Intention vs Impact

Few days before I started writing this piece, Netflix had released the documentary “The social dilemma”. The hour and a half long film is about the impact giant tech companies are having on the human race. A common criticism that followed the release was about how Netflix very conveniently kept itself out of the whole debate. If we are to believe Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix), Netflix’s real competitor is “sleep” and as such, they might be focused on altering human sleeping behavior to get ahead in the game. Sounds Dystopian, right? It definitely does and so did the documentary. From the makers’ perspective, the intention was clear – they wanted viewers to understand how their behavior is changing in unnoticeable ways due to how the tech interactions and business models are designed. The impact however was different. Viewers went on those very same social media criticized by the documentary to outrage about the hypocrisy. They fell prey to the very thing that the documentary cautions them against. 

The gap between intention and impact is more common than we think. I definitely have had my fair share of such experiences. For a long time, I didn’t notice it until it was brought to my attention that I often come off as rude and condescending. To which I responded, “Oh, but I didn’t mean it that way”. Every time we are in a situation where we say or hear statements like “Oh, but I didn’t mean it that way” or “I am sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you”, chances are that its a consequence of the gap. As terrible as I felt to know that I was being misunderstood all this while, that wasn’t the intention of the feedback. It was just the impact that the news was having on me. It took some time and reading to realize the gap at play. It’s like when eating a burger. The intention is to feel good and content, but it leaves you feeling bloated. During the process, I also realized that the onus of minimizing the gap between intention and impact not only lies on the speaker but also on the listener. Listening after all is about understanding the intention. 

I ran a very simple experiment for a few months, where I cautiously chose to make my intentions apparent while having a conversation. The format was generally “What I had to say” followed by “My intentions behind saying it”. It was better than not mentioning the intention but still not close to what I expected it to be. So I changed the conversation structure to “What I had to say” followed by “If we successfully do it, this is how the future state of things will look like”. This structure was a winner. Surprisingly giving clarity on what the future state is going to look like does a better job of achieving the intended impact that mentioning the intentions explicitly. Most likely, the reason it performed better is that the format forced me to be objectively clear in my own thoughts before I talk to anyone about it. 

The next question that arises is what if someone does not reveal their true intentions behind what is being said. What if the true intention of Facebook when Mark Zuckerberg started it was to someday influence the geopolitical landscape in ways never done before. I mean who knows what is somebody’s true intentions. We have to go by what they say and convince us to believe in. So do intentions matter? Isn’t the impact a statement has, is the only thing that matters? If I am getting the desired impact, should I care if my intentions are misunderstood? For clarity, let us further classify intentions as – True Intentions and Perceived Intentions. True Intention is not known to anyone but the person who carries it. The perceived intention is what others believe it to be. And that is what matters when it comes to having the intended impact.

Let’s take the example of the demonetization event that happened in India. Overnight, 500 and 1000 rupee notes were banned by the government in an attempt to counter black money (perceived intention). No one knows the true intention of the government behind it. However, the perceived intention was made apparent in a very clear and crisp speech made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The masses followed the instructions albeit hesitantly and seemed to find some solace in the fact that the pain was for a noble cause. Say, if the perceived intentions were not clear and the people sensed some ill intentions behind the action, there would have been massive civil unrest in the society. The impact that the speech had was very close to what it intended to have. This impact shouldn’t be confused with the impact the decision had on the economy. We are exclusively talking about the intention of communication and the impact it has on the audience. The intention in this particular case was to get the support and empathy of the nation’s masses for a painful process they were being subjected to, which it did very well. If we closely listen to the speech of that night, it very well states the future state of the country post demonetization.

Let’s break down that speech into 3 simple progressions to understand how intentions were made clear :

  • In the first 30 seconds, the context was made clear by saying “Today I want to make a special request to all of you”. The speech was going to be about a leader making a request. The decision that followed was to be seen as a request and not an order. 
  • Once it was established in the speech that the government has all the good intentions for the poor, the focus shifted to how corruption and black money is putting the government on backfoot in their fight against poverty. This followed the announcement of demonetization.
  • After explaining the mitigation steps and the next plan of action came the most important bit about how this action is a “grand sacrifice in cleansing this country” and will ensure a brighter future not only for the poor but also for the future generation. The statement painted a vivid picture of the future for the listeners.

We see a similar pattern in the great speech by Martin Luther King  “I have a dream”. (Just to be clear I am not looking at both the speeches in the same light or at the same level of change it brought or intended to bring in the world).

  • The first line of the speech establishes that the gathering is going to be the “greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation”. The purpose is clear – it was a demonstration, nothing less or more.
  • The above immediately follows the mention of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln hundreds of years ago and how “This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves”. This made listeners believe that big audacious changes are not only possible but it has happened in past as well.
  • This is when Martin Luther King goes on to talk about all the atrocities and discriminations blacks are facing in the great land of America. 
  • After laying out the beliefs that the gathering should follow and the mindset they should have, he went on to vocalize multiple stanzas of what would become one of the most iconic speeches of human history –  “I have a dream” which painted a very clear picture of what the future would look like not only for the entire country but also for some of the states in the country.

Most of the speeches across history that have moved masses towards an action follow the same progression –

  1. Why are we here?
  2. What is wrong today?
  3. What should we do about it? or What are we going to do about it?
  4. What does the future look like?

So, if you are having a hard time convincing your peers or team next time, give this a shot. It has worked most of the time for me and I would love to know of cases or situations in which this doesnot work. As for the Netflix’s documentary-drama, people logging out of all the social media platforms, switching off notifications, and canceling their Netflix subscription should have been an impact closer to the intention of the makers. Well, maybe not the part about canceling the Netflix subscription.