Too Much Information

Business Casual
Susan Percy

At a national magazine conference, an early-morning session featured an odd-couple pairing of speakers. The first was well-tanned and well-tailored with impeccably blown-dry hair; he was a marketing guru. The other was less polished, maybe even a little scruffy-looking; he was an editor.

The guy with nice hair started off his portion of the program by going around the room and asking each attendee to share with the others what he or she would rather be doing than sitting in a meeting.

“Bird-watching” was the first answer. Someone else said “antiquing.” Others mentioned golf or shopping or just being outside on this particularly beautiful day. My own response, in deference to the early hour, was “sleeping.”

Listening to the recitations was mildly entertaining and took up a good 20 minutes. The speaker commented on the broad-ranging interests of the 30 or so people gathered in the room, then gave a peppy little talk on the merits of learning all you can about your audience so you can figure out what they want to read. Or at least I think that’s what he talked about. I wasn’t actually listening.

But I checked back in pretty quickly when the editor’s turn came. He got up, scowled, found himself a seat on the edge of the table and began by saying that he now had much more information about his audience than he needed. One person’s bird-watching and another’s golf handicap might be interesting, although not to him personally, but there was little use he could make of the information. He went on to talk about engaging readers the old-fashioned way: with good solid stories, well-reported and well-written.

The too-much-information phenomenon, whether in the business or personal sphere, is one I have always had a particular interest in because it has often seemed to me that I am a magnet for people – strangers, mostly – who need to impart information that I would often prefer they keep to themselves. If there’s a waitress whose feet are tired and whose love life is in disarray, she will find my table. If there’s a religious zealot burning to make a convert, he will stand behind me in the checkout line. If there is a delivery person with a story to tell, I will be the one who gets told.

Certain kinds of businesses are particularly vulnerable to information overload. They spend an awful lot of time collecting useless data from consumers. Every appliance you purchase, every piece of software you buy for your computer seems to require an elaborate registration and a surrender of some personal information. (Why should it matter what my annual household income is or whether I plan to take any overseas vacations in the next 12 months? Can’t I just plug in the CD player or run the antivirus program? If I do decide to go on vacation, it won’t be with the boom box or the software.)

Consider the telemarketing surveys and requests for information that come your way – even the ones supposedly not attached to a sales pitch. Whatever are the marketers of the world going to do with detailed information about your detergent purchasing habits?

Of course, as the speakers at that magazine conference pointed out, publications are as bad as any other business about collecting information that they can’t or don’t use.

Clearly businesses have to be concerned with what their customers think; but too many of them are confusing the collection of random and useless personal tidbits with a genuine understanding of what customers want. One does not always connect to the other.

Most of us, if asked, will offer an opinion on CD players or magazines or detergent. (Power button on the left; table of contents right up front; no floral fragrances.) But when a company produces a product that’s a match for something we need – electronics, reading material or laundry aid – most of us are smart enough to recognize the fit and buy the product.

At some point, whatever your business, you have to stop asking other people people how to do your job and figure it out for yourself.

Categories: Business Casual