Category Archives: Science

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

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.

Even cavemen used social media

campfireIf the whole of human history was compressed into a single 24 hour day, the ‘old media’ we know and love, like books, TV, telephone and radio, would appear at about two minutes to midnight.   The internet and ‘new media’ would’ve flashed before us in the final seconds.    Even writing and language would only show up around mid-afternoon.   Communication, however, would be the old man of the day –  grey haired and not running for buses like the old days but still very much alive.    Collaboration too, whilst a popular corporate buzzword in 2013, is a concept as old as time.   When our ancestors gathered around campfires in the Serengeti all those millions of years ago, they pioneered the art of what we now call social networking.  As well as tools and resources, they exchanged ideas, myths, stories, fears and jokes.  They ‘friended’ other tribes, traded with them and formed alliances.   They engaged in common endeavours and innovated rapidly.    Life hasn’t really changed all that much has it?

In the final chapter of his excellent book The Self Illusion, scientist Bruce Hood looks at the impact of the internet on our sense of ‘self’.  He highlights examples of lonely, overweight and socially inept individuals living on benefits in bedsits who transform themselves into perfect, healthy, exotic body builders in the online virtual world, Second Life to escape their mundane lives.    This ability to project a different ‘self’ over the internet is both fascinating and of course dangerous.   Dr Hood asks other questions about the impact of the web – and social networking in particular – on our identity.   Is the amount of information at our fingertips on the internet, and our ability to make instant contact with almost anyone on the planet, compromising who we are?    The rather unphilosophical conclusion is no, not really.  If anything, social media is just returning us to where we began – the collaborative campfire.   You see, the point is that the communication tools we have come to rely on in the last few centuries have largely been one-way – books, phones, TV etc.   The Self Illusion quotes TED producer June Cohen in saying that the internet is returning us to a period of human development when communication was truly interactive, decentralised and collaborative, only this time there are no physical boundaries on the number of people who can fit round the campfire.

The human brain also has a point to make.   Although in theory we can become friends with half the world’s population if we were so inclined, the figures suggest that we stop at around 130 (the average number of friends a user will have on Facebook).   A recent survey of the tweets of more than 1.7 million Twitter users found that, as the number of followers increases, the capacity to interact with others start to decline.   It’s called the ‘economy of attention’.   We just can’t have meaningful interactions with millions of people.  We don’t have the time.  Again, the average number of followers one person can realistically interact with is around 130.   The brain has its way of saying enough is enough.   Write down the number of people you know at work and outside work who you genuinely interact with on a regular basis and I bet you won’t have many more than 130, if you even reach three figures.   I have 260+ connections on LinkedIn but I can’t claim to ‘know’ all but a fraction of them in a meaningful way.    I’m not on Facebook, a crime I have already confessed to.

So when all is said and done.   When all the ‘likes’ are added up, the fact remains that we are still essentially human.   Our craving for interaction and collaboration hasn’t diminished for millions of years.   And to be honest, it hasn’t really increased either.   The opportunity and ability has, that’s for sure, but when it comes down to it, we still prefer to feel the warmth of the campfire on our toes.


A talk on the wild side

It’s my birthday today so I’m feeling reflective.  I get like this nowadays.   Seeing as I’ve now got more of my life behind me than in front of me, I’ve started to draw up a list of things I still want to do before, well, you know.   And in keeping with my personal philosophy that ‘the best things in life are not things’ my list is mainly made up of experiences, and most of those involve walking.    It  wasn’t always the case, but I love the outdoors.  When I need time to think or be creative, I set off up a fell in the Lake District at six in the morning.   I nearly always come down with the inspiration I was seeking.   And now I think I understand why.    In the last thirty years a new phenomenon called biophilia has been coined to describe something that scientists believe is central to man’s mental wellbeing – an inherent love of nature.   For reasons that go back deep into human evolution, we are predisposed to be attracted to wild places as a cure for stress, anxiety and healing.    It’s why most of us feel better after a good walk in the country.  It’s why we value our gardens.  It’s why many of us feel strangely at ease when walking alongside a flowing river.   It’s why pensioners flock to the coast for their retirement.  It’s why children who spend time in the countryside are less likely to suffer from ADHD.   It’s why we like pot plants in the office.   The scientific evidence behind biophilia is growing each year.   Hospital patients have healed quicker and required fewer painkillers when given views of greenery from their bedside window.    People with mental illness have benefitted from the positive effects of digging an allotment or tending a garden.   People have been shown to be more productive and creative in natural environments.    Maybe this is another reason why today’s offices, with their barren strip lighting, mind-numbing white noise and vapid decor are so uninspiring.    Faced with this landscape of deadness, a lone yucca plant next to the water cooler can only do so much.   So let’s let a bit more of nature into our workplace.  Let’s see some greenery, some water, some earth and some natural air.   Or better still, let’s take our work into the outdoors.  Let’s have meetings on the move with a country walk, solve problems over a picnic and give presentations under an oak tree.   It’ll make us all feel better and I’m sure it won’t be long before we’ll appreciate the business value of biophilia.