A Thoroughly Idiosyncratic Overview of Three Days in Scottsdale

Yes, I write about writing. But I also occasionally write about  the field of work-life,* one of my areas of content expertise. Those who don’t come to this blog to read about work-life might still enjoy this post, as it’s really about communication. (Frankly, to my mind most everything comes down to communication.) But I can also assure you that I’ll be back to writing as a topic in my next post, “Communication: The College Tour Edition.”

*work-life, for the uninitiated, has come to refer to the universe of programs, policies, benefits and culture-changing initiatives employers, policy-makers and others offer to support people’s efforts to be whole, fulfilled, responsible people in both their personal and work lives.

The future of work-life may depend on our ability to tell stories.

That might have been my greatest lesson from last week’s Work-Life Forum, sponsored by the Alliance for Work-Life Progress — except I already knew that. It’s all about communication, baby. And communication nearly always improves when stories are involved.

But that didn’t make the forum any less interesting. It drew an entertaining mix of thinkers and practitioners from corporations, consulting firms, non-profits, think tanks and academia. Since it was designed to be highly interactive, and since many attendees have been in the field and known each other forever, it took on a relaxed, late-night-in-the-dorm feel: lots of intense conversations, lots of bad jokes.

It opened with storytelling.

We spent the entire first afternoon together in a workshop on the topic led by Mark Guterman, co-founder of MeaningfulCareers.com. Guterman had a lot to say about how and why stories work: fascinating stuff that I will no doubt pick apart and admire in future posts. But in relation to advancing the work-life field, the main takeaway is that they do work. Data alone rarely convinces an organization’s leaders that it makes good business sense to trust employees and provide them with the supports they need to navigate their many life commitments. Data alone rarely breaks through the information-overload to connect employees with programs and policies and benefits that can help them. Data alone rarely changes public policy.

Storytelling was not officially on the agenda for the second day… 

…but it was in the air, nonetheless, as participants traded real stories to get their points across or dramatized their points with fictional scenarios. (Really. A talent scout would have found it worth the trip.) We spent much of that day in break-outs called “imaginariums,” discussing the real and the ideal of leadership commitment to work-life; of methods companies use to spread wellness initiatives into the community; and of what work will look like in the future. (We began the morning with a catch-up on research, which often tells a story, too. My favorite nugget from a report called Networked Families, as reported by Judi Casey of the Sloan Work & Family Research Network: Technology allows families to connect when they are apart and keeps families apart when they are together. There’s a prize-winning novel in there, somewhere, don’t you think?)

It’s a stretch I can’t quite make to say that the final event, late on the third morning, had anything to do with storytelling, but it did have to do with communicating.

Six leading work-life practitioners were each given 60 seconds at a time to deliver advice on a work-life-related topic.

Time limits were strictly enforced through the use of a mélange of (highly amusing) sound effects that loudly drowned each speaker out after her/his minute had passed. This went on for ten rounds—an exhaustive and exhausting display of communication-on-steroids.

It was interesting to hear what they had to say, but it was equally instructive to hear how some managed to tie up their messages in a neat 60-second package while others were caught at the buzzer with a tangle of unfinished ideas. This is not to disparage those who couldn’t quite pull it together in the time allotted—I have absolutely no doubt I would have been one of them, given the chance—but just to once again point out how dependent communication is on context. In this case, the context depended on the ability to work with sound bites and the kind of small detail that brought the message home quickly: the striking statistic, the aphorism, the metaphor.

And speaking of sound bites

The actual greatest lesson I learned from this forum (since, as I said, I already knew the one about storytelling) was how to tweet. I already had a Twitter account, but I rarely used it. With help from some more digitally-savvy folks like Casey Carlson (@caseylcarlson) and Kyra Cavanaugh (@lifemeetswork), I stepped more firmly into the Twitter universe. I’m not promising I won’t step right back out again. I still have trouble understanding its value in many situations. But for now, you can get a good sense of some of the ideas flying around the AWLP Forum by checking out my tweets and those of others, at #awlp2012.

Feeling exhausted or confused by the 100 Best Companies application? Contact me for help!

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