There’s a scene in Independence Day where Judd Hirsch’s character is consoling his son, a computer programmer played by Jeff Goldblum, after the son throws a fit and sulks down on the floor. The father says, “Get off this freezing concrete floor before you catch a cold.”
Immediately, a spark lights in Goldblum’s eye. The throwaway line from his lay-person dad gave him a eureka moment – he’ll give the attacking aliens a computer virus. It works, and a few minutes of runtime later, the alien ships all come crashing to earth in dramatic fashion. (Sorry to spoil the movie, but it came out in 1996. I think the spoiler window is firmly closed.)
This same trope plays out in dozens of films, shows, and novels – one small prompt from an outsider, or even just the act of explaining something to them, unlocks the solution our protagonist has been looking for the whole time.
It seems like a fictional cliche, but if you’ve ever sat with a real-life computer programmer, this sort of thing actually happens quite a bit. When they’re forced to verbalize a problem, all of a sudden, the solution becomes obvious. This practice is called Rubber duck debugging, or often just Rubberducking, and it comes from Andrew Hunt and David Thomas’ 1999 book, The Pragmatic Programmer. Here’s their explanation of the tactic:
“A very simple but particularly useful technique for finding the cause of a problem is simply to explain it to someone else. The other person should look over your shoulder at the screen, and nod his or her head constantly (like a rubber duck bobbing up and down in a bathtub). They do not need to say a word; the simple act of explaining, step by step, what the code is supposed to do often causes the problem to leap off the screen and announce itself.”
In a footnote, the authors explain that they named the practice after a colleague who kept an actual little yellow rubber duck on their desk for this very purpose. (And years later, programming site Stack Overflow introduced a tiny picture of a rubber duck as a new “feature” on April Fools Day.)
While this is useful for programmers, it’s a tool that all of us can use in our work – especially when we’re writing an email, developing a proposal, or even designing a new app. Can you explain this concept to your rubber ducky?
Rubberducking is a one-way form of what I call in Simply Put the “Enlightened Idiot” – a practice of developing empathy with our audience by getting out of our own heads and bubbles. When we break out of our echo chambers (in our head or our team), we can often see things that are otherwise easily overlooked.
Writing about writing, prolific author and marketer Seth Godin said, “No one ever gets talker’s block.” We talk every day, and we never get stuck—but writer’s block is a problem for many. Why? He answers, “We get better at talking precisely because we talk.” He goes on to expand on the virtue of daily practice, which is a great habit to improve your work, though we can use this insight as a shortcut.
If your work is stiff and just won’t shake loose the burdensome confines of business-speak, take it off the page and talk it out. Talk to yourself in the shower, talk to your spouse over breakfast, or, best yet, talk to somebody who’s close to your audience. By virtue of thousands of daily reps, your talking muscle is probably a lot stronger than your writing one, so use it.
Even if it is just to a rubber duck.