The era of polymaths like Leonardo DiVinci with the skills of an artist, doctor, engineer, sculptor, architect, etc. is long gone. Today, in our increasingly complex world, we are more likely to be specialists, with knowledge deeply rooted in a particular discipline. The result is that knowledge is often siloed. This silo effect can even occur within the same company.
One of our health technology clients has a marketing department with over 150 people working in over 10 separate teams. Each team (brand, website, data analysis, enablement, etc.) has a specialty and internal goals. The marketing department must represent a cohesive whole for its internal stakeholders such as sales and operations and external stakeholders such as customers and partners. Yet they have no process for sharing their work with teams. How much learning is lost because their expertise is not shared?
When team members meet in cross-functional meetings, their expertise is not communicated effectively. For example, the analytics team gives the full upload on the data, getting into the weeds, using jargon and details that their audience doesn’t know how to scatter.
We are so immersed in our subject that we forget what it is to be an outsider. We work to prove our worth instead of persuading our audience to see the value for themselves.
Communication barriers between sectors persist in our data-laden workplace. Pings from electronic devices interrupt. The challenge of the three Vs of data (volume, speed, and variety) tends to be more frustrating than informative. When distractions and information abound, attention must be earned. We need to have our audience:
- Attention – Are they even listening?
- Understanding — Are they following and understanding?
- Caution — Why should they care, and care enough to do anything about it?
A good story will grab your audience’s attention, but how do you make sure they understand and engage with your complex ideas as soon as possible? If your audience doesn’t understand, chances are they won’t tell you. After all, who would want to publicly admit they don’t get it or don’t care?
This is the first in a series of articles aimed at giving you strategies for making complex topics simple and well understood. In this article, we discuss seemingly universal and abstract concepts such as “stakeholders”, “teamwork” or “direct communication”, which are not as obvious or as simple as they seem. Because we can take these kinds of common abstractions for granted, they often create barriers to effective communication.
To discuss these everyday, yet complex ideas with a team or even just one other person, it helps to define your terms. When you say “fairness” or “corporate culture”, what do you mean? Often in these contexts, a dictionary definition isn’t enough, but corporate storytelling strategies can help.
At a recent professional development meeting for our certified storytellers, we took on the challenge of describing one of these hard-to-pinch concepts in 200 words or less. The following examples provide different structures to try when you need to define an abstract idea with your audience.
#1 Tell a story… where the key idea you want to discuss is missing.
Defining an abstract noun by making it absent from the story will help your audience feel the need for it. Here’s a story about what happens when direct communication is missing, shared by Certified Story Facilitator Chuen Chuen Yeo.
Many years ago, my colleague and I were working on a project. I thought everything was fine. Then, one day, my boss called me into the office and, with empathy, told me that she knew how passionate I was, but that I had to involve my colleague in the decision-making.
I was annoyed because I had no idea my colleague was upset, but I kept my cool and nodded.
My colleague was waiting outside the boss’s office and she started, “So Chuen Chuen, I believe I have to be direct, so I went to see our boss….” Later, I found out that she wasn’t comfortable with a decision I thought we made together, so she decided to talk to our boss.
What is direct communication? Discuss the problem directly with the person concerned instead of beating around the bush.
Chuen Chuen uses this story when onboarding new hires to help them understand her leadership style and what is expected of them when it comes to communicating with other team members in their new role. .
#2 Tell a story… where the key idea evokes an emotion
In the following example, my colleague Reena Kansal offers a story from an anthology of essays American Like Me, Reflections On Life Between Cultures edited by America Ferrera. In this story, Reshma Saujani demonstrates the complexity hidden in a simple idea:
When I order the grand chai milk tea at Starbucks, I almost always lie. It’s a white lie, as innocent and airy as the foam on top of the drink, and it’s been carefully constructed to make our lives easier.
“Can I have your name, ma’am?” »
“Maya,” I say effectively, pulling out my credit card.
The barista is a teenage girl with lavender streaked hair and eyeliner so exquisite and precise, I wished for a fleeting moment to choose a more mysterious name, which might impress her, because exactly nothing seems to do. She scribbles Maya on the side of the cup with her Sharpie and I think of Maya. The real Maya whose name I stole for my Starbucks order.
She happens to be my niece. She’s a beautiful fifteen-year-old girl who has no idea that I borrow her name regularly. But I do it because baristas can spell and pronounce it correctly every time.
We say and hear our name several times a day, often without even thinking about it. However, it is tied to our identity, our family and our sense of belonging and has roots deeper than what may appear on the surface.
This story reveals many ideas tangled up in the single abstract noun “name” and causes the listener to question their own relationship to names. Asking your team to share stories that are personal, but not private like this, can invoke emotion and build trust between team members, while creating meaningful breakthroughs in understanding a company’s value for diversity during DEI training.
#3 Tell a story… while standing on the shoulders of giants
Just as you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, you don’t always need to come up with an original personal story to illustrate a complex topic. Some topics have already been illustrated in a way that will help clarify your meaning. For this reason, start collecting quotes. When you hear someone explain something in a way that completely captures your imagination, copy it into a helpful quotes document. You never know when you might need to use it. Here is a scene from a recent experience.
The best way I’ve heard someone describe his power is through the New York Times bestselling author Harlan Coben. With his 33 detective novels and his 7 million copies sold, he knows something about his power.
In an interview with the Freakonomics podcast on Suspense and Surprise, Harlan Coben has this to say, “I often have missing people in my books and one missing piece is really interesting. In the case of a missing person against a murder: if a person is dead, he is dead. I’m just trying to solve the crime. But if someone is missing, you have hope. Hope can be the cruellest thing in the world. It can crush your heart like an eggshell or cause it to fly away. You raise the stakes by giving people hope, and you raise the stakes by just leaving out something that maybe can complete you.
When clients ask about the right emotion to invoke in leadership storytelling, the first part of the answer is…it depends. It depends on what you are trying to achieve. You have to match your goal with the right emotion. But nobody likes an answer that starts with “it depends”, so the second part of the answer is more definitive. Whatever emotion you choose to match your goal, your story should end with hope. Coben’s story about the power of hope helps listeners understand why. It illustrates the power of emotion.
Learn the other business storytelling strategy to clarify the complex.
What common but complex ideas do you need to define and discuss with your team? What strategy will you use to help your team move the discussion forward with clarity?
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