If you have an audience–especially a client-audience or a customer-audience–you have to talk to them. Unless you’re in the business of taking advantage of your audience, you need to find a way to open lines of communication with them that allow for reality checks and feedback along the way. Most clients or customers will feel better about the interaction if they come away understanding what just happened, so it’s up to you to be very attentive to the information crossing between you and them.

So what kind of information needs to cross from professional to client in a service situation in order for everyone to feel like they’re in a good situation? Consider two examples.

The first could be seen as a riff on a theme emerging from the world of workplace performance and support: narrating your work. (Two of the best-known exponents of this idea are Jane Bozarth and Harold Jarche, for those of you who like a bit of bibliography.) The second example illustrates the inherently double-edged nature of a communication channel – perhaps what happens when the narration is unreliable, perhaps completely so.

My eye doctor is incredibly efficient. I’ve seen him a few times now, and entry to exit lasts about 20 minutes. He keeps to his schedule. I think he manages to do so because he’s very efficient in the way he attends to a patient, especially to a pretty normal case like myself. His moves remind me of the kind of efficiency you see in any practitioner who has performed the set of discrete tasks over and over. For this guy, everything is a fundamental. It’s like he took the work of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, and made it into his professional routine. But like a drummer (or somebody’s fantasy of a production line worker), there’s a real rhythm and cadence to what he does.

By itself, his efficiency is surprising enough - especially if you contrast it, as I do, with other experiences in larger medical establishments with very different relationships to the temporality of the patient. But efficiency is not the most striking characteristic here: it’s the constant stream of commentary that goes with it, and even supports it.

It goes like this. It’s not small talk, but very crisp requests, directions, and announcements, especially as he conducts the exam. He knows what he should see in a normal set of eyes of a man my age, and he verbally checks them off as he sees them. “No redness on the inside of your lower lid. Corneas are nice and clear. Optic nerve is good and fulsome.” I know what he’s seeing when he’s looking into my eye.

This contrasts with many other medical professionals, who carry on their examinations in near-silence, asking only if you feel some sensation or another. They don’t narrate while they examine. He’s also the only person in his practice: no administrative or medical assistant is there to capture everything he’s doing.

I always leave his office feeling like I had a good experience.

While I’ve not studied/preached narration of work as much as Harold or Jane, most of the examples that I’ve seen have been about recording work in some way for review or exploration later. (This may just be the limits of my knowledge of the universe of examples for the narration of work, I admit.)

But everything I’ve learned from their narration of their own work suggests that it can only be beneficial to bring the technique directly into the moment of work itself. After all, what is more invisible than work as it’s being done?


Contrast that example with the experience of a friend with a nonprofit dog rescue. She has one dog, and wants another. On this nonprofit’s website, she saw one who looked promising and pursued him.

The shortest possible version of the story is that before they ever even let her meet the dog, they put her through an intense series of hoops. Not only did they demand that she fill out a very long and personal questionnaire, they also asked for several references–and then checked them.

When I heard about this, I thought: well, they must love dogs, and they’re probably very dependent on the work of volunteers who may be taking things a little too seriously on the basis of that love. (I’ve worked with all-volunteer nonprofits, and the flip side of the way that personal initiative is often driven “by the mission” is that the volunteers may not have the most strategic vision of the mission.)

But when she finally met the dog and then took him home for a few days on a trial run, a lot more emerged. The nonprofit had played down the dog’s serious medical problems while also rather creatively embellishing his many fine points. Even my friend’s iron-clad dogwalker found him a lot to handle. Doggo’s explosions of anxiety even stressed out the other dog in the household, an adult hound of great canine savvy.

After a week or so of this, my friend got back in touch with the nonprofit and asked to bring the trial period to a close. There was just not a good fit there, given everything that she’d learned.

The response: “Well, we’re sorry it’s not working out. Of course, you’ll keep him until we can line up another foster for him, right?”

When she told me this, my reaction quickly changed from concern about the amateurishness of this group to a clearer recognition of what they were really about: finding a person that they could manipulate into taking what must have been one of their most borderline dogs.

They were, in fact, acting much like the Nigerian email scam artists described in one of my favorite research papers of the last few years: Cormac Herley’s “Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria?” published by Microsoft Research in 2012. (PDF here).

Herley asks, quite rightly, if it’s true in these advanced digital days that so many people have heard about (and hopefully not fallen victim to) the typical “Dear Friend, I write with news of a great opportunity if only you will help me on one favor” style, why do the scammers continue to use these tactics? Put simply, what appears to many as a laughably obvious ploy need only succeed with that small subset of people who are both just credulous enough to say, “Well, what if it is real?” and over time prove themselves unable to resist the goad of sunk costs spent advancing the Friend some money in pursuit of a promised larger sum.

Or, as Herley puts it:

Far-fetched tales of West African riches strike most as comical. Our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage. Since his attack has a low density of victims the Nigerian scammer has an over-riding need to reduce false positives. By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favor.

By clotting the channel of communication between yourself and your audience with demanding (this nonprofit) or ridiculous (Friend) discourse, you are creating a selection process that winnows those who will not believe you, and puts you in touch with those who will. A terribly ill and unsuitable dog goes one way; a steady stream of cash goes another.

Now, one always wants to learn more about an audience, customer, or client in the course of an interaction. But that knowledge needs to be collected transparently, under the guiding principle of finding the best outcome for both parties.

Whether you’re narrating your work, asking a series of preliminary diagnostic questions, or even at the final point of sale, what you communicate to your audience is as important as anything else involved. As both of these examples show, every interaction of this kind is really a selection process: you’re giving your audience a chance to select to stay or to go. Make sure they do it of their own free will.

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David D. LaCroix



The Silent X

David D. LaCroix

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