Hungry for Context

A few days ago, while listening to the journalists E.J. Dionne and Joy Reid on WNYC radio’s The Brian Lehrer Show, I drew fast to their discussion of what Dionne called “the long speech.” The two were promoting their new book, We Are the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama, so naturally they focused on the relevance of long form addresses in the age of Twitter. Dionne mused on the irony of social media, with its small bit orientation, actually fueling the resurgence of the long speech. People today are more attentive to hearing or reading messages that are full, nuanced and complete in nature, especially given the fact that technology allows them to choose how they experience it – either in the moment or later at their leisure. One hundred and forty characters can convey commonly shared meaning but it fails to elucidate and educate. People want something beyond the sound bite, they want the whole pie and in demanding it, they capture a fuller measure of the speaker and his ideas. Listening to the long speech gives them relief from having to ascribe meaning to someone’s thoughts themselves. They can escape from their own internal dialogue for a while to take in what someone else has to impart.

It only makes sense. People are hard wired for context. We like stories. From the dawn of civilization to the parent-child nighttime storybook ritual, we share wisdom and context and meaning through narrative. Scores of leadership gurus and advisors promote storytelling as the critical leadership skill to engage and enthuse stakeholder groups. As leadership consultant Steve Denning notes in Forbes, “When a story reaches our hearts with deep meaning, it takes hold of us. Once it does so, we can let it go, and yet it remains with us. We do not weary of this experience.”

Is social media therefore on the decline? It is more accurate to say it’s catching a cold. In May 2016, CNBC reported on a study by marketing intelligence firm SimilarWeb tracking social media use across a few key platforms – Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter – between early 2015 and early 2016. There were notable declines across each platform tracked. Now, it could mean that these particular platforms are losing their new-car-smell glory and are being replaced by whatever is new. I’m not so sure. We may still instinctively post, like, retweet or comment at will, yet viewing these platforms as a trusted source of news or information is increasingly regarded as dubious (see “Fake News”). A gnawing concern at the dawn of the Trump era.

Dionne and Reid’s interview points back to the past, to a period when attention was paid for more than two minutes to the words of others. To be honest, I’m happy. I’ve always been someone who loves to read and listen to long-form discussions. Leaders who take the time to explain an issue in context give me the gift of their time, of their desire to assure I am informed and the opportunity to place their thoughts into the broader landscape of my own experience and beliefs. Long-form communication forges bonds more durable than an effervescent tweet.

This hunger for context holds deep implications for how a company, society or country connects to its people. Leaders who put in the effort to share meaning move beyond their insular motivations to ignite a cascade of consequence. Looking at my own history with business leaders, and non-business ones too, the ones who rest with me are those who respected the power of words. To a person, they wanted to bring me along with them in fulfilling a vision. The applause for their wit or skills was secondary. What mattered was the bond they intentionally forged. A bond that could be supported by the short flash of social media, but one that could only be created through effort, length and context.

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