A Defence of Communication

Can Communication Really Drive Change?

Can a memo from an executive about wellness encourage an employee to improve his body mass index . . . or even figure out what a body mass index is? Can a PowerPoint presentation do anything more than baffle us with bullet points; will anyone walk out of the room energized, motivated or different? People in my profession believe so, or at least hope so.

In truth, all communication gets some kind of reaction. That reaction might be a raised eyebrow, an apathetic “whatever,” a click of the delete button or a trip to the recycle bin. But can it get the reaction the sender intends? According to Percy Bysshe Shelley (yes, that one), well-written messages can do that and much more.

In his “Defence of Poetry,” Shelley argued that poetry (a particularly well-crafted form of communication) has the power to advance civilization. Language and poetry, he believed, demonstrate man’s aspiration toward order and our appreciation of beauty. This order and beauty spread when audiences consume poems and internalize their messages. Because of this effect, Shelley credited poetry for helping lift Europe out of the Dark Ages.

“And the world would have fallen into utter anarchy and darkness, but that there were found poets among the authors of the Christian and chivalric systems of manners and religion, who created forms of opinion and action never before conceived; which, copied into the imaginations of men, became as generals to the bewildered armies of their thoughts.”

The ordered thoughts of poetry “became as generals” within the minds of confused, disorganized Europeans. It’s tough to argue whether the poetry incited order or if general improvements in society gave rise to an artistic flourish, but haven’t you ever had a song stuck in your head? Have you ever had an image you couldn’t unsee? Has a phrase from a book, a line from a poem or a friend’s curious metaphor ever made you see something a little differently? Meme theory suggests that certain basic ideas spread like viruses; that we have ideas the same way we have colds or fevers. They infect us, affect us and eventually pass on to others we come in contact with.

Communication (rather, well-crafted words, sounds and images) can change people and people can change themselves, others and even the world.

The memo you’re writing, the poster you’re creating or the email you’re drafting is much more than a temporarily uncrumpled sheet of paper; it’s an idea about to form in someone’s mind. It’s a seed of change. It’s a freshly promoted general standing before an eager, albeit bewildered, army.

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