Communicating effectively: form and content

Effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­niques, par­tic­u­larly in writ­ten com­mu­ni­ca­tion, are an im­por­tant part of the as­piring ra­tio­nal­ist’s toolkit. Ali­corn’s re­cent post makes ex­cel­lent points about nice­ness, and touches par­en­thet­i­cally on the larger is­sue of form ver­sus con­tent.

The gen­eral claim, when defend­ing ei­ther rude­ness or poor spel­ling, is “what mat­ters is the con­tent in what I’m say­ing, not the form”. Well, I sus­pect this is one of the myths of pure rea­son. What mat­ters about your con­tent is what you do with it, prag­mat­i­cally. Are you here to con­vey ideas to oth­ers ? Then you will achieve your aims more effec­tively if noth­ing about the form dis­tracts from the con­tent. (That you need to have con­tent goes al­most with­out say­ing.)

Con­scien­tious pro­gram­mers are aware that source code is read and mod­ified much more of­ten than it is writ­ten. They know that it’s harder to de­bug code than it was to write it in the first place. They in­vest more effort in mak­ing their code read­able than a naive pro­gram­mer might, be­cause they es­ti­mate that this effort will be hand­somely re­paid in fu­ture sav­ings.

Con­ver­sa­tion is no differ­ent. Your in­tent (in a fo­rum like LW, any­way) is to cause oth­ers to pon­der cer­tain ideas. It’s in your in­ter­est to con­sider the limi­ta­tions of your in­ter­locu­tors, their ex­pec­ta­tions, their at­ten­tion span, their sen­si­tivity, their bounded ra­tio­nal­ity, so that the largest pos­si­ble frac­tion of your effort goes into de­liv­er­ing the pay­load, ver­sus dis­si­pat­ing as waste heat. There are more read­ers than writ­ers, mak­ing it ra­tio­nal to spend time and effort work­ing on the form of your mes­sage as well as the con­tent.

You even need to keep in mind that peo­ple are state­ful. That is, they don’t just con­sider the lo­cal form you’ve cho­sen for your ideas; they also ap­ply heuris­tics based on past in­ter­ac­tions with you.

Th­ese con­sid­er­a­tions ap­ply to more than just “nice­ness”. They ap­ply to any in­stances where you no­tice that peo­ple fail to take away the in­tended mes­sage from your writ­ings. When peo­ple re­spond to what you write, even with crit­i­cism, a down­vote or a com­plaint, they are do­ing you a ser­vice; you can at least use that feed­back to im­prove. Most will sim­ply ig­nore you, quietly. Given enough feed­back, the form your com­mu­ni­ca­tion will im­prove, over time.

And I would be quite sur­prised, given what I know of hu­man minds, if this did not also even­tu­ally im­prove the con­tent of your think­ing. I find ex­change with oth­ers in­dis­pens­able in sharp­en­ing my own skills, at any rate, and that is why I as­pire to be not just nice but also clear, en­gag­ing, and so on.

I have got­ten a lot of mileage out of, among oth­ers, Richard Gabriel’s Writer’s Work­shop book, and Peter Elbow’s Writ­ing with Power which in­tro­duced me to freewrit­ing.

What tech­niques do you, as ra­tio­nal­ists, find use­ful for effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion ?