Kill the templates

Art – at least, good art – is all about prompting an emotional response.

It makes bold statements. It disrupts. It invites us to think about issues and ideas. It reminds us what there is in the world to love, loathe, fear and admire.

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So it’s probably not surprising that you find very few of those elements in most workplace surroundings. Businesses, on the whole, are uncomfortable with the disruptive and the emotional.

Instead, you’re much more likely to find clean, anaesthetic lines and neutral colours, stock-photography landscapes and motivational platitudes (‘there’s no I in team’, ‘a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’). Nothing challenging. Nothing unexpected. Nothing of much interest at all.

That’s equally true of the communication you find going on inside those businesses. Committee-made messages, couched in ‘safe’ language – and presented with PowerPoint templates that make everything look and feel the same.

Why does this matter?

It matters because of the way our brains work. Our brains process so much information all the time that, if we had to think about it consciously, we wouldn’t be able to function.

So our brains have evolved to be selective. They filter out information that’s familiar and, instead, focus our conscious attention on stuff that’s new and unexpected.

It’s a basic survival instinct: it’s why our ancestors were able to concentrate their brain power on opportunities and threats (that sabre-tooth tiger over there) rather than more humdrum processing tasks (put one foot in front of the other).

What was true on the neolithic savannah is equally true in the office today. Our brains instinctively filter out information that seems familiar or safe (anything that looks like a PowerPoint template, for instance). And they prioritise information that seems new or unexpected.

In fact, whenever a new piece of data is presented in a dramatic or exciting way, it sets off a little blast of dopamine in the brain – and that dopamine acts like a mental post-it note, making it easier for us to access and remember the information in future.

That’s why we notice great art. Ideas that are expressed in a creative or exciting way will always be able to cut through.

It’s also why following a prescribed, familiar format for ‘telling people stuff’ is a total waste of time.

If you want people to notice and remember the things you’re saying, the first thing you need to do is ditch the templates.

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