Leadership lessons from ancient storytellers: Get your people on the same page in an age of digital distractions
Digitization is a key, if not the chief, driving force shaping our modern realities. Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum categorized this wave of change, fueled by our changing relationship to technology, as the fourth industrial revolution—a major milestone in our evolution as humans.
Living in the midst of a revolution is an amazing, yet messy experience. But the conveniences and efficiencies afforded by technology have not come without a price. We’re eager to do more with technology, yet we’re still learning how to integrate it into our daily lives.
While we can access and easily produce more information than ever before, the pace of the flow is sometimes overwhelming. We suffer from information overload. And with the rise in adoption of mobile devices, we now live in a world fraught with digital distractions. As our attention spreads over increasing sources of information, and our time is more fragmented, how is it possible to effectively communicate without messages getting lost?
To answer this question, we at Sappington like to look to the past.
Before literacy became widespread, information was passed down in very different formats than today. Traditions were primarily oral and relied on poetic mechanisms to aid memorization without the type of visual tools we have today.
It seems unlikely for poetic devices to start making their way into modern business conversations, but there is something very important about these oral traditions that we can learn from and can adopt to make our business communications more effective.
Let’s take a closer look.
When Homer recorded The Odyssey, for instance, he was capturing an existing story that had already been passed down for generations. How was it possible for that story to retain its shape for centuries without fragmentation or major change? Oral poems like these were constructed in a way that made the transference of information easier and more reliable. The original authors employed hexameter, a line with six metrical feet and certain vowel repetitions to assist with memorization. Our brains are wired to accept and retain information in these rhythmic and rhyming ways. And repetition seals the information in our heads.
So how does that help us? One key challenge for enterprises today, as they grow across geographies and further expand, is how to effectively communicate to employees so they understand the company’s mission and feel connected to the organization.
Consider—just within your organization—how many employees are able to correctly articulate the company’s mission and values? If you took a random sampling, what would you find? Would it be a jumbled and mixed message? Or would it be consistent and reliable across employees and teams?
If we broaden the lens beyond the company, would your customers know your message? The power of some of the most beloved brands in the world is in part the power of a consistently applied, repeatable message. When the Coca-Cola company launched a new product that was significantly different from its core—bottled water—it did so under a new brand, Dasani, to avoid a mixed message.
When Coors tried launching bottled water under its existing brand, the new product failed. The mixing of water and beer messages confused the Coors audience and failed to connect. How many other examples of this kind of brand failure through inconsistency are out there? Turns out, quite a few.
Sure, Homer lived in a much different time, but human lives in the 5th century BCE had their own share of distractions. A tome like The Odyssey was very important to the culture and contained a huge amount of information that had to be properly preserved. One lesson to take from the old oral poems is that uniformity in communications is key. Consistency strengthens your brand, makes messages more readily absorbed, and encourages the audience to remember and recall them. In other words, it gives them staying power.
The other is practice—create opportunities for people within the organization to absorb and live the mission and values, and do it on a recurring basis. Learn the message and repeat it. When put together, consistent messages—such as vision, mission, elevator pitches, etc.—and their repetition help keep everyone on the same page. And, like ancient oral traditions, they provide mechanisms for your people to reiterate communications and to be able to amplify the main story in their own ways.
What might this look like? Read more on this topic in our LORE, which explores the rich history of oral traditions and more lessons we can apply in business today.
 “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond.” World Economic Forum. January 14, 2016.
Silvina Gils Carbo