April 22, 2004

You can't tell people anything

This is sort of Morningstar’s version of Murphy’s Law.

When we were assembling our catalog of the things we had learned over the past decade and a half in this business, we almost didn’t include this one because it seems so banal. But I keep finding that it’s often the first thing I say when people ask me what about my experiences (and another thing I’ve learned is to pay attention to things I find myself saying; that way I’ll know what I really think). And, upon reflection, I think it’s actually one of the more important lessons that we’ve learned.

We all spend a lot of our time talking to bosses or investors or marketing people or press or friends or other developers. I’m totally convinced that a new idea or a new plan or a new technique is never really understood when you just explain it. People will often think they understand, and they’ll say they understand, but then their actions show that it just ain’t so.

Years ago, before Lucasfilm, I worked for Project Xanadu (the original hypertext project, way before this newfangled World Wide Web thing). One of the things I did was travel around the country trying to evangelize the idea of hypertext. People loved it, but nobody got it. Nobody. We provided lots of explanation. We had pictures. We had scenarios, little stories that told what it would be like. People would ask astonishing questions, like “who’s going to pay to make all those links?” or “why would anyone want to put documents online?” Alas, many things really must be experienced to be understood. We didn’t have much of an experience to deliver to them though — after all, the whole point of all this evangelizing was to get people to give us money to pay for developing the software in the first place! But someone who’s spent even 10 minutes using the Web would never think to ask some of the questions we got asked.

In 1988 we began consulting to Fujitsu, when they licensed Habitat from Lucasfilm to create Fujitsu Habitat in Japan. We started out with a week long seminar at Skywalker Ranch for their team, explaining everything we knew about Habitat. We gave them copious documentation and complete source code listings. Following that, for the next couple of years they had unlimited access to us via fax, phone and email to answer any questions they might have. We made several visits to Japan to advise them. On our visits they often asked questions that seemed a little, well, odd. We chalked it up to the language barrier, but still, there were clearly things they weren’t getting. For example, their server ran on five (not four, not six, five) Fujitsu A60 minicomputers, and became hopelessly bogged down after about 80 concurrent users. We were never able to get a clear picture of why. We asked lots of questions and they’d try to answer them, but none of the explanations made any sense that we could puzzle out. They were trying to tell us, you see, but you can’t tell people anything.

The mystery was solved a few years later when we began the WorldsAway project, still consulting to Fujitsu but in a role that was much more hands-on. Our initial plan had been to work from the Fujitsu Habitat code, back porting the client to Macs and Windows, and cleaning up their server (80 users, yeesh). When we took apart their code, we finally figured out what had been puzzling us all that time: they had lost the architecture. In spite of all the information we gave them, we had completely failed to communicate how things worked. Their guys hadn’t understood the whole client-server concept, which for that day and place was somewhat exotic, so they just implemented what they knew, which was a terminal-mainframe architecture. Their “client” was basically a fancy, highly specialized graphics terminal; all the real work was done on the server. For example, when you issued a command to an object, instead of sending a command message to the object on the server, the client would send the X-Y coordinates of your mouse click. The server would then render its own copy of the scene into an internal buffer to figure out what object you had clicked on. Not only was this extremely inefficient, but the race conditions inherent a multi-user environment meant that it also sometimes just got the wrong answer. It was amazing…

What’s going on is that without some kind of direct experience to use as a touchstone, people don’t have the context that gives them a place in their minds to put the things you are telling them. The things you say often don’t stick, and the few things that do stick are often distorted. Also, most people aren’t very good at visualizing hypotheticals, at imagining what something they haven’t experienced might be like, or even what something they have experienced might be like if it were somewhat different. One of the things I really miss from my days at Lucasfilm is having artists on staff, being able to run down the hall and say, “hey Gary, draw me this picture.”

Eventually people can be educated, but what you have to do is find a way give them the experience, to put them in the situation. Sometimes this can only happen by making real the thing you are describing, but sometimes by dint of clever artifice you can simulate it.

With luck, eventually there will be an “Aha!”. If you’re really good, the “Aha!” will followed by “Oh, so that’s what you meant”. But don’t be too surprised or upset if the “Aha!” is instead followed by “Why didn’t you tell me that?”. At Communities.com we developed a system called Passport (I’ll save the astonishing trademark story for a later posting) that let us do some pretty amazing things with web browsers. For example, with just a few magic HTML tags we could stick avatars on a web page — pretty much any web page. For months Randy kept getting up at management meetings and saying, “We’ll be able to put avatars on web pages. Start thinking about what you might do with that.” Mostly, nobody reacted much. After a couple of months of this we had things working, and so he got up and presented a demo of avatars walking around on top of our company home page. People were amazed, joyful, and enthusiastic. But they also pretty much all said the same thing: “why didn’t you tell us that we could put avatars on web pages?” You can’t tell people anything.

When people ask me about my life’s ambitions, I often joke that my goal is to become independently wealthy so that I can afford to get some work done. Mainly that’s about being able to do things without having to explain them first, so that the finished product can be the explanation. I think this will be a major labor saving improvement.

One final point: I expect none of you to really get what I’m talking about here, because this principle also applies to itself. But I fully expect I’ll get the occasional email saying “Oh! so that’s what you meant.” or “Why didn’t you tell me that?” I did, but you can’t tell people anything.


Great post! I totally know what you mean. You think you write it down or explain it in a way that makes perfect sense, but people never understand.

Looking forward to more posts :)

Yes I agree until people use and/or make something it’s very hard to explain what the possibilities are or might be.It is as if in thinking about the process in order to use/make something that the vision of the overall whole is glimpsed. Now that sounds a bit spiritual – I don’t mean it that way – what I do want to say is that with any new way of working the possibilities of a particular way of doing things, seems to fall into to place when people try it out. I recently had this experience in an academic arena – trying to explain why blogs may be useful research tools.

So your core message is “Don’t tell them, show them”, right?

That fits nicely with the “launch early, launch often” mantra (although that might not be feasible with every idea/project/product).

ha, like trying to explain that meditation has value for the mind to a quantum physicist .. they would rather simply delete your comments ..

like trying to explain that meditation…

ha, Buddhist spam, strange…


I’ve the luck of having been educated as a teacher and ending up as a software developer. Therefor what you describe here makes perfect sense to me. It isn’t possible to explain anything.

First, explaining is such a misleading word. The process of knowledge transmission is rather a pull then a push operation. You as the knowledge sender can only do your best to setup the best possible situation for the receivers pull operation to succeed.

Second, before any knowledge transmission could be possible, the receiver must have an appropriate cognitive network in place to connect the newly acquired to.

Actually I think that any computer scientist or programmer should have a good knowledge of pedagogy…

Thank you for your interesting posts and Elko!

And that’s why „one brain projects“, where one guy or a small team implement their idea can become a legend while a development against „requirements“ is over time and over budget so many times. That’s why there are so many schools of project management. It all goes back to this problem. And I think it is also a big factor why Apple is so successful: their presentations are demos of the products first place „look what you can do with our new i…“

I’m a public affairs guy for a government research organization, so your post explains my job pretty well. You should do a companion post: people hear what they want to hear. Obviously, it’d be mostly about biases and the usual stuff. But it could also be about what happens to a good percentage of the stuff you can tell people: you pitch it at an empty spot in their brains, but it lands in an existing swamp. New tracking feature for the collaboration tool? You pitch it at organization and communication, it lands at the intersection of paranoia and a guilty conscience.

““who’s going to pay to make all those links?” or “why would anyone want to put documents online?” … But someone who’s spent even 10 minutes using the Web would never think to ask some of the questions we got asked.”

It’s 2018 and I think these are still perfectly reasonable questions. The industry’s primary answer, apparently, is “we’ll saturate the pages in advertising”, which is neither obvious nor desirable.

Short: people are stupid. Most of them.

Long: they are satisfied with their half-knowledge, lazy to learn new things, if you teach them, they took it as you were said they’re dumb, they think they are perfect so they need no education, as they never try new things, they have no experience discovering new concepts, they fear of unusual.

But if you teach something for them finally, sometimes they are thankful and proud, and they know what did you gave them. But they are basically stupid.

I concoct ideas, processes, avatars, go through the entire process with fresh eyes and a real solution emerges – all in my head, quickly jot it down lest I might forget, then explain it to a smart person who can fill in the blanks I left behind and tells me he completely gets it. With more confidence, I try explaining it to someone else and the elegant solution/idea evaporates to a point where I need to be with me and my mind alone to figure it out. Ah. what’s the use!

I’ve been on the receiving side of this before. What typically happens is the Dunning-Krueger Effect. This is typically understood as incompetent people are too incompetent to determine that they are incompetent, but its lesser-known corollary is that competent people assume everyone else is competent too, and thus they don’t have to explain themselves.

Once you understand this, the reason for poor communication becomes clear. The team doesn’t bother to explain their presumptions, falsely assuming that everyone is on the same page. They feel free to use original concepts they developed, internal team slang, unexplained acronyms, etc. Then they’re baffled why people are so stupid and can’t understand their outstanding presentation that obviously went over all the details.

I remember once being baffled by a presenter who assumed the whole world had read Heinlein and knew what TAANSTAFL meant, thus she didn’t have to explain it. That was shortly thereafter running in to someone who thought “Starship Troopers” was nothing but a crappy movie instead of an outstanding novel that everyone should read. Just because you like an author doesn’t mean you’ve read his entire oeuvre.

I just have to point out that the first comment to this post is “I totally get what you mean” in seemingly all earnesty.

I would have revised the title to “You can’t tell people everything“..

Often there is a large disconnect between what we write and what people understand. Almost everything I’ve published has been in mathematics where there is less of a problem because we write proofs. Usually, if all the details are spelled out, the reader (another mathematician) will be able to read what you wrote and understand 95% of what you are trying to convey. Other fields, generally speaking, are not like that.

On the other hand, when I explain math to students, I sometimes see giant misunderstandings. Homework problems help a lot to remove misunderstandings. I recall that it was difficult for students to learn the basics of the orbit of the moon and planets around the sun. I am thinking that if students needed to calculate 1) when the phases of the Moon and Venus occur, or 2) when sunrise and sunset would occur, then they would actually learn the basics of orbital mechanics, but then again, they might just learn how to do specific orbital problems without being able to solve random questions about orbits and phases.

Can’t believe, decade old article still getting read and ppl are posting comments..

I remember reading this ages ago and I didn’t get it.

Now I do, and my goal is also to be independently wealthy just to be able to get what I want done.

the better the metaphor the greater the grokking. i don’t expect anyone to grok this either because you can’t tell people anything, so why bother?

Reminds me some (Zen?) saying like “you can not transmit wisdom, only knowledge”…

… and Alan Kay’s explanations on “aha” moments, “PoV = 80 IQ points”, and paradigm shifts…

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