Communicating effectively: form and content

by Morendil1 min read6th Jan 201010 comments

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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 ?

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I used to argue with a more strident, arrogant tone than I try to adopt now. One influence in changing my tone was Ben Franklin's autobiography:

"I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat everyone of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure. For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention."

He describes how he cultivated "the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken.

...

When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny'd myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear'd or seem'd to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag'd in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos'd my opinions procur'd them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail'd with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right."

Another influence was Yvain's How To Not Lose An Argument. The common part of Franklin and Yvain's advice is to phrase your message in such a way that minimal status will be lost by your opponent agreeing with you. Your opponent must not see (consciously or subconsciously) your rhetoric as an attempt to gain status at zir expense.

He describes how he cultivated "the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken."

This sounds eminently reasonable but objectively it doesn't seem to be a very effective approach. If you look at people whose success depends on persuading others they rarely take this approach. Politicians, advertisers, media 'experts', preachers and those peddling all manner of quack cures and schemes rarely display uncertainty or lack of conviction in their own opinions. It seems to me that if such an approach were actually the best way to convince the majority of people then we would see a world where political speeches, adverts, religious sermons and the promotion of alternative medicine relied on 'expressing oneself in terms of modest diffidence'. I don't see such a world.

Good point. Humility and diffidence are optimal when arguing with someone who is already opposed to your position; a tone of certainty can be more effective when speaking to neutrals, especially if they won't hear another side presented to them; and rabble-rousing demagoguery gets strong believers most excited and moved to act.

I usually find myself arguing with those opposed to me, so I usually use the first mode.

Agreed, and I suspect that certainty and abrasive attributes are also less problematic if truth is not being sought after.

Your opponent must not see (consciously or subconsciously) your rhetoric as an attempt to gain status at zir expense.

To quote Daniele Vare: "Diplomacy is the art of letting someone have your way."

... at zir expense

Kind of goes against the very good point

Then you will achieve your aims more efficiently if nothing about the form distracts from the content.

(edited fixing formatting)

Unfortunately, the arguments that are most convincing to human minds are often not the most logical or the best supported by evidence. To be as convincing as possible, one must appeal to the emotional, as well as the rational aspects of the brain. Arguments are unlikely to succeed when your audience is put on the defensive or made to feel as though their world view is under attack, since this will trigger emotional states. Anger, annoyance and resentment affect the proper functioning of our logical abilities (think of what happens when you try reasoning with a person who is upset, or of the stupid decisions made in "crimes of passion"), and hence will damage the effectiveness of your argument. When discussing controversial topics, it is important (though quite difficult) to make your points without emotionally arousing the reader. Hence, one reason that it is important to display niceness in your writing is that it makes it less likely that you will annoy your reader.

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

When I am tempted to be mean, I ask myself, what lie am I telling myself that makes this seem like a good idea?

It doesn't always work -- my response to adefinitemaybe may have failed the test in places -- but it's always worth doing.

I think Robin Hanson would say something about signaling here. Grammatical errors that don't even effect content will still have some impact on readers if they think these types of errors signal ignorance. They will be less likely to pay attention to you.

This is related to another point I've been thinking about recently. That is, how to convince non-rationalists that rationalism is important.

I think this is a signaling problem as well. If, say, I were to write a post on LW geared towards non-rationalists, since I am unknown on this site, experienced rationalists might not respect me as much.

For example, take this sentence of yours:

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.

A non-rationalist might not understand what you're trying to say (at least not without studying the sentence a bit, which they might not want to do). You could get the same content out there by explaining what "bounded rationality" is, instead of assuming the reader knows what you're talking about, but that will send quite a different signal to people who are already rationalists. They might think you're being redundant.

I propose a third category. Content and form matter, but so does forum, for establishing effective communication.

Less Wrong is a useful and informative blog, but, by and large, not if you aren't already a rationalist.

You're absolutely right. Keeping in mind what audience you're adressing is among the classical (and extremely useful) tips for improving one's writing.

To some extent what defines an "audience" is precisely what you can expect of them in terms of vocabulary, shared values, and so on. It seems difficult, then, to say how you might write specifically for "non-rationalists" - there is no such thing as a cohesive audience. But you could think about, say, what would work in writing about rationality for people who read CNN.com. (People who value being informed, might want to signal to others that they keep up with important world events, and so on.)

Less Wrong is a useful and informative blog, but, by and large, not if you aren't already a rationalist.

I don't think of myself primarily as a rationalist. I came here due to other interests; I like to learn about epistemology, ethics, AI, grand science-fiction themes like uploading and cryonics. OTOH I wouldn't be here if I wasn't interested in what a lot of rationalists are also interested in.