7 tips to effectively communicate with the next generation

| Educators from all over the country came together this past week for the NASA Education Stakeholder’s Summit in Chantilly, Virginia to talk about future education initiatives and workforce development.  I was invited by the organizers to share a few thoughts on how to effectively communicate with the next generation. I’ve included the presentation below but […]

Educators from all over the country came together this past week for the NASA Education Stakeholder’s Summit in Chantilly, Virginia to talk about future education initiatives and workforce development.  I was invited by the organizers to share a few thoughts on how to effectively communicate with the next generation. I’ve included the presentation below but also provided a summary with more context.  Not everything in the presentation is covered because otherwise this post would be even longer then it already is, so if you have questions please feel free to contact me.

On Generations

Historians Neil Howe and William Strauss have constructed a great way of looking at generations.  In their book, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, published in 1991, they describe a four generational archetypes that repeat throughout Anglo-American history over the past 500 years with only one exception. The theory is very useful tool for anyone who is looking to better understand the younger generations and their world.

As Strauss and Howe explain, “your generation isn’t like the generation that shaped you, but it has much in common with the generation that shaped the generation that shaped you.” For example, Boomers (whose strength is individualism, culture and values) raised Millennial (Gen Y) children (whose strength is in collective civic action).  The theory helps us understand the interaction between generations.  As Boomers replace the Silent as elder leaders, they reject caution and compromise and act on moral absolutes. As Gen X replaces Boomers in midlife, they will apply a new pragmatic survivalism to management decisions. As Millennials replaces Gen X in young adulthood, they will revitalize community, social discipline, and public purpose.

So what about the generation after the Millennials? Who are they?

Strauss and Howe originally called this next generation the “Silent Echo” generation because history suggests that they will most resemble the Silent Generation that came before the Boomers (they now refer to them as the Homeland Generation).  Personally, I like to refer to them as “true digital natives” given they are the first generation to come of age fully immersed in digital technology. Strauss and Howe define the next generation as people who were born at the turn of the century, but the dates are not certain when it comes to this work, and I’d argue that this generation really started in 1996.  Why this is so important is that the first wave of true digital natives – people who were born after the invention of the internet and have been immersed in digital technology their entire lives – are now 16 years old.  They may already be applying to your High School internship programs and will be entering college and the workforce in the next couple of years.

According to the theory, true digital natives are people who were born during a time when great danger and crisis cut down social and political complexity in favor of public consensus, aggressive, institutions, and an ethic of personal sacrifice.  That sure sounds a lot like the world students are experiencing today.  If history is any indicator of the future, this will be a generation that grows up overprotected by adults preoccupied with the crisis, come of age as the socialized and conformist young adults of a post-crisis world, break out as process-oriented midlife leaders during an awakening, age into thoughtful post-awakening elders, and be remembered for their quite years of rising adulthood and midlife years of flexible, consensus-building leadership.

The main message of the talk at the NASA Education Stakeholder’s Summit was to raise awareness of the true digital native generation – the one AFTER Generation Y.  Of course, the whole idea of a “generation” is really an over simplification.  Although useful to describe a group of people who share a common place in time and who have experienced similar formative events, it doesn’t describe everybody.  Generational boundary lines are hard to define and often blur into each other. I know many “Digital Natives” who acknowledge they are simply stuck in a “Baby Boomer” body and can run circles around their younger counterparts.   However, the simplification is a useful place to start when talking about how to communicate effectively to a broad audience and is particularly relevant in terms of educational initiatives focused at engaging a younger generation.

How to Reach Digital Natives

The talk highlighted 7 tips, based on some fundamental truths, that will help you engage the true digital native generation in your organization’s mission.

7.  Understand the audience – Even though they have a lot in common, the next generation is not Generation Y.  This is a generation that is growing up in a time when the individualism, risk-taking, and conspicuous consumption of the previous generations is winding down.  The environment they know is one of a new sobriety fueled by unpaid debts and unmet challenges, both home and abroad.  Unfairly or not, this generation will deal head on with a crisis they inherited from others before them.  What will their formative events during their childhood be?  How will it shape them?  What role does technology play in it all?

6.  Listen to the conversation – If “forty-five percent of time spent communicating is listening” and “seventy-five percent of communication is non-verbal,” the next step may simply be to pause and listen to the conversation.  What communities are they a part of? How do they use the channels? When do they use the channels?  You can’t communicate if you are not part of the conversation, and you won’t be invited back to the conversation if you never take time to listen to what is being discussed.

5.  Challenge the norms – While the web is all about authentic, transparent, and participatory conversations that enables the viral spread of your content, industrial age organizations such as government are often driven by a hierarchical culture of fear that leads to tight control of messages and public image.  We often respond to request to participate in a conversation with a statement like “no comment goes online without our explicit approval.”  That approach won’t make you many friends in the digital age.  Real engagement is when people do things for you that you didn‘t ask them to. Learn to lose control – in return for greater reach.

4.  Embrace technology – Government agencies tend to use a «pull» mentality – building destination sites in the belief that people will find them and stay if they‘re interested.  We think that the best use of our resources would be to duplicate an already existing online platform in the name of security, protection, or efficiency.  Why compete with someone else who is doing what you are trying to do a million times better?  Instead, unleash the community that is already out there by becoming a hub, that incentivizes anyone to share relevant information, and then aggregates and pushes out the best channel on all available channels to the broadest audience possible.

3.  Be interesting and unique.  Once you make the plunge and join the conversation, strive to be interesting and unique.  With so many conversations going on at once, and so many different communication channels connecting diverse communities, a good way to fail quickly is to offer boring, static content with no personality.  Simply feeding an RSS feed into a Twitter account isn’t good enough.  Instead of trying to influence your audience, inspire them.  Share a personal, compelling story about your organization and create an opportunity to include the audience in the adventure.

2.  Create real opportunities to participate – People want to participate.  They want to fly in space themselves, they want to drive the Mars Rover, they want to be part of the design process.  Technology enables this more then ever before so create opportunities to engage citizens in your organizations mission.  People get behind something they helped build.

1.  Think 10 years ahead – The way we do business, the way we communicate and the way we work, will all change dramatically in the next 10 years (maybe sooner).  Think ahead.  Envision the future.  Create environments for your employees that they will flock to.  If you are serious about focusing on engaging the next generation, stop thinking about how we do things today. How do people use technology when computers are simply cheap, portable browsers and connectivity is not longer an issue? How do people communicate when email is no longer used? How do people collaborate when everything is stored online and organizations no longer “own” their technology.

The world is changing fast and you simply can’t afford not to. As an organization, as a leader, and as a mentor to the next generation, be intentional about creating opportunities for them to participate.  Effectively communicating is an essential first step.  Be a government in beta. One that takes appropriate risks, that challenges the status quo, and that is excited about creating a future we can’t even imagine is possible.  That’s the type of organization people are attracted to.


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