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Help from the ancient storytellers to guide our Post-Covid Communication

As our world becomes ever more complicated and our way of life more fragile, we need the skills of the ancient Storyteller and the tools of the Epic and metaphor to deliver us the information we need to survive as a tribe, and to inspire, to align and to remind us of who we are. In the post covid workplace we are deep in an unfolding epic of our own. Our human ability to be the signal amidst the noise of our current media landscape of pseudo- and hyper-connected social media, is more important now than ever before. This article pulls on a strand of a recent University of Amsterdam study testing the effectiveness of animation in workplace communication, told with a post covid friendly animation: https://youtu.be/SH7QzlPfyb8

The Epic

Year 42.000 BC. A Storyteller gathers her tribe in warmth and safety and tells a story. A hero’s journey through the thin membrane separating the real and mythical realms. She holds their attention with the masterful use of silence, simplicity, repetition.

An Epic is the story of a human born at the edge of that membrane who receives a divine quest; a monster to slay, a mystery to solve, a person to find. A fantastical tale of bravery, loyalty, sacrifice and magic containing valuable lessons and knowledge crucial for our survival. Its purpose is to entertain, teach, inspire and align, a vessel containing collected wisdom and culture[1]. From Maori to Mapuche, Hindu to Hawaiian, Epics exist in every culture on earth. Peoples from Africa to Asia to Central America that never had contact with one another tell of the same great floods, one-eyed giants and sun chariots[2].

Today, our stories are about Digital Transformation, Artificial Intelligence and Big Data. These intricate products and processes require near immediate understanding and rapid implementation to run a vastly more complicated, interconnected world.

If only the pure transfer of information and knowledge from one human to another were as simple as a thunderbolt cable and a right mouse click. But facts in a vacuum are meaningless and quickly forgotten. Humans are hard-wired to relate to and engage with storytelling. Our brains light up when we hear a story, in the same was as when we have an actual experience[3]. The story is the silver thread that pulls us through the facts and information, and once it has entered our long-term memories, is the thread we pull to retrieve that knowledge.

When we feel positive towards our learning material, we show improved recall and comprehension[4]. The affect generated by a good story can increase our emotional engagement with the facts and can actually inflate our perception of the learning material as a whole, which in turn improves learning results[5]. The physiological arousal we feel exists well after the stimulus has been removed[6]. When connected, we are at our most focused and receptive to new information[7]. Engagement also increases our satisfaction, reduces isolation and loneliness, improves our motivation to learn, creating a positive learning cycle[8]. By broadening our mythological literacy, we also increase our intercultural understanding. We can speak to those who may have grown up with the Mahabharata rather than the Iliad.

Running for the hills at the outset of the pandemic, adopting a hybrid digital live workplace.

Metaphor

Today’s Master Storytellers recreate the stars and the fire in our conference stages and training rooms. The use of silence, simple words, repetition, and the ability to bring their listeners across the membrane into a different world.

The metaphor is a powerful tool for getting us there. The term comes from the Greek metapherein which literally means “carrying something somewhere new”. A familiar, mastered idea has the capacity to carry our understanding to a new, place[9]. Consider the folder, files and trash can on your desktop, stowaways from our analogue workspaces[10]. The shopping cart helps us grasp e-commerce. Metaphors allow us to organize and structure information meaningfully and convey insight through essential combinations[11].

Metaphor rocket fuels corporate storytelling. An Achilles’ Heel describes a fatal, hidden weakness in an otherwise immortal superwarrior, now understood as a software security risk. The Labyrinth an unhappy customer flow, a Trojan Horse a warning about phishing mail. The tales are fictitious but the insights they bring us are now; they connect with our universal values that transcend time and technology.

Thus, the story of any organizational change can be made larger than it is. The hero, an IT manager. An impossible task; implement Continuous Delivery. Armed with a crude map, a few magical tools from upper management, a reward at the end, sacrifice along the way. The hero leaves his cubicle to answer the call to adventure, passing through the membrane to gather information from the Underworld — Diyu, Hel, Tartarus, Kyöpelinvuori — or in his case, the seventh floor. He is tested along the way, his patience, his loyalty, his bravery. He becomes lost in the morass. He joins in battle with the ferocious monster; the Cyclops, Fenir, Impundulu, the non-compliant CMS. He returns to his world with the Golden Fleece, The princess Sita. He has re-imagined Object-Oriented coding to enrich his tribe.

The Hero’s journey; storytelling to fit our post covid workplace communication.

The Epic of Covid-19

We happen to in the midst of an unfolding Epic at this very moment in history. One that is abundantly challenging, with mission and magic, affecting all of us. Stories range from the very small to very large; cooking for an elderly neighbor or working at the front lines as a nurse.

Covid-19 arrived in the Netherlands in February, 2020[12]. By mid-March, offices, universities and schools emptied, leaving our cities ghostly and strange. Our tribes dispersed into isolation underground. Our Storytellers explained the rules, shared to multiple platforms and cascaded organically. We all passed through the membrane into this strange new Underworld where we found ourselves alone. Or, never alone with a house full of device-addicted kids; also small heroes facing their own truths.

What would our world look when we re-emerged? Would we return wiser, rich with insights gathered from our time under the Bodhi tree? Would we reappear to with new energy to re-imagine, re-create our world? Or would we simply slip back to the pursuit of our earthly pleasures, consumed with our hubris? Was this pandemic a fluke? Or a glimpse of what’s to come?

Covid-19 was one of the first pandemics to be widely studied and in real-time using big data and mobile technology. A pattern of increasingly occurring events is emerging, the result of urban spread and climate change[13]. Add to this a future of environmental crises, from extreme heat to flooding, superstorms, parasites and pollution, and our real worlds may become chronically temporarily uninhabitable, sending us back across the membrane into the digital Underworld[14].

As these crises become more common, our Storytellers will need new tools for the rapid dissemination of vital information. Equally urgently, we will need connection, inspiration and belonging; the “why” as much as the “what”.

For now, we return to the normal realm bearing the pelts of the languid Beasts of Boredom, a head of the many-headed Hydra of Hyperactivity, the sting of the pale serpent of Isolation. We are stronger, wiser versions of our former selves, with a sharpened vision born of our time in darkness. The Storyteller will have a slew of complicated, urgent new stories to tell, of mass vaccine rollout, the deaths we have seen and the rules of re-occupancy.

Year 2021 AD. In warmth and safety, we direct our gaze to the few visible stars above city lights. What we see in the night sky is not the story of Enterprise Service Management or ITSM but of Orion and the Scorpion or Aquila the ancient falcon of Egypt[15]. In years to come we will not remember how to blur our backgrounds or share our PowerPoints, but the magical parts of our journey that helped remind us of who we are.

We still need the stars, the cave and the fire. The ability to tell our stories, make them understandable and convincing, to inspire and align people of many different backgrounds is the key to our resilience. Our contrasting need for both fact and myth, the future and the ancient can all co-exist peacefully in the vault of our minds. We are not so advanced and so tech that we cannot long for the Shaman as urgently as we await the release of the newest iPhone.


SOURCES

[1] Tsai, S. P. (2008). Corporate marketing management and corporate‐identity building. Marketing intelligence & planning.

[2] Foley, J. M. (2004). Epic as genre. The Cambridge Companion to Homer, 171–187.
Aládé, S. &. (2015). A Model for Animation of Yorùbá Folktale Narratives. African Journal of Computing & ICT. 8., 113–120. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308352527_A_Model_for_Animation_of_Yoruba_Folk

[3] Gillett, R. (2018, May 13). Why We’re More Likely to Remember Content with Images and Video (Infographic). From Fast Company. [Electronic magazine]: https://www.fastcompany.com/3035856/why-were-morelikely-to-remember-content-with-images-and-video-infogr

[4] Mutiarani, M. &. (2019). Indonesian Folklore Animation as English Learning Media and Students’ Character Education for Primary School. Semnasfip.

[5] Kalyanaraman, S. S. (2004). Arousal, memory, and impression-formation effects of animation speed in web advertising. Journal of Advertising 33, 1, 7–17.
Noyes, J. A. (2019). Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words? Evaluating the Design of Instructional Animations in Veterinary Education. Journal of veterinary medical education, 1–9.

[6] Aládé, S. &. (2015). A Model for Animation of Yorùbá Folktale Narratives. African Journal of Computing & ICT. 8., 113–120. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308352527_A_Model_for_Animation_of_Yoruba_Folk
Vigoroso, L. C. (2020). Occupational safety and visual communication: User-centred design of safety training material for migrant farmworkers in Italy. Safety science, 121, 562–572.
Martin, F. &. (2018). Engagement matters: Student perceptions on the importance of engagement strategies in the online learning environment. Online Learning, pp. 22(1), 205–222.

[7] Passantino, F. (1999). Making the Net Work for Intercultural Education. European Journal of Intercultural Studies, 10(1), 63–73.

[8] Martin, F. &. (2018). Engagement matters: Student perceptions on the importance of engagement strategies in the online learning environment. Online Learning, pp. 22(1), 205–222.

[9] Eppler, M. J. (2003). The image of insight: The use of visual metaphors in the communication of knowledge. Proceedings of I-KNOW (Vol. 3, September), 2–4.

[10] Colburn, T. R., & Shute, G. M. (2008). Metaphor in computer science. Journal of Applied Logic, 6(4), 526–533. https://reader.elsevier.com/reader/sd/pii/S1570868308000463?token=42683557168FEAD047B2C566767E5BB7D6E7FCF76082D3DA7D3688C8972BD5298702C793E170948B99A29CE5B4715098

[11] Eppler, M. J. (2003). The image of insight: The use of visual metaphors in the communication of knowledge. Proceedings of I-KNOW (Vol. 3, September), 2–4.

[12] RIVM (June 12, 2020). Ontwikkeling COVID-19 in grafieken. Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu Ministerie van Volksgezondheid, Welzijn en Sport (RIVM). https://www.rivm.nl/coronavirus-covid-19/grafieken

[13] Whiting, K. (2020, March 4). Coronavirus isn’t an outlier, it’s part of our interconnected viral age. From World Economic Forum: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/coronavirus-global-epidemics-health-pandemic-covid-19/

[14] Craven, M. (2020, March 30). COVID-19 Briefing note: our latest perspectives on the coronavirus pandemic. From McKinsey & Company.

[15] Berio, A. (2014). The Celestial River: Identifying the Ancient Egyptian Constellations. SPP, 253, 1–61.Fiona Passantino