I recently sat down for a guest lecture by a top ethics and compliance officer at a large public relations firm. Knowing it would be a ripe opportunity for blog ideas, I endeavored to listen to the talk and, without making any extra effort to take notes or aid in my own recall of the lecture, determine which messages were “sticky,” why, and what about the style of speaking made the information in the lecture memorable.
The speaker was charismatic, likeable, and articulate, and his lecture was heavy on stories. He began with his own, detailing how he ended up working in ethics. I only really remember thinking that it was an interesting story, but I didn’t write any of it down. I can imagine I didn’t think it would be “important” enough in the long run, given that it was nothing I’d be tested on. What stands out in my mind was his interesting ethnic background, a mix of different emigrations and cultural traditions. And I remember having no real objections about the man’s credibility, at least based on what I inferred from the short talk on his background.
The second phase of the talk had to do with laying out the basics of ethics: foundational principles, common conundrums, and different ethics tests—i.e. questions to ask yourself to determine if a decision is ethical. These items I did take notes on, and many of them I found I could easily recall without consulting those notes. I’d hypothesize that something went off in brain to signal, “This is important; write this down.” I felt predisposed to the desire to make sure the nuts and bolts, the hard-lines, went down on paper.
The third phase of the talk centered on a series of stories, occasionally with a mild practice “drill” built in. The speaker discussed several true case studies from his experience, offered the ethical conundrum to the class—maybe took a quick poll by show of hands as to who in the class might go Route A and who might go Route B—then revealed the course of action that was ultimately taken, and finally discussed whether that action was likely the correct move or not. In some cases it was; in some cases it probably wasn’t. But in terms of consuming the message, I noticed an interesting tendency in my note taking. I rarely took notes as the story was being discussed, and I can think of two reasons as to why: 1) I didn’t want to miss anything interesting or critical to the plot, and 2) I couldn’t be sure which details were important until I had a grasp on what lesson the story was ultimately leading to. So what I’d end up doing was waiting until the final revelation, the epiphany, and then quickly scribble down the key plot points I could remember, the climax to which they led, and what the ultimate lesson was—the moral of the story.
Lastly, the wildcard: I found myself highly likely to jot down maxims, little gems of wisdom, as they appeared throughout the talk. Often without context, my notebook is riddled with short, dense, declarative aphorisms that must have demanded attention. Something about these jewels signaled importance: maybe the way the speaker delivered them, pausing then articulating them slowly. The decisive phrasing that signals, This is a rule; this is Gospel—something that assures the listeners that the information is useful reference for the future. These things always seem to get written down.
In the end, what I can take away—on the subject of messaging—from my lecture-listening drill is that I tended to jot down the short, simple, quick-reference jewels. When it came to longer stories, I preferred to absorb them by ear for context, fearing that I might miss a critical plot element if I started writing, only then breaking concentration only afterward to write myself a short summary for later reference. But more likely I’d recant the story later in some very generalizing way, forgoing all the descriptive details and endeavoring only really to convey to listeners how the story made me feel, and to offer assurance that somewhere out there there is verifiable evidence that the feeling is valid, that the point I’m making is fair. The details can be Googled later.
Interestingly, my professor must have been able to read my mind, because after the lecturer had concluded and left, he expounded on the value of all that we just heard, offering, “You probably won’t say, ‘Oh, I remember that chapter in the ethics book,’ but you might say, ‘I remember from [speaker’s name, redacted] story…’ and that can help guide your decisions.”
We’ll see what I ultimately take away.