Directionally Accurate But Not Precise

Sometimes I’m directionally accurate but not precise.

My lack of precision isn’t an attempt to mislead or misinform. After all, my motto is words matter so I usually choose my words carefully. Instead, this imprecision stems from the desire to tell a compelling story or when my memory is cloudy.

Here’s a recent real-life example:

I was invited to a meeting with a large number of people to discuss several critical and complicated topics. Early on, I was asked my opinion on one of the most complicated topics. Rather than wasting peoples’ time on a potentially unnecessary and lengthy discussion, I responded: “Before we spend time discussing this, I suggest we read the excellent 40-page report another team developed six months ago. We’ll benefit from their work.”

The next day I get a message from someone who was in the meeting complaining: “I read the report you mentioned. It was only 32 pages long.” I asked if the report had been useful. “Yes, but that’s not my point. You said it was 40 pages.”

I acknowledged I had been directionally accurate but not precise. And that had been my point: to get people to read the research before doing potentially unnecessary work. The exact number of pages seemed less important.

A little more background might be instructive. During the meeting, I didn’t remember exactly how long the report was. If you had pushed me to estimate on the spot, I likely would have confidently claimed the report was longer than 20 pages but less than 50.

By picking 40 pages, my hope was the attendees who were passionately interested in the critical topic would be more likely to read it. After all, 40 pages implies significant work went into producing it. On the other hand, less interested people might be put off by that length and might have been more motivated by “a little more than 20 pages.” Of course, all of this happened subconsciously in real time.

Being directionally accurate seems to have worked. When I asked the annoyed attendee if he would have read the report if I had described it as five pages long, he admitted he would not have.

Those of you who value precision might have preferred if my description of the report avoided numbers and used words like “long” or “detailed.” While that would be more accurate, I don’t think those words would have compelled people to read it. To me, they don’t tell a story.

Does it matter that I used the directionally accurate 40 pages rather the precise 32 pages? How would you have handled the situation? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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One Response to Directionally Accurate But Not Precise

  1. Handls May 14, 2024 at 2:27 am #

    As a German, I value precision so I would have preferred if you had said “about 40” pages if you were unsure of the actual length.

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