All communication is a dance between precision and power.
By precision, I mean communicating with a focus on neutrality and exactness—like medical notes. A more fitting extreme might be legal documents, and we all know how exciting those are.
By power, I mean communicating for emotional impact, whether of the idea itself or through the medium it’s conveyed with (powerful words, images, music and so on). An extreme would be someone screaming “FIRE!!!”
To clarify further, let’s see how they’re different:
- Precise communication aims for understanding, while powerful communication chases impact.
- Framing their goals negatively—in terms of what they most wish to avoid— precision-focused communication most fears being misunderstood and power-focused communication most fears being ignored.
- Precision focuses on preserving the truth of an idea. Power aims to make the idea feel true to the audience, even if that means—and it often will—expressing it in ways that seem imprecise out of context. (We might call it factual versus emotional truth.)
- Precise communication requires minimal context (beyond an understanding of language), while powerful communication is entirely based on context.
The more important the idea, the more we should prioritise power over precision: aim to be as minimally precise as necessary to convey your point, but as maximally powerful as possible.
There are two reasons for this.
Precision comes at the expense of power
Yes, I know you don’t want to have to choose, but sorry, you’re going to have to. With some choices, trying to have both is your best path to neither. This is one of those. The good news is if you pick the right one in such choices, you’re on track to both.
Clearly, I think power is the one to go for. Why not precision? Well, the truth is what’s true is already true, whether we realise it or not. Our imprecision in expressing it—our denial or ignorance of it—none of that would make it less true. Neither power nor precision (nor anything else, for that matter) would make the truth about, say, gravity any more true.
But communicating poorly about gravity would certainly make that truth less shareable. And when there’s an information vacuum about an important area, it’s just begging to be filled with conspiracy theories. And as we saw with COVID once conspiracy theories take hold, it’s hard for the truth to find a foothold.
And you know one thing conspiracies don’t worry about? Precision. As the saying goes, “A lie will go round the world while the truth is pulling its boots on.” Obviously, lying to get the truth across would be—well, self-defeating. But that’s just why the truth has to land as powerfully as possible.
Our human nature makes us more responsive to ideas powerfully communicated—and easily distracted when they are not. Land with power, and then follow up with precision… especially because of the next reason.
Precision preaches to the choir
The only people who really care about precision are those who already buy your ideas—or at least are actively engaging with them. I’m talking about those asking questions and wanting to understand. Those are the people you should be focusing on helping grasp the fine details and small print.
The further people are from your ideas, though, the broader your strokes better be. The person who still thinks of COVID as caused by 5G towers is probably not the one to appreciate a breakdown of the different varieties of RNA vaccines. Save that for those who already believe.
Precision is for preaching to the choir, clarifying for the true believers. They’re the ones who’re interested, who have the context to make sense of the detail without getting overwhelmed by it. Anyone else would be bored stiff.
How to dance?
Given this dance, the aim of any communicator should be to understand their ideas with precision but express them with power. So while the power is external, the precision is primarily internal.
The problem is confusing internal with external. So you might focus on expressing ideas as precisely as you understand them—and lose not only the audience but perhaps even some of the choir). Or you might be content to express ideas powerfully, despite not clearly understanding them—and risk communicating the wrong idea, or even a false one.
Not an easy balance. But totally doable.