cf #53: can I ask a stupid question?

You are reading contentfolks—a fortnightly blend of sticky notes, big content ideas, and small practical examples. Thank you for being here! ~fio

Hey there 👋

Last time we talked about black hole words, aka words that are commonplace in our industry (e.g. growth, marketing, sales, CMO, strategy) but everyone has a slightly different definition of them. The topic really resonated, and I heard back from quite a few of you who reported more black hole words of your own: demand generation, user personas, messaging, thought leadership. The list went on. Even content was on it!

With that in mind, here is a quick follow-up with a couple of my tried-and-tested methods for avoiding black hole words at work.

Method #1: explain your key terms

If you’re leading a team and/or a project, one of your key jobs is making sure everybody knows where they’re going, how they’re getting there, and why. Black hole words often give the illusion that everybody is moving in the same direction—until you realise you meant X, your team understood Y, and your client expected Z.

Avoid this situation by starting your kick-off calls, planning sessions, team onboarding, company presentations, project plans, key internal documents, etc. with a quick summary of the main terms you’ll be using. It sounds really obvious… and yet, not enough people are doing it.

💡 A practical example 💡

Our 35-people, remote-first team at Postmark works mostly asynchronously, so defining our terms is a must to maintain alignment across timezones and get great results. This is even more important now that we’ve been acquired by a much larger company, which has added tens of news stakeholders and colleagues to the mix.

Ahead of Q3 planning, our Leads circulated a document that started with a short definition of the words they were going to use: simple, straightforward, and very effective. I recommend stealing this approach and re-using it 😉

…blurred because I forgot to ask Rian if I could share the full document, whoops 🤷‍♀️

Method #2: ask other people to explain their terms

If you’re on the receiving end of the kick-off calls, planning sessions, onboarding, etc. mentioned above, your role is to look out for black hole words and raise your hand to ask for extra clarity.

When you’re new to a team or project, a simple question or comment like “I’m new to [team]: could you quickly explain what you mean by X?” will work well. And if you’re already familiar and/or comfortable with the folks around you, you have an excellent opportunity to play the ‘stupid question’ card instead, and ask: “I have a stupid question: what do you mean by X?

💡 A practical example 💡

I’m a big fan of asking stupid questions strategically to make sure everybody is operating under the same assumptions.

🔥 pro tip: if you’re in a leadership or senior position, normalise asking stupid questions by modelling behaviour and asking them yourself first. Most people are worried about coming across as foolish or uninformed, but a well-timed stupid question can do a lot of good to create mutual understanding.

I hope this helps get rid of black hole words & inspired you to ask a stupid question today 😉