National Geographic Communication Style


Are you familiar with the National Geographic magazine?  I can’t imagine there is anyone in North America who hasn’t seen a National Geographic magazine at some point in time.

The first magazine was published on September 22, 1888, nine months after the National Geographic Society was founded.  It has been published monthly ever since.  The magazine is known for its high quality, glossy photos of all things science, geography, history, and world culture.

Global circulation for the magazine peaked in the late 1980s at approximately 12 million.  Currently 6.5 million magazines are circulated worldwide in nearly 40 local-language editions each month.  Go to any garage sale and you will likely find old copies of the magazine for sale.

Do you recall how the magazine is laid out?  The dramatic photos are certainly the centerpiece.  However, there are 3 other critically important parts to the magazine:  the article titles, the photo captions, and the in-depth articles.

I have to confess, is was fairly infrequently that I read the articles, but I would not miss any of the photos.  Photos that particularly caught my interest would cause me to read the caption to understand the context for the photo.  I would then read the article title, then perhaps dig into the article if it was a topic that captivated my curiosity.

These 4 components to the magazine created widespread interest in the magazine with a broad spectrum of people.  There was something for everyone.  For those who had a keen interest in increasing their knowledge on any particular subject, the articles were a treasure chest of content.  Those who perhaps had a smaller capacity for deep study could still increase their knowledge by reading the titles and photo captions.  And, those who simply wanted some entertaining viewing could skim through the photos.

I believe there is wisdom in this written design strategy we can apply in regard to effective verbal communication.  Leaders need to be adept at communication.  We must be able to communicate vision, strategy, execution details, product knowledge, policies and procedures, and simple relational interactions, amongst a plethora of other topics.

In our communications we need to understand when it’s time for copious details, and when a dramatic word picture, or statement will do.

Have you ever been trapped by someone who has expertise in a particular subject and is passionate about helping you to understand all that they do about this subject?  How did that go?  I would bet that after a certain amount of time you shut down and simply began nodding and trying to figure out how to get out of this “conversation”.

Worse still, have you ever buried someone under a gigantic pile of information they really did not need in order to complete the task at hand?  Sure, there are times when sharing the complete ‘article’ is necessary.  Probably less often than we may think.

Great communicators have the emotional intelligence and the wisdom to know how much information is appropriate at what time.  Does this situation simply require a ‘title” – a short sentence to explain what this is all about?  Would a dramatic word picture be most effective?  Would a 2 sentence caption beautifully put things in context and perspective?

A word picture is simply painting a picture with words to dramatize what is going on.  Like this,

“I know it feels like right now we are a ship caught in a fierce storm, in danger of crashing on the rocks.  However, we have weathered these storms before and we have plotted our course out to deeper waters.”

A word picture can be a helpful way to find out how someone is feeling about a particular situation:

“Bob, can you give me a word picture to help me understand how you feel about Steve leaving the company?”

“Yes, I feel like my right arm has been amputated.”

That should give you good idea how Bob is feeling.

In order to really motivate people, leaders must become adept at a National Geographic communication style.  When is it time for all the details, a dramatic word picture, a simple title, or a concise caption to explain content and context?

Master that and you will be a master communicator.

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