With two weeks to 2022 (!!), Omicron-panic has me stockpiling N95s (again!!!). To distract myself from thinking about another round of lockdowns, I want to begin by looking back to my favourite piece of art from 2021: “Inside”, Bo Burnham’s latest Netflix special.
If you haven’t seen “Inside,” stop whatever you’re doing right now and head straight to Netflix. The pretext of the ninety-minute special is that it’s a one-man comedy show… that happens entirely in the comedian’s bedroom. The show stars Bo Burnham, who rose to fame as one of the original YouTubers, way, way back in the mid-2000s when he was 16 years old. Now, on the verge of turning 30, Bo is stuck in his room, with no window on a world that’s falling to pieces besides a wifi connection. He doesn’t reference the pandemic directly—but given that the special was released in May, when most of the world was either in or just emerging from a lockdown, the subtext is clear.
In my opinion, “Inside” is the defining piece of COVID-quarantine art.
Bo’s shtick is that he’s a comedian-musician: Weird Al with a millennial ethos. In one of the special’s introductory songs, he sings:
I’m a special kind of white guy,
I’ve self-reflected and I want to be an agent of change.
So I am gonna use my privilege for the good (Very cool, way to go!)
This is very much tongue-in-cheek. He continues:
American white guys,
We’ve had the floor for at least four hundred years
So maybe I should just shut the f*** up
(PAUSE) I’m bored
This isn’t just an album of funny songs; “Inside” is a brilliant multimedia presentation where the whole is **much** greater than than sum of its parts.
This isn’t just an album of funny songs. Consider the way the lyrics and visual presentations come together in the remarkable White Women’s Instagram. The synergy, the creativity is astonishing—and hilarious:
But what makes “Inside” a true masterpiece of modern art is the way it deepens. Exactly midway through the show, Bo turns 30. What follows is an exploration of his existential dread about growing up in a world that’s falling apart. Many of us can relate. We start to realize that he is stuck ”Inside” in more ways than one.
Growing up as a YouTuber, Bo’s a child star who is hyper-literate in Internet culture. But, as he begins to tell us, his career as a comedian was cut short by his struggles with his mental health: “I was beginning to have, uh, severe panic attacks while on stage, which is not a great place to… have them.” Quarantine has forced him to reckon with the experience of being inside with himself.
In one of the best songs of the entire piece, Welcome to the Internet, we meet the real villain:
Can I interest you in everything all of the time
A little bit of everything all of the time
Apathy’s a tragedy and boredom is a crime
Anything and everything, all of the time
He invites us to ask: how does our diet of digital media affect our self-image? And is there a way to transform?
As a communicator right now, you’re probably thinking about transformation, one way or another. I think most of us understand that the world will never be 2019 again—even if we’re struggling to admit it to ourselves.
If your job isn’t talking about change yet—you will be soon.
But many business communicators have a major problem when it comes to talking about transformation, no matter whether they’re talking to customers or employees. This problem sprouts from two beliefs that may not actually be true:
- People dislike change.
- People need to know what the outcome of the change will be from the beginning.
As a result of these two beliefs, we’ve created a whole organizational practice of what is called “change management”. We tell ourselves that the outcome of the change must be clear from the beginning. And then we “manage” all the people toward the desired outcome.
Most change communication is based on this premise. It’s top down and literal. It’s a change to our Terms and Conditions, it’s a mandatory update to our app, it’s the CEO at Better.com firing 900 people in a 4 minute Zoom call.
Somehow, we’ve got in our mind that change equals crisis. And crisis is a bad thing.
But crisis experienced honestly is intensely captivating. Watching Bo go through crisis in “Inside,” I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen. He wasn’t theorizing about transformation. He literally immersed us in the experience of his inner change—and, in the process, invited us to change with him.
This was a hugely impactful insight for me as a modern digital storyteller.
What if, as communicators, we update our beliefs to something like this:
- People are craving change—they just need to feel guided.
- People are willing to join us on uncertain transformational journeys—they just want to feel like they get to participate in the ride.
If we really embraced those beliefs, change management would die forever. We would invent a different approach to change—one that embraced a different tone and feeling to our communication. An approach to change that’s designed for guidance, inclusion, immersive experience.
For most organizations, it would be radically creative—and it would actually work.
How do you start? Well, we all have a change story ourselves—especially after the past couple years. Rather than tellingpeople how you want them to change, how might you immerse them in the journey of your own transformation?
Sure, this requires vulnerability and creativity. It requires breaking some rules about how communication is supposed to be done. It could result in a major shift in the tone, intention, etc. of your strategic narrative, your employee experience, or your brand—if you’re open to it.
What we can learn from “Inside” is that great storytelling is not about the scale of the budget. It’s about the shared human experience at the core.
A teacher of mine says, everyone wants change, but no one is willing to be the one to change.
Dare to prove him wrong?