Day 66: The Herzfeld’s Rules

The topic today is about effective communication, which, I would like to define, is the effective conveying of ideas from one person to another. The conveying of ideas that is not effective is not communication. Then, I should make it clear that the use of the apostrophe  (the punctuation mark ‘) in the title of this post does not indicate the authorship. In other words, it’s not Herzfeld who has come up with the “Herzfeld’s Rules” (as in, the rule of Herzfeld‘s), but it’s his way of thinking about the effective conveying of ideas makes me want to refer to him when I think about the most essential rules governing the conveying of ideas.

3shades of herzfeld

The eminent Harvard Professor Michael Herzfeld after whom the Herzfeld’s Rules is named but has nothing direct to do with these rules. Photo credit: Yu Hua.

So, the Harvard Professor of Social Sciences Michael Herzfeld, who is like a father to me, is a social anthropologist, activist, teacher, writer, etc., who has composed more than a hundred of high impact academic papers and ten books. He is a master of storytelling and a true embodiment of the art of communication. Unlike many famous professors, Prof. Herzfeld always has time to listen to everyone. I have come to realize that which is not only how he collects social data (and to him, all social data are equally important) so that he can write a book about them afterward, but also how he maintain his culturally intimate relationship with his colleagues, students, friends, and informants. Although, in most cases, the line between the last two categories is often unclear since he treats everyone with respect in the “everything is professional; everything is personal” fashion. What I have learned from him over the year includes:

“One often needs a glass of wine to overcome writer’s block.”

“Coffee is not only the morning’s cure, but also the best companion to put you to sleep.”

“We are who we are owing to how we express ourselves linguistically; hence, always respect rules and observe grammatical integrity, but break all of them for the poetic effect.”

To name a few. But the most important that I have learned from him is nothing else but the undergirding idea of how to communicate itself. To get a polymath like Prof. Herzfeld to pay attention to me, I must cut right to the chase so that I would not waste his time telling him what he already knows. Also, because he has many stories ready to pour onto his audience — and most of the time his stories are much more interesting than anything that the audience may have to share with him anyway — he does not give his audience a lot of time to grab his attention. Personally, as I have learned over the years, the more I speak, the more I’d be likely to bore him and the more I’d be likely to make mistakes (either verbally or idiomatically). So the key is to be concise,  to  the point, and get the main ideas or whatever that might have the ability to grab his attention out there within the first 15 seconds, or 30 words. The story of how the Herzfeld’s Rules came about has to do with how I wanted so much to get him to help me with my research proposal.

At the time, I had suffered greatly from  the symptom called “the lack of ability to get to the point.” Alright, frankly, I was just really bad at getting words out in the right order and in the right tone. Every time I went to see Prof. Herzfeld, with the hope of getting him to help me craft some particular points that were mine and mine alone, I came back with more of his ideas owing to the fact that I was not capable to addressing my points in the way that would make him “think with me,” rather than, simply, “help me.” So, over the course of my first three years as his student, I had worked hard to develop a set of guidelines that would help me get my message across to him in the way that would give him no other choice but to respond to me in the way that I would like him to. These guidelines — the so-called “a general rule governing any forms of effective communication that those who follow will achieve the goal standard of communication and not be wasting other’s time as much as they might have been” — were a combination of philosophical ideas, elements of communicative style, and common sense. I stand by Herzfeld’s Rules in all forms of verbal communication. I write this way. I speak this way. I get annoyed when I hear people violate these rules. Why? Because we only have so much time in the world, we might as well get right to the chase so that we can learn from the core message and then live our lives.  As John Lennon once said, “life is what we live when we aren’t busy doing other things.” I believe that the Herzfeld’s Rules will make you like your life better. It’s the art of cutting down to the very core of social relations: communication that works. When you are economical in the way that you express yourself, you are optimizing your time to enjoy every lesson that life has to offer.

I would like to summarize these in 15 points, here:

  1. Don’t worry about chronology. Think about the most important idea that you would like to express, and start there. Not many people have time to listen or read through the chronology no matter how important it is.
  2. The technique, then, is to swing back to the chronology (if it’s so important) after you have gotten the attention from your audience and not before;
  3. Try to start with something related to the subject matter that precedes the conversation. In other words, try to make the narrative relevant to the previous conversation. You don’t want to look like a narcissist who only wants to talk about yourself!;
  4. The first 15 seconds are the key. If you can’t get your audience to be interested, your communication is no longer effective;
  5. “Omit needless words.” This is probably William Strunk’s most famous lesson to all of us. Words that can be omitted are not words — they’re redundancies which have no room in an effective conveying of ideas;
  6. Be witty but do not overdo it;
  7. Don’t state the obvious, e.g., “the housing bubble is about to bust — and if that is the case an economic disaster would seem unavoidable.” The idea of an economic disaster is already built into the analytical meaning of “housing bubble”;
  8. Don’t repeat yourself. Whenever you need to say “in other words,” or “that is to say,” you are about to repeat yourself. That said, do repeat yourself to get your message across when you realize that you may not have been as clear as you could have been with the sentence previous uttered;
  9. Avoid using idioms of which you are not sure. Idioms may make you look cool but if you don’t use them correctly, or at the right moment, or in the right situation, they can be confusing. Be direct. Try to be clever somewhere else (your chance to do so will come!);
  10. Avoid needless adjectives, such as “very,” “completely,” “awesomely.” Use them only when you know your purpose in using them, e.g., when you want to be strategically sarcastic;
  11. Avoid using “actually” — and never again saying “honestly.” Be actual and be honest all the time if you can;
  12. Never say “no” right away, even if you think that what you have just heard is not true. Give it some thorough thoughts. It’s both polite and courteous to make sure that your audience know that you are “actually” listening carefully;
  13. Avoid, as much as you can, the use of verbal tics — some single nonsensical words added at the end or the middle of sentences — such as “like,” “sort of,” “kind of,” “you know,” “hmmm,” and so on. These verbal tics not only impede your communication but also makes you look like a boring person to listen to;
  14. Never, ever, use a rhetorical question. Be direct. Ask a question whose answer you would like to know;
  15. Avoid using metaphors. Again, be direct. Say whatever you want to say. Not everyone has the same understanding of the same metaphor. Use metaphors, though, but only when they are the best way through which you could make your abstract ideas more concrete for the audience to understand.

4 thoughts on “Day 66: The Herzfeld’s Rules

  1. Pingback: Day 68: A Minimalism Manifesto  | 100 days of writing

  2. Pingback: Day 69: The Herzfeld’s Rules Part 2 | 100 days of writing

  3. I love this post for several reasons: it’s a reminder to communicate essence with the beauty of form yet if that happens to get oppressive, it’s also ok break the rules for poetic effect. It’s also a lovely capture of a mindful moment in Non’s mind! Thanks for sharing this and look forward to reading many more!


  4. Pingback: Day 71: How to Change the World Part 1 | 100 days of writing

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