The 5 Keys to Connecting with Gen Z

If you’re a Gen-Xer or Baby Boomer who has spent the past several years trying to figure out how to communicate with Millennials, it’s time to start reckoning with another challenge — Gen Z.

Gen Zers are still young — ages 12 to 21 — but they’re coming of age quickly.

And, as was recently explained to me, they are decidedly unMillennial.

That insight came during a recent interview with Marcie Merriman, Executive Director, Cultural Relevancy and Brand Strategy, Ernst & Young.

As Marcie was talking about the characteristics, preferences and habits of Gen Z, she made a point that really caught my attention.

“This generation loves story,” she said. “If you think about success of the musical ‘Hamilton,’ well that all started with them. They love to know the story. What is history behind it? Why is it relevant? What does it mean to me?”

For those of us who are storytellers, this is extremely encouraging news.

But before we get too excited, we have to consider how this emerging generation shares and processes stories.

Gen Zers, after all, are true digital natives who seem to have an attention span more attuned to Snapchat than Shakespeare. As a result, the notion that they are all in for a good story left me a bit skeptical — especially as a parent to two Generation Zers.

So I took a detour in my interview with Marcie to dig a bit deeper. And indeed, she explained there are a few strings attached. Gen Z will listen to your story. But only if you follow these 5 rules:

Don’t treat them like Millennials

The differences between Millennials and Gen Z are stark.

“This next generation is as different from Millennials as Millennials were from Gen Xers,” Marcie says. “Gen Z is much more independent, and focused on succeeding. And because of the Post-9/11 world they grew up in, they have been raised by parents who gave them much more realistic views on life.”

Marcie further explained that the ‘helicopter parent,’ has been largely replaced with the ‘stealth bomber parent.’ In general, Gen Z parents don’t constantly hover. Instead “they monitor, strike when needed to guide, correct or advise their child, and then zoom out.” 

Your story should follow the same model. Be strategic in the information you include and how it can be useful to your Gen Z reader. Don’t hover.

Be authentic

This advice cuts across every generation, but is particularly relevant for the under-21 set. As Marcie bluntly put it: “Their BS meter is pretty good…They have had easy access to all the information they wanted and needed their whole lives, so they tend to look things up, find out what is behind it, and then make decisions.”

Any attempt at the hard sell, fudging the facts, or outward phoniness will be sniffed out and rejected. When it comes to storytelling, as long as it is factual and offers an easy way for them to understand what is behind it, then you have an audience. 

Get to the point

Gen Z has little time for fluff. They are a no-nonsense lot that values relevancy and logic. As Gen Z expert Lucie Greene told the New York Times, think studious and practical Alex Dunphy from the popular ABC show “Modern Family,” as compared to her more Millennial-leaning older sister, Haley.

And if you are trying to hold Alex’s attention, your content better have a quick and clear purpose. “Focus on helping them to learn as opposed just drilling random facts into them,” Marcie says. “The education system has largely moved away from rote memorization, so this is the way their psyche has developed.”

Show don’t tell

The classic ‘show don’t tell’ maxim for good writing hits the mark with Gen Z. 

“They don’t take being told what to do very well,” Marcie says. “As opposed to telling them what to do without context, it’s much better to provide them with the opportunity to see how they can be part of a something or contribute in ways that benefit themselves or others.” 

Marcie cites research that found 80 % of Gen Z respondents said they know whether or not they should do something because their parents have explained the consequences – not because those parents said, “because we say so!”

Deliver seamlessly

Here may be the knottiest catch of all. Your story may hit all the right Gen Z buttons, but it’s all but dead unless it appears before Gen Z eyes effortlessly or requires they take only minimal of action to access it.

“This is the one-click generation—and you are lucky if you even get that,” Marcie says. “They are expecting things to happen automatically. Anything that creates any hassle whatsoever is not just inconvenient, it is a deal killer.”

Ultimately, Gen Z isn’t really asking much. They want information delivered quickly and in ways that help them make decisions—and make sense of the world they are navigating. As storytellers if we achieve that, we’re sure to make strong connections with Gen Z, and all the other generations that came before them.

Scott Westcott is Corporate Practice Leader at Turn Two Communications. Learn more at Turn-two.co