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What do you meme?

Graphic with man reacting negatively then positively.

Accompanying graphic to story.

I always smile when answering some of the paperwork before a medical exam. What’s my preferred method of learning? Am I a visual learner? Do I prefer audible directions or maybe a demonstration? I’m not sure why those questions are there or what database they go into, but I’m pretty sure I always choose something different each time. If nothing else, those questions remind me to look inward and there’s always value in self-reflection.

Similar to preferred method of learning, I’d like to ask a question for you to consider as you move through life regardless of rank, age or position.

What’s your preferred method of communicating? 

Have you ever thought about how you engage in meaningful dialogue with others and whether or not it’s effective? With social distancing, staggered office schedules, shift work, and the unfortunate necessity to limit face-to-face contact due to the pandemic, it’s important now more than ever to take a moment and ensure we’re communicating effectively throughout our organizations.

Reflecting back on my 19.5 years of active duty, I’ve had the opportunity to serve in two leadership positions within the 375th Air Mobility Wing. First as Chief of Safety and now as a Squadron Commander.

While this is not the first time I have been entrusted with important roles, my positions here in the Wing are the first ones where I felt the responsibility of conveying a particular message to a larger audience. It was then that I began to take a step back and make honest assessments on whether or not I was effectively communicating. I was not. Whether it was a particular safety issue, cautions about the legalization of marijuana, or the myriad of other topics that people discuss, there were times traditional methods were not having the desired effect.

Personal interactions are awesome; however, commander’s calls and face-to-face encounters are problematic for units with shift workers and even more so with the challenges of a pandemic. Social Media has proved a useful way to remain connected but it’s so diverse and reliant upon individuals buying into a particular platform that you’re likely to miss a large portion. Emails are a tremendous tool to get a very detailed message to a large audience but they rely on a person reading the text. Policy letters, often full of incredibly important intent and useful information, face the same challenge. I wanted to seek out another way to make it easy for people to digest a message. Enter…the meme.

A meme is an idea, behavior or style that becomes a fad and is spread by means of imitation from person to person within a culture. It is often the carrier of symbolic meaning, representing a particular phenomenon. Now by no means am I saying memes are a panacea to communication challenges; but it’s very simplistic and forces you to focus on the importance of your message. If you can cut through some of the extraneous content, you stand a better chance to have your message received. Distill it down to minimal words, toss it onto a fun picture, and distribute via email, social media, posters in the unit, etc. Will the idea work for you or your particular audience? That’s a question we all get to ask ourselves. Personally, I’ve received more feedback from memes about flight safety, resilience, and performance recognition than any commander’s call, email, or policy memo I’ve ever written.

Hopefully you see the point of this article isn’t the value of memes as much as the importance of effective communication. Good leaders, regardless of position, are constantly evaluating themselves on how they’re engaging with others and are not afraid to try new things. Sometimes the message or delivery falls flat, but it’s okay to not be perfect. What’s important is to recognize that there’s a difference between what you want to say and how it’s received, then take steps to resolve the issue. I’m not the world’s best communicator and I still make my fair share of unimpressive memes…just ask the 375th Operations Support Squadron. However, by utilizing a variety of communication methods, both traditional and unconventional, I stand a greater chance to reach even the most remote individual. I encourage you to think outside the box and dare to try something new to communicate. Topics like resiliency, innovation, and mission readiness are all important and deserve attention; so, do your best to ensure you’re being heard. When you do get the message out and the entire organization operates with the same perspective, that’s when you feel connected and truly part of a winning organization.

And yes, the irony of using an article to talk about its ineffectiveness is not lost on me.