Ask a stupid question . . .

The current financial crisis has been exacerbated by fear. Not fear of losing money, but fear of losing face. At no point, it seems, were any of those self-declared smartest guys in the room brave enough to admit that they didn’t have a clue how the exotic financial derivatives they were spewing into the world worked.

Perhaps we’d have been spared financial Armageddon had one of them just put a hand up and said: “Actually, guys, can you run those CDO-cubed thingies by me one more time? How is it they make us money again?” (Hint: they don’t.*)

Why am I musing on this? Well, last week, two different clients told me they really appreciated the outsider’s perspective that I provided. It backed up what I’ve long said – that being able to admit you’re not an expert gives you an advantage.

Imagine, for example, you’re researching an article on the future of the pensions industry for a staff magazine, just as I was last week. If you work in the industry – even as a marketer – aren’t you going to feel just a little bit embarrassed to put your hand up and say you don’t know what an annuity vesting is? Or enhanced transfer value? Or syndication?

And if the expert you’re interviewing for the story keeps defining his terms with yet more gobbledegook, would you be brave enough to keep plugging away until you get an explanation that actually makes sense to the rest of us?

It’s perfectly reasonable to admit the topic makes your brain hurt if you’re an outsider. Certain career death if you’re not. But if you want your copy to be read, you need to assume that most of your readers are as in the dark as you.

Similarly, if you work for a management consultancy, would you dare tell your colleagues that the word “leverage” should never be used outside a physics lab? Or that the phrase “bilateral value add” just makes you look like an illiterate, slightly desperate corporate patsy?

Of course, you do get some clients who equate incoherence and opacity with intelligence, and there’s not a lot you can do about them. But most appreciate having someone describe their work in clear, simple language – possibly because it’s the first time they’ve really understood the topic properly themselves.

So my advice is to not be afraid to ask a stupid question – it’s usually a sign that you’re the smart one in the room.

* Collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) were famously described by Warren Buffet (also, incidentally, an advocate of plain English – see my previous post) as “financial weapons of mass destruction”, precisely because no one understood them.

CDO-cubeds are, as the name implies, CDOs to the power of three. The exponent isn’t limited to three, however. In fact, it’s not limited at all (gulp). See here for a fuller definition.