Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

The power of fairy tales at work: why practical explanations work for technical concepts.

By Mindaugas Gecys, Senior DSP Support Specialist, Adform

These articles have been written by the latest cohort of the Practice Makes UnPerfect programme – a course that helps people find and finesse their public voices

From the first day of my professional career, I have been described as an apt ‘technical learner’. As flattering as this is, I have to firmly disagree. 

Growing up a major overthinker, I found myself reading pages upon pages of scientific theory only to realize that my mind somehow went empty starting somewhere in the second sentence and came back alive in the last one. My mind drifted, every single time. 

The result of this was often a blank spot and a lack of understanding of the matter minutes later. Similarly, back in my school days, many teachers were quick to demean and offer harsh words whenever the theory of books or their rephrased explanations wasn’t fully understood in class. The result? Most of the students stopped questioning concepts they didn’t understand. This resulted in nods and acknowledgements at the time, but an inability to make any of the information stick.

But what happens when an explanation is relatable, more easily understood, and stems from experience? Well, a neuroscientist with the moniker of the “Memory Medic” (W. R. Klemm) notes that this is a powerful tool for memorizing information. 

When we are able to draw a connection between a specific concept and an experience, we make a mental connection. This leaves a stronger impression within our brain, helps understand the abstraction easier, and, in the long run, results in a lasting memory. As a result, concepts can be understood easier and the memory stays with us for much longer. For instance, one may read a hundred guides on riding a bicycle, yet true comprehension and lasting understanding comes when you finally get on the bicycle and begin pedaling.

Likewise, learning is also applied through practice. Honing a skill is hardly a ground-breaking concept – practicing something improves your expertise at it and enhances the general understanding of it. Brabeck, Jeffrey and Fry note the advantages this brings to long-term memory, essentially, the part where we store something for decades to come. In short – continue doing things to get better at them.

So while there are certainly individuals who thrive on theory and inner workings of concepts, strategists for example, others require a more hands-on approach. This is called tactile learning. 

And while practice and experience naturally come to mind, when tactile learning is considered, there is another aspect that can help with the in-take of complicated information. Real-life examples. In a sense, we can consider this passing on experience, without someone actually having to experience something by themselves.

Culturally, we have all experienced this during our lives, likely during childhood. Folk and fairy tales. It is through them that various cultures have taught their young, even before we even had written words. Even today, T. Heapy observes that traditional stories help children learn common knowledge and vital skills, without being exposed to dangerous environments. And indeed, the examples of a wolf stalking a child in a forest or a witch handing off poisoned fruit instill the common understanding to be wary of strangers, who may harbor ill intentions. And while commonly, cautionary tales are used to share something that can be considered ‘common sense’, this can also be used to our advantage in explaining technical concepts.

Getting back to my own lack of ‘technicality’, I have often struggled to understand technical concepts until they were explained in a way that I could relate to or otherwise imagine. This is where plain examples, tied to a brief story, a joke or even a nonsensical comparison shaped both – my own understanding, and, eventually, that of people I mentor. 

In a sense, our own experiences, or situations observed from the sidelines can be not only something to learn from ourselves but something to share with others as well. The retelling of situations past, where imprecise user targeting spoiled a surprise, or misguided choices that resulted in detriment are our very own corporate folk tales. Meanwhile, stories engage the audiences, leaving a stronger impact and a mental connection between a technical concept and its explanation. Because of this, even if the concept or a feature are technical, providing a real-life example of results and potential detriments will help to not only comprehend it better, but to also remember it.

For some perspective, over the course of the past two years, I have led training for over 20 of the new employees. While I was initially embarrassed of using the very same approach, I slowly began relying on plain examples or my own experiences to explain technical concepts. The result was a far more engaged audience with a deeper understanding. Similarly, when prompted for feedback, there was never any critique towards the vivid examples used – the opposite, people were pleased that they could sympathize and relate to explanations provided.

So, I urge you too to make use of those ‘silly’ corporate folk tales. As the famous saying goes – “if it’s stupid but it works, it’s not stupid”.