Words Change Lives

It is important to focus on the narrative in a data-centric world.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

Words help us see things in new and different ways.

They can change how we think and feel about specific issues, particularly issues that have become a routine feature of our everyday lives.

As we approach the end of 2019, two statements that I heard this year have stuck with me. The words helped crystalize my thinking on two issues that have bothered me for a long time.

The first was about meetings and why they always go on too long.

The need to be heard — even when what we have to say has already been said — compels people to speak up. There is often someone else in the meeting with a compelling need to speak, even when they have nothing to add to the conversation.

The inevitable result? Protracted and repetitive discussion.

The second statement was about reports.

By reports, I mean written documents produced by an organization for internal or external use. These documents describe activities from the past. Some of them make predictions. Many of them contain planned activities.

But, how much of what is written in such reports is truly essential? Do we really need or use them? Or, is most of what is written noise — the result of “red tape” and unnecessary procedure?

My takeaway? Words do matter, but we live in a world of too many meetings and too many reports.

We seem plagued with too many meaningless words.

Words in a “Pre-Digital” World

Protracted meetings and obliged reports are two legacies of a disappearing world. In a pre-digital world, such meetings and reports may have made sense. Even the unnecessary ones.

Meetings were about building community, being in the same room, talking together. Creating a sense of membership, community, and identity. Organizations defined themselves by a strict notion of membership. You were either an insider or an outsider — a member or non-member. In an analog world, identity work needed to get done and meetings were an important platform for such work.

Similarly, in a world of scarce information, reports added value. They allowed — albeit in a limited and incomplete form — information to get produced and circulated. Again, this added value.

Words in a Digital World

Things are different now.

Information is readily available. Meetings can be organized more efficiently with the assistance of online tools and applications. Global networks and social media provide new platforms and opportunities for instant communication. The strict divisions between insiders and outsiders matter much less in a world of plastic, fluid identities.

But, if the echo chambers of today are different, do we need to retain the echo chambers of the past, as well?

What is surprising is that things do not seem to change. I am constantly confronted with longer meetings and more reports and other documents.

And yes, the production of these reports often go hand in hand with the meetings. We spend too much time holding meetings to prepare the reports. More time is spent on discussing drafts and amending them. And then many of them end up being quietly archived (in a drawer or a trashcan).

More and more, I have serious doubts about the usefulness of these documents and the many get-togethers that are organized to produce them.

However, it isn’t only the quantity that worries me. The quality also needs more attention. In our digital world, I come across more and more data-driven reports and articles. And since data is more and more instantly available, we will not see a decline in these data-centric documents anytime soon.

In a Data-Rich World, It’s All About the Narrative

Don’t get me wrong. I love data.

We can learn so much from analyzing data. But the downside is that the reports often lack a story, a narrative that holds the data together and makes it meaningful for the audience.

This is why narrative is crucial. It helps prevent the common abuses of data-analytics — extrapolation and causation issues. But particularly generalization problems.

We need to focus more on the narrative to distill the vast amounts of data available to us down into a consumable format that is accessible for a broader group of people.

We need to connect the data to a story. Remember that most of us think better through a narrative than through data.

I hear more and more that the architecture of the new world is based on data and data analytics. I tend to agree, but in this new world, the oldest form of communication, storytelling, is even more critical. After all, a story provides the context within which the data makes sense. Most importantly, a concise narrative forces people to better think about what is important and what is not.

The result? Fewer words, better reports, and more efficient meetings.

Unfortunately, we are not focusing enough on storytelling. We should focus more on constructing a narrative. What kind of message do we want to convey? What kind of dialogue do we want to start?

So, remember: words do matter.

They are a powerful form of action that inspires and changes us. The two statements that I will remember from 2019 illustrate that. Nevertheless, it is only by situating those words in a bigger story that their full potential is fully realized.

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Erik P.M. Vermeulen

Written by

What works and doesn’t work in a digital age? My take as a business & finance professor, a digital lawyer, restaurant owner, board member, and traveler.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +563K people. Follow to join our community.

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