Defining terms by exclusion and by example

Published by Tony Quinlan on

Last week, I was an interested observer in a debate that rumbled on over three days – about the definition of a term being used by three different organisations working together. On this occasion, the term was “Strategic Communications” or “StratCom”. (As an aside, it recalled the days, 20 years ago at PA Consulting, when I was part of the CommsStrat consulting team – there was a fabulous little booklet and models talking about what it meant, but I never understood it then…)

The challenges of working together around abstract issues like “StratCom” is difficult enough, but it becomes exacerbated when you have different nationalities involved. Coming from different cultures brings different interpretations of the core concepts and values, let alone the problems that ensue when the phrase is used in English which is a second language for most of those involved.

The temptation is always to try and define what is meant by the phrase, but the compounding difficulty is that it usually descends into a self-referential spiral of related abstract concepts. Akin to those meetings with managers that I recall from my PR consultancy days where I’m given feedback on a piece of work that made sense while I was in the room, but once I’d left the room any meaning evaporated and I was left grasping for “what do I actually do now?” (There were some notable exceptions who gave real, helpful feedback, but they were the exception not the rule.)

I’d suggest overcoming this barrier through two parallel approaches:

  • By example, or “ditting” (with due respect to the Royal Navy, whose phrase it is). Ditting is competitive storytelling – sitting round sharing examples in a social environment and by dint of human nature escalating the stories, one-upping each other all the time. From sharing examples in context, meaning becomes implicit – a route that avoids over-definition and also creates human networks sharing information at the same time. Highly recommended if you’re going to have to rely on the others in the group at a later date – the narratives will highlight people’s dispositions and beliefs, as well as giving hints of where their limits and stress points lie.
  • By exclusion. Rather than define what the phrase includes, refer instead to what it doesn’t – preferably with examples that resonate with the audience. In the example above, “StratCom” would (from my limited understanding) have excluded handling the media and the internal communications function.

If you can’t agree what something does mean, start by agreeing what it doesn’t mean and then encourage everyone to share examples that you can then define as “in meaning” or not – organically setting the limits and contexts that apply.