User Manual for Danny D. Leybzon
I wrote this post after spending hours reflecting on, analyzing, and discussing communication strategies that I have seen other people use with me and which I have found to work well for them. In it, I present seven strategies that I think work well communicating in general, and that I know work well when communicating with me.
I hesitated for months about writing this post because I did not want people to feel that I was dictating to them how to communicate effectively. I am no expert communicator; in both my personal and professional lives, I often fall short of where I would like to be in my ability to get thoughts out of my head productively and efficiently. I hope that you can read this post neither as dictate about how to communicate with me nor as treatise on “How to Make Friends and Influence People” (🤮). Rather, understand this as a series of strategies that, if you want to, you can use to get what you want done when communicating with me.
In this post, I’ve tried to be terse in my explanations of all of these strategies and have tried to make each section information-dense. Hopefully you find it useful. Here are the sections:
- Use top-down communication
- If you ask a question, provide context to avoid the XY problem
- Message me if you want something easy done quickly
- Email me if you want to guarantee that I’ll do something
- Propose meetings with context
- I aspire to Radical Candor
- I respond better to proposals than dictates
Use top-down communication
Top-down communication (originally taught to me as the pyramid principle) is a template for communication which prioritizes action and conclusion and follows them up with supporting reasoning. This method is widely utilized at Big 3 consulting companies by management consultants who are constantly communicating with time-constrained executives. I find that it’s a useful template for communicating with anybody, especially myself.
Top-down communication is the opposite of the communication template used by scientists and academics, which begins by laying out assumptions, then explaining experimental methods, then results, and finally presents a conclusion. That method works great for explaining your train of thought, but it is incredibly time-inefficient for readers who may only be interested in the conclusions found in the work.
Instead, you can help me act faster on your request by presenting the request first. If I need to understand why you’re making the request, I can keep reading, otherwise I can just go ahead and act on it.
If you ask a question, provide context to avoid the XY problem
My absolute biggest takeaway from my short stint moonlighting as a support engineer at a software company was the ubiquity of the XY problem. It is both pernicious and prevalent, and I have wasted many hours of my life because I or somebody else didn’t provide context for a question or request for assistance.
If you’re not already familiar with the XY problem, I highly recommend that you read about it. This resource explains it better than I ever could and it will take less than a minute of reading for you to understand what the XY problem is and why it’s so bad.
To avoid the XY problem, when you ask a question or ask me for help, please provide context and motivation for why you’re asking the question. It’s possible that I may have an answer for you that’s more useful than the one that I would provide if I was only answering your question, decontextualized.
Message me if you want something easy done quickly
If you need me to do something or respond to something quickly, and if it’s something that I can do easily and quickly (under 1–5 minutes) on my end, shoot me a message. I am hyper-vigilant about my notifications and have most of the messaging apps that I use accessible on both my phone and my laptop.
Rapid context switching can be painful when I am doing deep work (e.g. coding, writing, designing), but I am good about going into Do Not Disturb mode on my devices when I really need to buckle down. If I can unblock you on something quickly and easily, I want to do so, so that you can be productive.
Email me if you want to guarantee that I’ll do something
Conversely, if you want me to do something that will take me more than a minute, you will likely be better off shooting me an email. If you want to make sure it comes to my attention quickly, you can also send me a message.
The reason that I prefer email for guaranteeing that I’ll get something done is because I diligently practice inbox zero. I treat my inbox like a to-do list, so everything in there at least gets a subject read, and then gets deleted, deferred, or done. If you want to guarantee that I will at least read the subject and won’t forget about something (let it “slip through the cracks”), just send me an email about it.
Propose meetings with context
If you think we need to meet about something, please provide context for it. While I love talking to my friends and colleagues, I have a limited capacity for synchronous communication before it becomes exhausting, especially over video or phone calls. Additionally, synchronous communication creates a lot of friction (finding time in calendars, both sides waiting for the other to show up, pleasantries at the beginning of the call) and I prefer to solve most problems asynchronously.
To reiterate, I think there are many, many types of meetings and synchronous communication that are justified and well worth the time. One-on-ones, brainstorming sessions, pair programming sessions, synchronous work sessions, catching up, etc are all great uses of time. But if you are blocked on something or need my input, it’s often much easier for both of us if you take a minute to define your problem, type it out, and then let me respond asynchronously. I can read faster than you can talk and I have saved uncountable 30 minute meetings by answering questions over text in less time than it takes for Zoom to load.
I aspire to Radical Candor
I love receiving thoughtful, actionable, and constructive feedback on my actions and performance. I don’t care who it comes from or what it’s about, if somebody takes the time to tell me about things that I can do to improve (or things that I am already doing well), I will always listen and evaluate the impressions that others have.
I prize directness and bluntness in communication. I am not good at tiptoeing around topics or playing games (well, I’m ok at Scrabble), so I tend to struggle to understand when other people are trying to communicate something to me but are doing either of those things.
I find that I am most able to incorporate and engage with feedback when it is presented thoughtfully and constructively, rather than reactively or personally. I know that I make mistakes and that my actions can and do irritate people. My experience has been that when people express insights or feedback from a place of irritation, I struggle to effectively evaluate the value of the feedback that they are providing.
I respond better to proposals than dictates
I really, really don’t like being told what to do. My mom likes to tell a story about how I almost get held back in kindergarten because I was argumentative and stubborn. If you want to be effective at getting me to do the things that you want, framing them as proposals rather than dictates works well.
A caveat is that I set aside my stubbornness in situations where I’ve voluntarily entered into a hierarchy. If you are my manager, an instructor in a course that I’m choosing to take, or my personal trainer, I will follow instructions, regardless of the tone or framing that they are delivered in. Even in those contexts, you will likely see better results from proposing directions than handing me dictates.
Conversely, if you are my friend, coworker, or peer, you’ll certainly find that “Danny, can you do X?” works better to get me to do X than “Danny, do X”. Similarly, “You should/need to do Y” (even when it’s intended as a recommendation rather than a command) tends to make me bristle, while “Have you thought about doing Y?” makes me receptive to whatever you are recommending.
I hope that you have found learning about these strategies for communicating with me useful. If you have any feedback about the contents of this post or how they are presented, now you know how to effectively motivate me to improve it.
This post was at least partially inspired by Reid Hoffman’s (PayPal, LinkedIn, Greylock) “Meet Reid” article, where he shares how to work effectively with him. That post itself was similarly inspired by Luc Levasque’s “Blueprint” and First Round’s “user guide”.