Eliminate Vagueness for Stronger Business Agreements

Eliminate wiggle room in your agreements by giving concrete examples.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #440

They say the Devil is in the details. Have you ever wondered what that means? I looked at the details really closely and there weren’t any devils there. There was an old ATM receipt, some belly button lint, and a bit of toenail fungus, but no devils.

The Devil just keeps his word. Someone says, “I will give you my soul if you give me a billion dollars!!! Bwah hah hah hah hah” The devil gives it in pennies, dropped from a distance of 100 feet. The person is crushed to death, and we all say, “the Devil is so evil!!!”

We think the devil is a poopy-head because even though he’s adhering to the letter of the law, he’s violating the spirit of the law. And unfortunately, lots of people follow his example. You can protect yourself when making a deal by adding concrete examples to the agreement.

Doing a Good Job

“When you deliver a working product, we’ll send your payment!!” they say. You deliver a working product. Then they say, “Well, it doesn’t make blueberry waffles unattended.” You say, “No … It’s a lawn mower. That’s not what it’s supposed to do.” They say, “but we want that!” And they refuse to pay.

If you’re a professional writer, graphic designer, artist, software engineer, photographer, or any kind of creative freelancer, you’ve definitely heard that. If you’re a freelancer of any other sort, you’ve probably heard that. And if you’re an employee who uses freelancers, you’ve probably said that, thus putting your life at risk from the charming-but-sociopathic freelancer you last said it to, whose name is “Justice,” and they take their name very seriously. Hire a bodyguard now.

The Problem is Vague Language

What went wrong is that the agreement was written in abstract language. Abstract language describes something, but doesn’t show something.

For example, when you say “hand me something to drink out of,” your well-meaning boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, spousal equivalent, or polyamorous family unit might rush to hand you a hummingbird feeder. They would hand it to you with love and affection, just as you collapse from dehydration.

“Something to drink out of” is abstract. But if you follow it up with some concrete examples, that will help make your meaning clear. “Hand me something to drink out of. That Chuck-e-Cheese glass, the I-heart-the-Carpenters mug, or that odd Goblet I’ve never seen before with the upside down pentagram that seems to be shrieking with the voice of a million lost souls.” Now your shmoopie knows for sure what you mean by “something to drink out of.”

Alternate Abstract and Concrete Goals

At work, instructions can often be vague. If we do a good job at what we think is wanted, but it isn’t what’s really asked of us, then everybody loses. It’s worth taking the time to ask clarifying questions that alternate concrete and abstract.

My boss once told me “if you want a bonus, do what it takes to make the company succeed.” This is vague, and this is fraught with danger, since my idea of “what it takes to make the company succeed” might not be Boss’s idea. True, the cup shrieking with a million lost souls is more fraught with danger, but this is still a place where a concrete example will help.

“Boss, if you tell me to push the red button, I’ll do it. But if I think the blue button is what the company needs, then I push the blue button and get my bonus. Right?” Now the boss has a specific example they can use to clarify. “No, I am the Boss. If I say push the red button, you’ll push it, even if you think the company needs the blue one.” 

“Great! And of course, if you say red button, but I wanted to go with the blue button, and in hindsight we realize blue was the right choice, then get my bonus for trying to do what was right for the company … right?” 

As you can imagine, my boss promoted me on the spot for my masterful understanding of the situation. (Hah hah, just kidding. He actually said, “No, you don’t get a bonus," thus showing me the nihilistic reality that trying to do the right thing is futile.)



About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT. 

You May Also Like...

The Quick and Dirty Tips Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To exercise your choices about cookies, please see Cookies and Online Tracking.