I recently viewed a story about Alan Alda, who you may remember is best known for the long-running M*A*S*H sitcom. He has been a frequent host of science-rich programs that focus on communicating science concepts in ways that kids can understand.
Alda tells a story in which he recalls an exchange he had, at the age of eleven, with a teacher. “What’s a flame?” he asked. The teacher replied simply and unsatisfyingly, “It’s oxidation.” He was discouraged and unenlightened about what it really meant. Decades later, Alda comments that he sees the failure to communicate science with clarity as far more serious for society. So, in cooperation with Stony Brook University’s Center for Communicating Science, Alda set up the Flame Challenge to have scientists answer his schoolboy question the best they could. The twist was that the primary judging would be done by thousands of eleven-year-olds across the country.
After sifting through more than 800 entries from 31 countries, organizers of the Flame Challenge chose the winner as a thirty-one–year–old Missouri-born researcher studying at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. The grad student specializing in quantum physics has taken the prize for a cartoon that’s as entertaining as it is educational. (Check it out here.) The winner, Ben Ames, sent in a seven-minute animation that uses cartoons, songs, and a main character that stars as a long-bearded prisoner.
What does this all have to do with strategy? Strategies, like science, health, finance, and even public policy, are complex concepts often communicated by experts who have forgotten what it is like not to know! Saying it’s “oxidation” works for the sender but not the receiver. In company after company trying to communicate strategy with familiar words like “customer first,” “market leading,” or “preferred provider,” we see strategists fall into the same trap as the original explanation of what a flame is. Would you be able to convey your strategy to eleven-year-olds in a way that they could get it? What if you ran a contest and eleven-year-olds were the judges? Strategy needs to be relayed in straightforward, uncomplicated terms that resonate with a “beginner or novice” of the strategy. The importance is that you think about whether your people can distinguish the difference between knowing the name of your strategy and knowing how it really works.
Oh, by the way, Alda is asking a very deep and different question this year. It is, “What is time?” It’s going to be fun to see how scientists around the world answer that one in everyday language.