If you want to teach a child maths, you don’t start with differential equations. You give them an apple, you give them another apple, then you ask them how many apples they have. All learning is like this – you start with patterns of concrete experience, then draw patterns from those patterns, then patterns from those patterns and so on. You can’t learn addition without understanding numbers, you can’t learn numbers without learning to count things, you can’t learn to count things without some concrete things to count.1
The higher and more abstract you get, the more potentially powerful the concept but the more people you lose along the way. Almost everyone can count, most can multiply and divide, not many are fluent with calculus. The underlying principle is that we tend to find concepts more meaningful the closer they are to our experience. Holding three apples and a banana in my hand is real in a way that “3a + b” is not.
The same is true in business (and life for that matter). Performing an everyday work task – taking a call in a contact centre for instance – is real in a way that looking at a box labelled “inbound calls” on a process diagram is not. Listening to a series of angry customers complaining on the phone is real in way that declining NPS on a Powerpoint graph is not. Even if there wasn’t this difference in the quality of experience, there’s also the brute fact that the more abstract the concept, the less likely people are to have heard of it. I deliberately used an acronym two sentences ago to make the point – the percentage of you who know what NPS is will be smaller than the percentage who know what an angry phone call is.
You’re left with a paradox. Abstract words are immensely powerful because they let you discuss hugely complex phenomena using short, simple statements, but they do so by diluting the meaning. I can give you one number that sums up the whole performance of a business unit, but it can (and probably will) be interpreted to mean umpteen different things by umpteen different people, depending on their background, education, experience, prejudices and so on.
This is the challenge of leadership communication. Leaders are forced to talk to one another in very abstract terms, because they are dealing with very abstract concepts. But they need to communicate these concepts to the whole organisation, a group of people with diverse backgrounds and contexts, for whom the concepts may be completely new. How do effective leaders do this? I think a lot of the time they don’t really know – it comes naturally. But I think under the surface what they’re doing is the same thing effective teachers do – they experientialise their content.
The power of experiential communication
I like to use the word “experientialisation” to mean abstraction in reverse (OK, it’s not in the dictionary yet, so if you can think of a different one – ideally with fewer syllables! – then please let me know).2 Experientialisation is the process of re-engineering the way you articulate things so that they connect more directly to your audience’s experience. If you look at any tool that creates shared meaning, you’ll see it involves experientialisation: Pictures work because they more directly resemble physical experiences than do words. Stories work because they reflect the way we experience everyday life – a series of episodes involving people and events. Examples work because they point to lower level patterns of experience. Metaphors work because they express abstract concepts through the lens of concrete experiences. And so on and so forth. Experientialisation isn’t the magic bullet for creating shared meaning (you still have to have something significant to say!), but it’s a basic pre-requisite.
The thing that’s not so obvious here is that experientialising your communication comes at a cost. Let’s say you want to improve your customer satisfaction scores. Here are two extreme options:
Option 1: Visit all your contact centres and spend half an hour taking each team through some slides with bullet points.Option 2: Give everyone in the company a full week’s live training experience involving simulations, client visits, direct observation, real-time feedback and space for group discussion and review.
Option 2 will probably create more shared meaning, but it will probably also be a few thousand times more expensive. Clearly this is not the only possible trade-off, yet it’s amazing how many leaders seem to treat it as though it were. Is it not obvious that most of the time, if you want maximum bang for buck, you should really be learning how to get the experiential benefits of option 2 every time you go out to do option 1?
Great leaders don’t need to be told to experientialise their communication, because they do it naturally. They don’t go through bullet points on slides, they tell stories. They use descriptive language to paint pictures in your head that bring the abstract concepts to life. They use examples from their own lives. They get people up on stage for impromptu roleplay. They use whatever props are to hand. And in so doing they create connections with us that draw us into the larger purpose of why we are here. When you listen to Martin Luther King’s dream speech, you see the red hills of Georgia and the children of slaves and slave-owners sitting together at the table of brotherhood. When you listen to Churchill’s wartime addresses the thing that sticks with you is not lots of abstract vagueries – it’s the blood, toil, sweat, tears and fighting on the beaches.
If you are a leader and you have something to say, stop thinking how to say it and think of how to see it, and not through your own eyes, but through the eyes of your audience. It’s only by connecting with their experience that you can create shared meaning, and it’s only by creating shared meaning that you can start to make things happen.
- If you find this interesting, do have a look at this lovely video from the seventies of Jean Piaget, the grandfather of developmental psychology, watching on from his rather chaotic-looking desk as kids of various ages play illustrate how each developmental stage builds on the previous one. For a more modern take on how the ideas in this article are playing out in education, look up the CPA approach.