Captain’s log, stardate 20220401
The cry came from downstairs. It was my 11yo son.
I was brushing my teeth in the upstairs bathroom. His voice was plenty loud enough for me to hear a floor away. And over the sound of running water.
My wife was out shopping. He and my 7yo daughter were alone downstairs.
Louder this time.
He never asks for help with anything. He rarely raises his voice. Shouting for me across the house was extremely unusual.
Something was seriously wrong.
I yanked open the bathroom door and dashed for the stairs.
He and his little sister were panicking at the bottom.
(my brain: “Okay, they’re not hurt. What’s going on?”)
As I flew down the stairs, they took off toward the back door.
(my brain: “Did the dog get out of the yard again? Was she hit by a car?”)
“The toilet is smoking!” my son yelled from around the corner.
(my brain: “Did he say ‘smoking’? I must’ve heard wrong. He must’ve said ‘overflowing’. I just flushed the upstairs toilet... maybe the plumbing was backing up?”)
I caught up to them in the hall that leads to the downstairs bathroom.
They were standing outside the bathroom door, with eyes like saucers. Both pointing into the bathroom.
“THE TOILET IS SMOKING!!!”
I could see his lips this time. He definitely said smoking.
(my brain: “Is there a fire in the plumbing?! Is that even possible?”)
They backed up to make room in the narrow hallway. I peered into the small bathroom.
He was right.
The toilet was smoking.
One of my favorite comedians growing up was Steven Wright. He was a master of subverting expectations created by the inherent vagueness of language. He would use a word or common phrase to encourage an assumption in your mind, and then immediately violate it with an alternate interpretation.
It’s like a deception that you do to yourself by jumping to conclusions about the meaning of all the words in the setup. You laugh at the punchline because of the sudden realization that you tricked yourself.
While the vagueness of language is great for humor, it’s terrible for business.
If you can make faulty assumptions about the meaning of simple words like “bar” or “spotted” or “smoking”, imagine how disconnected you might be when speaking to a prospective client about complex concepts like “value” or “brand” or - my personal favorite - “better”.
Make them define the important terms for you. Get clear on what they really want.
If you don’t, you might be setting yourself up for a surprise six months later that’s not so funny.
Originally posted on April 1st, 2021