Which phrase is more memorable?
1) Surfing with Sartre
2) Adaptive Attunement

I vote for “Surfing with Sartre” (we’ll get to adaptive attunement later) because it’s:

a) Short. Three words, five syllables total.

b) Surprising. Sartre was a French philosopher and playwright. There’s nothing in his resume about surfing.

c) Visual. Not only can you see it, but surfing has action.

And not just any action, but the kind that might make you feel—imagine waiting in the middle of the ocean for mountain-high, violent waves to crash down on you—a tad concerned.

So there’s also emotion, which makes it more memorable.

“Surfing with Sartre” is a recent book by philosophy professor and skilled surfer, Aaron James. He uses surfing as a metaphor for coping with the uncontrollable forces of daily life.

Although I love the title, I don’t plan to read it. According to the New York Times, “the fundamental idea is ‘adaptive attunement'” (book review by James Ryerson).

Adaptive attunement???

Note that adaptive attunement is:
a) Sort of short, only two words, but each weighs in at a heavy three syllables.
b) Not surprising.
c) Not visual.

You can’t see adaptive attunement—and it’s impossible to remember. You won’t remember it in 5 minutes; I’m typing it, and I won’t remember it in five seconds.

A lot of business language sounds like “adaptive attunement.” But if you and I were talking over coffee at Starbucks, neither of us would ever use “adaptive attunement” in a sentence.

So why speak that way at work?

When I help executives focus their ideas, I push to identify a main message (the single most important thing) and then the key points (often three, to develop the message).

Let’s apply that method to adaptive attunement. Here’s how I understand it –and, of course, I probably don’t—based on reading a few reviews of the book.

Main message: Ride the wave. (Again, a metaphor.)

Key points:
1) The wave is a given.
2) You can’t control it.
3) But you can harmonize with it.

I’d lose “adaptive attunement,” and stick with “ride the wave.” It’s a strong visual. And also, let’s face it, a world-class nightmare.

Tip: To be memorable, use word-pictures.

© Copyright 2018 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

P.S. I used 34 slides in a recent MIT/Sloan webinar, “When Leaders Speak: How to Get Heard, Get Remembered & Get Results.” Most had less than six words—but they all had pictures.

Watch the replay.

P.P.S. YOU’VE GOT 8 SECONDS: Communication Secrets for a Distracted World was named one of the best biz books of the year by an obscure, but obviously brilliant, Canadian newspaper. Available in print, kindle, audio.

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