More Than a Meme: The Real Meaning of "Only Connect!"

blog_more than a meme

“That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet,” wrote Shakespeare. So why, after three years of marketing my communication consulting services as “Clarity Studio” would I bother changing the brand name to “Clarity Connect”?

Because you—my clients, collaborators, and colleagues—showed me I should.

Over the past three years, as I’ve served clients across multiple industries, it’s become clearer and clearer that work I’m privileged to do goes beyond providing “creative services.”

As I help bridge the gap between academia and the wider world, I’m not just assisting with communication tasks. I’m enabling researchers and technical founders to practice the vanishing art of human connection. I guide clients to CONNECT—authentically and creatively—with ideas, people, opportunities, and personal meaning.

The hidden mantra that directs my work

As a communications coach, I urge clients to practice “deep listening” with their audience so they can “hear” what’s really going on beneath words, visuals, and body language. As I’ve listened to clients, I’ve learned that the true value I bring stems from a principle that I’ve felt shy about sharing until now, for fear of sounding sentimental or “woo-woo.”

But in a world where AI is playing a greater and greater role in our daily communication, this principle resonates with people who want to express themselves sincerely and form genuine relationships. And since it forms the implicit basis of my approach, whether I’m teaching or writing, it’s time to state it out loud, in the company name.

I didn’t invent this core principle or its expression. Like all creatives, I say, “Why invent when you can steal?” The mantra that shapes all the work I do, from the beginning of each project to the end, comes from E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel, Howard’s End: “Only connect!”

You’ve probably come across that phrase in motivational speeches, on T-shirts, and in Internet memes (cue an image of two kittens cuddling). But there’s more to it than meets the eye—and that “more” is the hidden rudder that directs all that Clarity Connect does.

E.M. Forster’s call for soulful connection

Writing in England at the turn of the twentieth century, E.M. Forster spoke to a world going through rapid urbanization, technological disruption, commercialization, and social upheaval. Sound familiar?

As the heroine, Margaret, contemplates the demolition of her suburban home to make room for modern flats, she notices how human interactions are also being wrecked:

In the streets of the city, she noted for the first time the architecture of hurry, and heard the language of hurry on the mouths of its inhabitants—clipped words, formless sentences, potted expressions of approval or disgust. (93)

Reared with an appreciation for literature and art, Margaret resists the dehumanization of language, the disconnectedness of modern life. Yet, as the novel’s plot unfolds, she finds herself romantically drawn to a businessman who represents the hustle and empty chatter of commercial culture, Mr. Wilcox. 

Even as she struggles to accept Mr. Wilcox’s all-business attitude, Margaret wishes for him a deeper, broader human experience. Ruminating on what he’s missing, she preaches to herself a doctrine of connectedness:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die. (159)

For Forster, the relentlessness of techno-industrial progress creates more than just social distance; it splits the self into “fragments.” The remedy, then, involves more than mere social connection. It calls for soulful connection.

An integrative vision

In contrast to the London world of building and busyness, Foster gives us the rural retreat of Howard’s End, which represents the world of “Romance” and folklore. The stunning feature of the property is a huge elm tree rumored to contain magical powers.

Yet Forster doesn’t present the world of Howard’s End as the magical antidote to all that’s wrong with modern life. The house has come to the Wilcox family through Mr. Wilcox’s first wife, a dreamy, old-fashioned figure who floats through the first few chapters of the novel and then suddenly dies. Her kind, it seems, can no longer survive under the industrial forces that have taken over England.

It’s the novel’s heroine, Margaret, who holds the key to integrating the world of “Romance” with the world of commerce. After Margaret marries Mr. Wilcox, Howard’s End becomes a sanctuary for characters in the novel who have suffered various kinds of brokenness, including Mr. Wilcox and Margaret’s sister, the novel’s romantic renegade. The old house provides space for healing because there Margaret brings together there both the old and the new, the masculine and the feminine, Nature and industry.

Bringing together prose and passion

If Clarity Connect had a patron saint, it would be Margaret. Like her, I believe in both the virtue of technological advancement and the enduring value of the inner life that makes us human. As a communication consultant specializing in research translation, I see my job as connecting those two worlds, linking what my clients do not just to their target audience but also to the sense of purpose that makes their work meaningful.

When Margaret considers her yearning to help Mr. Wilcox access the nonrational aspects of life, she draws on the language of both engineering and poetry. She thinks to herself, “… she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion.” (158)

Clarity Connect engages in similar bridge-building. When I work with impact-minded researchers and founders, I help connect the prose of technology and business with the passion that drives the entrepreneurial imagination. Whether I’m helping them develop networking skills, conduct customer discovery conversations, or plan a blog series, my essential task is to help humans connect first with the fullness of their humanity and then with others.

That’s why I wince every time someone calls me a “wordsmith” or assumes that what I do is Plain Language editing. The language itself is not the goal. Language and visuals simply provide the connective material through which the bridge gets built and humans relate effectively to humans through the realms of thought and feeling.

How E.M. Forster translates into communication consulting

When taken merely at the social level, “Only connect!” sounds like an invitation to show empathy and build community, two tasks familiar to anyone who’s dipped into contemporary advice for marketers. As a prime example, Seth Godin has defined marketing’s essence as “anchoring your work deeply in the dreams, desires, and communities of those you seek to serve.” (Thirketing, “Author’s Note”)

But too often, this idealistic perspective devolves into manipulating the audience. Rather than taking an integrative approach, many marketers encourage disintegration. In the name of empathy, they press on the “pain points” that prevent the audience from realizing their dreams. And in the name of community, they create a false sense of belonging based on insider-outsider status.

I witnessed this distortion when I was working with a client who wanted to promote training events. When I observed one of the events, I was struck by the strong interpersonal connections the participants formed. Indeed, those relationships seemed to constitute the chief value that attendees took from the event. So I suggested that we create a video to showcase the powerful sense of community emerging at a training weekend. My client’s reaction was enthusiastic. “Great idea! We can use the video to generate FOMO [fear of missing out]!”

Needless to say, I didn’t work with that client much longer. But I’m grateful for the experience of seeing the world through their eyes because it taught me to value persuasive communication as a way of healing divisions, not creating them.

Using E.M. Forster’s concept of connection as my guide, I help bring clients closer to the people they want to reach, the ideas they want to express, the opportunities they want to seize, and the personal meaning they’re striving to create.

In practical terms, here’s how this approach works:

Connecting with people

Every consulting project starts with a deep dive into intended audience. Often, clients tell me they’ve already done that groundwork, sometimes with another consultant. Perhaps they’ve generated a handful of buyer personas or conducted a customer survey. But in most cases, I find that they’ve just scratched the surface.

I started my career as a literary scholar, which means I conducted in-depth analysis of fictional characters for a living. No, that doesn’t make me a psychotherapist—but it does give me various lenses through which I can view a particular audience, and I like to bring as many of those as possible to bear on a particular situation. It’s not enough to understand the technical or informational needs of your audience; you must dig further down (way down!) to the psychological and emotional motivations that drive them.

In coaching and training sessions, I take a similarly exhaustive approach. Clients learn how to take a systematic inventory of their audience’s “thought world” and to question all their existing assumptions about their audience’s thoughts and emotions. One of my favorite techniques to help people break out of preconceptions is to invite them to draw their audience in their “native habitat.” Sometimes right-brain thinking, with its tendency to run along linear grooves, can hold us back from truly connecting with what our audience is thinking and feeling.

Connecting with ideas

Most consultants who work in “research translation” or “knowledge translation” come from a scientific or technical background. Biologists, for instance, tend to write about life sciences and healthcare, while engineers write about technology.

In my case, however, a specialist in nineteenth-century American literature consults across a wide variety of industry sectors. Crazy, huh?

While I like to joke that I am delightfully unqualified for the work I do, my academic background has actually given me the perfect skillset to help researchers and technical founders express complex ideas. It has made me a scientist of language.

Language doesn’t merely capture thought—it helps produce it. So as I collaborate with clients, as a coach or as a writer, I’m able to help them connect the dots between half-formed thoughts and express their meaning clearly and concisely. My years spent teaching writing and studying writing pedagogy have honed my ability to probe beneath the muddled surface of a draft and help bring to light the author’s intended meaning.

At the same time, my extensive reading in disciplines outside science and technology enables me to draw unexpected connections and help cross-pollinate emergent ideas. For example, during a recent knowledge translation project, a researcher said she’d like to know more about the history of psychiatry and women. I suggested they check out an eighteenth-century novel by Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria: Or the Wrongs of Women, in which a wife is wrongly imprisoned in a “mad house” so that her husband can seize her property.

Connecting with opportunities

As a mantra, “Only connect!” is an imperative, a command. Working with this phrase in mind helps me remember that communication isn’t an end result; it’s the means to a goal. And usually that goal involves some kind of action.

When I was a grad student and then a professor, the phrase “merely academic” meant nothing to me. But as soon as I’d transitioned into the world of business, I grasped its significance. In the academy, most discussions center on a subject, and the goal of the discussion is simply to better understand the subject. But in the world outside the Ivory Tower, it’s not enough to build understanding. You need to motivate and empower an audience to act.

For example, if a pitch deck does a great job of informing the audience about a business idea, what good has it done? Investors who understand a concept aren’t necessarily investors who will put money into the idea. To convince people to part with their money, you need to connect with them at a level beyond the cognitive. You must link what you care about to what they care about and galvanize them into acting on that shared passion.

As a communications consultant, whether I’m coaching or writing, my eye stays fixed on the ultimate prize: the action the client wants the audience to take. Otherwise, we’re simply naming an opportunity, not seizing it.

Connecting with personal meaning

Last summer, I had the pleasure of teaching and coaching an amazing group of young entrepreneurs at Mount Allison University. One of the first activities I asked them to do was to write a manifesto for their business. Rather than simply asking them for a one-liner stating their “why,” I wanted to give them time and space to explore the reason for their business in a creative form.

The class consisted mostly of science and commerce students, so I was prepared for them to push back against this artistic exercise. But to my surprise, the students jumped into the assignment with both feet, and they were eager to share their manifesto. By taking an approach that tapped into their emotions and beliefs, I struck a chord that resonated for many of the students throughout the summer. In individual coaching sessions, time and again we’d return to the language of the manifesto to clarify thinking about business goals and strategy.

In Howard’s End, Margaret dreams about a “rainbow bridge” connecting the rational and soulful parts of a human being (the “prose” and the “passion”). In real life, the building blocks that bridge the gap between what we see and know and what we yearn for are words. Language is the tool we use to connect values with vision, vision with strategy, and strategy with targeted outcomes.

This explains why some clients ask me to help them with strategic planning—not because I’m an expert on business strategy (which I’m not!) but because language enables us to form plans. Language connects passion to purpose, enabling us to create meaning, and meaningful paths, for ourselves.

What’s next for Clarity Connect

At the risk of sounding too poetic, what I’ve learned over the past three years is that the work Clarity Connect does is both practical and soulful. Mr. Wilcox might say “Stuff and nonsense!” But I side with Margaret on the value of connecting with the intangible, incalculable aspects of life that make us human.

In a world that’s becoming increasingly depersonalized, we all have an important role to play in fostering moments of genuinely human connection. Maybe that means taking the time to smile at the cashier who rings in your groceries, to turn the customer discovery process into a genuine conversation, or to write an email so crystal-clear that it lights up the recipient’s day.

Or maybe it means rethinking your research or business communications not as various forms of marketing but rather as different ways of inviting human connection. At Clarity Connect, that’s what I’ll continue to do as I work with clients across various industries, helping them forge strands of meaning so they can move their vision forward and change the world for the better. 

Now that the real work I do is out in the open, in the brand name, I’m looking forward to developing more programs and resources to support impact-minded researchers and founders. My mission is to help those who want to make a difference (researchers and founders) connect with the people who have the power to make a difference (such as investors, policymakers, practitioners, and end users).

Soon I’ll be launching a monthly newsletter for this community of change-makers. If you’d like to join us, sign up here!


There are no comments yet. Be the first one to leave a comment!