Do you remember the first time you saw somebody famous? I do. I was five, and my little sister was four, and we were going to visit Mr. Green Jeans from the children's TV show “Captain Kangaroo.” What a thrill! Now imagine my shock and surprise when I realized I was mistaken. We were visiting Aunt Liz and Uncle Eugene. Oh, I will never forget that disappointment. But what followed was equally memorable. Dear Uncle Eugene, who thought the situation was hysterical, decided we should put on our very own kids show on their front porch. He assembled all the adults and they watched my sister and me sing “The Alphabet Song.” When we were done, they clapped like it was the most brilliant thing they’d ever heard.

After taking our curtseys and bows, Aunt Liz gently dismissed our audience. But Uncle Eugene had us repeat the song several times. He wasn’t bored, and Sis and I sure weren’t. We felt accomplished and valued. And even if we slipped up a little bit on the part right after L-M-N-O-P, we knew the song would get us back on track for the grand finale of “Next time, won’t you sing with me!”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes things memorable. Why? Because much of my work (and yours, I suppose) involves things that are flat-out boring. And yet, they’re important. How do we deal with that?

Sometimes, it’s easy. At Aunt Liz’s house, I didn’t have to remember not to lean too far out of the second floor windows. She made it easy by locking the windows while we were there.

On the other hand, I did have to remember it wasn’t OK to jump off the porch when playing Superman. At home, the ground was just inches below our stoop. But here, there was a 4-ft. drop. The only preventive controls were hard-to-enforce policy, the memory and reasoning power of a 5-year-old, and my aunt and uncle’s vigilance.

After the ABCs incident, Uncle Eugene made playing Superman easier for us. He wrote a song my sister and I could sing to each other when deciding if it was safe to jump off something. Looking back, I realize he encoded what I would now label as “decision criteria” into this little ditty:

If it’s lower than my knee

Then I can be

A bird, or a plane, or

Superman!

  

But if it’s as high

As my hip or my thigh,

Then run, don’t fly,

Superman!

How is it that I can’t remember the wording of HIPAA or PCI compliance rules, but I can remember Uncle Eugene’s advice from many decades ago? The answer is simple: His lessons took advantage of five things that cognitive scientists have proved help words make it from our short-term memory into long-term memory:

  1. Surprise. Something needs to get your attention. I wanted Mr. Green Jeans and was surprised to see Uncle Eugene instead.
  2. Emotional attachment. I was surprised a lot as a kid, but most surprises didn’t come with my beloved uncle’s smiles, approval, and applause.
  3. Understanding. Maybe the difference between 9 inches and 49 inches was beyond my growing brain. But I could tell whether something was knee-height or hip-height.
  4. Rhythm. Ask any English-speaking adult to chant the ABCs with you, and they’ll be able to. Once learned, that rhythm stays with us.
  5. Melody. Our brains are wired for music. And not just toddler brains, either. Your stakeholder’s brains could benefit from lessons encoded in tunes.

Would you like a little video clip for your next compliance meeting—something that will provide surprise, humor, rhythm, and melody while making compliance understandable?

Go to YouTube and search for “mainframe compliance song.” There are a series of short videos with mainframe-related messages sung to holiday tunes. And if you come across anything that ties together the power of the mainframe and The Man of Steel, please let me know.