In 2003, I coached a company that makes liquid cleaners schools, hospitals and bus depots use to wash their floors and countertops. A team of about 150 executives and salespeople spent a lot of time talking about the company’s “sustainable earth” products and sustainability emphasis in research and development.
I couldn’t have cared less. Frankly, it didn’t mean anything to me. This was 2003, and sustainability wasn’t a household word. Furthermore, I had no idea how its “sustainability” efforts were any different from GE’s or Dell’s or one of its chief competitors. After all, if you’re in the commodity industry and you’re using commodity language, like “sustainability,” then what makes you any different from anyone else?
So I asked the team to tell me the single best story they could think of that demonstrated the environmental safety and quality of its cleaning products.
After four hours, one executive finally said: “Before we take a new cleaning product to market, we take a goldfish and drop it in a bucket of that liquid cleaner. If the goldfish swims, we know those chemicals are safe enough to seep into the earth. In fact, you could drink them and be just fine. We’ve done it before.”
“However,” he continued, “if the goldfish dies, we know we’ve got a massive quality control issue on our hands, and we have to go back to the drawing board. That’s what sustainability means to us.”
Now, that’s a concrete, vivid and compelling illustration of an incredibly abstract concept, like sustainability. That’s a memorable story.
That’s weekend language.
When it comes to effective communication, the story is everything. But it’s the thing almost every executive forgets on the weekdays in presentations, meetings and conversations. That’s too bad because stories are the superglue of communication and a staple of weekend language.
Consider your own experience.
On weekends, we’re all great communicators. When I call my mom every Saturday to discuss the events of the week, I don’t recount the laundry list of things I did the previous Wednesday or tell her how I “optimized my presentation coaching services to further monetize my business with actionable intelligence.”
Instead, I tell her how her shy granddaughter performed at the school talent show in front of hundreds of people. We laugh along to the story of her grandson swallowing his front tooth, which had fallen out, and stressing at the thought of a snub from the tooth fairy.
And what does she do with those stories? She turns around and tells them to my father, her sister, and her friends.
Now consider the science behind our experiences.
Behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk says that “people process information best in story form.” Based on their research, Made to Stick authors Chip and Dan Heath describe stories as the most memorable form of communication. In other words, a story is the single best way to make your most important point meaningful in the moment and memorable after your presentation, conversation, meeting or testimony.
On the weekends, our speech is conversational, simple, clear and interesting. We resist the siren call of jargon and four-letter acronyms. Instead, our defaults are examples, anecdotes and analogies.
But then Monday morning hits. We step into the office and downshift into 10-point plans, org charts and Corporate Klingon – that abstract, esoteric and indecipherable language we think sounds smart but is really only understood by other Klingons. The simple truth is that jargon and acronyms don’t make our ideas more accessible. Far too often, we’re saying a lot of words but not truly communicating.
The good news is that we’re all natural storytellers. We just need to drag our weekend language instincts and storytelling skills into our weekday presentations. Because stories are the fundamental building blocks of effective communication. And the result is truly magical.
So, here’s your homework:
First, listen to the difference between the language you use on weekends vs. the language you and your colleagues use on the weekdays. Become aware of the differences, as well as your strengths as a weekend storyteller.
Second, think of the key point you want to make at your next presentation, meeting, or testimony. Now think of the story that best brings that problem, opportunity or issue to life. Add in the relevant concrete details to make it vivid and tangible. Gauge whether members, employees or board members begin repeating them back to you or others.
If not, you might be a weekday communicator who needs to go fishing for some weekend language.
Andy Craig is co-author of the book, Weekend Language: Presenting with More Stories & Less PowerPoint. As founder of Andy Craig Coaching LLC, he delivers storytelling workshops, presentation coaching and media training to corporate and association executives. Customers include Texas Society of Association Executives, Google, Accenture, Dell, Novartis and more.
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