Author Archives: creativecommunicator

About creativecommunicator

My left-brain says I'm an internal communications professional but my right brain says I'm a storyteller, a meaning-maker, an alchemist, a translator, a river-jumper, a comedian, a hedgehog (!), an innovator, an organisational shepherd and an artist, which frankly I prefer.

We should all beware of experts

gingerCEOs and senior business leaders are increasingly placing their trust in experts such as academics, consultants and technical experts.   A 2011 report from the Edelman group points to a dramatic rise in leaders turning to ‘credentialed spokespeople’, so-called experts. But is ‘expertise’ really all it’s cracked up to be?   In 1984 The Economist set a challenge to four different groups to predict what the stock market would look like in ten years time. The groups were made up of four former finance ministers, four company chairmen, four Oxford University students and four London dustmen. Ten years on, who came closest? Of course, it was the dustmen, with the finance ministers trailing in last place.   A study of 82,000 predictions by 284 experts over a 16 year period on issues ranging from the fall of the Soviet Union, oil prices, the Arab Spring and 9/11 showed that the so-called experts got no more right than a monkey randomly sticking a pin in a board.   According to Noreena Hertz’s fabulous book Eyes Wide Open, a 2012 challenge run by The Observer pitted a team of professional investment advisors against a ginger cat called Orlando. Whilst the professionals studies the stock market and used their decades of experience to select winning stocks, Orlando made his choice by pushing a toy mouse onto a grid of numbers.   At the end of the year, Orlando ended up with an impressive 11% return, compared to the ‘experts’ measly 3.5%.

As Hertz says: “experts are taken at face value simply because they are perceived as being expert.” She points to a recent experiment in which a group of adults were asked to make a financial decision while contemplating an expert’s advice. An fMRI scanner measured their brain activity as they did so. What happened next shocked the researchers.  When faced with expert advice, the independent decision making parts of the participants’ brain effectively switched off. An experts speaks, and we stop thinking for ourselves. In her book, Hertz calls for greater consideration of what she calls ‘lay experts’ – those people with skills and experience from the front line.   “Traditional experts come to the table with particular skills and knowhow,” she says. “They are valuable, yet all too often they make their pronouncements from on high, without sufficient mindfulness of context or local conditions. Lay experts, on the other hand, have their feet on the ground. This means that they are capable of delivering insights that those looking down from up top, however qualified, may never discover or volunteer.” We need instead to tap into what Nobel prizewinning economist Friedrich Hayek describes as “the dispersed wisdom of those on the ground.” They may not have the PHDs and the fancy job titles but they almost certainly know what’s best.   When faced with a challenge, expensive consultants are not always the answer. And I’m speaking as a consultant, so I’m effectively saying, don’t hire me.

Why your next project is doomed from the start

wednesdayYou have an important meeting next Wednesday. Your boss sends you an email to say the meeting is being moved forwards by two days.   So do you put it in the diary for Monday or Friday?   This was a question posed at an excellent talk on ‘the science of time’ at the Cheltenham Science Festival last week.   I, as well as about 50% of the audience put my hand up for Monday, but the other half insisted it must be Friday. So why the discrepancy? And who’s right?

Well there’s a psychology at play here.   If you see events in the future as moving towards you (maybe it’s something you’re not looking forward to, like a dental appointment or a difficult meeting) you’re more likely to process the message as the event moving further towards you.   In this case, you’d assume the meeting was now on the Monday, giving you less time.   However, if you see events as you moving towards them, you are the one thrusting ahead and therefore the event moving “forwards by two days” will feel more distant, hence Friday. Try it out with your colleagues.

The presentation last week also touched on what is known as the ‘planning fallacy’ – the tendency for people and organisations to underestimate how long they will need to complete a task, even when they have experience of similar tasks over-running.   Imagine that you were given two tasks to complete – one quick but boring and the other time-consuming but rewarding. Now imagine that you could do one tomorrow and one in six weeks time, what choice would you make?  Most of us would choose the quick/boring task first. We’d put the time-consuming task off in the (mistaken) belief that by then we’d have more time. But of course, we rarely do.   We don’t take into account the fact that in six weeks time there will be other unexpected things taking up our time, and that we’re likely to be just as busy as we are now, if not more.

The planning fallacy, first coined by economist Daniel Kahneman in his bestseller Thinking Fast & Slow, can be seen everywhere in business, and indeed in government where ambitious budget and spending forecasts routinely fail to take into account delays, obstacles and unexpected events.  Here’s a quote:   “When forecasting the outcomes of risky projects, executives too easily fall victim to the planning fallacy. In its grip, they make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on rational weighting of gains, losses and probabilities.   They overestimate benefits and underestimate costs. They spin scenarios for success while overlooking the potential for mistakes and miscalculations. As a result, they pursue initiatives that are unlikely to come in on budget or on time or to deliver the expected returns – or even to be completed.”   What I learned last week is that, whilst we tend to exaggerate our own ability to forecast the future, we tend to be more pessimistic about the forecasting of others.  If I asked you to predict how long it will take you to complete a detailed task, and then asked an uninvolved observer to say how long they think you would take, the observer would almost certainly choose a longer, and probably more realistic, timeframe.

It’s worth us communicators understanding the impact of the planning fallacy, but we probably also fall under its spell just as easily. Company strategies, annual plans, change projects all come with timelines attached, but be honest, how often are these timelines realistic?   Project managers are notoriously over-ambitious when forecasting. I can barely think of a single project I’ve worked on that’s delivered on time and budget. Perhaps the trick, when forecasting how long something is going to take, is to ask someone else how long they think it will take you and use that figure. It’s probably more accurate.

When even clunky PowerPoint works!

cancer_cellsAt last week’s always-stimulating Hay Festival I attended a talk by an eminent biochemist entitled ‘Demystifying Cancer’.   It was basically a PowerPoint presentation and what’s more, the speaker broke almost every rule in the ‘how to use PowerPoint’ book. Lots of slides, too much text, Comic Sans font, clunky clip art and basic animation.   Not, perhaps, the recipe for an informative and engaging communication session.   However, it was fantastic – a lesson in how to communicate a complex subject and to make the message stick.   I left the session with a whole new level of understanding of this massively complicated area. I could explain to my daughter how cells mutate, I understood how tumours form and I felt uplifted by the advances in science.   The impact, of course, was because the speaker was so engaging.   His well-rehearsed presentation was stunning in its simplicity and compelling in its delivery. But it wasn’t just about the presenter.   It was a triumph for PowerPoint too.   Yes it was a completely amateurish set of slides, clearly put together by someone experimenting with all the buttons on the PowerPoint task bar, but the content was designed to be simple and in that context, the simple home-made look of the slideware fitted the occasion perfectly.   Arrows moving uncomfortably across the screen seemed to work, flashing garish red text highlighted key points beautifully and the shockingly awful clipart images introduced humorous metaphors at just the right time.   Well done professor.

Earlier that morning I finished reading a book about ‘simplicity’ and how to overcome the “crisis of complexity” that is sweeping across our lives and workplaces.   This is something us communicators can relate to only so well, even though we’re often the ones creating the complexity by communicating too much. Here’s a good quote from the book*:  “From jury instructions to user manuals, we’re witnessing an epidemic of over-explaining. This seems to be based on the fallacy that if you provide people with more information, it will yield greater understanding. In fact, the opposite is true: too much information overwhelms people. It creates fuzziness, not clarity. When inundated with information, people are apt to lose sight of what’s important and stop paying attention.”   Bravo.  The book introduces three principles of simplicity – empathise, clarify and distil.   We comms people can relate to the second and third but I wonder how much credence we really place on empathising with our audience – understanding other’s needs and expectations.   Not enough I think.   My next book, also picked up at Hay, is all about Empathy so I’ll read it and report back my findings!

Funny enough, when I returned from Hay I started on a new project. What’s it all about? Simplification. 

* Simple by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn

Why disengaged workers take the biscuit

CookiesHere is one of my favourite stories about employee engagement. I can’t remember which book I read it in so apologies for the lack of reference.   Anyway, researchers took two groups of volunteers and placed them in separate rooms to complete a repetitive cognitive task that required concentration (something about pressing a button on a keyboard when they saw a particular set of numbers appear on a screen).   In the first room, the volunteers were greeted warmly and thanked for their participation by the researchers, who then explained the tasks and asked the group if they had any questions.   On the table in front of the volunteers sat a big plate of warm cookies and the group were told they could help themselves after completing the tasks or choosing to stop. The researchers then left the room.   In the other room, the second set of volunteers were given exactly the same task and offered an equally tasty plate of warm cookies to eat at the end.   This time, however, the researchers simply read out a list of instructions and left the room.

What happened next amazed the researchers.   Not only did the first group do much better at the cognitive task but they also stuck at the job significantly longer than the other group before tucking into the cookies.   The people who were welcomed, well briefed and invited to ask questions were more ‘engaged’ with the task – so much so that their productivity was superior and so was their willingness to see the task to the end.   They could resist the lure of the cookies far longer than the second group, who gave up pretty early.

The only difference between the two groups was in the way they were treated by the researchers. The people in the first group were treated as individuals. They were made to feel welcome and asked for their feedback and questions.   They were smiled at and thanked. And this made the difference.   Even that minor level of ‘engagement’ led to the team performing better and being more conscientious about the job they were asked to do.   The other group, with just a clinical one-way briefing, had no ‘reason why’ when it came to the task and, well, they couldn’t be bothered in the end.

This experiment highlights the very thin line between engagement and disengagement but it also shows the benefits of a smile and a kind word.   I often use this story with managers to emphasise that sometimes it’s the little things that matter.   It also offers a low cost way of testing engagement – put some warm cookies in the office on a busy day and see how fast they go!

Vision statements are like Fridays

FridayI’ve just read a book about a bloke who wakes up one morning, realises that everything on the TV and radio is bad news and then wonders where all the optimists are.   Intrigued by the question, he resolves to identify and track down the world’s biggest optimists to find out what makes them tick and why everyone else isn’t like them.   On his journey – via Bill Clinton, Archbishop Tutu, politicians, psychologists, sports stars and a fair bunch of nutters – our hero enters the world of neuroscience, transcendental meditation, high finance and religion.

Most of us, at the end of the day, tend to be optimistic about things we can control.   Most of us believe our children will go on to be successful.  Most of us think we’ll be healthy in our old age.  Most of us believe we can avoid accidents.   And as we prepare for a new year, most of us will genuinely be optimistic about achieving our new year resolutions.   But while we’re optimistic about ourselves, we’re often less so about other people.   People tend to think their own financial situation will improve even if they think the overall economy will not.   People have enormous belief in their own ability to whether storms and avoid loss.   Why is this?   And if it’s true, why do we see overt optimism as a sign of weakness or naivety?

Apparently when you ask people to rank the days in the week in terms of preference, they rate Friday higher than Sunday, even though Friday is a work day and Sunday is not.   Saturday is always tops, but why do people prefer Friday to Sunday?   The answer lies in our unique human ability to imagine.    Friday holds promise.  It offers anticipation for the weekend ahead.    Sunday may be a day of rest but we all know that lying in the back of our minds is the thought of work the next day.   I don’t know about you but I like Christmas Eve more than Christmas Day.  Christmas Eve holds magic and excitement.  And optimism.

In the workplace, optimism flows freely from boardrooms and business cases – we will achieve our vision, we will deliver the change programme, we will meet our objectives, we will deliver sustainable growth etc.   Why are leaders so optimistic?  Especially when history tells us that most change programmes fail and that most visions are never realised.   I’ve seen some ambitious business cases in my time and I can hardly think of a single one that has lived up to expectations.    One of the reasons behind this ‘blind’ optimism is that we focus purely on the things we want to change, and we assume that by changing them we’ll all be better off.   It’s that Friday feeling.

There are two problems with this.   First, while we have a natural optimism bias about things in our control, we have a natural pessimism bias about the things that aren’t.   So the people writing the business case or vision statement may well feel optimistic, but those observing from the side may not share the same excitement.   So when you try to engage the pessimists, you have your work cut out.   Secondly, when we set out on a change programme to ‘make things better’, we assume that by doing so we’ll enjoy the benefits on a quid pro quo basis (fix this blockage and we’ll be xxx amount better off).   The problem though, according to Tali Sharot, author of The Optimism Bias, is that “we underestimate how quickly and easily we adapt to new circumstances and we fail to incorporate such adaptation into our forecasts”.    We may be optimistic about starting a new job because the pay is higher.   So we focus on those things that will change (more money!) and that makes us optimistic.  However, we don’t take into account that we still have bills to pay, we still have problems to deal with, we still have to get up on a cold Tuesday morning, we still have office politics, we still have to load the dishwasher.    We may be optimistic about the weekend on a Friday but we all know that not all weekends live up to expectations.   Vision statements are like Fridays – full of hope, expectation and optimism.   But there’s always a Monday round the corner.

The Hundred Languages of Childhood

child-skyEver since watching Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk on how schools kill creativity, I’ve been determined not to let school get in the way of my daughter’s education.   I love Sir Ken’s analogy of schools being industrial when they should be agricultural.   Our school models, he says, are linear rather than organic.   We teach children what to think, not how to think.   We put them on a production line, feed them facts and test them to death to see how much they remember.   Where’s the creativity in that?    I once heard Michael Morpurgo talk about why he hated school.  He said he was always told off for looking out the window.    “But why”, he said, “that’s where the world is.”    I came across this wonderful poem by education pioneer Loris Malaguzzi.   I think it pretty much sums it up, but the uplifting finale provides inspiration to all of us.

The Hundred Languages of Childhood By Loris Malaguzzi

The child

is made of one hundred.

The child has

a hundred languages

a hundred hands

a hundred thoughts

a hundred ways of thinking

of playing, of speaking.

A hundred always a hundred

ways of listening

of marvelling of loving

a hundred joys

for singing and understanding

a hundred worlds

to discover

a hundred worlds

to invent

a hundred worlds

to dream.

The child has

A hundred languages

(and a hundred hundred more)

but they steal ninety-nine.

The school and the culture

separate the head from the body.

They tell the child:

to think without hands

to do without head

to listen and not to speak

to understand without joy

to love and to marvel

only at Easter and Christmas.

They tell the child:

to discover the world already there

and of the hundred

they steal ninety-nine.

They tell the child:

that work and play

reality and fantasy

science and imagination

sky and earth

reason and dream

are things

that do not belong together.

And thus they tell the child

that the hundred is not there.

The child says:

No way.  The hundred is there.

Why we remember songs not strategies

Rush_2112In the car this morning I listened to an album I haven’t heard for probably 30-odd years (2112 by Rush).   Now, it was great to listen to some vintage Rush after all this time, but what was really striking was the fact that I found myself remembering the words and singing along ( I couldn’t reach Geddy Lee’s pitch but I gave it a good try).   How could I remember the lines of songs I haven’t heard for three decades?   I then turned on the iPod and found myself singing every single line of Joe Jackson’s Fools in Love.     If you asked me to write down the lyrics now I’d struggle to remember the first two lines, but put me in the context of the song itself and it all comes flooding back.    Why is that?   Why do song lyrics stick?

Here, the context is everything.   The human brain holds about one billion neurons, which combine to make over one trillion connections, and each connection helps to store multiple memories.   Our brains prefer to store data in patterns, so music provides a simple, handy ‘package’ of data – words, sounds, tunes, inflexions, tones, narratives etc – which can be stored in pattern form.    Revive the memory of one part of the pattern (the music) and other parts will be retrieved (the lyrics).   Our early ancestors knew this when they told their stories on the savannah.  The ability to pass down traditions, beliefs and knowledge to future generations was vital to preserve the continuity of the tribe, but the spoken word was unreliable and easily forgotten.   If a tradition was to survive over many generations it would need to be ‘packaged’ for passing from one person to another in a more reliable way – say through a powerful visual image, a story or a song.    So tribes would develop chants involving alliterations, repetitions and rhymes that could be easily remembered and repeated.   This tactic of preserving knowledge and tradition is still employed by aboriginal tribes in Australia and others around the world.

So those of us in the business of getting messages to stick have surely found the answer – put the company strategy to music?   Well, don’t laugh because some companies have done it, but it doesn’t have to be quite as drastic as that.   Music does tell us something about the way we remember and how we can exploit our brain’s fondness for connections.   I’m reminded of a story I was told many years ago on a neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) workshop….

The annual sales conference of a struggling photocopier company was fast approaching.   Sales performance was dire and managers were seriously worried about morale.  A rival company had recently introduced an all-singing all-dancing photocopier that simply blew away all competition.  It was beautiful, sleek and hi-tech … and most sales reps knew the game was up.  They couldn’t possibly compete with this new kid on the block.    What could managers do to avoid next week’s sales conference from turning into a wake?   The day arrived.   The hall was full of depressed, worried and vanquished reps.   They were expecting a kicking.  Or the chop.    The lights went down.  The dry ice came up.   Two men in brown coats wheeled something onto the stage covered in a sheet.    The spotlight shone brightly as the sheet was pulled away to reveal …… the competitor’s photocopier.   There in all its glory, shining brightly, beautiful.    The crowd sat in silence, dumbstruck that here in front of them was the very cause of their depression.  How could the company do such a thing?    Suddenly, at full volume, the hall fills with the first few bars of Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer.    More brown-coated men walk on carrying (you’ve guessed it) sledgehammers.    The first blow is struck as plastic and metal flies off in all directions.   Then another and another.    As the music gets even louder, the sledgehammersledgehammers rain down on their prey.   The pristine photocopier is now a tangled, battered mess.   The crowd are on their feet.  Some jump on their chairs pumping the air.   The atmosphere is febrile.  At the end of the song, the hammerers slowly walk off, leaving the shattered shell of the competition for all to see.    There’s a pause.    The crowd are excited.    Then the boss walks on, kicking a piece of debris in his path and says to the assembled reps “so, how do you feel?”.     He explains that underneath each of their chairs is a cassette tape and that he’d like them to play it in their cars when they’re out on the road.  It only contains one song, on both sides.   Of course, it’s Sledgehammer.    In the following months, the company’s reps beat all previous sales records.  The company survives and ultimately prospers.

So this is an example of anchoring.   Using a song or a mental image to bring back a memory and catalyze action.   Powerful stuff.   Messages are more likely to stick if they can be attached to a pattern, or ‘schema’.    Think of one thing and it triggers a connection and revives another memory.   Our challenge is to be creative in how we set those patterns, package the message and anchor the experience.    Music and business – not obvious bedfellows but maybe we have something to learn here?

Ten reasons why we don’t understand stuff

badgerSo I sat there in this meeting about IT and I understood less than 20% of what was discussed.   For the most part, I tried to pick out the words I knew and did my best to make sense of it but towards the end I had to admit, I switched off.   Highly unprofessional and not very productive, but sometimes you just have to put your hands up and say “you’ve got me, I don’t know what you’re talking about”.   Although, of course, I didn’t put my hands up at all.   Most of us soldier on, not having or seeking understanding.   And this happens every day to millions of people in the workplace.

So why do some of us just not get stuff, and why don’t we speak up?   Here are ten reasons why …

1.  Lack of context.   One of the reasons messages fail to hit home in organisations is that they don’t have context.  Messages are too random, with no sense of belonging or association.   I can receive and read a message, but I can only understand it if I can tie it to something I already know … what psychologists call a ‘schema’.

2.  Too many assumptions.   Communications professionals should have a code of conduct and somewhere near the top should be the words ‘assume nothing’.     We cannot assume our audience has read every communication, or turned up to every meeting, or listened to every word, or understood every meaning, or asked every question, or left the room with a warm glow of satisfaction.    People understand when the message is simple, consistent, relevant, contextualised, well-delivered and meaningful.    Most corporate comms messages aren’t.

3.  Too much jargon.   I’m always amazed at how many people in organisations, often at senior level, don’t understand their own jargon.   Test out common acronyms on a sample audience at any one time and I guarantee some will get them wrong.   But it’s like the emperor’s new clothes.   We all think we’re the only ones.

4.  Complexity.    “Confusion now hath made his masterpiece” says Macduff to Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Scottish play.   When it comes to ensuring understanding, the principle of Occam’s Razor should apply – the simplest explanation is usually the right one.  But why oh why do we insist on making everything so complicated!   It’s one of the biggest barriers to understanding in the workplace – too much complexity.   Simple, simple, simple.  It has to be on our code of conduct!

5.  Groupthink.   In recent years, scientists have uncovered some fascinating insights into why we are so inclined to “go along with the crowd”.   This concept of ‘groupthink’ is a dangerous barrier to understanding, because of our reluctance to break from the crowd.  How often have you gone along with a group idea only to find later that none of the group actually wanted to do it.  “I only went along with it because I thought you wanted to do it”.  “Oh, but I thought it was you who wanted it”.   In experiments, where groups of people looking at a problem were influenced by primed ‘actors’ pushing the wrong solution, an astounding number of participants would vote with the wrong answer, even though they knew it to be false.    Neuroscientists have discovered that, when alone, people rely on the frontal, decision-making areas of their brain, but in groups, they use more of the emotional area associated with perception.   Peer pressure can indeed be a dangerous thing.   In practice, many of those people who say they understand, actually don’t.

6.  Myths & Rumours.   I’ve just worked on a project which suffered little from false rumours. Word went round that a new service was expensive and unreliable and this fuelled perception among potential customers.   The original rumour turned out to be way wide of the mark, and it took some heavy comms and engagement to ‘bust the myths’ and get back on track.   But people do base their understanding on what they’ve heard as well as what they’ve experienced – as many brands have found to their cost.   Suddenly, half your audience has got the wrong end of the stick. 

7.  Wrong culture.  Organisational cultures can be silent killers of many things – advancement, creativity, engagement, collaboration, change agility, service ethos etc.   But culture can seriously impact understanding too, not least in the way it hampers openness, conversation and challenge.    Is it OK to ask a ‘stupid’ question in your organisation?  Is it OK to say “I don’t understand”?   Is it career-limiting to say you don’t get it?   Unfortunately, for many, the answer is yes.

8.  No reason why.   Surely one of the biggest reasons people fail to understand is, quite simply, because they can’t be bothered.   And who’s to blame them?   We’ve got enough on our plate without having to learn something new.    So if we want our audience to truly understand something we need to give them a reason why.   Part of that comes in the context described above, but it also has to have a relevance, a hook or a ‘stickiness’ (to paraphrase Chip & Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick).    Not only do we have to get the audience to be able to understand it, we need them to want to understand it too.

9.  Lack of opportunity.    Take the phrase “I didn’t give him money”.   Say it aloud five times, putting an emphasis on a different word each time and you have five different meanings.   It’s hard to get the true meaning of a message first time round, especially when it’s written and not spoken.   So we get round that by asking questions and seeking clarification.   “When you said A, I thought you meant B”.  “No, when I said A I meant C.”   That’s a relief, I was about to go and do D.”   That, again, is human nature, but so often in the workplace we restrict the opportunity for questions and clarification.   And without the opportunity, we risk misunderstanding.

10.  Poor delivery.   At some point, of course, after the planning and the crafting, the message must be delivered.  Somehow.  This is the ‘transaction’ it all comes down to.  So getting the delivery right is key – the right words, in the right way, through the right channel.    The level of understanding will come down to the options you choose, so what’s going to work for your audience?  Will it be speedy email, a face-to-face briefing, a jargon-busting article, an engaging story, a creative visual, inspiring videos, an interactive conference … mime, dance, shadow puppetry (OK, I’m getting silly now, but you get the gist).    The right delivery for the right audience.   Get it right and get it understood.

Test your creativity – No 2

bicycleOne of my favourite creativity techniques is conceptual blending, or synthesis.   It simply involves taking random or unconnected objects/words/topics and blending them together to form new ideas.  Almost every idea or invention is a blend of, or an inspiration from, an existing idea.   Our ancestors would have invented fire after observing lighting strikes.  DaVinci combined the wheel and the horse to sketch a prototype bicycle.   Gutenberg invented the printing press after visiting a vineyard and seeing how the crushed black grapes left imprints on the wine press.  The man who invented the typewriter (Christopher Sholes) was inspired by watching a pianist.   If each key on  a piano could play a different note, he wondered, then why can’t I produce keys that each stamp a different letter?

Creative people look for these connections by forcing ideas and objects together.   In my creativity workshops I play a game with random objects.   Each person finds a partner and selects a random object from a hidden list (they don’t know what object they’ve chosen until the game starts).   They then have to work with their partner to come up with a new object or idea by blending the two selections together.  The key here is to think laterally.   Let’s say one person selects the word ‘cake’ and the other person gets lumped with ‘trumpet’.  Now, at first glance you might think you’ll never find a connection there.   You could just opt for the obvious, a cake in the shape of a trumpet, but that’s hardly creative.   The trick here is to remove the physical manifestations of the cake and the trumpet from our minds and to start thinking more about the ‘concept’ of the objects.  To do this, write down or shout out the characteristics of a cake, or things you associate with a cake – it’s made up of ingredients; baked in an oven; it can’t be stored for too long; icing; candles; eaten at parties etc.   Then do the same with a trumpet – made of brass; blown into, valves that move up and down; part of an orchestra etc.   Then you have more to blend, so you look for inspiration by connecting the characteristics or concepts.   I’ve just spent five minutes thinking about this (because I honestly did pick cake and trumpet randomly for this example!) and here’s what I came up with …

How about a cake icing device that you blow into, or push air into, to enable the icing to flow through the nozzle?   Then how about adding valves, like on a trumpet, so you can alter the thickness of the icing without having to change the nozzle?   It’s saves time, washing up and makes your icing patterns more creative! 

OK, I won’t win any prizes for that, but you get the gist.   Now how about a hose pipe and a spider?  A compass and a telescope?   A wheelbarrow and a firework?   This type of random blending is a great ice-breaker to get the creative juices flowing.   The challenge is to force connections, not to give up.  And you do that by breaking the object down into characteristics, get your mind away from thinking about the object itself and more about what it does, how it works, how it’s made etc.   I’ve done this exercise with dozens of groups and nobody has ever failed to come up with a great idea.

To take things further, introduce a problem, rather than another object, into the mix.  Try blending a work problem you need to fix with a random object from the list.   This brings it into the workplace.   For communicators, a common problem is getting the message to stick.  So combine ‘getting the message to stick’ with the name of an object drawn from a hat.   Let’s say a purse, for instance.  How can we combine ‘getting the message to stick’ with a purse?   You may start thinking of what people keep in a purse, like credit cards for instance.   Could we produce key messages on a credit-card sized piece of plastic so people can carry them round with them?    How about a torch?   Does that give us ideas about ‘shining a spotlight’?    I was looking for inspiration the other day for communicating a project I’m working on to do with performance reporting.  I walked past a Virgin Active health club and it got me thinking about the term ‘active’ – how business performance is not unlike measuring fitness.   I came up with a concept of using the word ‘ACTIVE’ alongside the company logo as a brand through which we’d communicate performance, and we’d use fitness-style graphics like you see on running machines to show business metrics.   It’s a tiny example but it all came about because I happened to look into a window, saw something that caught my eye and blended it with a challenge.

On my workshops, I send participants out into the street to look for random objects to blend.  They go into shops, look at signs, watch people and study products … and they always come back with some incredibly creative ideas drawn from blending or inspiration.   It’s not hard to do.   Play the game in the car on a long journey or walking round a park.  Play it with children for really great results.   And play it with your team when faced with a problem that needs solving.   Go on, Blend it like Beckham!

Now tell me we’re not propagandists

propaganda1Corporate communicators working in or visiting London should definitely check out the latest exhibition at the British Library – Propaganda:  Power and Persuasion.   As I walked round the fascinating exhibition tracing the history, strategies and consequences of state propaganda, it started to feel uncomfortably like walking into an internal communicator’s handbook!   Look at some of these propaganda techniques highlighted in the exhibition:  Inflame passions; spread the word; know the audience; get the message in the right hands; exploit existing culture; use symbols; generate popular appeal; check your sources; employ an expert; think big; get everywhere; hammer it home; use humour.   Looks like a synopsis for one of my change comms workshops!

Most of us equate propaganda with war and/or oppressive regimes (did the Germans really kill kittens on the steps of churches in WW2?), but as the exhibition neatly shows, “propaganda is really no more than the communication of ideas designed to persuade people to think and behave in a desired way.”   Sound familiar?   The danger of propaganda, says one commentator, is propaganda2when the communicator has a monopoly – when there is no alternative source of information.   Are we talking here about North Korea or most internal comms departments?   Veteran journalist John Pilger says in one of the exhibitions superb videos:  “Propaganda has become insidious and all-powerful because of two words … public relations.”   Former government spin doctor Alistair Campbell points out that the word propaganda suffers from, if you like, “bad PR” but it’s really no more than effective message management.   The 2012 Olympics, health campaigns (have you had your five-a-day?) and terrorist alerts are all forms of propaganda, whilst social media such as Twitter and Facebook make us all potential propagandists.    Whilst we internal communicators use intranets, newsletters, briefings and videos, our state-funded colleagues turn to flags, monuments, ceremonies, stamps and national anthems to change behaviour.   Check out the incredible posters and slogans used by nations and regimes to build popular opinion and manipulate behaviour – from army recruitment to eating more potatoes.   If you’re in London any time soon, I urge you to take an hour to visit this fascinating exhibition and learn a little about this much-maligned side of our craft.

Propaganda:  Power and Persuasion runs until 17th September at the British Library.  More details at http://www.bl.uk/

 

Test your creativity – No 1

creativityaHenry Ford once said “if you think you’re not creative, you’re not”.   Creativity isn’t natural born or God-given.  It’s not in the exclusive gift of painters, writers, graphic designers and those in the performing arts.   It’s in us all (yes, even you).   The bad news is that school and work suppress creativity, so as we get older we lose the opportunity and encouragement to be creative and we begin to feel we (i) can’t do it and (ii) shouldn’t do it.  The good news however is that creativity can easily be reawakened.  And the start point is to change how you see the world.

Creative people seek difference.  They look for the things that others don’t see.  Our brain – when faced with a stimulus – will always take the path of least resistance.  Have I faced this situation before?  If so, what did I do last time?   What connections already exist?   This obsession with familiarity enables our brain to cope with some ambiguity.  It’s why we can easily read the famous passage below, even with the letters mixed up (incidentally, the research referred to is made-up).

cambridge

So our brain will do its best to use its existing database rather than seek new data.   The trick therefore, as creative people know, is to break the pattern and establish new connections.   That may mean deliberately changing your normal behaviour – physically sitting in a different seat to see things from a new perspective, changing your normal routines (a different route to work?) or thinking laterally.    Take a look at word below.  What word do you see – flip, or is it flop?    Your brain will jump to a conclusion but is it the only conclusion?

FlipFlop

Now look at the FedEx logo below – a very familiar brand to all of us.  But most us look at the image (the stimulus) and just say “oh yeah, it’s the FedEx logo”.   How many of us see the ‘hidden’ brand icon – the image that defines FedEx’s business – within the logo?   Yes, you’ve got it – the white arrow between the E and the X.   That’s because we instinctively look at the letters not what’s within the letters.

fedEx

Study the picture below and find the hidden tiger.   Give yourself 60 seconds.

Tiger

We can all see an image of a tiger in a jungle, right?   But I said look for the hidden tiger.  Instinctively, most of us will look for another image of a tiger hidden in the bushes – some of us will even insist we can see one in the leaves.   The answer, if you look closely, is in the stripes of the tiger.   I didn’t say look for a picture of a hidden tiger.  I just said find the hidden tiger.   It’s that pesky brain again, making us do what we’ve always done.

We’re not always in control of our brain, it does most of its work without us (so to speak) so sometimes we need to train ourselves to open our eyes and seek those new patterns, those new stimuli.   Try it next time you’re out and about.  I guarantee you won’t look at the FedEx logo in the same way again.

More next week.

The future’s not what it used to be

Homo_ErectusIt all started somewhere around 100,000 years ago.  For more than a million years, our early human ancestors had used tools like spears and hand axes.  They had begun to communicate through basic language or signs, build shelters, cook food and kill large animals.   But these early hominids didn’t really ‘progress’.    Despite having brains the same size as modern humans, their tools hadn’t evolved in thousands of years, there was no cultural advancement and no technological breakthrough.  And then it happened.

Human beings started to do something to and with each other than began to build ‘collective intelligence’.   Matt Ridley takes up the story in his wonderfully positive book The Rational Optimist:  “They had started, for the very first time, to exchange things between unrelated, unmarried individuals – to share, swap, barter and trade.  The effect of this was to cause specialisation, which in turn caused technological innovation, which in turn encouraged more specialisation, which led to more exchange … and progress was born.”   Having seen no tool innovation for hundreds of thousands of years, suddenly new technologies gathered pace, thanks to specialisation.   Our ancestors realised that they didn’t have to do everything themselves.   I could specialise in making cutting edge bone heads for spears, while you in the neighbouring community make needles.   I could catch antelope and you could catch fish.  Then we’ll swap.   Ridley again:  “Collaboration between unrelated strangers seems to be a uniquely human achievement. In no other species can two individuals who have never met exchange goods and services to the benefit of each other.”   When researchers tried to get monkeys to barter over the years, the experiments always ended in violence.

So humans developed through increased specialisation, leading to faster innovation.   It was, as philosopher Adam Smith described in the 18th century, the division of labour in all its glory.  But what made our ancestors take those steps in the first place?   To deal with a stranger you need to be polite, to co-operate and show trust.  How did that come about?   Did the answer lie in our unique ability to smile – a small but powerful gesture of trust?   Who knows.   Whatever it was, it worked.   And we have those African hominids to thank for a world in which we can trade all over the world (from kidney beans to kidneys) and share our movements, our thoughts, our photos, our knowledge, our donations, our recommendations and our ancestry with fellow human beings across the planet.   And this willingness – and ability – to share and collaborate is getting stronger with every generation, leading to who-knows-what innovation is lying round the corner.

At the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, when experts were asked to state which invention was most likely to have the biggest impact on the 20th century, nobody mentioned the motor car or the telephone.   Even our generation cannot comprehend what innovation lies ahead and what technologies will be commonplace in the next century.   Increasing specialisation will see to it that work – and the workplace – will continue to evolve and adapt and innovate, but one thing we can be sure of is that the future will be collaborative and organic.   And that’s where we communicators need to pay heed, in my opinion.   We can’t keep trying to manage top-down.    History shows that when organisations get too big, innovation and engagement suffers, in the same way that economic progress suffers when governments try to control too much.   We have to allow the next generation workforce to co-create the communication and innovation – to apply their own specialism.    It means pulling back, empowering, encouraging and empathising.    It means smiling more.   We should concentrate on the meat and let someone else do the fish.   As Matt Ridley says:  “The world is turning bottom-up.  The top-down years are at an end.”

People don’t complain about communication overload

overloadLet’s say I’m coming to your house and I ask you to give me directions.   You may say something like this:  “Take the third exit at the roundabout, follow the road for about a mile, take a right at the T-junction, next to the pub.  Go past the church on your right, up the hill, past the petrol station and we’re on the left, opposite the big white house – black door, tree in garden.”   That should do it.  Even better if you sketched out a quick drawing with the key landmarks.   Because that’s what it’s all about isn’t it – key landmarks?   If I’m heading in the right direction and I know what to look out for – the church, the pub, the petrol station – there’s a good chance I’ll find what I’m looking for.   You certainly wouldn’t describe every house and every tree.    That would be pointless.   If you did, it would be a clear case of information overload.   Ah, now there’s a term we hear a lot about these days – information overload.   We’ve all complained about it at some point, but is it really such a problem and do we really know what we’re complaining about?

The human brain can store roughly three terabytes of information.   It sounds impressive, until you realise that this is about one millionth of the information now produced in the world each day.  What it all means is that our brain has to be extremely selective in what it chooses to remember.   In his recent best-seller The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver uses the art and science of ‘prediction’ to search for meaning – what he calls the ‘signal’ – amongst the noise of Big Data.   I really like the analogy of the signal and the noise, and it’s a good one for us communicators.    How do we find the engaging narrative (the signal) among the jargon and detail (the noise)?   Biology should be on our side.

As Silver writes in his book, human beings do not have very many natural defences.  We’re not particularly fast or strong.  We don’t have claws, fangs of armour and we don’t spit venom.  We can’t camouflage ourselves and we can’t fly.   “Instead”, he says, “we survive by means of our wits.  Our minds are quick.  We are wired to detect patterns and respond to opportunities and threats without hesitation.”   Our brain instinctively seeks simplicity, so it can process new information quickly and react accordingly  – it seeks the signal amid the noise.   Twitter isn’t popular because people are lazy, it’s just meeting the natural desire for brevity, like the cave drawings, jungle drums and smoke signals of days gone by.   The trouble is, it can sometimes find the wrong signal, or a pattern that isn’t actually there.   And in the workplace, that can be bad for business, so that’s where we try to step in – to help our people find the right signal.

When people complain about information overload I don’t think it’s so much about the ‘quantity of data’ but the ‘lack of signal’.   A hundred new emails in your inbox in the morning is only information overload if most of them contain pointless information (noise).   If every single one contained information relevant to what you’re working on, it’s not information overload (it may be a high workload, but that’s different).   That’s the difference between communication and information.   Information is ‘stuff’ or ‘data’ whereas communication is about making a connection.   You don’t hear people talk about communication overload.   It’s not the quantity that’s the problem, it’s the quality.   We can’t do much about the amount of information out there.   Just like the birth of language and the invention of the printing press, the web has unleashed an unstoppable tsunami of information, which is now growing by 2.5 quintillion bytes per day.  But how much of that is useful?   It’s a noisy world out there, so fellow communicators, get out and find that damn signal.

What to do if your boss is a psychopath

office-politicsWhat I love most about the Hay Festival is the eclectic mix of stories and ideas you can be exposed to in a single day.  On one day last week I started in the morning at a talk about Socrates and ended it with a rock concert.    In between I learned about how WW2 prisoners escaped from occupied France by crossing the Pyrenees, what Michael Vaughan thinks of the forthcoming Ashes series and the latest advances in neuroscience.  I listened to a former Archbishop of Canterbury and the director of the British Museum talk about imagery in religion, watched Simon Schama moan about the teaching of history in schools and saw my daughter getting inspired by the great Michael Morpurgo.   And that’s just one day.   One of the talks I was most looking forward to was the psychologist Oliver James discussing his recent book Office Politics:  How to Survive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks.    I read the book a few months ago and found it to be an entertaining study of office behaviour, if not a little worrying.   According to James, the only way to thrive in business today is to learn the art of office politics.

He suggests our offices are patrolled by a ‘dark triad’ of psychopaths, Machiavels and narcissists.   The psychopaths have no conscience and will do whatever it takes to climb to the top.  The Machiavels will manipulate colleagues like pieces on a chessboard, while the narcissists are so full of self-love they’ll offer promotions to anyone who tells them how great they are.    Recent research in the US showed that psychopathy was four times commoner than normal in a study of 200 American senior managers, while a British study revealed significantly more narcissism in senior managers than patients in mental hospitals or inmates in a secure prison for violent offenders!   While the labels and descriptions may seem a little colourful and over the top, the stories in James’s book (based on real life interviews with office workers) are certainly familiar to us all.   What’s more, James insists we all use office politics every day, whether we’re aware of it or not.   We instinctively know that we stand a better chance of getting promoted if we can get the boss to like us, and good political skills will increase the chances of gaining that awareness, popularity and trust.   Simply by laughing at the boss’s jokes, asking about weekend plans or referring to the fact that we worked late, we’re playing the game.   And there’s no shame in that, says Oliver James.

So how do we survive this nasty, backstabbing world of office politics?   You can’t beat them, says James, so you may as well join them.    According to him, there are four key skills we must learn:  astuteness (being able to read the signs), thespianism (knowing how and when to act), networking (carefully nurturing relationships) and sincerity (or, more specifically, the appearance of sincerity).     There are some pretty ruthless and unsavoury characters in James’s book but he insists they are real people in real jobs.  He also believes they exist in every office, and he’s probably right to some extent.  We all understand the term ‘office politics’ and we communications professionals arguably come up against it more than most.   We almost certainly play office politics more than we’d let on too.  There is clearly a ‘political’ dimension to the work we do and the whole employee engagement agenda is riddled with tactics and behaviours that could be described as manipulative.  I’ve even met a few comms professionals in my time with clear psychopathic tendencies!   We internal comms people tend not to talk about office politics as much as we should.   It’s not the same as culture.   We know office politics exists but we tend to work around it rather than confronting it.   Maybe it’s time to take it more seriously?

We introverts can be good communicators too

introvertAbout 48 hours before I will start getting butterflies.  I wake up in the night and go over it again and again in my head.   I lose my appetite and my concentration.   On the day itself I will steel myself and rehearse constantly in my head.   I’ll try techniques to calm my breathing and half-heartedly attempt some positive thinking exercises.   I’ll prepare a Plan B in case I get dry-mouthed and lose my thread.   There have been times when I’ve completely stopped mid-sentence and forgotten everything, including who I am.   As the moment draws near I drink water, breathe deeply and try to look relaxed, even though inside I’m fighting demons.   My hands shake, my heart pounds and my stomach tightens.   And then I step up to the podium.

For me, this is a typical run up to giving an important presentation.  I hate doing them.  I hate public speaking.   “But you run a successful communications business” I often say to myself.  “And you used to be a radio sports commentator, broadcasting to thousands of people.  Speaking to large groups should be bread and butter to you.  How can you possibly hate presentations?”.  I just do.   I’ve never liked speaking in public.  I’m an introvert you see.  I tend to be the person in the meeting who sits in the corner, listens to everyone else having their say and taking it all in.  Then I’ll speak at the end.  Part of me feels that, as a consultant, I should be doing all the talking and taking control, speaking up in a confident and purposeful tone.   But often I just sit there and listen, working it all out in my head.  I sometimes see an opportunity to contribute but then I’ll hold back when someone louder or more forceful gets in before me.   Next week I’m going to be at the Hay Literary Festival.   At the end of the talks and presentations the audience can ask questions.  I’m usually dying to put my hand up and ask a question but I never have.  Not once.  The worst part about running your own business is having to ‘sell’.   I’m rubbish at that. If I go to a conference, which is rare, I’ll be the one in the corner pretending to be on the phone in the breaks.  I just can’t work a room and approach strangers.   I admire those people who can, but it’s not for me.  And I’ve never made a cold sales call.  Too nervous.

I’ve always considered this introversion to be a fault (and bad for business!), a part of my character I should try to fix.  But then I read Susan Cain’s wonderful best-selling book on introverts* and now I feel at peace with myself.   Introverts (or ‘high sensitive’ people as Cain describes them) tend to be more observant, more creative, more reflective, more philosophical and more intuitive.  They are less likely to take risks, be swayed by material gains and give in to the ‘buzz’.   They have greater empathy and are better listeners.   They are better at delaying gratification and spotting subtleties.  It’s about time these characteristics were valued, says Cain.  If we’d had more introverts at the head of governments and banks in the last ten years maybe we wouldn’t be in such a mess economically.   It’s time to stop trying to turn introverts into extroverts, she says, pointing to the trend for open plan offices and classrooms, and the obsessive celebration of celebrity.   We revere great orators, confident speakers and socialites.  But for every ‘life and soul of the party’ taking all the plaudits, there’s a quiet group of introverts in the corner having a meaningful conversation.  Or the one who turned down the party invite to read a book.

We imply that good business communicators should be able to work a room and excel on a platform.  But what about listening, empathy, intuition, creativity?   Us quiet types are often better at these things than you loud people.  But actually, it takes all sorts.   Extroverts and introverts need each other.   Selling a message and engaging an audience is not all about craft and performance.   Yes we need the leaders but we need the listeners too.   There’s a quote in Susan Cain’s book that really resonates with me as a communicator.  It’s from a man called Jon Berghoff.  Jon is a super-successful, record-breaking salesman … but he’s an introvert.  He’s quiet, shy and wouldn’t say boo to a goose.  He listens far more than he talks.   So what’s the secret of his sales success?  “I discovered early on,” he says, “that people don’t buy from me because they understand what I’m selling.  They buy from me because they feel understood.”   And that, ladies and gents, is how you get engagement.

* Quiet – the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, by Susan Cain

Ten creative ways to energize a project team

charge2What’s the best project team you’ve ever worked in?  Not the best project, but the best project team?  Why was it so good?  What made it special?   Most of us get to work on project teams at some point, very often with people we’ve never met or worked with before.  In fact, some of us only ever work in this way.  But what makes some project teams soar with creativity, energy and shared commitment while others never really ‘click’?   Why do some teams just ‘feel’ right from day one?    No doubt the leader plays a big part, but come on, we can’t put everything at the door of the project lead.   We all want to be part of something good and projects give us the opportunity to do just that – to work with others towards a common goal, to bask in the satisfaction of a job well done.    It helps to get off to a good start – to set the tone at the beginning – but even a mis-firing team can be re-energized.   So here are ten creative ways to put that little bit of ‘oomph’ into your project.

1.  Make your team’s mission visible.   The team is more likely to be focused and motivated if they can see tangible representations of the project objectives around them.  A great way to do this is to create an inspiration board.    Put aside space in the project office as an area where team members can share ideas, inspirations and artefacts that will get them and the rest of the team fired up.   This doesn’t (necessarily) mean Gantt charts and project documents.  Try to be much more creative than that.    Go for cuttings, photographs, newspaper headlines, postcards, drawings, anything that has a meaning related to what the project is about.   For instance, if the project is about ‘delivering service excellence’, ask the team to bring something in that they feel represents ‘excellence’.  It could be a picture of Roger Federer or a Ferrari.    Think laterally.  Try to encourage the team to be expressive, colourful and have some fun with it.   These things really do have a positive psychological impact on performance and behaviour,

2.  Write a press release.   Get the team or each workstream to write a press release about their part of the project, but ask them to date the release two or three years in the future, when the project has finished.    This forces them to forward wind and imagine looking back at the project.    Encourage them to imagine it’s been a great success and everyone delivered everything they set out to do.  What would the press release read like then?   When complete, look at the words the team has used and how they have captured what success means.   Pin the press releases up on the inspiration board.

3.  Turn the project into an adventure.   This brings the art of storytelling into an office project.   Step back from the nitty gritty of the project, strip out all of the detail and think of a metaphor for the change/project.    What, when all is said and done, is this project all about – making something better, introducing something new, fixing a problem, finding a new world, learning new skills?   Boil it down and then ask the team to turn it into a story, with a title, characters, heroes, villains, obstacles, romance (?), locations etc.   Keep the metaphor running through the project, just within the team only, so everyone involved feels part of it.  Use the inspiration board to bring it to life.

4.  Give workstreams decent names.   I always find workstream names to be so dull and uninspiring.   Get the team to think of titles for the workstreams that generate some excitement, maybe linked to the story idea above.    Use imagery, colour and icons to give some character to the team names, a bit like you get in sports and call centres.   Use it to build a competitive element into the project and help colleagues in other teams to understand more about what each workstream does.  Build identity and get people wanting to belong.

5. Do something together.   Even the best and most productive project teams can run out of fizz, so keep injecting some freshness into proceedings by bringing the team together.  It may be work-related or maybe not, it doesn’t  really matter but whatever it is, make it engaging and creative.   Step away from the office every now and again.   Take a problem up a hill, meet over a picnic or chill out down the pub and have a game of darts (in workstream teams of course!).  Use this time to get to know the people behind the job titles, those people who are helping you make this project a success.

6.  Make project meetings fun.   When you ask people about the best team they ever worked in, they will often talk about the characters in the team, fun activities or how the individuals “just clicked” with each other.   Projects can be tough, especially if they’re not going well, so try to keep the team relaxed and motivated with some light-hearted team building.   I know of a project manager who likened every team member to a character from the Muppets.  When they came in for a meeting he had each person’s character stuck to the back of their chair.   I worked on a project last year in which the PM opened team meetings by playing clips of old Peter Sellers films from You Tube to lighten the mood before a heavy discussion.   These little things work.  They make work fun.   Instead of spending your next team meeting going round the room for individual workstream updates, ask the leaders to present their update in the form of an infographic or photo montage.  Try it. charge

7.  Plan in 3D.   Most project plans are on Gantt charts, MS Project, PowerPoint right?   Fair enough, but try planning in 3D.   Think of how they use models in architecture and construction to visualise the ‘end state’.  Think how the military plans its engagements, with those huge table top maps and model representations of forces moved like chess pieces.  Think how the local church roof fundraising committee uses giant thermometers to show money raised so far.    Be creative and turn your plan, milestone, dependencies, risks, workstreams, progress etc into practical three dimensional models to bring your journey alive.   In fact, create it as a journey, like a model railway, with stopping points, obstacles and journey times.  Again, be creative.  Bring in ideas from other worlds.  Make it fun and engaging.

8.  Spring some surprises   It’s easy to get very introspective when working on a big project.   Everyone’s looking inwards and the topic of conversation at project meetings is invariably about things that aren’t going to plan.   It can become negative and it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture.   What’s more, morale can drop quickly.   People get tired, irritable and unproductive.    So that’s when someone in the team (not always the PM) needs to break the pattern and do something out of the blue.   It may be as simple as cakes all-round in the office or as drastic as whisking the team away for an impromptu morale boosting activity.   I know a PM who uses any old excuse to celebrate an event or theme her communications to the team – chocolate on Valentine’s Day, Shakespearian style memos on midsummer’s day, fluffy rabbits at Easter, surprise gifts at Christmas, a film quiz in Oscars week, sporting metaphors in the Olympics etc.   Great creativity which really energises teams.

9.  Celebrate the heroes.   Forget formal recognition schemes (well, put them to one side for a minute) and think about more creative ways to celebrate achievements in your project.   Make a big play of good work done well.   Call out the ‘heroes’ and the hardworking back-office grunters who very rarely get the credit they deserve.   Have a Heroes’ Wall in the project office and stick photos up of the good performers in the last week.   Make a point of recognising contributions at team meetings and highlighting individual achievements that have helped the project inch nearer a successful conclusion.  But do it in a creative way.

10.  Encourage creativity.    We all know the old cliché that most projects fail.  It’s well documented that the vast majority of business change projects fail to deliver on at least one of their objectives, and the reasons why projects fail are too many and varied to go into here.   But often they just run out of steam.  They lack momentum and drive.   Projects rarely go to plan, we know that, but they can be rescued under the right conditions – good leadership, realistic objectives, a fired-up team etc.    The best projects have a good ‘culture’ – a can-do ethos and a great sense of common purpose.   They also encourage creativity.    So if you want to energize your project, open the doors to new ideas and diversity.   Create a culture of innovation.   Put up whiteboards for colleagues to share ideas, create and use collaborative spaces, follow principles that encourage creativity and challenge.   Give team members time and space for quiet reflection.   Run creative workshops and create an inspiring environment for the team to work in.   Creativity is key.   Keep trying new things, challenge the status quo and generally just give it some welly.   But always stay focused on the business outcome, of course.

 

The only measurement tool that really works

I once worked for a CEO who refused to spend money on measurement.   He once said to me “what would you rather put your trust in – a spreadsheet compiled by an expensive consultancy … or your gut?   No, this is the best measurement tool”, he said, patting his stomach, “and it’s free.”   At the time, I didn’t really know what to make of it.  I thought he was just tight.   But now, with the debate about comms measurement and ‘proving the ROI’ raging fiercer than ever, I find myself coming back to that brief conversation more and more.  I have to admit here, and I say this with some trepidation, that the whole measurement agenda leaves me a bit cold.  In fact, it bores me senseless (cue disapproving tutting sound from my fellow comms professionals!).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-measurement.  I get the whole evaluation thing.  I’m just saying I find it really dull.   In fact, I’ll go further, I actually find much of the debate pointless, distracting and unnecessary.   A lot of comms measurement seems to be about justifying investment (valid) or making comms people feel good about themselves (less so), not about improving the craft or indeed the quality of the outcome.   I just don’t find a lot of measurement particularly enlightening.  The thing is, communication is soft, measurement is hard.  Trying to produce data to prove the causal effect of a communication is like trying to write a business case for love, or measuring the sincerity of a smile, or the warmth of a hug.   Communication is emotional.   The things we want to measure are understanding, belief, commitment – these are emotional responses.   But we know that people find it hard to express their emotion in words or tick-boxes, because the part of the brain that handles emotion has no capability for language.    Asking people to describe how they feel about an event, a message, a channel or an experience is asking for trouble, or blandness.  

No, the best way to measure emotion is with emotion.    Let’s face it fellow communicators, when something you’ve done has worked well you’ve instinctively known it haven’t you?     Have you ever been to a communication event and been genuinely surprised by the feedback?   Be honest now, if it went well, you knew it from the buzz and the vibe didn’t you?  When it went badly, you could read it on the faces as they left the room.   How many times has your company spent thousands on a staff survey to tell them “what we already know”?    When I work with new organisations, they sometimes send me spreadsheets and PowerPoints detailing the recent staff survey.   But I can get more from saying “forget the survey, just talk to me”.   The insights are always more valuable, and probably more accurate.

And there’s the rub.   My old boss was right in the end, I think.   Gut feel – instinct – should not be under-estimated.   Not sure?  Then read Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller ‘Blink’ about the power of snap judgement.   It’s a brilliant insight into those moments when we just know something without knowing why.   Taking stories and experiments from the military, medicine, music, art and business, Gladwell’s book disproves the conventional wisdom that big decisions require informed decision making, that more information helps you make the right call.  It doesn’t.   For big decisions, it’s nearly always better to rely on your initial reaction, the gut feel.    If you want to communicate a strategy and produce an emotional response with your audience (buy in), make an impact first time and with as few words as possible.    Your audience’s first reaction will usually be the one that sticks.  And you’ll instantly know if it’s worked, because you’ll feel it too.   Of course, a comms survey that tells you 80% of your audience understood the message and felt compelled to act upon it sounds like money well spent, just as it would if the data suggested the figure was 5%.  My point is that you would probably already have known.  You would have known if the comms had worked, or not, by your own instinct and by the gut reaction of those around you.   A good comms person is connected to his/her audience (as surely a good leader is too?) and it’s the quality of that connection that will tell you what you need to know.    Some measurement is good, obviously, but it feels like it’s becoming a bit obsessive.   I just think we should follow the advice that I keep trying to give my daughter when she’s struggling with her homework…. “trust your judgement, darling, go with what feels right.”

Ten great quotes, re-written for the corporate world!

KingIt’s Friday and I’m feeling a bit mischievous.  I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by business-speak in the last few days working on some big projects and my mind has gone a bit hazy.   I found myself wondering what some of life’s most memorable quotations would have looked like if they had been spoken in a corporate environment by true hardcore jargon jockeys.   What if Churchill had an MBA?  What if Gandhi had come from a career in IT?  What if Schwarzenegger’s cyborg assassin had been programmed by a middle manager?  What if the language of the office was the language of the world?   Here then, ladies and gentlemen, is my top ten:

Winston Churchill – “we shall fight on the beaches”

“We shall compete in a multi-platform environment but prioritise investments towards coastal deployment”

Martin Luther King – “I have a dream”

“I possess a fully costed business plan.  On PowerPoint”

Muhammad Ali – “I am the greatest”

“Adjusting for negative influxes and variable uplifts, I have achieved a level of superior and sustainable performance across a broad range of key scorecard indicators to become best of breed.”

Gandhi – “you must be the change you wish to see”

“Your strategic imperative is to implement mission-critical transformation with rigour and focus to optimise benefits realisation”

Arnie in The Terminator – “I’ll be back”

“I intend to exploit opportunities for further re-investment in existing operational activities at a later date … probably in Q3”

Mark Antony – “friends, Romans, countrymen – lend me your ears”

“Stakeholders, Romans, headcount – enter into a collaborative sourcing alliance to facilitate the supply of audio-enabling services”

Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws – “we’re gonna need a bigger boat”

“Given the suboptimal nature of the existing marine vessel, we require an investment proposal to reengineer the current-state solution for improved scalability to meet future operational requirements”

Jack Nicolson in A Few Good Men – “you can’t handle the truth”

“Your assurance and compliance deficiencies present unacceptable risks in relation to your truth-management capability”

Neil Armstrong – “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”

“Whilst the output per capita is minimal, the aggregated production totality offers significant scope for strategic long term return on investment”

JFK – “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”

“Ask not how you can leverage career development opportunities but consider your personal contribution to developing the future-state competency framework required to deliver sustained shareholder value”

If you have some of your own, please leave a reply.   Go on.  Think outside the box, go for the low hanging fruit, blah blah blah.

15 songs on my iPod about internal comms

CrowsI had some time to kill the other day while sitting in the car, so I did something only a man would do.  I made a list.   I decided to go though my iPod and make a list of songs about communication.   So, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, beyond self-indulgence, here it is …

1. A Matter of Trust – Billy Joel (for the engagement purist)

2. Pass it on – The Coral (for the Team Briefer)

3. Right down the line – Gerry Rafferty (for the cascade believer)

4. I can see clearly now – Hothouse Flowers (for the audience!)

5. One to One – Joe Jackson (for those difficult conversations)

6. Messages – OMD (for obvious reasons)

7. Before and After – Rush (for the change planner)

8. My Vision – Seal (for the CEO)

9. To cut a long story short- Spandau Ballet (for the editor)

10. Wondrous Stories – Yes (for the storyteller)

11. Round Here – Counting Crows, pictured (for the culture changer)

12. The Other Side – David Gray (for the consultant)

13. Praise You – Fat Boy Slim (for the recognition scheme)

14. Psychobabble – Alan Parsons Project (for the jargon jock)

15. Follow you Follow me – Genesis (for the Twitter lover)

And finally, a warning for communicators everywhere from Talking to Clarry by The Bluetones:

“Communication is blurred

I can’t understand a word

So there’s nothing to be heard

It’s all gone quite absurd!”

Abridge your strategy … and make it funny

ReducedContinuing the theme of borrowing creative insights from other worlds, on Sunday we went to watch the hilarious Reduced Shakespeare Company’s ‘The complete works of William Shakespeare – abridged’.    The premise of the show, which has been around in various formats since the eighties, is to present abridged versions of all Shakespeare’s plays in just 97 minutes.   And of course to do so an entertaining way.    It was a fantastically funny show, performed by just three very talented actors using comedy, songs, slapstick and audience participation to summarise the plots and main characters of every one of the Bard’s plays.   The previous day I took my daughter on a tour of the CBBC studios in Media City in Salford.   We saw the set and props of Horrible Histories – the hugely successful series designed to teach children about history through comedy sketches … and lots of poo and puke jokes.

I mention these two experiences because they are superb examples of using humour to engage and educate.  Strip out the theatrical context of the Reduced Shakespeare show and you have the concept of communicating a complex and detailed topic in an abridged form in a way that’s engaging.   Strip out the production side of Horrible Histories and you have a sure-fire method of engaging a very discerning audience with a subject matter they wouldn’t otherwise show an interest in.   These are issues we communicators struggle with every day.   So what can we learn from the world of entertainment?    I love the idea of abridging a company strategy or business update and turning it into a ‘performance’, with humour and interaction.    I love the idea of selling it as a serious presentation but with the word ‘abridged’ splashed across the title to draw the audience in.   I love the idea of communicating serious messages through sketches and satire.    In short, I love the idea of turning serious business information into comedy.   Very few organisations are prepared to do this.    The leap of faith is too wide for some to contemplate.

Of course, in global companies, humour is notoriously difficult to get right, but in a local context it can be so powerful.   We all like a good laugh and I so wish more companies would see the funny side of business.   Laughter brings out the best in people and it’s a proven method of getting messages to stick.    A whole generation of children in the UK know about the (Terrible) Tudors, (Vicious) Vikings and (Ruthless) Romans because of Horrible Histories.    I’m off to see a heavy production of Hamlet at the RSC in Stratford on Saturday but I already know the plot thanks to the side-splitting abridged version I saw on Sunday.   The message has stuck.   I’m engaged and I have fond memories of how I was engaged.   Isn’t that what we want from our communications?   Try it out.  Reduce your strategy.  Abridge your operating model.  And have a damn good laugh about it.

PS – If you’ve successfully used humour to communicate a serious message, let me know about it and maybe we could feature your case study here on Creative Communicator.