Avoiding Weasel Words in Your Business Writing

My day job as an industry analyst gives me great exposure to all kinds of business writing. Some of it is good. A lot of it isn’t. A common trait of bad business writing is what I call the illusion of action, or giving the appearance that you’re advising or instructing your reader to do something, but the action is either nonexistent or vague. From the content I’ve reviewed, weasel words are a big contributor to weak business writing.

Weasel words are words that avoid taking a position. You likely see them on a daily basis but they don’t catch your eye because you’re used to weak business writing. The weasel words I’m always on the lookout for are:

Assume Believe Consider Expect
Imagine Know Look Monitor
Own Realize Recognize Reflect
Remember Think Understand

Getting away from the business context for a moment, let’s say you’re reading about grilling steaks. When it gets to the part about determining the doneness, the step simple states:
Assess the temperature of your steak for desired doneness. [Bad recommendation]

What does that mean? How do I assess it? By touch? If you’re experienced on the grill, this might make perfect sense to you. But if you’re experienced, it’s unlikely you’re reading the recipe in the first place.

Instead, a weasel-free recommendation might look like:
Use a digital thermometer to check the doneness of your steak. Rare steaks are between 120° and 125°, while medium rare steaks… [Good recommendation]

The good recommendation tells the reader how to do something and, when necessary or available, provides some data supporting or scoping the recommendation.

Let’s Talk About ‘Leverage’

‘Leverage’ is a massively overused word in business writing. I can argue that it’s a weasel word because it is used to avoid taking a position, but it almost always means ‘use.’ You’re better off using the simpler and more direct language. The same is true of ‘utilize.’ Always use the shorter, more direct version to communicate with your audience.

Weasel words are evasive and destroy the value you’re trying to create for your audience. Avoid them by taking a position for your reader. If you find that difficult, you may not know your audience or the topic well enough yet.

A Cognitive Model for Decision-Making with Data Visualizations

Data visualizations increasingly inform our daily decisions. Traffic visualizations inform which route to take to the office, business intelligence dashboards indicate how you’re doing on projects and key performance indicators. And data collected by fitness trackers tell you how close you are (or aren’t) to reaching your weight loss or fitness goals.

Each of these domains (transport, performance, fitness) use different kinds of visualizations and may require different decision processes and frameworks. While there’s been significant research on data visualizations on decision making in isolated domains, there hasn’t been a much research around cross-domain research in an attempt to uncover a common cognitive decision-making framework. That is, until recently.

Earlier this year, team lead by Lace Padilla conducted an analysis of decision-making theories and visualization frameworks and propose an integrated decision-making model

What are Decision-Making Frameworks?

Over the last 30 years, the dominant decision-making theory into how humans make risk-based decisions has been the dual-process theory. In the first process, humans make reflexive, intuitive decisions with little consideration. This is also called Type 1 processing. Type 2 processing is more deliberate and contemplative. The two types of decisions were made famous by Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” There have also been some proposals that these two types are a gross oversimplication of how the human brain makes decisions and the reality is closer to a spectrum of decision-making, based on required attention and working memory.

Cross-Domain Research Findings

The researchers discovered four findings as part of the review. The first two are impacted by Type 1 processes; the third by Type 2, while the fourth appears to be impacted by both.

Visualizations direct viewers’ bottom-up attention, which can be helpful or detrimental

Things like colors, edges, lines and other foreground information can cause involuntary shifts in attention (bottom-up attention). This may cause viewers of a visualization to focus on things like icons while missing task-relevant information. In one example, reproduced from the original document, some viewers were willing to pay $125 more for tires when viewing the visualizations versus viewing a textual representation.

dataviz_fig6

Bottom-up attention has a significant influence on decision-making, but it’s also a Type 1 task that likely influences the initial decision-making process.

Visual encoding techniques prompt visual-spatial biases

How a visualization is presented can trigger biases. One example is using semi-opaque overlays on a map to indicate user location on a map. Representing the probable location as a blurred area produced different decisions than fixed probability area, depicted below:

Screen Shot 2018-10-06 at 17.32.07

Like the previous finding, these visual-spatial biases are a Type 1 process occurring automatically.

Visualizations that have a better cognitive fit result in faster and more effective decisions

“Cognitive fit” describes the alignment between the task or question and the visualization. In other words, is the visualization formatted in such a way that it facilitates answering the question being asked. The researchers used the example of finding the most significant members of a social media network. When the graph was formatted in a way that didn’t facilitate the task, participants with less working memory capacity performed the task more slowly than those with greater working memory. When using a visualization optimized for the task, there was no difference in task completion times.

Knowledge-driven processes can interact with the effects of the encoding technique

The last finding is that the knowledge that a person possesses can impact how the visualization is used, triggering biases or allowing viewers to use existing expertise. Knowledge might be temporarily stored in working memory or held in long-term memory and used with some effort (both Type 2), or stored in long-term memory and automatically used (Type 1).

The Cross-Domain Model

The model the researchers developed adds working memory to a previously existing model of visualization comprehension. Working memory can influence every step in the decision-making processe, except bottom-up attention.

Screen Shot 2018-10-06 at 17.48.13

Recommendations

As part of their review and the previously depicted cross-domain model, the researchers created several recommendations for data visualization designers:

  • Create visualizations that identify the critical information needed for a task and using visual encoding techniques to direct attention to that information.
  • Use a saliency algorithm to determine the elements in a visualization that will likely attract viewers’ attention.
  • Try to create visualizations that align to a viewer’s mental “schema” and task demands.
  • Ensure cognitive fit by reducing the number of mental transformations required in the decision-making process.

Overall, this is excellent work that should be top of mind for anyone using and presenting data visualizations to decision-makers.

Book Review: ‘How Asia Works’ by Joe Studwell

how_asia_works_cover

“…in a functioning society markets are shaped and re-shaped by political power”

During my undergrad, one of the most enjoyable classes I took was how to develop emerging economies. The documented progression of economies from agriculture to manufacturing was fascinating, but it was only a 300-level course and it was short on details. I found Joe Studwell’s “How Asia Works” on some recommended book list and promptly added it to my Kindle.

How Asia Works” is a detailed look at the economic history of South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia. Two are economic standouts and two have yet to meaningfully  reach any kind of economic escape velocity. The topics of agricultural reform and development, manufacturing and the liberalization of financial markets each get a detailed chapter while China’s success is explored last.

Studwell has created an excellently researched book and he delivers a level of detail without chapters feeling bogged down. For the topic (econ history is usually impossibly dry), the book reads well. That said, the excessive length of the individual chapters makes the book a bit of a slog to get through. Despite the quality of the writing, 400 pages still reads like 800.

What I found surprising about the history of the successes and failures was the role of government policymaking in shaping these economies. Enforced land reform, protectionism, a government-led focus on exports, technology mastery, and slow deregulation of respective financial markets are the characteristics of the winners. Studwell links these policies to similar developing economies, including the United States’ early development, which influenced the economies of Germany and Meiji Japan.

Studwell makes an excellent case that no significant economy has developed from free trade and deregulation from the outset. Proactive interventions, starting with agriculture and then in manufacturing, drive accumulation of capital and technological mastery. There doesn’t appear to be a way for countries to bypass these essential steps.

In short, I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in the history of economic development and how those lessons translate to today.

Resolving the Presenter’s Paradox

Deciding what information to include in a presentation is a challenge everyone faces. From the presenter’s perspective, every fact that supports the presentation objective has some value. These might be case studies, data points, primary research, or other elements that drive the point home. Some facts, like primary research studies, might have a high impact while others, like anecdotes and informal stories, have less impact. Regardless of the weight of the information, presenters believe including all favorable information improves how audiences receive and evaluate the content. Presenters believe this creates an additive effect, roughly depicted below.

paradox_additive

Unfortunately, this isn’t how audiences evaluate content. Information with less impact dilutes more impactful information. Rather than an additive view, audiences take an averaging approach. As a presenter, you might think you’re throughly convincing the audience by including every snippet of data, but the audience experiences it differently:

paradox_average

You might experience this when watching a movie. As an observer, your evaluation is based on the entire movie. If the story is captivating but falls apart in the last act, you’re likely to rate the movie less positively even though most of the move was excellent. Another example might be an offer to purchase a new smartphone on its own, or purchase a slightly more expensive bundle that includes low quality headphones. In comparing the two offers, the low quality components reduce the desirability of the bundle relative to just buying the smartphone. This focusing on the big picture instead of individual components is called holistic processing.

Presenters generally fail to recognize holistic processing because their objectives are different from the evaluators. Evaluators assess the entire presentation, while presenters build presentations from individual components which become their own objects of attention. This happens largely because presenters create content using a bottom-up, rather than a top-down approach.

Recommendations for presenters:
  • Build your storyline first, then support it with only the most relevant facts. Avoid the bottom-up approach whenever possible.
  • Evaluate potential information in the context of the overall story rather than discretely. Moderately impactful information will dilute the impact of highly impactful information.
  • Choose the right information for your audience and message. Growth-centric presentations should avoid information on risk and loss, while prevention-centric presentations should highlight it.

 

 

Source:
The Presenter’s Paradox. Weaver, Garcia, Schwarz. 2012.

Are Chinese Companies Reading Employee Emotions?

On April 30th, South China Morning Post reported that Chinese companies are using brain-reading technology to detect the emotional state of workers. The article was short on details but long on effectiveness claims. If you missed it, the device looks like this:

china neural cap

The device appears to fit directly into the uniform hat or helmet, but doesn’t feature a “wet” connection in the form of electrodes. It’s possible the inside curve touches the head, which provides the data feed, but it’s unlikely the device will provide useful diagnostic information. Even less likely is that the data will let employers understand the emotional state of its employees. Data collected using traditional EEGs only provide basic data, and that requires calibration.

That hasn’t stopped the State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power from claiming the technology resulted in a profit increase of $315M USD since its introduction. What’s more likely is that employees, aware of the monitoring, are simply working harder because they’re afraid of losing their jobs. This isn’t sustainable. Possible outcomes include increased stress, employee burnout, and, potentially, workplace accidents.

This isn’t the only place where the Chinese surveillance state is pushing its citizens. In another story from Hangzhou (Hangzhou seems to be surveillance capital of China), schools are using facial recognition technology to ensure children are paying attention. Again, the likelihood this technology is doing what it advertises is vanishingly small, but the societal impact will be real.

Using Mental Models for Forecasting

Sharing a great post from Farnam Street on mental models for problem solving. In my day job, I use a number of these methods for market and product forecasting. One of the most valuable methods is Second Order Thinking:

First-level thinking is simplistic and superficial, and just about everyone can do it (a bad sign for anything involving an attempt at superiority). All the first-level thinker needs is an opinion about the future, as in “The outlook for the company is favorable, meaning the stock will go up.” Second-level thinking is deep, complex and convoluted.

When working with technology vendors, they frequently can’t get past the first level. In their defense, the first order is what’s in front of them – often the next quarter of results. My end user clients, the folks writing checks for technology, are less concerned about the next 3-6 months, but the next 3-6 years. This is where second order thinking comes in. It’s often contentious and imperfect; predicting the future usually is, but this model gives a framework for approaching it.

Cognitive Enhancement Weekly for May 6, 2018

If you want this content in your inbox every Sunday, please subscribe here: http://cognitiveenhancementweekly.com

The top news item this week is the death of Ascendance Biomedical’s CEO, Aaron Traywick. Also, artificial retinas, YouTube’s apparent attack on nootropics content, and the cognitive benefits of music and language training.

Studies

Musical training, bilingualism, and executive function: working memory and inhibitory control

Early studies suggested the possibility of a cognitive advantage from musical training and bilingualism but have failed to be replicated by recent findings. To assess whether cognitive benefits from training exist, and how unique they are to each training domain, this study compared musicians and bilinguals to each other, plus to individuals who had expertise in both skills, or neither. The findings confirm previous associations between musicians and improved cognition and extend existing evidence to show that benefits are narrower than expected but can be uniquely attributed to music compared to another specialized auditory skill domain.

https://cognitiveresearchjournal.springeropen.com/track/pdf/10.1186/s41235-018-0095-6

News

Biohacker and CEO of Ascendence Biomedical Aaron Traywick Found Dead in DC

The biohacker community suffered a loss this week. Aaron was found dead in a float tank in DC. It is currently unknown if [Ascendence](https://ascendance.io%5D will continue operations. Before he died, Ascendance was planning a CRISPR-based trial for treating lung cancer.

http://www.newsweek.com/aaron-traywick-biohacker-who-injected-himself-diy-herpes-drug-found-dead-908001 https://www.technologyreview.com/s/611076/before-he-died-this-biohacker-was-planning-a-crispr-trial-in-mexico/

YouTube Is Removing Some Nootropics Channels

YouTube deleted at least three nootropics channels over the past three days, leaving members of the community confused and worried that a larger crackdown is coming. Apparently this wasn’t targeted, per the updated Motherboard article, but it leaves more questions than answers about YouTube’s enforcement and appeal guidelines.

https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/9kgpk5/youtube-is-removing-nootropics-channelshttps://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/paxjvv/youtube-says-some-nootropics-channels-were-removed-mistakenl

New Studies Show Dark Chocolate Can Enhance Cognitive And Immune Health

Although doctors have known about dark chocolate’s health benefits for awhile, these new studies are the first to look specifically at the brains and immune systems of human patients. Flavonoids, an antioxidant, are credited with reducing brain and heart inflammation, but these antioxidants aren’t limited to chocolate. They’re also found in dark vegetables and fruits.

https://alivenewspaper.com/2018/04/new-studies-show-dark-chocolate-can-enhance-cognitive-immune-health/

Pupils are taking drugs to help them perform well in exams, says Dr Miriam Stoppard

It’s finals season for many college and university students, which means a raft of “smart drugs” articles. Many of these are overblown and designed to create more FUD than fact.

https://www.mirror.co.uk/lifestyle/health/pupils-taking-drugs-help-perform-12474758

Scientists develop ‘artificial retina’ in hope to restore sight to the blind

A cheap new artificial retina could soon be used to restore sight to the blind. Researchers from Tel Aviv and Linkoping have developed a small, photoactive film capable of converting light into electrical signals that stimulate light-sensitive nerve cells in the eye. It is hoped that the research could lead to the development of a wireless implant which could be inserted in the eye of a person whose light-sensitive cells have degraded. This technology may be adapted for other biological applications.

https://www.rt.com/news/425898-blind-cure-neurons-retina-implant/