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Why words work

The written word should not be overlooked in the tech industry when developing products and people, says Mark De Cates, CTO, CharacterScope.

Ensuring your staff have access to impactful and effective leadership development is vital when propelling your employees through a growth journey. In today’s fast paced environment where time is money, the lure of fast track courses delivered in a few hours is compelling. These courses, like so much in our modern lives, tend to rely on charts and images whilst using as few words as possible.

Indeed, after more than a decade in the tech industry, I had lost track of the last time I’d seen more than a few sentences strung together – except for terms and conditions and user guides. It became the standard belief that long reams of text would never make their way into a product. The tech industry had seemingly become a space where the written word was used for things we didn’t want users to read – like the aforementioned terms and conditions.

My first task at CharacterScope was to build a mobile digital experience that our members could use to guide their development as leaders. And, initially, I was all in for gamification, interactivity, excitement and visual impact. All of this talk about “long form content” worried me – “People don’t read any more” and “What about the pictures?”. I had visions of TL;DR flashing through my mind. I even had respected friends during early user testing telling me point-blank “it’s not interactive enough”.

Through building a beta, I used the mobile app to work through a full development plan myself. Over a couple of months, I read through 6000 of the some 500,000 words in the app, adding thousands of my own in a bright green Legami journal. This became a core part of my life for months on end.

And I changed, for the better and for good. I realised that this text wasn’t just random words, or even just “information”. They were words crafted by experienced coaches, with a clear purpose – to help me become a better me, a better leader, colleague, and employee. The meaning stuck, and I was drawn back in – reading and re-reading to clarify and reflect. My wife was grateful too for all those hours “lost” in reading, writing and reflecting (the new 3 Rs?). Others have reported the same – hundreds of them. It’s not something that I suspect any pretty pictures, visualisations, interactive experience or reward system could have achieved. To be honest, I was shocked.

I hadn’t realised how powerful the written word could be in guiding a person through change, and it made me curious to understand why it had worked. There was something different about the way reading and writing worked as a process that allowed it to work its magic. And the fact that it demanded my attention, forced me to fill in the gaps and contribute, didn’t make it easy or give me all of the answers, meant it was much more engaging and relevant than any piece of technological wizardry could have been.

The written word demands a lot from us. Time, attention, imagination. From the author too. And that’s exactly the point. A picture can be worth a thousand words, when a thousand words worth of effort has gone into its creation. But usually it hasn’t. Like the difference between a Monet and a cat-pic, or all of those words so over-used in gastropub menus like ‘handcrafted’ and ‘homemade’. That care can give the written word a richness and detail that you rarely find in today’s fly-by-night technological landscape.

It’s obvious that with the written word, the transfer of information (measured in bits and bytes) is pretty slow, especially compared to something like video. How could the humble word keep up, fumbling along as it does in cute little rows, slowly, desperately slowly, getting to “the point”? But for an experience to have a lasting impact on us and our lives, we need to process it. Processing information takes time. It needs pauses, breaks, loops, trains of thought and, importantly, it happens at our own pace. It’s a big difference, and that combination of a slow, personal pace with rich, thoughtful writing, makes all the difference in the long-term impact.

It works, brilliantly, but in a way that seems counter to today’s culture. It can’t force you to pay attention, but then actually, it shouldn’t – there is no place in leadership development for instant, reward-based engagement. A digital experience that somehow “tricks” the mind into paying attention or feigning interest does the user a terrible disservice and leads to poorer long-term outcomes. And if developing yourself as a leader and a human being isn’t worthy of the best long-term outcome, I’m not sure what is.