Category Archives: Communications

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

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.

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/

 

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.

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

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.”