What You’re Really Trying to Say…

I once heard a story about Larry Summers’ management style when he was president at Harvard. In faculty meetings Summers would frequently cut off whoever was speaking to say, "So what you're really trying to say is…" Being told "what you’re really saying" can be annoying. Um, no, actually that’s NOT what I’m trying to say.

The challenge with Summers, the story goes, was that most of the time he really did re-phrase their point in clearer and more succinct terms. It really was what they were trying to say. Hence his reputation as a brilliant man but indelicate manager.

I want to stress, per Paul Graham, this story is not just about articulateness. Clear communicating is clear thinking. To be able to describe an idea more clearly than someone else means the idea itself exists more clearly in that person's mind.

7 Responses to What You’re Really Trying to Say…

  1. DaveJ says:

    What you’re really trying to say is that rational thought consists primarily of linguistic representation, so clear communication is simply a reflection of the clarity of that thought.

    I think it’s too strong to say that it *is* clear thinking, unless you include the communication with oneself. Daniel Dennett has a lot to say about this in Consciousness Explained.

  2. Joan Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem: “I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language.”

  3. I liked Paul Graham’s little essay on writing briefly very much, but I felt as if he were pulling my leg by encasing it in one of the longest run-on sentences I’ve ever read, replete with three dozen semi-colons.

    I wouldn’t have him write advertising copy for me– that ungainly paragraph was hard on the eyes.

    Graham’s thinking is clear, but his communication is not.

    On the other hand, errant thinking can be communicated very clearly.

    So I can’t agree that clear communicating is clear thinking.

    If that were so, Madison Avenue and Daniel Dennet would be out of business.;-)

  4. Justine Musk says:

    What might be clear communication to one person might be “errant” in some way to another…particularly when colons and semi-colons get involved.

    And perhaps clear communicating *is* clear thinking…it just might not be very *good* (or sophisticated or interesting) clear thinking…

    In any case, Summers seems to be an example of someone who is clearly gifted…except, perhaps, when it comes to matters of social and emotional intelligence.

  5. Ah, it would seem I hit an atheist’s ‘emotional’ nerve.;-)

    Bad logic can be expressed quite clearly– it needs only the light of critical thinking to be exposed for what it is.

    Larry Summers may perhaps be “brilliant”, but I would suggest that anyone, most especially the former chief economist of the World Bank, who could write this memo is not only lacking in social intelligence, but also in sound personal ethics:

    “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that… I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly underpolluted.”

    I’d go so far as to say that such an attitude is clearly evil.

    I oppose atheism because it energizes these persons who lack a philosophical foundation on which to build a moral code.

  6. Summers could’ve made more friends just by rephrasing it as though he were the one trying to understand. So intstead of saying “what you’re trying to say is…” he could’ve said “I want to be sure I understand you. You’re saying that blah blah blah”

    You can volley it back at the end with “Am I getting it right?” Gives the other person a chance to take final ownership of the thought and amplify it if necessary.

  7. Fabio Rojas says:

    I’m surprised that Ben did not capture the most important element of the Summers story: he interrupted people. Good leaders know that shutting down people is a tool that you use infrequently, especially in a university setting when you are dealing with peers and not employees. I think Summers had many good ideas, but this story (and many others) leads me to think that he has the interaction style of a snappy fifth grader. A little restraint goes a long way in life.

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