Subject: How to bridge the generational communication gap
February 28, 2009
To: Baby Boomer Executives
From: Joe the Millennial
You’re confused. You’re depressed. Every day on television you see a President of the United States who is younger than you, and cooler than you. A lot cooler. You thought you were successful, and you are—but nothing like this. You’re envious. I’m here to help.
I can’t make you younger—but I can make you cooler, and more successful. I can tell you a little bit about how Barack Obama helped draw 24 million Millennials to the polls, and got two-thirds of their votes. Knowing how could make you cool—it could also make you money.
Imagine your speech on YouTube with a million views. Imagine having an auditorium of apathetic 20-year-olds laugh at your jokes. Imagine your company being discussed in chat rooms across the Internet.
As a card-carrying member of the Millennial Generation, I’m here to tell you to stop imagining and give you some unsolicited advice that can help make that happen.
First, the good news. The same basic strategies that persuade Baby Boomers will work on us as well. Establish a connection with your audience, and we’ll be more receptive to your argument.
But that doesn’t mean you should just do what you would normally do. Our generation experiences the world differently than yours did, and an effective communicator will take that into consideration when speaking to us. Here are some tips that might help you connect with my generation more effectively in your next speech.
Real. Authenticity. Don’t assume that “dropping the lingo” will establish authenticity. Mentioning that you know what YouTube or Twitter is won’t automatically get us to listen to your argument; demonstrating that you understand how we use them will. Steve Jobs’ 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford University was a hit because he wasn’t just some old guy dropping “iPods”—he understood their significance and appeal. That authenticity goes a long way.
But don’t be intimidated. You don’t have to demonstrate technological literacy to connect with us. We all have parents who aren’t as “plugged in” as we are, so it won’t be a big deal if you aren’t. We understand that there’s a real world out there; we just think it’s too slow.
And there’s no bigger target for Millennial ridicule than an older person trying to prove he’s “with it” technologically when he isn’t. Senator Ted Stevens wouldn’t be a laughingstock if he had just admitted he didn’t know much about the Internet instead of referring it to a “series of tubes.”
Drop the formality. Much of the stuff we read online is conversational. We’re more comfortable with this writing form and are more likely to pay attention if it’s used. So loosen up!
Talk about yourself. As Millennials, we are obsessed with authenticity. We’re the generation that puts our entire lives on public display, remember? We want to hear the “real you,” so lose the “lecture voice,” loosen your tie, and tell us a personal story. The more we believe you’re a real person, the more we’ll buy into your argument.
Take us seriously. Just because we communicate with friends in 160-character text messages doesn’t mean you have to keep your message short. Skip the sound bite. Spell out your argument. And be forewarned; since the day we were born, our parents have told us we’re brilliant. Treat us accordingly or you’ll lose our attention faster than you can be defriended on Facebook.
But don’t be boring! If we get bored, we’ll quickly shift our attention—and once we’re watching that skateboarding dog video, it’s hard to win us back.
Our boredom isn’t caused by a short attention span. It’s caused because we process information faster. Have you ever tried catching up on the latest news, chatting with friends, and watching that funny video on YouTube all while researching for that paper due tomorrow? This is what Millennials call “multitasking,” and a key component in this superhuman skill is the ability to sift through and process information quickly before moving to the next blog.
Bottom line: Don’t spend more time explaining something than it would take to look it up on Wikipedia.
Make us smile! I know, you’re probably afraid—or you should be—that we’ll find your Baby Boomer jokes as outdated as worries about who lost China to the Reds. So here are some ideas to bridge the generational humor gap:
Current events. Satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are successful with Millennials because they remind us how we are the most informed (we’d prefer “smartest”) generation ever. Joking about the latest headline also shows that you understand that we’re engaged in the world and not as lazy and apathetic as some may think. That respect counts.
Us: Joke about my generation, our quirks, our obsessions, and our habits. The satirical newspaper The Onion runs articles with headlines like “Police: iPhone Left In Hot Car For Three Hours” because jokes like this tap into my generation’s favorite topic: ourselves.
You: Poke a little fun at yourself. Joke about your generation’s inability to understand either Millennials or our world. The self-reflection will build authenticity by allowing us to get to know you and comes with the added bonus of massaging our egos. Who doesn’t like being told they’re smarter than their parents?
Bonus Tip: Record the speech and put it on YouTube. Maybe we’ll tell a friend about the speech, but your reach will be amplified if we can show it to that friend.
And if you have no idea what YouTube is or how to use it, hire a Millennial.
Jake Melville is an Associate at the West Wing Writers, a speechwriting and communications firm in Washington, D.C. A recent graduate of The George Washington University, his writing has appeared in The New York Times and Slate, as well as two magazines targeted towards Millennials.
How to motivate Millennials
Ryan Healy, resident Millennial blogger at the popular site The Brazen Careerist, offers ideas for Baby Boomer or Gen X managers who want to keep the 20-somethings motivated at work. While we’re taking advice from whippersnappers, we might as well take Healy’s too.
- “Give me feedback. … I need fairly consistent feedback and encouragement to know if I am performing up to par or not. And bring on the criticism.
- “Ask for feedback. I understand that a lower-level employee does not typically openly critique their superiors, but why shouldn’t we? We are the ones who see your management style firsthand and know what works and what doesn’t.
- “Keep me in the loop. … What makes business fun is seeing how management operates and executes on its strategies. Not only will this keep me interested and motivated, but it’s a great learning experience for someone who will eventually be in a management position.”