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Good Communication — How to use story to solve the attention problem.

January 31, 2023
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4 min read
Photo by Super Snapper on Unsplash
“Speak clearly if you speak at all; carve every word and let it fall.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Getting communication right is a no-brainer. 

In an async, distributed, work-from-anywhere era, it’s especially true. Everyone agrees. According to Grammarly/ Harris Poll’s State of Business Communication Report, nine out of ten executives agree “communication is the backbone of business,” and “effective communication is essential for delivering business results.”

What was the tenth executive thinking? No one knows.

The noise problem.

Communication: you can’t have too much.

Leaders have taken this to heart. Their mantra is to communicate, communicate, communicate. And yes, some communication is better than no communication. But too much becomes a sea of noise. Awash in competing communication, it’s critical to cut through the clutter. 

Meet overwhelmed Bob. 

Overwhelmed Bob is a proxy for your audience. He’s a character that may be on the front line, in the call center, at a retail location or in the field. Bob’s day job is a supervisor. He manages a team of ten. And he gets a lot of messages; from HR, from his boss, from operations, from finance. He gets texts and phone calls. His email box fills. He’s on Slack, but that isn’t helping. 

He’s overwhelmed.

Bob’s condition — Overwhelmia Communicata —is one of modern work.

It’s a paradox: when there is so much messaging, how do you cut through the noise?

You need Bob’s attention.

The answer to the attention problem is story.

Story, according to writer Jonathan Gotschall, is a trick for sneaking information into the fortified citadel of the human mind.

This isn’t just metaphorically true; it’s neuroscientifically true.

According to neuroscientist Paul Zak, the narratives that cause us to pay attention, and involve us emotionally, move us to action. They release oxytocin in the brain. And oxytocin helps us learn. Oxytocin is the key to the fortified citadel. In her book, The Leading Brain, neuroscientist Friederike Fabritius points out how the key works. “Rather than simply encouraging new learned behavior, oxytocin aids us in forgetting old learned behavior.”

Tell a story, and you have Bob’s attention.

Your story frames how people see the world and moves them to action.

A story is simple.

It’s memorable. It’s relevant: your audience sees themselves in the picture. Your story has an emotional hook. It has meat. And the payoff will move people to action.

Are you saying my 100-page PowerPoint deck isn’t a ‘narrative’?

Yes.

“Just put it on one slide.”

I hear that a lot. 

People take the request literally. A seven-slide presentation magically shrinks. Fonts get smaller. Eyes strain. White space disappears. A thousand words, previously spread across seven slides, shrinks to nine-hundred and fifty. They’re in eight-point font, and I can’t read them. I don’t want to.

The point is missed.

The point of “just put it on one slide” was not a paper-saving request. It was a request to clarify your message. To cut. To prioritize. To make it simple.

To get to the point.

“I need more detail.”

Another misunderstood request.

The request is not, “I need every detail.” But seven slides bloom to fifty. An appendix of spare thoughts appears. The “more detail” request is one of two things. The obvious one is that you have left out what your audience considers relevant. The less apparent reason is that your audience is not tracking to your thinking. Either way, you don’t have a “detail” problem. 

You just haven’t figured out your audience.

Good communication is in reading the tea leaves.

The T-leaf is a tool we use over and over again.

The T-leaf is a starting point. A way to get at what your audience needs. A way to put in the right amount of detail and still tell a simple story. It’s a way to grab Bob’s attention without overwhelming him. It’s the platform on which to build your story.

The T-leaf is a line, splitting a piece of paper in two.

On the one side is “what I want.” It’s what you want your audience to feel, know, and do. On the other side is “what they want.” What the audience wants to feel (or how they are feeling), what they want to know, and what they might be prepared to do. 

The “feel, know, do” are critical.

So much communication is an information dump — what I want you to know. But that can’t be a story. You want to sneak that information into the fortified citadel of the human mind. How do you want them to feel? What might they be feeling? Emotion is key to the story. 

When it comes to “know,” a rule of thumb is to make it three things. What do you want them to know? That’s how you simplify. This pays off the “put it all on one slide” request because you can now prioritize and edit.

But what if what they want to know differs? More editing, and avoiding the “need more detail” trap. You have to tell them what they want to know. In doing so, you might drop some of what you want them to know. It just isn’t as important.

And last, do.

Remember, we’re trying to frame the way people see the world. But just crafting a narrative, giving people information, is half the story. You want them to do something. So make the request clear. Ask the ask.

That’s how you break the simplify/ more detail paradox. That’s how you grab Bob’s attention. That’s how you break through.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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