How many workhops or talks or meetings have you attended where you quickly forget most of what was said? How often do people forget what you say?
Several years ago I attended a workshop led by Meg Wheatley, and to this day I remember what she said. She talked about how the pioneers traveling to the West had to carry everything they needed for their new home in one wagon. Obviously they had to make choices about what to take—what would be important for the trip and for surviving in a strange new land. They loaded their wagons to the gills so they could carry as much as possible.
The pioneers were ok travelling across the flat prairies, but when they reached the difficult passages through the Rockies and the mountain ranges beyond, they realized their wagons were too heavy to climb. Now they had to choose again—and the choices they made would determine whether they survived or not. What was essential? What could they leave behind?
Meg said we are the new pioneers. We are travelling to a strange new land—changes are coming to our organizations and our world that we now only dimly understand. We will have to makes choices about what attitudes, what behaviors are essential for us in this new world—and our survival depends on the wisdom of our choices.
Whether you buy into Meg’s argument or not, isn’t it amazing that I remember so much about it? It's not because my memory is so good (in fact several people close to me would tell you quite the opposite). It’s because what Meg said is memorable.
Meg was back in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia this week and I heard her again. Her message was different, but just as compelling . Everyone I’ve talked to has mentioned something she said that really stuck with them.
What did she do that made her presentation so memorable? It was simple, really. She used images instead of words. Her slides featured vivid photographs that illustrated her points—probably 75% of any slide was the image, less than 25% were words. The words she did use were potent: “walk out so you can walk on,” “there’s nothing wrong with a broken heart,” “a leader is anyone willing to help.” She told stories (parables, really) that brought her message alive. She asked provocative questions. She talked about something bigger than herself.
It doesn’t take a famous author to do this. Terry Newell of the Federal Executive Institute has written about a director of a Veterans Service Center who inspired her employees by telling them stories about real disabled war veterans and reminding them that “behind every folder is a face.” Yet how many calls to action, how many important messages fall flat and are quickly forgotten? Leaders often fail to craft a message so people can hear it. They insist on focusing on words alone, formal charts, dry language.
Meg talked about the importance of reaching the heart as well as the mind. How she told us was as important as what she said—what she did reached our hearts. I hope more leaders will follow her example.