I prefer not to see my medical results until a doctor can review them with me.

I think as a society we forgot that information is not a good in and of itself. It is meant to inform, and informing needs context. Instantaneous information lacks that context and often ends up confusing more than enlightening.

As leaders we are often under pressure to communicate to all constituencies and to do it immediately. Smart leaders need to resist that temptation. Information is not helpful on its own; it is helpful when it adds to a story that conveys important information. Good communicators take the time to understand the data, develop a concise and useful story about what it tells, and then share the story with those who would benefit from hearing it.

When the doctor called me and said the test results told the story that my health issues were minor and treatable, I knew something that the data alone could not tell me.

When my financial advisor assured me I had not lost $10m I did not know I had and my retirement plan was sound, he told a story that the data (incorrect data in this case) could not.

When getting ready to communicate information with your people, think about the data you are relying on. Is it accurate? Does it clarify a point that needs to be conveyed? Does it help you tell a story that makes it understandable and actionable to the recipient? Once that work is done, you will be communicating in a way that informs--something information alone often cannot do.

Remember the race is not always to the swift; it is often to those who are understandable.


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