by Tim Ward and Teresa Erickson
The word meme was coined by philosopher of science Richard Dawkins. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene he mused about how ideas influence human evolution.
Our ideas pass on mental information (“units of culture”) encoded electrically in our brains’ neural networks. Through “survival of the fittest,” the winning ideas get passed from mind to mind, driving our cultural evolution.
What’s the difference between a meme and a message? A message is a political, commercial, social or moral idea that is being communicated.
The emphasis is on the sender. You might be very inarticulate, but as long as you are expressing your idea, it can be considered a message.
With a meme, the emphasis is on the receiver. If there is no receiver, there is no meme.
Replicability is the mark of a meme, and this is crucial when it comes to effective communication. Usually when we communicate we think only about our immediate audience. Do they get the message? That’s not enough. If your audience gets the message, but not well enough that they can articulate it clearly to others, the idea stops there. If you are seeking to create change – to build an organization, gather support for an issue, develop a new technology or enact any form of meaningful transformation – your ideas must spread from mind to mind to mind.
First, get your listener’s attention. Now this might sound obvious, yet most of the time when we speak, we are not thinking about whether our listener is really paying attention. Without attention, the neural networks in your listener’s brain won’t respond to your words. It’s like speaking into the phone before the other person has picked up the call. Our first principle is: No attention, no retention.
A new meme must fit into the current set of memes in a listener’s brain.
Our brains are not built to remember; they are built to forget. We screen out most incoming information in order to avoid being overwhelmed.
Sometimes a new meme gets really popular, then just as quickly it becomes passé. In early 2014, the term for a smartphone “selfie” was all the rage. By late 2014, it was already uncool. Almost every organization has its buzzwords.
When someone comes on too strong with a new idea, they run the risk of creating resistance in their target audience.
In summary, replicability is the key insight from meme theory for communicators. Thinking about your ideas as memes will help you express them more powerfully and spread them more widely.
Teresa Erickson and Tim Ward are co-owners of Intermedia Communications Training, Inc. Together they have designed and led hundreds of communications workshops around the world, working with organizations such as WWF, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, the Asian and African Development Banks, the World Health Organization and the United Nations.
Clarity, Leadership, Impact. To have an impact, you need to communicate. This book is for people who want to change the world.
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