Fire or Firefly

There is a time and context for exact versus inexact word choices. The context is important.

"I'm going to the pub for a bit" is a different statement than "I'm going to have a pint."

What about when giving directions?

"Go up the road about a mile or two, hang a left and you should see our house on the right" is a different conversation from "Head north on Route 72 for 1.3 miles, turn left at Mulberry Street and look for house #3423 on your right."

Reflecting on family memories?

"Mom used to fix pecan pie" is a different statement from "Mom used to fix pecan pie for my birthday every year since I can remember." One is a generalization; the other is what appears to be an explicit declarative.

What is the importance of understanding context and word choice? If you actually read this post, it suggests you may be one of those people that recognizes the importance of correctness and thoroughness. However, if you do not finish reading this post ad finem , it suggests you are lazy. Both statements could be correct or incorrect purely based upon word choice and context.

Inexact statement #1: "Our customers are unhappy."

Problem exploration: How many customers do you have? Is it all of your customers, some of them, a majority, a minority -- how many of your total customers are unhappy? And what are they unhappy about? When they speak, what words do they use? What did you communicate to the customer(s) to help manage this situation? What expectations do you believe your words set with them? What do you think we should do to increase the happiness of these customers? Are there any important initiatives going on at our customers' companies that we should take into consideration?

Inexact statement #2: "Looks like the swine-flu is pandemic."

Problem exploration: What is swine flu and why do I care? How does it differ from other forms of flu we've seen historically? How many people are reported to have it today? Where are they located? How many reports exist across what time-frame? What are the recommended manners of managing/mitigating it? Have we ever seen this before? How many people were affected last time? Where were they located? What was the report to time-occurrence relationship? How did it subside last time? Did you personally validate this information?

Inexact statement #3: "Our system is down."

Problem exploration: What problem was reported? What was stated? What words were actually used? Do you know what parts of the system were being used or accessed? Do you know from where they were accessing the system? Was it a sat-uplink in the Congo? Perhaps wireless from a coffee shop? Bouncing across multiple corporate proxies prior to connection? From there phone? From a moving vehicle? Do you know what parts of the system were not being used or accessed? Have you personally verified the report or are you just passing it along first?

Inexact statement #4: "Ah, dad. Everyone's got an iPod."

Problem exploration: How many people do you know? Does each person you know have an iPod? What music do you like? When do you see yourself spending time listening to music? Will any mp3 player work is or there specific functionality you're looking to use? If everyone jumped from a bridge, would you do it to? (Sorry, had to)

Inexact statement #5: "There are too many defects."

Problem exploration: What problems do you need to solve on a daily basis. Are you able to solve them? What problems are you not able to solve for yourself on a daily basis using this system? Describe what you love about this system. Describe what you hate about this system. Help me understand how this problem impacts your ability to solve your daily needs so that I better understand how the system should work. Are there other ways to solve these problems?

Inexact statement #6: "My friend always does that."

Problem exploration: How many times has your friend done 'that' this week? And each time your friend does 'that', did he always do it the same way? What about the last month? Does your friend remember doing 'that' a year ago, five years ago or longer? Do you remember? Does your friend always receive the same result in this situation? Do you have explicit data to validate 'always', or are you generalizing based upon feelings, perceptions or interpretations? Is it really 'always' or is it just 'often?'

When we encounter situations that require summation, action or response, word choices matter. Are all guns bad? Just some of them? Are over-weight people irresponsible, hyper-thin people mental, people with tattoos trouble-makers, church-goers low-intellect, excessive beer drinkers addicts, short people suffering from Napoleon complexes, or late people unorganized? Maybe or maybe not. Word choices are explicitly important in some cases; and in the case of all aforementioned statements, perhaps critically important. As Gerald M. (Jerry) Weinberg has noted in one of his books, the difference between a fire and a firefly is huge.

Does ten phone calls across one thousand customers merit 'our customers', 'some of our customers', or 'a few of our customers'? Is it an epidemic, pandemic or anomaly worth watching, if at all? If everyone would just get along, would there no longer be war? Does that then suggest there would only be peace? So, are you saying the absence of war is therefore peace?

Words are like metrics...they can be used in more than one manner to influence more than one response. If you're line of questioning to understand a problem is shallow, does that make you lazy? If you're word choices imply an idea without stating it, does that make you manipulative? or just a Jerry Springer customer? Are your words sweeping generalizations? Are they exactly correct?

When we take the time to understand, it increases the probability of right word choices thereafter; and when we do not take the time to understand, it decreases the probability of right word choices thereafter.


I hope scientists are exact. Astronauts hope engineers are exact. We all hope (I think) that firefighters and ambulance drivers know exactly how to get to our emergency location and provide the help we need.

Consider this: Were someone to characterize your work ethic, integrity and general reputation by words alone without facts or figures, how exact do you want them to be? Or is generally inexact good enough?

Now what do you think customers expect of us?