Seen & Heard

And Another Thing: Over-Tipping and Number Lists

Is our growing taste for tips, tricks and lists compromising our ability to share real, expert knowledge? I’m seeing troubling signs that it is, in which case it’s high time we take a clear-headed look at how to rely on them less, and use them better.

Case in point: At a recent event that included number of respected professionals from a variety of fields, I stepped into a conversation between a successful artist and a well-known food personality. The artist had just completed a television segment on creativity, the food personality had just written a book on butchery. Both had the same lament: All their handlers really wanted, it seemed, were tips and tricks. Shortcuts and quick takes, in other words, instead of the real insights these two individuals had to offer.

Another case in point: A recent list of  “23 things” that appeared in Forbes. It promised must-know insights into being a successful entrepreneur. What I found were  recycled truths. Okay in their way, but trivial, offering no fresh insight, covering no new ground.

Knowledge for nibblers. For the most part, of course, this is how we like our info these days: hard to pass by and easy to digest—snackable. That’s fine, except when it’s not fine, which might be often. The experts in question were by no means stuffed shirts in love with the sound of their own voices. They were young and media savvy, quick with the clever remark and perfectly able to get to the point. What exasperated them, really, was the illusion of easy mastery the tips and tricks provided. Implicit in the word “tip” is the idea that something bigger and deeper exists beyond it. (“This here? It’s just the tip.”) Tips and tricks are great for sparking interest and encouraging trial, but if they don’t also point the way to a deeper fund of knowledge, they serve us poorly.

Fellow media professional, if you’re a tipster, I expect no less of you than to show me where to go to immerse myself more deeply.

Are you a recycler? While I’m addressing you, actually, I expect something further: I expect you to be an expert in full, not a poser. Most of the time, it seems you’re the latter. How do I know? Your lists are lame and your tips are already common knowledge. They present precious little that’s fresh or new, except to the neophyte. Short of a mail order diploma, there’s no greater shortcut to perceived expertise, it seems, than to package things in numbered list form, no matter how tired or trite they might be. Where is the wise, the surprising, the eye-opening, the idiosyncratic?

Seen any great lists lately? Do share! Since numbered lists are here to stay, let’s treat them like a legitimate creative form. Let’s identify some really great ones and bring them all together. Short of transmitting one-minute mastery, maybe they can at least inspire us with their crisp conciseness.

My favorite list of all is one that doesn’t exist, leaving me free to imagine what it might be: I receive regular emails from 18 Reasons, a venue in San Francisco’s Mission District that hosts all manner of cool, thought-provoking food events. I found myself wondering, What are 18 Reasons’ 18 reasons? Turns out there aren’t any. Here’s what the 18 reasons folks have to say about their name:

“If you’ve been in the Mission for a while, you may remember the large sign atop a building at the corner of 17th Street and Mission. It simply, and mysteriously stated: 17 Reasons. It was tragically taken down in 2002 and replaced by an ordinary billboard. To mark the change in the gallery’s management and pay tribute to this much-missed icon, we decided to rechristen the space as 18 Reasons. 18 because of 18th Street, and because…well, it never hurts to have one more reason.”

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