In the car this morning I listened to an album I haven’t heard for probably 30-odd years (2112 by Rush). Now, it was great to listen to some vintage Rush after all this time, but what was really striking was the fact that I found myself remembering the words and singing along ( I couldn’t reach Geddy Lee’s pitch but I gave it a good try). How could I remember the lines of songs I haven’t heard for three decades? I then turned on the iPod and found myself singing every single line of Joe Jackson’s Fools in Love. If you asked me to write down the lyrics now I’d struggle to remember the first two lines, but put me in the context of the song itself and it all comes flooding back. Why is that? Why do song lyrics stick?
Here, the context is everything. The human brain holds about one billion neurons, which combine to make over one trillion connections, and each connection helps to store multiple memories. Our brains prefer to store data in patterns, so music provides a simple, handy ‘package’ of data – words, sounds, tunes, inflexions, tones, narratives etc – which can be stored in pattern form. Revive the memory of one part of the pattern (the music) and other parts will be retrieved (the lyrics). Our early ancestors knew this when they told their stories on the savannah. The ability to pass down traditions, beliefs and knowledge to future generations was vital to preserve the continuity of the tribe, but the spoken word was unreliable and easily forgotten. If a tradition was to survive over many generations it would need to be ‘packaged’ for passing from one person to another in a more reliable way – say through a powerful visual image, a story or a song. So tribes would develop chants involving alliterations, repetitions and rhymes that could be easily remembered and repeated. This tactic of preserving knowledge and tradition is still employed by aboriginal tribes in Australia and others around the world.
So those of us in the business of getting messages to stick have surely found the answer – put the company strategy to music? Well, don’t laugh because some companies have done it, but it doesn’t have to be quite as drastic as that. Music does tell us something about the way we remember and how we can exploit our brain’s fondness for connections. I’m reminded of a story I was told many years ago on a neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) workshop….
The annual sales conference of a struggling photocopier company was fast approaching. Sales performance was dire and managers were seriously worried about morale. A rival company had recently introduced an all-singing all-dancing photocopier that simply blew away all competition. It was beautiful, sleek and hi-tech … and most sales reps knew the game was up. They couldn’t possibly compete with this new kid on the block. What could managers do to avoid next week’s sales conference from turning into a wake? The day arrived. The hall was full of depressed, worried and vanquished reps. They were expecting a kicking. Or the chop. The lights went down. The dry ice came up. Two men in brown coats wheeled something onto the stage covered in a sheet. The spotlight shone brightly as the sheet was pulled away to reveal …… the competitor’s photocopier. There in all its glory, shining brightly, beautiful. The crowd sat in silence, dumbstruck that here in front of them was the very cause of their depression. How could the company do such a thing? Suddenly, at full volume, the hall fills with the first few bars of Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer. More brown-coated men walk on carrying (you’ve guessed it) sledgehammers. The first blow is struck as plastic and metal flies off in all directions. Then another and another. As the music gets even louder, the sledgehammers rain down on their prey. The pristine photocopier is now a tangled, battered mess. The crowd are on their feet. Some jump on their chairs pumping the air. The atmosphere is febrile. At the end of the song, the hammerers slowly walk off, leaving the shattered shell of the competition for all to see. There’s a pause. The crowd are excited. Then the boss walks on, kicking a piece of debris in his path and says to the assembled reps “so, how do you feel?”. He explains that underneath each of their chairs is a cassette tape and that he’d like them to play it in their cars when they’re out on the road. It only contains one song, on both sides. Of course, it’s Sledgehammer. In the following months, the company’s reps beat all previous sales records. The company survives and ultimately prospers.
So this is an example of anchoring. Using a song or a mental image to bring back a memory and catalyze action. Powerful stuff. Messages are more likely to stick if they can be attached to a pattern, or ‘schema’. Think of one thing and it triggers a connection and revives another memory. Our challenge is to be creative in how we set those patterns, package the message and anchor the experience. Music and business – not obvious bedfellows but maybe we have something to learn here?