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Covid-19 has shown us what it means to be isolated, disconnected and alone. As the post-pandemic world rebuilds itself, we will need to get serious about signaling our seriousness about diversity, inclusion and belonging to an ever-wider group of people. Visual communication is the key to speaking to us all; universally understood content that is highly effective and fits our new, digital context in lockdown.

This article pulls on a strand of a recent University of Amsterdam study testing the effectiveness of animation in workplace communication, told in the Post-Covid form of an animated story: https://youtu.be/SH7QzlPfyb8

What’s a Chief Storytelling Officer?

As in life, a good conversation is organic and flexible. We listen and adjust, share and absorb, creating an emotional and intellectual connection with another human being, who, thanks to Covid-19, is necessarily at the other end of a digital channel.

Today, hyperconnected teams work seamlessly from Bangkok to Berlin. English is the default international language spoken by a majority of non-native speakers. Keeping these disparate professionals informed, inspired and aligned is more challenging; add the forced isolation of Covid-19 to the mix, and we need human connection more than ever.

The Brand Story is how we understand a company’s place in the world; what it stands for, how it came about, what it intends to do. It’s one of the first onboarding stories and the last as it says goodbye, guiding every interaction a company has with every human it touches.

A Chief Storytelling Officer is there to educate and communicate the Brand Story to customers, employees, partners, suppliers, potential employees and future customers by engaging in a sustainable, evolving, human2human conversation.

Tools of the CSO

The story is the CSO’s first power tool. Ever since the first cave-dweller gathered the tribe around the fire, we were telling stories about who we were, why we were here, and what bound us together. We used imagery, metaphor and narrative, informing, entertaining, and connecting. The information, which berries to avoid and how to make fire, was necessary for our survival.

Some 45.000 years later, our stories are about Artificial Intelligence, pandemic avoidance, digital retargeting and shifting regulatory landscapes. These complex ideas are being explained to a broader range of global professionals with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and need to be understood immediately, implemented yesterday. This sequence is growing ever faster[1]. During the year of Covid-19, our lives depended on the speed at which we understood viral transmission[2]. Humans are simply more attentive to stories than facts; they easier to remember and identify with[3].

Storytelling old school. Illustration by Fiona Passantino 2020.

Visual Communication is the CSO’s next power tool. Visual ideas are understood some 60,000 times faster than text and cut through language, cultural and cognitive barriers[4]. About 90% of the information our brains receive is visual, including 93% of all human communication[5]. Our brains filter out the noise, stabilize the message and extract meaningful information. It’s impossible to analyze everything rationally in the course of a normal day. So, the brain takes a few shortcuts, helped by our emotions[6].

How does this work? Visual stimuli are sent via the thalamo-amygdala pathway, the “quick and dirty” path feeding the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain[7]. There, impulses are matched to emotions found in long-term memory. We “value-stamping” the impulse with an emotional tag and send it back to the rational brain to explain and rationalize later, enabling a lightning-fast “fight or flight” reaction[8].

The normal brain processing path for text and abstraction. Illustration by Fiona Passantino 2020.
The “Quick-and-Dirty” thalamo-amygdala pathway for visuals. Illustration by Fiona Passantino 2020.

Storage, too: the brain has a far greater ability for retaining and recalling images than text. Visuals trigger a sensory memory within milliseconds which allows us to understand and classify rapidly. Once visual information enters long-term memory, we have a nearly unlimited capacity for storage[9].

Animation is the next level of visual; we humans have an inherent preference for moving stimuli. It draws our attention and triggers early-stage information processing, enhancing learning, memory and performance[10]. Animation can show change in a way that stills can’t, and engages us emotionally, educating and entertaining us simultaneously. We like animation. And when we like something, we are more likely to listen to what it is telling us, which leads to improved learning results[11]. We share it with more intensity, increasing reach and authenticity[12].

So, why are we still using text-heavy whitepapers, PowerPoints and PDF documents to educate and communicate? These take time to consume, require high levels of linguistic ability, demand long-form focus and are difficult to share digitally[13]. They are also one-way and top-down, uninterested in the listener’s reply.

Is animation better in the workplace? A recent University of Amsterdam experiment sought to find out. More than 200 PostNL employees were shown two versions of the same educational material; a 20-minute, text-heavy PowerPoint and a 3-minute animation, and tested for learning results, emotional engagement and the inclination to share.

The childishly simple experimental model. Illustration by Fiona Passantino 2020.

As this was happening, a deadly pandemic was quietly making its way north. When Covid-19 arrived in the Netherlands, all non-operational personnel were sent home, practically overnight, to work in a digital office. Humans all over the world were doing the same. The experiment continued; the results were clear. Learning outcomes were better for the animated group. They felt more positively about both the means and message, with a full 84% preferring the animation. And they were more inclined to share the material organically.

Results of the experiment. Illustration by Fiona Passantino 2020.

Communication Post-Covid

How will Covid-19 have changed us? We may become an in-and-out live-digital society, by choice and by necessity. We may have become enchanted by our new freedoms from the physical office[14]. The new cost savings from the 20% occupancy workplace and the externalization of rent, energy, supplies, hardware and risk can’t have gone unnoticed by accounting. At the same time, novel infectious diseases are increasing both in number and lethality as populations expand and wilderness disappears[15]. Pandemics have been steadily increasing by a factor of three over the previous 1,000 years[16]. Other global environmental crises, from extreme heat to flooding, superstorms, parasites and pollution, may similarly send us underground before long[17].

Running for cover during the Covid-19 pandemic. Illustration by Fiona Passantino.

The CSO understands that tomorrow’s corporate communication is a conversation; an exchange of ideas and information, amplifying the voices of those people on the ground. Listening, processing, adjusting and re-broadcasting can jump-start authentic employee engagement. Particularly useful when we are all feeling alone, and invisible in lockdown, in need of our tribe.

Covid-19 has forced us all into a regime of accelerated digital transformation. This demands a re-imagination of our communication. We need digital, we need visual, animation, rapid understanding and the ability to share organically. But equally, we need empathy, listening channels and human connection as we live and work in lockdown. Searingly effective visual, animated informative assets wrapped a warm tortilla of humor and humanity.

Welcome the Chief Storytelling Officer.

Get fresh, monthly comics about communication in our post-covid times to read or share.