Poets like Amanda Gorman made us pause and consider how powerful language can be. What communication … [+]
For many people, poetry brings back the memory of being in seventh grade English when they were taught to try to solve the riddle of a poem: the meaning was hidden within the strange and complex syntax of a poem and you had to figure it out in order to get an A on the test.
Poetry may still feel like a secret code that’s tough to break, but contemporary poets will tell you that what you learned in your English class was the wrong approach. Poetry was never meant to be a riddle, but an experience. An experience that cuts through the noise and gets to the heart of the matter. Poetry moves and connects people with few words, distilled imagery, and thoughtful language.
Poet Audre Lorde famously defended the utility of poetry as the first step in changing the status quo, a goal of leaders from any sector. In order to create change, she argues, new ideas have to be formed in language before they can be put into action. She wrote, “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence… Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”
Poetry utilizes key communication strategies to create powerful experiences through words for the reader or listener. Learning to pay attention to the strategies used by poets, executives can apply them in their own leadership communications. There are three main strategies:
The Power of Imagery
Poets teach us to pay attention to concrete details like this yellow raincoat to help convey meaning … [+]
A key currency in poetry is the image. A concise image can help the audience experience an emotion or an idea more profoundly than a vague abstraction. Poet Elizabeth Hoover explains, “When you describe something in precise and concrete detail, the reader is invited to build the image in their imagination and is invited to enter the space of the story.”
For example, if you were to say: “I realized today how much my mother sacrificed for me” you are relying on the abstraction “sacrificed.” In an audience of 100 people, this word could conjure 100 different ideas and associations. People might react to this idea blandly, thinking, “Oh, that’s nice that she had the realization,” but they won’t necessarily experience this idea on an emotional level.
A poet takes an abstract idea like “sacrifice” and turns into an image using concrete detail. But which detail? When people can be overwhelmed by details (hence the saying, death by powerpoints), choosing the salient details is an art.
In the poem The Raincoat by Ada Limón the poet draws us a picture to replace the abstraction “sacrifice”. She locates her audience in her childhood remembering how her mother drove her to so many doctor appointments for her scoliosis. Then the poem moves to the present moment where she is driving to yet another doctor’s appointment as an adult, when she sees:
…a mom take her raincoat off
and give it to her young daughter when
a storm took over the afternoon. My god,
I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her
raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel
that I never got wet.
The image of a mother giving her raincoat to her daughter carries with it so much more than the abstract word “sacrifice.” The audience is transported through Limón’s layered storytelling. They are able to imagine how a mother can protectively shelter her child with a raincoat, and they are able to make the connection that Limón’s mother acted as a shelter for her throughout her life. They also experience the speaker’s own surprise at this sudden realization. The audience’s emotions are engaged through the act of imagining the precise details and descriptions in her poem.
It is important that her image is precise, unique and activates the reader’s imagination. For example, if she had written, “She gave her raincoat to her daughter when it started raining cats and dogs” the cliche deflates the power of the image. It pulls you out of the immediacy of the poem. On the other hand, the fresh language of a storm “taking over an afternoon” invites the reader into the moment. Because most poems contain few words, there is no room to waste on tired or cliched language.
In a business context, powerful, concise images can be shared through storytelling. In business and in fundraising there are many abstractions that need to be communicated to different audiences. For Feeding America, for example, food insecurity is the problem they are trying to solve, but talking about food insecurity without concrete images makes it challenging for anyone to connect with the subject. On their Hunger Blog, they use the idea of concrete images to paint a picture of food insecurity. In one particular story, they are trying to illustrate how desperate people can be when they are hungry. To do so they tell the story of a specific person who once faced hunger and include a poignant detail: “At one point, he sold a gold ring so that he could buy something to eat.” The gold ring is a detail that an audience can connect to. Many people can look down at their own finger and imagine how it would feel to pawn their own jewelry for a meal. Taking it to the next level, a storyteller might include more precise language about the food he bought with the ring money: “At one point, he sold a gold ring so that he could buy a loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter.”
The next time you have an abstract idea you need to help your audience engage with, ask yourself what concrete image you should describe precisely to help your audience feel and connect with this idea. The image should be able to convey the complexity of the idea you are trying to describe without all the jargon.
Portrait of American poet, editor, and critic Ezra Pound (1885 – 1972), who said, “Go in fear of … [+]
Poet Ezra Pound instructed writers of his day, “To go in fear of abstractions.” Today’s business leaders could do well by the same advice. We best not to rely too much on ideas and abstractions to carry meaning to audiences, but rather, trust specific, concrete images to provoke the imagination and allow you to connect with your audience on a whole new level.
Learn two more poetic strategies business leaders can use to connect with their audiences.