Every word counts
Communication is about guiding the receiver's imagination (Stew's Letter #104)
Welcome to Stew’s Letter.
I’m pleased to announce that I’ve almost hit my accountability goal for the first 3 months of the year. This is my 6th Stew’s Letter (mission: accomplished), and I’ve published 11 threads (one to go).
For everybody who kept me accountable, thank you for the support. Without your help, laziness would have conquered ambition.
To the new folks this week, welcome.
Haters, smash unsubscribe.
Let’s get to it!
Every word counts
I just picked up a book called How Language Began. You can probably guess what it’s about.
One idea that stuck with me is that language is useful precisely because of how much information it doesn’t need to directly communicate. With language, we can condense detail-rich ideas and experiences into a simple blueprint that another person can fill out using their imagination.
For example, imagine I told you “I stubbed my toe yesterday.”
I’ve only said five words, but you can immediately fill out most of the “dark matter” behind my message. You can visualize the accident, imagine my pain, and even make subtle inferences like my toe is probably still bruised today.
Communicating clearly, then, is all about creating blueprints that can be accurately interpreted. And small changes in a blueprint can massively degrade how accurately our message is received.
Imagine how much harder it becomes to accurately unpack my message if I use slightly less precise language:
“I hurt my toe yesterday.”
By changing one word, I’ve opened up a whole range of inaccurate interpretations. How did I hurt my toe? Did I drop a sledgehammer on it? Did I have a skiing accident? Did I chop it off with a table saw?
Imagine I say something even less precise:
“My toe hurts today.”
That’s even harder to parse. When did it start hurting? Was there an accident? Do I have a blood clot?!
If we were the ones who needed to unpack the words we choose, it’d be pretty easy. We’d have all of the missing context necessary to interpret our message accurately. But communication is obviously social, and the majority of it happens in the mind and imagination of the receiver.
As the old saying goes, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you’re heard.”
When we speak or write, every word we choose contains an awesome power.
An additional thought on language and communication
This idea of “underdeterminacy” in language opens all sorts of interesting trailheads.
The context that two people in a conversation share is critical, for example. If we had been skiing together yesterday and I told you my toe was hurting today, you’d have a much more accurate sense of why versus somebody who wasn’t there.
This is partially how inside jokes and shorthand expressions develop between people who spend lots of time together.
If I texted “big boy has the zoom zooms” to a random person I work with, they might call the police. If I texted it to my fiance, she’d know exactly what I meant: our pitbull is running around the apartment like a madman.
An interesting thing a friend told me at dinner last week
In college, a friend of mine studied why some people don’t regularly take the life-saving medication they’ve been prescribed (for example, HIV medication).
He’d ask them a question:
“If you were to draw a Venn Diagram of who you are today and who you’ll be a few decades from now, how much do they overlap?”
People who answered with a lower number tended to not stick to their treatment plans. They viewed their future selves as mostly different from their present selves. In some cases, they viewed them as entirely separate.
People who answered with a higher number tended to stick with their treatment plan. They viewed their future selves as mostly the same as their present selves. They imagined they'd still be “them” in a few decades and that taking care of their present self was essentially the same as taking care of their future self.
🎙 Podcast episode: “Foster the Signal”
I was recently invited to chat on my friend Jay Acunzo’s podcast Unthinkable.
Jay is one of the most thoughtful, kind folks I’ve met as I’ve spent more and more time in “creator” circles. Jay and I share a mutual passion for trying to help people (and ourselves, for that matter) create stuff that resonates.
In our conversation, we tackled a range of topics – from the story of Foster to the ongoing war for the soul of Twitter.
If you want to listen, you can do so here.
🗞 Newsletters I love
Over the past two years, I’ve subscribed to over 100 newsletters.
My wish for you is that you never have to do the same. Instead, I’ll start spotlighting the best of what I’ve found.
This week, I wanted to highlight two favs (each link goes to their signup page):
Rad Reads. Khe Hy is my comic book hero. A son of immigrants who climbed to the top of Wall Street only to realize “this ain’t it” and leave his finance career behind to begin anew as a creator. His newsletter Rad Reads is a weekly roundup of stuff he’s read and is thinking about – often related to building a career & life that doesn’t suck. I enjoy glimpsing the world through Khe’s eyes.
Every. I am an Every fanboy. They reliably produce some of the most thoughtful explainers & analyses on productivity, strategy, Web3, the creator economy, and even writing – in other words, they hit nearly all of my professional passions. My personal favs are Superorganizers and Napkin Math.
🔥 Fire TikTok
The only thing I enjoyed more than Jack Black’s impersonation of The Rock is how much The Rock enjoyed it.
Until next time,