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Speak in Code

I have been thinking recently about how ideas can be made ‘sticky’ for business teams. What does it take to embed an idea and make it easily retrievable?

It isn’t always easy to remember long numbers. 73218671988. Read it once, look away. Make a cup of tea and before you start reading again, write the number from memory. Pretty near impossible for the majority. But write down your phone number. Much easier. Or if you listened to Key 103 radio in Manchester in the 1980’s, write down the phone number for Maincrest Car & Van Hire.

7333 201 – you can probably even here the advertising jingle.

When we remember our own phone number or a jingle or the meaning of a metaphor, we are remembering it as a code. George Miller explained it in his mid-50’s paper: The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information he observed that an average adult memory span could cope with remembering around a 7 digit or letter sequence before results tailed off. It didn’t matter, however, if it was 7 numbers, 7 letters or 7 words.

Hang on, the words would be multiples of letters and therefore the memory span was extended? Miller’s hypothesis was that memory worked in chunks rather than in absolutes. In a letter sequence, a letter is a chunk. In a word sequence, a word is a chunk. In a play, an entire speech is a chunk.

How can this help us to make ideas sticky?

Take the three key things your people need to know or do in your business. Build a consistent story around those elements and anchor it in a Code.

The most important things in your business: customer service? Team spirit? Speaking out? Those can be your code words. Not encrypted, easily decipherable, understood. But it is that last word that makes the difference.


Consistently, deliver to your team what big ideals and standards those code words overarch – what they really mean, look like, feel like, sound like. Make them the values that you work to in your organisation. Start your team meetings by giving time to your people to talk about what those things mean to them. Don't just write them on the walls, stir them into the coffee.

What would it be like to be able to cut across an issue by just saying “Team?”

John Shinnick, is a portfolio non-executive director and Coach-Mentor-Adviser, working across the UK.

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