Digital Communication: The Practice of Poetry

Digital communications can benefit from the lessons and practice of poetry.

In May 1991, Dana Gioia wrote an essay in the Atlantic Monthly called ‘Can Poetry Matter?’  The article was a major contribution to a long-running debate on the relevance of poetry in a modern world that appears to run on prose. Gioia’s conclusion to this long running debate on the cultural significance of poetry and its practice was clear in his summary:

If poets venture outside their confined world, they can work to make it essential once more*

In 1991, digital had only just begun its progress to its current pervasive state. Gioia does not even reference digital journals and blogs which now reinforce his point on the niche audience for much modern poetry. We have learned a great deal since then on the practices of digital business and digital communication. Two decades of lessons in digital communication is still a small fraction of the lessons learned across the centuries of history of poetry.

Why Learn from Poetry? Isn’t it Dead?

Modern digital communication can benefit from a deeper understanding of the practices and art of poetry. In many ways, poetry has been practising to refine approaches that align to current challenges facing digital communication.

Capturing The Essence: Gioia gives a strong clue to one rationale when he defines his first rationale for poetry in his essay:

Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning.

Digital communication always faces a poverty of attention. Extracting the highest value from expression and conveying as much meaning as attention will allow is essential.

Expressing the Experience: The mobility of digital communication means that messages no longer sit apart from any experience. Digital communications must help express, support and enrich the experience. Poetry has long battled with this same challenge of capturing, enhancing and enriching the human experience.  There are lessons to be drawn in the relationship between poetry and the experiences that it captures and supports.

Poetry is an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them – Charles Simic

The use of poetry in ritual in human history is a sign to its power in experiences.

Leveraging Reflection: The practice of writing poetry requires observation of the experiences of life and reflection. Wordsworth described poetry as:

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.

Similarly, Robert Frost wrote:

Poetry is when an emotion has found a thought and the thought has found words

Digital communicators can provide an important outlet from the busy pace of work. They can write from and help provoke a deeper reflection on the daily experience of work and life.

Engaging through Rythm & Rhyme: The first poets had no written poetry. Jorge Luis Borges once said

Poetry remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art.

Homer was a bard who told his tales from memory and they were passed on in memory. Many of our literary techniques are echoes of ideas that go back beyond the Ancient Greeks to master poetry and rhetoric. Sections of Shakespeare’s plays on the page can be a struggle for a modern reader but put them in the hands of an actor who can work the structure and they sing with new meaning. Read poetry and you realise the power of the rhythm of words and rhyme structures to engage others and to support your own efforts to share the work. When much digital communication struggles to hold attention, leveraging rhythm and rhyme for engagement remains relevant.

Memorable & Memetic: Great poems and great lines of poetry are memorable. This memorability is often based in universality of the ideas. Keats said

Poetry should… should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.

The English language is filled with phrases from the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare or the poetry of the King James Bible. They are so common now we barely can trace their origins. The potential of digital communication is to find that central, shared, memorable idea, phrase or aphorism that can live beyond one reading and spread through your networks as its own meme.

Open to Experimentation: Since the beginning of human history, poetry has experimented with forms, rhythms, rhymes, assonance, visual and verbal representations of messages. The most successful forms like the sonnet, the haiku, rap or the spoken word jam were tested and refined before spreading around the languages of the world. Digital communicators have learned to measure their effectiveness using the new tools available. A breadth of experimentation will help ensure that digital communication does not become trapped in local maximums of performance like the listicle.

Bringing in the Whole Human: Communication is not just a process of the human brain. Poetry shows the ways we can communicate beyond recitation of facts and logic. We have already seen digital communicators begin to leverage visual imagery in new ways to reinforce messages. Poetry also earns its attention by reaching for a deeper meaning in what is often a brief form:

Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves. – TS Eliot

Emotion, experience, spirituality, beauty and more are opportunities for experimentation for effective digital communicators as well. Finding richer ways to connect with human meaning is always an effective approach to communication.

Change: In the Defense of Poetry, Percy Bysse Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ His point was that poetry is a way in which communities share and develop norms. Digital communication must play the same role in networks reinforcing the values and creating shared connection as new communities come together. Poetry has exploited its marginal place to push boundaries as Thomas Hardy pointed out:

If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the inquisition might have let him alone.

Equally importantly, Salman Rushdie laid out the challenge for the poet as follows:

A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep

No challenge is more relevant to digital communicators when the virality of a message now outweighs its accuracy or usefulness.

Adapting: Paul Valery once said ‘a poem is never finished only abandoned’. The same holds true of digital communications. The work should be adapted continuously based on feedback, performance and changing circumstances. The goal is enhanced effectiveness and continued relevance.  Communication that is static is dead and abandoned.

The lessons above are but a few of thousands of years of the practice of poetry to engage the human mind and soul. Any digital communicator can learn from that collective experience. If applying poetry in digital communications seems unlikely, you can at least consider what poetry can do to improve your prose:

Yet, it is true, poetry is delicious; the best prose is that which is most full of poetry. Virginia Woolf

Always be a poet, even in prose – Charles Baudelaire


* This insight has an echo in Steve Blank’s startup maxim ‘there are no facts inside the building so get the heck outside’


Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere – Martin Luther King Jr

I don’t fear for safety
From the simplicity of evil
or complex works of good.

Beyond the neat edge
of my experience,
security is a privilege.

Fears that I don’t share
are still unendurable,
life-draining, life-ending.

My enclosed experience hints
at other works and wheels,
a shared system of society.

All that produces this world,
the light and dark, actors, victims
and passive accomplices.

We are interconnected –
This condition, this system,
this change is mine too.

The Poetry of Change


What is poetry? How can I explain it? And how do I explain it to you in prose? At moments like these prose is a brick through the poet’s window. The fate of the poet is to ignore the broken window and make good use of the brick, and of the draft. A broken window lets in a stranger world, not a familiar outside into a familiar inside, that’s gone to ruin, but rather a type of new encounter of the mind and its art—the air is welcome, the air is unwelcome. And still there’s the poet’s conductor, the cosmic madman in the mind, urging it all to poem. – Rowan Ricardo Phillips

Driving change in organisations can feel at times a little like describing the work of poetry in prose. The change agent speaks a different language and sees a different future. You are inclined to be treated as a madman. The art and poetry of change is embrace the discomfort and to leverage the opposition and disruption to creative ends.

Ignore the Broken Window

Change means breaking things. Many things will need and deserve to be broken. Some will be the things that you don’t want to lose. Many of the most difficult breakages will come from the pressure change puts on personal relationships.

Accept this breakage or jeopardise the change.

There is real personal discomfort for a change agent in this breakage. They can see different ways and want change urgently. Often it takes a long time for others to come on the journey and to ignore the damage of the path to a new future. Things might need to feel more broken before the new ways of working are embedded and effective.  If the people who aren’t coming on change are close friends or powerful players it can be quite uncomfortable.

Accept this discomfort or jeopardise the change.

A change agent understands that there is a greater purpose and benefits from better ways of working. They need to continue to act and share despite the discomfort because only conversation and example will create the path to new change. They need to communicate the change in language others can understand.

Make Good Use of the Brick and the Draft

The disruption of change will draw attention and conflict. The temptation is to seek to minimise this conflict in the approach to change. Attention is a scarce commodity. Conflict will help people focus on the changes and encourage them to understand. Don’t minimise the conflict and focus. Leverage it. Engage people in their own terms. Discuss the issues that people want to address.

Use the brick and accelerate the change.

The conflict of change is also an opportunity to leverage additional external perspective. Invite people to look outside the organisation. Let a draft of new ideas enter the organisation as people seek to understand and engage with the change. Encourage people to look to the networks outside the newly broken windows. Some of these ideas will create new conflict and new opportunities. There will be ideas there to foster and to develop new ways of working.  There will be evidence and case studies that help with the arguments for change

Use the draft and accelerate the change.

Urge it all to poem

Great change takes creativity. Great change finds a new and better ways of engaging others. Change Agents need to leverage creativity in their circumstances to make a poem of their change to a world speaking prose.

Step lightly

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. – WB Yeats

Every day those around us spread out their dreams like Aedh from Yeats’ poem. Then we begin work to make the cloth of our personal purpose richer and larger. We must spread the cloth into an overlapping network because each of our purposes involves others. The realisation of our dreams and purposes are interconnected.

Many people don’t see the network spread before them. They focus only on their cloth. They don’t understand the power of interaction and the connected nature of our dreams. They shoo away others who must cross their cloth.

Others don’t see the impact of their interactions. Unaware, they tromp on the dreams of others in their self-centred focus on their own dreams. By design or by accident, they discourage others and damage their dreams. Hierarchal position doesn’t mean your dreams go on top or that you are arbiter of what will and won’t be realised.

Leaders step lightly. Knowing that all footsteps have consequences, leaders also enable others to walk with a lighter step.

Leaders work to realise the potential of others, connecting them, helping them solve challenges and extending their dreams. Leaders help people to stretch their dreams as far as they can go. The right coaching interactions help people learn how to bring dreams about and to invite others in to make more action possible.

Tread lightly. There is a dream beneath each footfall. How you walk in your daily interactions might make a critical difference to another’s dream.

The Choice: Two Roads or Promises?


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
Robert Frost

At times, we can reduce the challenges in leading organisations to a greeting card: There are two paths in management, a traditional one and now a better one. Pick the wrong one and your organisation will fail. The reality of modern leadership is more complex.

However, the glorification of the ‘road less travelled by’ is not the meaning of Frost’s poem. ‘The road less travelled by’ is hardly an appealing option for managers who must make decisions every moment of every day about how to lead their organisations and respond to the challenges before them. “The road less travelled by” is usually a road out of the organisation.

Frost’s subtle poem reminds us that many choices are obscure and evenly balanced when made. That obscurity is rarely resolved. We are left to define ourselves by the choices we have made and see the outcomes as results when the connection between choice and outcome is often remarkably complex.

Two Roads

Faced with the challenges of a rapidly changing networked economy many managers choose the path of efficiency. In a time of crisis, they redouble their efforts to deliver certainty, control and secrecy. Seeing threats in a digital economy these manager seek to take greater control and shore up the traditional defences that seem to offer certainty. Rather than deal with complexity, it is easy to declare a new simplicity.

Others are increasingly experimenting with experimentation, autonomy and transparency. They are seeking to create new forms of organisation from responsiveness and adaptation. However, as the use of new models increases there are real challenges to be resolved and new cultures and practices to be built.  It is a brave middle manager who chooses to introduce this approach into an existing organisation of any size. At times, the Responsive Organisation can feel more discussed than delivered.

Some times the two approaches are mixed and we don’t even realise. Our traditional ways can be so deeply ingrained that we can’t see the irony of ordering autonomy and experimentation. For a manager considering how to respond to a situation in the moment, considering new ways of working can seem like a luxury. After all, wasn’t the point of all our experience and training to give us tacit knowledge on which to rely when things get challenging?

Not Simple, Complex

Managers don’t struggle with organisation and choice in the simple or even the complicated domains of choices.  In these cases, traditional approaches work with some predictable degree of success. Recommending a responsive strategy in these examples is as wasteful as managers embedded in traditional management mindsets would see it.

However, the challenge of the modern organisation is rarely bringing complexity to simple choice. Bureaucracy may make simple management choices feel complex to implement, but the choice remains straightforward. The challenge for organisations is pretending there are simple choices when the domain becomes increasingly complex.

Complex choices are where we need learning, experimentation and new ways of working. This is the where we need to sense and respond. This is the domain in which managers see the networks around us change the nature of our traditional considerations.

Promises to keep

The nature of the complex environment in which we operate as managers is that we rarely know in advance what path will be the best choice. This can be a tough pitch to sell to your executive committee.  Worse as Roger L Martin has argued even a ultimately superseded business model may be successful long enough to make you look stupid.

We are trained as managers to define our journeys by their outcomes, just like the narrator of Frost’s Two Roads poem. This consequentialist logic is often used to justify the triumph of abstract organisational goals over personal, human or community outcomes in the process.

Perhaps instead we should define our journeys by the path.  Focusing on the process of walking the path changes our questions:

  • What management path values our personal purpose and delivers the greatest personal rewards?
  • What management path values the potential of others and seeks to maximise that potential?
  • What management path delivers on the promise to customers and the community inherent in our organisation and its people?
  • What management path maximises the net positive impact and contribution from all in the organisation?

Asking new questions is an act of leadership. The answers to these questions will help define better ways of working and new models of social leadership that can carry us through the management journeys ahead.

When we cannot know the journey’s destination, perhaps the better challenge is to walk the road well. We can run our organisations to deliver better answers to these questions.  A first step is freeing our people to contribute to their potential to these answers. We may yet find that all our roads lead to the same place, but we will arrive in better shape as managers, organisations, communities and as a planet, if we do so.

This reflection brings to mind another equally beautiful Robert Frost poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”.  As we go forward into the dark and cold challenges ahead, this reflection challenges us as managers to consider the miles to go and the promises we must keep:

He gives his harness bells a shake 
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, 
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
– Robert Frost

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It is by imagination that knowledge is “carried to the heart” (to borrow again from Allen Tate). The faculties of the mind—reason, memory, feeling, intuition, imagination, and the rest—are not distinct from one another. Though some may be favored over others and some ignored, none functions alone. But the human mind, even in its wholeness, even in instances of greatest genius, is irremediably limited. Its several faculties, when we try to use them separately or specialize them, are even more limited.

Wendell Berry’s Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities

I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.