Season 1, episode 7: “Justice”
Lesson: make your point up front; don’t babble
This post is part of my ongoing quest to watch every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and pull one startup, entrepreneurship, tech, or investing lesson from each.
Imagine the Enterprise choosing to go on shore leave on a planet where 1980s hair and bodies out of Olivia Newton John’s music video for “Physical” meet 1960s swingers in a futuristic but backwards utopia. There are a lot of awkward scenes where the planet’s inhabitants come onto the Enterprise crew or just hug them for way too long. Then Wesley gets sentenced to death for accidentally stepping on some flowers while playing catch with some other kids, because of course Swinger Planet turns out to be as much about free love as it is about free capital punishment. Ugh. This episode was weak.
In one scene on the bridge, Captain Picard is talking to Data about their conundrum with Wesley: violate the planet’s judicial system and thus Prime Directive and save him, or maintain integrity and the Prime Directive and let him die? They have this exchange:
Data: It was probably unwise of us to attempt to place a human colony in this area. Of course, there are 3,004 other planets in this star cluster in which we could have colonized. The largest and closest…
Picard: Data, don’t babble.
Data: Babble, sir? I’m not aware that I ever babble, sir. It may be that from time to time I have considerable information to communicate, and you may question the way in which I organize it…
Picard: Please, organize it into brief answers to my questions.
Partly to avoid focusing on the stupidity of the rest of this episode (but also because it resonates), I’ll pull the lesson from here: get to the point fast and up front, especially when you’re talking to managers.
Professor, company culture fixer, and all around badass Frances Frei describes the two main communication styles as triangles in her TED talk on how to build trust. Some people start with the point, then follow up with the supporting facts. Think of their logic like this: 🔼
Others start with the supporting facts, then conclude with the point….like this: 🔽
While 🔽 can be compelling and captivating in some contexts, such as storytelling, it takes a talented communicator to pull it off well. Most of the time people are rushed, busy, and eager to hear to the point of what you’re trying to say. Until you make that point, they’ll be impatient for you to get there. Thus all the meandering and fact-building you do until the point becomes boring at best and irritating at worst. Instead of bolstering your argument and fortifying your point so it’s bullet-proof by the time you get there (which is what many 🔽 communicators believe they’re doing), you’ve lost your listener.
I always loved English class in school and studied it through undergrad, where I was a Psychology major and an English minor. English teaches you to start with the supporting evidence and end with the conclusion. You analyze all the passages that, for example, show Snape’s state of mind in Harry Potter, you build them up using each other, and then you hit the reader with the revelation that he’s actually a good guy in the end. But when I went to law school, we got an immediate retraining in how to write (and speak): you make your point first, then put your support after. E.g., Snape is actually a good guy: here’s why. Or more accurately, Snape is not guilty: here’s the evidence.
Thus you need to flip the triangle from 🔽 to 🔼 if you’re like Data and tend to babble. And the thing about Data is that he has all the facts. He’s a logic machine. No one doubts that he has a command of the facts or the logic, but his delivery is the problem.
Investors, founders, board members, executive team members, and managers tend to be balancing lots of conversations and conundrums and decisions every day. If you start with 🔽, you’ll lose them. Force yourself to start with the point, even if it feels unnatural, and you’ll be more effective. Case in point: emails. Please don’t send giant walls of text without paragraph breaks or a clear ask. Ask your key questions up top, in yes/no format if possible, and then give details below if you really need to. Or cut the details and provide them only if the recipient asks.
Making your point first, before you’ve laid down the supporting facts, takes courage. You risk your audience having an initial negative reaction. It’s gutsy. But you’ll have commanded their attention and can then move on to convincing them.
Next up: season 1, episode 8, “The Battle.”