Advice to All: If You Don't Know, Ask!

By The Cog Blog Archives
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Last week's post was all about keeping it simple, a principle that we often forego in favor of the (in my view) short-term belief that (to steal from Irwin Gotlieb) in confusion lies margin. The tech industry has as usual ignored history and is merrily pursuing its aim to confuse the life out of anyone not a member of the magic circle.

One of the comments I received came from Jon Waite, formerly of Dentsu Aegis and now at Havas. Jon made the excellent point that if he doesn't understand something he always (in his words) plays the village idiot and asks. Others should thank him for asking.

A few years ago at an asi Conference, Richard Marks asked Steve Wilcox what he meant by "regression from the mean." There must have been 300-odd people in that room, and by my estimate at least 290 of them offered a silent "thank you" to Richard.

It's not the easiest thing to speak up. You may think you're signposting your ignorance, that you look stupid, that you really should know the answer given your experience or seniority.

All these feelings are understandable, but they need correcting. We're never going to get anywhere if those making the decisions genuinely don't have at least some understanding of the basis on which the recommendation to do this or that have been made.

One of my earliest lessons, from one Bernard Bennett (there may be one or two readers who remember him) at Southern TV was: If you don't know, ask.

I used to go along to friendly, unthreatening gatherings like the MRG, and make myself stand up and ask questions. It wasn't I admit easy, but it got easier.

Later, when I had accumulated some experience, I used to welcome people asking me things. It's flattering to be asked; I genuinely never thought, "What an idiot. How on earth did he get there without knowing that?"

You learn from others after all.

One lesson is never to pontificate on something you don't understand.

Once I did a presentation to a client about some media measurement issue, and to make it appear a lot more complicated than it really was ("in confusion lies margin") I cut and pasted an impressive looking formula from a learned article on whatever the topic was.

I remember my line well -- and this was 40-odd years ago: "We've looked into this and come up with this formula which I'm sure you'll be pleased to know I don't intend taking you through today."

The client's response is also seared into my memory. It was something like: "I did my PHD on something similar to this. I would actually really like you to walk me through it."

Of course, I couldn't … and the humiliation lingers.

This sense of embarrassment and shame seems to vanish when it comes to those who fill my timelines on social media. It's extraordinary how many a) international trade experts, b) epidemiologists and c) geopolitical strategists connected to me.

Even more impressive is these skills seem to reside in the same people.

I know nothing about these three topics, so I read what I can from those who (genuinely) do. I may, having read up on the topic, express an opinion but I don't pretend it's anything more than that.

I do, however, know quite a lot about some things, including advertising, media and audience measurement. So, it is with confidence that I say that most people who post on these things know nothing about them (probably because their brains are full given their expertise on trade deals, epidemiology and geopolitics).

If you doubt me read the comments from those who love GBNews and who express their love by denigrating rival channels' viewing figures. Or those who confuse sales with readership. Or how we can fund the BBC with advertising, or … oh don't get me started!

There are of course many people who do know a great deal about these things, but that population, although large, makes up a very small proportion of the comments I see.

We've gotten used to valuing everyone's thoughts equally, however uninformed they may be. But we've forgotten the value in learning, and we've fallen back into believing that asking someone something is an indicator of weakness or stupidity, to be mocked.

And so, we avoid it. No-one likes to be mocked. Surely it's better for the self-esteem to shout louder, to stare down those who doubt you, to intimidate.

To cut and paste the formula.

No, it isn't. It really isn't.

Ask away, curiosity is a sign of strength. And bullshitters get caught out, eventually.

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