Book review: Supercommunicator by Frank J. Pietrucha

This is a book review of Supercommunicator by Frank J. Pietrucha

Full disclosure: I received this book free as part of O’Reilly’s reader review program.

It’s a fact oft-acknowledged that books about communication and especially about grammar fall at the hurdles they themselves set, with books about grammar often containing solecisms and books about communication including leaden or otherwise dreadful prose. Even with this in mind, this is not a good book.

It opens badly with some very trivial advice about “knowing your audience” and not using too much multimedia, which will be news only to the worst communicators. There are several rather glaring errors, many included more than once – “pours over” when the author means “pores over”, incorrect use of “enormity” to mean “enormousness”, “reposts” instead of “ripostes”. And, perhaps most unforgivably in an age when careful writers avoid corporate-speak like the proverbial plague: “tasked with”.

There are many bland assertions in the mould of “Super communicators know the difference between simplicity and clarity”- again, only the worst communicators will be unaware of the distinction. Alongside statements that are well-known to any serious-minded person, there are several that are just plain wrong. The internet is “rewiring our brains”, apparently, although this is true of all human experience, and it’s quite unclear whether they are being any more “rewired” by the internet than they were by the invention of the television, radio, the printing press, or indeed the trouser press or fountain pen.

Chapter four ordered me to “Forget [my] 700 page tome; no one’s going to read it”. This will be news to Thomas Picketty, whose 700 page tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been flying off the shelves worldwide. The author is unaware of any games with the power to communicate, in fact a brief study of the field of videogames would reveal more and more examples of games that communicate complex ideas very effectively, such as the critically acclaimed Depression Quest or the brilliantly understated evocation of the effect of petty bureaucracy, Papers, please.

These are all just irritations, and it is hard to take seriously a book about communication (supercommunication, even), with errors in fact and style so rampant. But the most serious flaw of the book is its failure to tackle the contradictions at the heart of being an effective communicator. Time after time we are implored to do one thing, and then the opposite, and to use our judgement within each individual context. We should use multimedia, but not too much. We should be emotive communicators, but sometimes not at all. We should just “have a go” and make our own data visualisations, or we should enlist the help of experts. In fairness to the author, making judgements like these are the hardest parts of any communicator’s job, and it is difficult to be prescriptive within a book of this type and to offer precise advice for every circumstance. However, if the book is not about these dilemmas, and cannot make any meaningful pronouncements on the subject, then it is not about anything, and not worth your time.

I could recommend this book only to individuals who are very poor communicators, and even then I would suggest to them that there are better examples out there (they could start by reading every word Tufte ever pronounced, for one, citation of Tufte within this book is one of its few saving graces).

And the chapters are too short. I understand the author is trying to make a point about communication but we’re not idiots and several of the chapters are quite obviously about the same thing and should have been grouped together.