Garbage in, garbage out

Roughly eight years ago, before component stereo systems, with their superior sound quality, had been trumped by a desire for portability, I went to see a friend who worked in a high-end audio store. My mission: to get a new set of speakers that could do a better job of bringing my music collection to life with the appropriate volume and clarity. I had a set amount of money to spend and figured the trip was going to be quick. How hard is it to buy some speakers? Upon arriving, I found my friend and laid out the mission and budget. His response was along these lines: you can get the best speakers in the world, but if the source is compromised, it’s not going to make a difference. As he summed it up, “Garbage in, garbage out.” (There’s a wide range of colloquialisms that make the same point using evocative imagery such as a silk’s purse, chicken salad, pig lipstick, and other less savory comparisons.) I’m no techie, but I could see his point and recognized two things immediately: my current tuner wasn’t up to snuff, and there was no way I was going to leave that store without spending more money than I had planned.

Since then, I’ve kept that experience in the back of mind. Whenever I would come across instances of an inferior end product, I would think about it: garbage in, garbage out. It can also be used to sum up the process of developing and communicating ideas: no matter how well designed and printed a brochure is, if the main messages aren’t clearly articulated from the beginning, the piece won’t achieve its desired goal.

That’s not to say there’s just one way to arrive at a clear, effective message. Some people can sum up their ideas very succinctly, others need a draft to understand what they don’t want and to spur engagement. However, in a group setting if there’s not consensus, if team members can’t identify the three or four main parts of the message, if the target audience keeps shifting, if the strategic objectives are unclear, then the end result will be appropriately muddled.

On another level, a lack of clarity also translates to higher costs, either from an organizational standpoint or in fees to writers, designers, printers, and others. While some level of last-minute changes is expected, at the end of the process every change costs money. Often, you’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It might make people feel as if they’ve done everything they could, but it’s really a fait accompli.

So what questions should a team ask before committing resources? In my next post, I’ll lay out the vital pieces of information that will ensure you’re not putting garbage in.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of Leff. He's spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he's had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of "lean content creation" as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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