Sunday, October 3, 2010

An Engineer Got Emotional

In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, the authors cite emotion as one of the critical factors in why some things last, and others quickly fade away. By “emotion” they don’t mean an appeal to the emotions exclusively, although there is some of that in what they discuss. What they really mean is appealing to the particular instead of the general, to the recognizably human rather than the unrecognizable abstract.

I once wrote a speech for an executive that did that. In fact, it did more than that. I’ve described the man I write it in a post in August at The High Calling Blogs.

The executive, a chemical engineer by background, was speaking to a joint meeting of 1,500 chemical engineers in London. It was 1988, a time of environmental ferment and change: drought, excessive heat, Time naming the earth as “plant of the year,” syringes washing up on New Jersey beaches, and general rising awareness and concern about environmental issues. Feeding these issues had been the tragedy at Bhopal, India, three years earlier, when a leak of a chemical resulted in the deaths of 10,000 people.

The executive believed he had a prime opportunity to put all of the issues and concerns in context, and appeal to fellow chemical engineers to help address the problems. It might also be an opportunity to seize some high ground, and position the company in a better light than “one of the usual villainous suspect.”

The speech told a story of two chemical industries, one which had brought unparalleled progress and the other unparalleled environmental damage. Of course, there two were the same industry, and the listeners knew it.

And then came the finish.

The speech could have done this: “In Bhopal, more than 10,000 people died because of an accident. We must never let it happen again.”

This is how the speech actually ended, describing a BBC-TV special on Bhopal:

“A few weeks after that tragedy, a British film crew went to Bhopal and interviewed dozens of people there victims and non victims. The resulting program, called ‘The Killing of Bhopal,’ recently aired on public television in the United States. And what it dramatically showed was what we might call the public's answer to all of our sophisticated risk assessments, risk probabilities, risk quantifications and public education programs on how safe our industry is.

“It showed doctors and nurses frantically trying to learn what had happened, to know how to treat the victims.

“It showed a mother describing how her baby died in her arms, choking to death.

“It showed a young wife who watched her husband die.

“It showed a 12 year old boy who was the only survivor of his large family.

“For all our talk about the safety of chemicals, these scenes from Bhopal are the end point of chemical risk. We must live up to what the public expects of us, and do our jobs as we know we can.

“Anything less is failing the trust we have to the public.

“Anything less is failing ourselves.”

And what did those 1,500 engineers do?

They stood and cheered. They asked the executive to videotape the speech, and they sent tapes all over the world, to every chapter of their international association. Requests for printed copies of the speech poured in, and kept pouring in – for the next seven years. The speech led to amazing changes at our company, and within the industry at large.

And I believe that ending had a lot to do with it. It made the speech stick.

Laura Boggess is leading the discussion on Made to Stick over at the High Calling Blogs. Last week's discussion, on "credible," can be found here.

Previous blog posts in this series:

On Simple: The One Time Something I Did Went Viral

On Unexpected: Singing Opera in Journalism Class

On Concrete: As Concrete – as the Air

On Credible: Credibility – It’s all in the numbers


Maureen said...

Just tried to send a comment and got that annoying 503 error message that Blogger doesn't seem to want to fix. Pls. let me know if the comment made it. If not, I'll write it again.

Maureen said...

I see the comment didn't get through. What I tried to leave as a comment:

There are many examples of the power of storytelling. A well-told narrative, whether in words that create the image or the images themselves, does what no facts or figures or other kinds of examples can: It calls out to what is human in each of us. It sticks because we recognize that and feel the empathy it creates.

Excellent example for the book discussion.

Laura said...

Very emotional, Glynn. I am finding it remarkable how these sticky characteristics are reflected in the successful messages I have encountered previously. This example is a great illustration of that.

Jerry said...

Emotive stories that attach to propositional truth both stick not only to our mind but our spirits.
Parables, memiors, biographies especialy leave a film on my soul.
Must be the real stories embedded within them. I wonder then why all these reality shows do not appeal to me. Hmmmmm

Marcus Goodyear said...

I can imagine this must have been hard to do. A chemical company executive would be expected to hide the details of the risk involved. But hiding doesn't help anyone, and it doesn't inspire people to change.

How can we be honest like this without losing heart that we will never be able to avoid all harm? There will always be risk in some kinds of work.

Anne Lang Bundy said...

You've brought up an excellent point, Glynn. Especially as the internet gives writers a platform to offer an increasing profusion of words, we need to continually ask ourselves: are we making any difference to our readers? Are our words affecting them? Publishing agent Chip MacGregor repeatedly stresses that as he reviews queries, he's looking to back the book that will change people.

We needn't withhold our words unless we believe they'll effect change across the globe. Words carry great power to comfort, provoke, encourage, stimulate, etc., whether offered one-on-one or to a crowd, whether giving someone a reason to be still and relax for the moment—or prompting chemical engineers to indeed change our planet.

Your post prompts my renewal of the resolve to keep this in mind as I write: am I merely expressing an idea? Or am I sharing ideas in a way that causes a shift in the way others think, whether for a moment or a lifetime?