“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” – Blaise Pascal
“I’m just giving you a brain dump.”
Please don’t. Not to me, not to your colleagues, and especially, no matter how dire the circumstances, not to your manager.
Start with the prevalent but inaccurate distinction between data and information. Data are, supposedly, meaningless until processed into meaningful and useful information.
Not to nitpick or nuthin’ but “information” already had a definition before this one came along. It comes, appropriately enough, from information theory, which defines information as the stuff that reduces uncertainty.
As long as we’re being annoyingly pedantic, far from being worthless, data consist of indisputable facts: A datum is a measurement of some attribute of some identifiable thing, taking measurement in its broadest sense — if you observe and record the color of a piece of fruit, “orange” is a measurement.
So a fact can, in fact (sorry) reduce your uncertainty, as in the case where someone has asserted that something is impossible. If you observe and document it happening even once, you’ve reduced everyone’s uncertainty about whether the phenomenon in question is possible or not.
As long as we’re being metaphysical, let’s add one more layer: Meaning isn’t something information confers. Meaning is a property of knowledge — something a person develops, over time, by interpreting their experience, which is a combination of raw data, information, and logic, and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, no shortage of illogic as well.
(If, astonishingly, you’re interested, Scott Lee and I covered this topic in more depth in The Cognitive Enterprise.)
Back to brain dumps. You might think the problem is that the dumper is providing data, not information. Au contraire, mes amis. In my experience, brain dumps contain precious little data. They are, instead, a disorganized jumble that does include some information, interspersed with anecdotes, opinions of varying degrees of reliability (the brain-dumper would consider these to be knowledge), and ideas, which, as we’re being definitional, we might think of as hypotheses only without the supporting logic that makes good hypotheses worth testing.
And so, now that I’ve thoroughly buried the lede, the reason brain dumping is generally worse than useless is that it’s an exercise in reverse delegation.
Brain dumps happen when one person asks another person to figure something out and then explain it so they’ll both be smarter about the subject at hand.
But instead of making the delegator smarter, the brain-dumper has instead de-delegated the hard work of organizing these bits and pieces into a clear and coherent narrative.
It’s as if I were to assign you responsibility for baking a cake, and to satisfy the assignment, instead of returning with my just desserts, you were to dump a bunch of raw foodstuffs on my desk, some of which might be useful as cake ingredients and others not, along with 23 recipes for pies and cakes, plus commentary about how eating too much sugar causes cavities and adult-onset diabetes.
When receiving end a brain dump I often conclude the dumper has lost track of the explanation’s purpose. Instead of trying to make me smarter about a subject, the presenter is, instead, trying to show me how smart he or she is.
But it’s more likely I’ll reach the opposite conclusion, due to one of Einstein’s dicta: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
How can someone keep themselves from becoming a brain-dumper? Here’s one approach: Start by carefully choosing an entry point.
Imagine I’m supposed to explain something to you. Presumably I know quite a lot about the subject at hand or you wouldn’t ask. I know so much, in fact (this is, you understand, hypothetical) that I can’t explain anything I know about it until you understand everything I know about it.
And as you won’t be able to understand anything I have to say about it until you’ve heard everything I have to say about it, my only choice is to dump the contents of my brain onto your desk.
But if I choose a good entry point I’ll be starting my explanation with something about the subject you can understand immediately, like, “We have a problem. Here’s what it is, and why you should be concerned about it.”
Then comes the second-hardest part: Leaving out everything you know about the subject, except what helps explain what the problem is and why your listener should be concerned about it.
Leaving out any of my precious knowledge out hurts.
But that’s better than the pain I’d inflict by leaving it in.