Have you heard the story from the friend of a friend about the woman in HR who transformed her company’s HR department? She did such a great job that the story went viral, and she became a global sensation credited with not only saving her company but starting a movement. The movie about her life is set to be released next year.
Chances are you have not, as the story is entirely, and poorly, fabricated by me. However, the tale likely left at least one lasting image in your head. The story was my attempt at creating a business-related urban myth. The idea came to me while reading the excellent book, Made To Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath. The book points out how mental images from urban myths that are shared have a lasting impression. The Heath brothers provide many examples including some from this excerpt, such as the kidney heist or razor blade in Halloween apples urban myths.
The stories in these urban myths were fabricated, yet people continue to share and believe variations of these stories decades after they began. As powerful as urban myths are, how can they be decoded to enable companies to communicate better to staff, colleagues, and stakeholders? First, let’s figure out what makes urban myths so powerful.
Why are Urban Myths so Powerful?
Urban myths contain all of the elements necessary for messages to “hack” our brains, so these messages remain with us. The Heath brothers state the components required for messages that are “made to stick” include, among others, simplicity, concreteness, and story.
As humans, we are suckers for a good story, and the more emotional we are upon hearing a story with detailed images, the greater the chance that the story will have a lasting impression. Another example, the brothers provide is proverbs.
Proverbs are quintessential messages that are made to be shared. They are easy to understand and paint such a powerful image upon hearing them, we want to share them with others. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” is one example. This proverb has been identified in languages around the world and shared for well over 1,000 years.
How many expressions used today, do you expect to be around 1,000 years from now? I don’t mean to “throw shade” by pointing out that as “lit,” “on fleek,” or “swole” as you are, most expressions used today will not likely make it past next year. Case in point, am I being too “savage” with my use of words that are disappearing quickly? Probably not, since “savage” and “lit” are words that are already out of style a mere couple of years after they swept our nation as fast as the Fortnite floss dance.
How can Powerful Messages be Created?
The short answer is first to make sure that any communication is easy to understand to the listener. Assume that the listener does not know your company, industry, or point of view. It is up to you as the communicator to explain to the listener why the message you are communicating matters. It helps to paint a concrete image in the listener’s head, along with a story that evokes emotions. Listen carefully to famous speeches over the years and realize how easily images are painted in your head as the orator speaks the words. Listen to the following speeches:
1) Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech (audio at 11:23 mark): “I have a dream, that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…”.
2) John F. Kennedy’s moon challenge speech (video at 1:47 mark), “…before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
Likely, images are painted in your head as the words are spoken. It makes no difference if you have read, viewed, or heard the speeches many times before. Our minds are but canvases for these master artists to paint their vision.
It is not expected or necessary that communication is as good as King or Kennedy’s speeches. After all, we are referring to among the best speeches in history. However, we can all improve by putting extra thought into creating urban myths and proverbs that enable our teams, departments, and companies to thrive. It all starts with communication.
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