To be more compelling, use thick description to bring employees into the story


As someone who wants to get employees’ attention, how do you deal with the fact that words have become a commodity? Although I’m a strong advocate of simplicity, I also realize that conceptual terms (like quality, innovation, cost-efficiency, progress or customer service) are not compelling. They’re abstractions that you can’t connect to. Most of them are long words, so they seem important, but you can’t touch, taste, see, smell or hear any of these concepts. My sense of what “quality” looks like may be cool and blue, while yours may be square, stark and white.

That’s why an important strategy for being compelling is to get specific.

In my book, Your Attention, Please, I quote Christopher Locke, journalist and blogger. In his book Gonzo Marketing, Mr. Locke takes on the challenge of achieving or even defining a term used all the time in marketing: “the value proposition.”

Mr. Locke writes that “Business in general and marketing in particular seem to assume we know what they mean when they sling around terms like value, brand and positioning and equate the resulting blur of vague ideas to something we might actually care about.”

But these terms don’t resonate. What’s needed to cut through all this abstraction is something called “thick description.” The term was used in the 1970s by anthropologist Clifford Geetz to address a challenge he had when trying to write about the societies he studied. When Mr. Geetz tried to step back and give a big-picture view of what he observed, two things happened: first, because the description was so conceptual, it wasn’t very compelling—you just weren’t that interested in the society in question, because you couldn’t picture it. And second, those general descriptions also carried the bias of the anthropologist, because concepts (and jargon) are often judgmental. (“Quality” must be a good thing, right?)

To address the problem, Mr. Geetz discovered that the more specific he was, the better he was able to bring the people of Java or Morocco to life—and the problems of bias fell away. Everything got more real, more immediate, more true.

To illustrate, Mr. Geetz, in his book The Interpretation of Culture , tells a story of a Jewish shopkeeper who is robbed by a sheikh’s goon squad in Colonial North Africa in 1916. Because the French troops in charge won’t act on the matter, the shopkeeper hires some local muscle of his own to steal the sheikh’s sheep as payment for his loss. When the shopkeeper is discovered in the act of stealing, the sheikh doesn’t kill him; he listens to the shopkeeper’s claim and agrees that it’s only fair for the shopkeeper take 500 sheep in payment.

The story gives a “thicker” and more accurate description of what culture was like in Colonial North Africa—how terms like justice and retribution played out—than simply using the terms themselves.

“Small facts speak to large issues,” writes Mr. Geetz, “because they were meant to.”

So, although it may sometimes take more words, tangible always trumps general—to get employees’ attention and make content more meaningful.

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