A few weekends ago we visited the Hay Winter Festival in lovely Hay on Wye, a couple of days of literary talks, creative workshops for children and a bit of Christmas shopping. One of the speakers was a doctor recently back from a year in Antarctica. He had completed a shift as the resident medic at the British research base on the continent and had written a book* about his experiences. His presentation about the harsh environment, the extreme conditions and his love for the penguins was fascinating, but what made it so much more engaging were the props. About half way through his talk, he handed out his snow gloves and boots for us to see, touch and pass round. The feeling of sliding your hand into one of these huge, thick snow gloves designed to withstand temperatures of -50 degrees made it so much more ‘real’. We could transport our imagination and get a sense for what it must’ve been like to be there in Antarctica. It was the same with the penguin egg we could see and touch. Watching someone talk or present is one thing, but ‘taking part’ is so much more engaging. The simple act of circulating tangible props for the audience to interact with makes it a much richer experience, especially if it’s a talk that requires a use of one’s imagination (which most stories do).
One of the concerns I have about the trends in internal communications is the almost lemming-like rush to move everything into the virtual world. Let’s stop all the paper publications and do it all online. Let’s shove everything onto an intranet or portal. Why bother getting everyone in the same room when we can meet and collaborate online? There’s no doubt that technology has been a powerful and very welcome force for good for internal communicators, but I do think we need to maintain a balance here. The cost-saving argument may be reasonably compelling, and the accessibility benefit is hard to beat, but these should never be the only considerations.
We humans are hard-wired to learn, interact and communicate through touch. Our skin is our body’s largest organ and when its sensory receptors are stimulated it releases a hormone that reduces stress and makes us feel good. We can all relate to the healing and calming powers of a pat on the back, a reassuring hug or a peck on the cheek. It’s the same with objects. A 2008 study at Yale found that people tend to think more warmly of others if they are holding something warm, like a hot mug of tea. In some organisations nowadays, ‘hard copy’ is considered a toxic phrase, inducing a sharp intake of breath at the prospect of actually printing something (notice how most organisations still print hard copy publications for their external audience but consider it an unnecessary cost for the internal audience). But that misses the point. It might be cheaper to put all comms online, but humans crave physical contact – not just with each other but with tangible objects. Why do some of us prefer books to Kindle? Why do some prefer Waterstones to Amazon? Why do some of us get a thrill from holding a 1.5 million year old hand axe in the British Museum’s ‘show and tell’ section? Some of us are more kinesthetic than others – some of us are predisposed to prefer learning through touch – but we all need and value the sensation of physical contact. The next time you’re arranging a briefing or presentation on an important topic, think about reaching all your audience’s senses. Offer props, like models, flash cards or creative reading materials. Pass round objects that relate to the topic to stimulate the imagination. Invite people to interact with the subject matter in a physical way, say by using sticky notes for gathering feedback or introducing a prototype. Touch invites questions and builds engagement. You might learn something too. I now know that the fur on the back of a snow glove is for wiping dripping snot from your nose before it freezes. I wish the good doctor had told us that before we all rubbed it against our faces!