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Telling the right story to drive understanding

Michelle Hicks

Michelle Hicks

I’ve been reading a fascinating new book by the former chief information officer at Google, Douglas C. Merrill. It’s called, Getting Organized in the Google Era.

Merrill is a bright guy with a Ph.D. in cognitive science and he wants to help all of us better understand how our brains receive information and store it so we can find it later when we need it. For him, these are foundational skills to help the world be better organized. But as a communicator, I’m finding a lot of relevance in his ideas for how employers can better communicate key information to their employees to drive greater understanding and, ultimately, the right behaviors to make a workplace successful.

One of the key processes Merrill discusses is encoding – the scientific term of taking short-term information and filing it into our brain’s long-term memory. Because of the way our brains are designed, Merrill says there are more effective ways than others for helping us encode information in an organized manner. One of the most efficient processing tools is through storytelling.

As Merrill explains, “Facts are dry and unusually boring. We can’t relate to facts, so our minds don’t absorb them easily. Stories are another matter. Stories have everything that facts lack: color, action, characters, sights, smells, sounds, and emotions, all of which we can relate to.”

In other words, for the encoding process to work, information has to be stored in a way that is meaningful to us so we can recall it, and stories create that meaning.

I’ve watched many organizations struggle to share business goals in a meaningful way with employees. They have the best intentions of providing a clear line of sight for the frontline worker. They want that employee to understand how her tasks each day contribute to long-term business goals. But the information is generally presented to that employee in the same way it is presented to the board of directors. Boring facts and figures. Dry sales projections. The information is so high-level that it is hard for the person with boots on the ground to digest it.

Stories can bridge that understanding gap. But it takes a real commitment and time investment from leadership to understand the daily routine in order to create the meaningful story that actually relates to the real worker’s experience.

If you’ve been watching episodes of Undercover Boss on CBS, you have noticed a lot of raw emotion from corporate leaders as they roll up their sleeves and do the same laboring tasks as their employees. Yeah, it’s a bit overdramatic with the music and editing. Critics have said they don’t see the point of this exercise. It is not like an organization can change the work that has to be done, so what’s the point of the boss experiencing it?

But I disagree. I believe that frontline experience can help the boss “get it” when it comes to truly understanding the challenges in the field or on the line so she can speak more specifically about how the work her employees do drives the company forward.

For example, in a recent episode, the president of Roto Rooter went through dispatch training in his own organization. As the supervisor walked him through the color-coded process to understand how all of the crews were assigned, he identified a fatal flaw in the system he designed several years go – he’s color blind. And that disability kept him from being able to do the dispatch job effectively.

Now, I’m not advocating that every boss go undercover. It is just one example of how to gain insight about the nuts and bolts of how organizations really work. But that’s just the first step. The second is putting that information to work by telling meaningful stories about what behaviors on the job make that job more efficient – which ultimately adds up with all of the other organizational tasks to accomplish business goals. Telling the right story aids understanding and helps get the right job done.

Michelle Hicks is a communications consultant with Buck Consultants. Contact her at [email protected]

About Michelle Hicks