Category Archives: Thoughts

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.

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.”

The biggest communication barrier might just be the one you’re sitting on

ChairA recent post on HBR warning about the unhealthy consequences of ‘sitting’ (in other words, the amount of time we spend on our backsides!) in the workplace and the healing and creative advantages of walking has got me thinking about how much good communication is lost by chair-based apathy.   The post, from businesswoman Nilofer Merchant points out that we spend an alarming 9.3 hours a day on a chair as opposed to 7.7 hours in bed.   That’s a lot of sitting.   Certainly, when I think back to my early working days (in an insurance office) I would spend much of my day walking up and down stairs and across the office floor to actually speak to people (oh, how retro).    Now I work from home and I sit down for most of my day.  No wonder I have back trouble (although since the new year I have taken to walking at least three miles every day, which I’m loving).   Nilofer’s HBR post neatly sets out (as if we didn’t know) the impact on our health of ‘too much sitting’ (a “lethal activity” according to one doctor), so why aren’t organisations doing more to stop their workers from spending so much time on their derrière?   And is there a role for us communicators here?

We could start by encouraging stand-up and walking meetings.   As Ms Merchant discovered when she started holding ‘hiking meetings’, the quality of interaction and outcome actually improves when you meet on the move.    Your concentration improves, mobiles are removed and creativity goes through the roof (well, it would if there was a roof!).   There’s plenty of evidence about the creative benefits of walking too, as I have mentioned before.    The great outdoors removes the physical barriers of the workplace and exposes us to natural stimuli, which feeds our brain with ideas, inspirations and perspectives.   Team walking, or just generally meeting standing up, is more sociable too.   It gives us the opportunity to interact with the whole team, collectively or individually, rather than just the ones who are sitting up our end of the table.    Walking allows for natural periods of silence, during which we can reflect and think – all very healthy in a creative context.    In a typical sit-down business meeting, we don’t tolerate silence.   We expect someone to be talking the whole time.   Not everyone wants to be dragged out on a five mile hike up a hill (I do) but it could just be a stroll around the block or a walk in park.

I once worked in Berkeley Square in London and we would sometimes use the square for impromptu team meetings.   It was the most creative time of my working life.    We communicators should team up with the people who look after health and wellbeing in our organisations and do more to encourage comms on the move – walk ‘n’ talk.   We should be pushing, and role modelling, new and creative ways to interact.   For most organisations, encouraging people to undertake the serious business of work in anything other than a corporate environment is too big a leap of faith for them to take, which in many ways underlines the way companies suffocate creativity.    Most managers would be worried about peer judgement if they were seen to be taking their team out for a picnic meeting or a creative hike.  That, of course, is not a reason to not do it.    Maybe we can start by running a few campaigns to encourage innovative interactions?   Putting all our comms online may have its benefits, but the health and wellbeing of the receiver is not one of them.

Why too much choice gets us nowhere

foxI’ve had my head in some neuroscience books over the holidays.   One of the areas I’m currently interested in is what happens to us when we have choices to make.   I’m sure we all instinctively feel that choice is a good thing – the ability to choose gives us empowerment, helps us to tolerate adversity and makes us feel in control.  We value the ability to make choices in our lives and can only imagine how unbearable it must be to be stuck without options, to have no way out.   Psychologists have proven that we feel better when we have choices in our lives.   We even enjoy a meal more if there is choice on the menu.   Those of us growing up in affluent developed nations take our ability to choose for granted.  And no better is this choice-fest demonstrated than in the way we consume information.    I’m old enough to have grown up with only three channels on the telly (in black and white when I was really young) for part of my childhood.     I remember getting excited by Ceefax when it first came out because I could read the news or get the footy scores on the TV without having to wait until the allotted bulletin.   Now look.   The internet and other technologies have opened up a whole new world of choice at our fingertips, and we internal communicators try to replicate this choice with integrated channels, message frameworks and layered content.   We fall over ourselves to gather feedback and opinions, we ask people to complete surveys and we encourage them to tell us what they prefer so we can meet their needs.  Of course, it feels right to do that, because giving people choice makes them more engaged.

But there is a downside to choice, as Aesop’s famous fable of the fox and the cat demonstrates.   Faced with a pack of snarling hunting dogs about to bear down on them, the two animals need to escape.  For the cat it’s an easy decision to make, and he bolts up a tree.  But the cunning fox, blessed with all his knowledge of the various escape options, becomes paralyzed by indecision and falls prey to the dogs.    With too many choices on offer, he suffered from analysis paralysis.     This ‘paradox of choice’ confronts many of use every day.  How often have you stood in a supermarket aisle trying to choose between the 250 varieties of biscuits on offer?   I heard on the radio the other day that most people don’t bother to change their gas and electricity supplier because there’s ‘too much choice’.    Psychologist Barry Schwartz says that the more choices we are given, the less ‘free’ we become because we procrastinate in trying to make the best decision.   So it seems that, while choice is a positive force for good, too much of it can be detrimental.   Bringing it back into our world, I sometimes believe that we are in danger of ‘over-engaging’ our people.   I know some companies that complete their annual staff survey, publish the results and then go back out to re-survey the same audience to ask what they meant and what should be done next!   Sometimes people just want to be asked once and then they expect action.   We can over-do this choice thing because we’re worried about being accused of not engaging with our people.   But sometimes we need the cat not the fox.

Flash mobs in the office?

I took my daughter to the Cheltenham Literature Festival this weekend (hey, I’m not saying its middle class but I heard someone say “stay here Blossom, Mummy’s gone to find Hector”).  I love the festival atmosphere –  listening to authors talk about their books, learning about new subjects and having the chance to meet great writers face to face (especially inspiring for children).    I myself came face to face with a world famous philosopher in the hotel, whose talk on ‘wonder’ I had been to the day before.  Here was one of the great thinkers of our time – just me and him in a corridor, my chance to ask a profound question about existentialist rationality or wave theory … so what do I say?   “I don’t think the lift is working Professor Tallis”.  Doh!  Anyway, the reason I mention the festival is because this year they had ‘Flash Poets’ popping up when you least expected.   They would just unroll a stand-up banner next to a queue or alongside a path and just start reciting poetry.   I love this idea.   Not because I’m particularly fond of poetry (I can only recite one poem and that’s a limerick I learned when I was about six*) but because the ‘flash mob’ concept is such a great way to get a message across.   It speaks to the point made in the book Made to Stick about the element of surprise in communication.   The best way to capture someone’s attention is to break a pattern.   When you’re quietly standing in a queue of sitting on a park bench you don’t expect someone to start belting out poetry.   It’s unexpected and therefore memorable (and possibly a little irritating).   Bring the concept into the workplace and it’s a creative option for communicating a message.    If you want to spread a message about a project or initiative, why not do unscheduled flash appearances where crowds are gathered (restaurant, car park?) to give a quick 3-minute presentation and distribute some handouts, then move on.   It has to be brief, fast-moving and ideally light hearted, and if it is I bet people remember what you’re saying.   In our sanitised and highly managed internal comms environments nowadays, a little bit of flashing might be welcome change.

*There was an old man from Leeds
Who swallowed a packet of seeds
In less than an hour
His face was in flower
And his head was all covered in weeds


Things I learned at a conference

I spent the last two days at the Melcrum Internal Comms Summit in London.   Now, I’m not a natural conference-goer, but having not attended a professional event of this kind for ten years (the last one I went to I actually presented at) I thought I should pop along to check up on some good practice, do a bit of networking and see what’s happening in my industry.   Overall, an interesting couple of days and whilst not all the presentations worked for me personally, it was good to sit at the back (as I always do) and soak it all up.   Here are some reflections of the two days:

The clear message for me was the fact that our industry needs to start letting go and stop trying to manage everything.   As I have said many times in this blog, I think internal comms is too over-managed.   We can’t – and shouldn’t – try to control all workplace communication.  We need to let it happen more.  The Gen Y workers won’t tolerate the restrictions of managed channels – they want and expect to be able to connect, collaborate and communicate ‘on the fly’, as they do out of work.    As futurist Anna-Lise Kjaer said in her opening keynote:  “We must move away from the channel centred approach to communicating and move to a more personal approach.”

Comms people need to wrestle strategic control of the technology that enables this to happen.   In my experience, most comms people don’t see ‘collaboration’ as part in their remit beyond using tools like Yammer as a comms channel.   But here’s where we need to drop the silo thinking and look more holistically at the workplace in general.   Collaboration is a form of communication and engagement, as is knowledge transfer, learning, formal training, idea sharing and community building.  We can’t (and shouldn’t try) to manage all these things, but we should recognise the part they play in building a communication culture.

Purpose is the new black.   Anne-Lise talked about the importance of work having a higher meaning.  Purpose is what drives people.   I love her line “If you can’t feel it, it’s not making a difference.”   It’s a point I keep making here on this blog.   Engagement is about emotion and if you want emotion you have to aim for that part of the brain that deals with feelings.     A brilliant engagement example from the insurer RSA (where I cut my comms teeth!) showed what happens when you give people a reason to express themselves and be proud.

Metaphors work.   David Harrington from Shell showed a video to demonstrate the conflicting priorities and unintended consequences of managed push communication.  The amateur staff-made video shows a customer in a restaurant being bombarded with cakes from a number of different waiters – each portion of cake representing a different corporate message.   As the waiters deliver well-intended individual servings we see the poor customer’s plate pile higher and higher with cake and her face drop lower and lower with confusion.    A perfect visual analogy to demonstrate a common problem.  For many delegates, the ‘cake video’ remained the one big takeaway.

We need to be more creative.   Of course, given the name of this blog, this is the area I’m most passionate about.   I really want comms people to realise that creativity is different from creative.   Creative is what we buy from creative agencies.   Here we’re buying production – an output.  And  jolly good these outputs are too, many of which were superbly demonstrated at the conference by the likes of Kingfisher, M&S, Syngenta and RSA.  BUT, creativity is not the same thing.    Creative agencies are great at production but they don’t have exclusivity on creativity.   Creativity is a skill, a behaviour and an attitude, and it’s an ability we all have.   We just need to know how to use it and have the confidence to do so.    The need for creativity came up time and time again at the conference.   I am now even more convinced that creativity is the BIG SKILL that communicators need for the future.   I’m not the only one.   A recent survey of global CEOs highlighted creativity as the “number one skill” organisations need to learn to face the complex challenges coming down the track.   We should be at the front of the queue.

Most comms are pointless.  OK, that’s my take on it but the Shell presentation highlighted what we all know … most people don’t engage with outgoing push comms.   David’s data showed that 85% of Shell videos had less than a hundred views and an even greater proportion of online articles had less than a hundred hits, out of an audience of many thousands.   The phrase “in a land without data, my opinion is king” resonated with many people.  Understandably.

Comms should be a disruptive force.   Benedikt Benenati from Kingfisher gave a great presentation about his belief that internal comms can and should drive change through forceful and sometimes disruptive interventions.   Getting people out of their comfort zones, making leaders ask their people for help, forcing issues like the elephant in the room (with a life-size model elephant!) and generally being a nuisance.   I like what he said about not wanting a big budget and deliberately keeping his team lean in order to drive up creativity.   I also like the fact that he doesn’t want his team to be ‘part of the system’ because that would make them too safe.   An argument perhaps for comms to not be at the top table, but outside throwing stones in through the window.

I don’t like conferences.   Nothing against this event, very well staged by Melcrum, but personally I just don’t connect with conferences.  Maybe if I was in-house I’d feel different but being on the agency side I just don’t like the predatory atmosphere.    It’s not my natural environment to hand out business cards and compete for attention.  It’s too false for me.   I’d rather take the name badges off and just have a nice chat.

Time for Slow Communication?

Here’s how you could spend your day.  A quick shower, an energy bar and a scan of the papers before catching the express train to work, on which you speed read the executive summary of yesterday’s meeting.   You then spend a day having power meetings, sending instant messages and calling colleagues (on speed dial) about the fast track promotion you’ve been offered.  Lunch would be fast food washed down with Red Bull and a power nap.  On the way home, you stop off for an instant spray tan to look good for the speed dating session that evening.  You end the day checking urgent emails via your superfast broadband over an instant coffee and a 60-second news round-up .   You live life in the fast lane.   You’re a real speed demon.   Or, just maybe, you could SLOW DOWN.   There’s a growing (I was going to say fast growing) trend for slowing down.   Take the International Slow Movement for instance.   It began in Italy in the eighties as the Slow Food movement to advocate slow, leisurely dining with friends and family using local, organic produce.  It’s symbol is a snail and it now has 85,000 members in 50 countries.    The movement has now grown to include Slow Travel, Slow Cities, Slow Art, Slow Parenting and Slow Gardening (and others).   In London, the Idler Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment aims to revive the pedestrian spirit of Plato’s Academy and eighteenth century coffee shop conversation.   I also came across the wonderfully titled International Institute of Not Doing Much (IINDM), whose Slow Manifesto includes classics like “we shall slow down in the fields and in the streets, we shall slow down in the hills, we shall never surrender!” and “some are born to slowness—others have it thrust upon them.”   They have 4,000 members and according to their brilliant website: “Over the past few centuries, our wise members have been pondering the nature of effort. On the whole, we don’t like it.”   I’ve joined up.   But there’s a serious side to slowness.   In the West especially, we have this inbuilt ‘time is money’ mindset and that if you’re anything other than ‘mad busy’ then you’re seen as lazy, weak or a failure.    How many times do you say to a colleague in the office “are you busy?”.   What would you think if they said “nah, not really”?   Evidence shows that speedy work is bad for your health, bad for wellbeing and bad for productivity too.   Working hours in the UK are longer than anywhere else in Europe and yet Scandinavian countries – where they work the fewest hours – are among the most competitive nations in the world.   According to recent surveys, around a quarter of Americans ‘always feel rushed’ and 20% of Brits skip lunch.  Even the siesta is on its last legs in Spain.   But ‘fast is not always best’ is a message that’s beginning to gain some traction.   Companies are investing heavily in wellbeing programmes and some are introducing ‘quiet spaces’ for workers to go and recharge their batteries.    Can we communicators help?   Should we be developing our own strategies for Slow Communication?   Maybe we should be more considered and planned in our message delivery?  Maybe we should review the language we use to cut down on the ‘fast adjectives’.  Maybe we should warn against communications that talk about speedy benefit delivery and step-change initiatives.  Maybe we could encourage measured and thoughtful briefings?   Maybe we should stop doing 50% of the comms work we think the organisation can’t survive without (trust me, it can).   Maybe we should introduce well crafted prose that takes time to read instead of the half-cocked, ambiguous and jargon-filled email that we rushed out in ten minutes to half the workforce.    Bring back the printed newsletter.   Double the length of team meetings.   Play classical music at town hall events.   Hand out cigars (OK, that one’s a joke).   Spike the intranet so it takes twice as long to download (that’s only half a joke).   Train managers on the art of conversation.   Hold coffee-shop debates on key issues.    Have comms that ‘reflect on’ and ‘walk through’ big issues.    Move the message focus away from ‘the final outcome’ and more towards ‘the stopping points along the way’.  Have more tea breaks.  Encourage your audience to read and think, not scan and ignore.   If you’re really keen, have meetings with no actions, practice looking out of the window and invest in an office tortoise (this is getting silly, stop me someone).   Finally, when you next think only an email will do, remember this.  Before the telegraph connection between England and Australia in 1872, a letter you sent to your cousin in Sydney would take 110 days to arrive.  You’d get a reply after seven months.

How many internal communicators does it take to change a light bulb?

Apologies to my fellow professionals, but I’m feeling a bit cheeky …

– Four to draw up the strategy (and remain firmly at strategic level throughout)

– Two to do the stakeholder mapping

– One to put the change into the wider context of improved enterprise illumination

– One to define the impact of the change

– One to define the future vision of enlightenment

– Six to be ‘kept in the loop’ for no apparent reason

– One to brief senior leaders

– One to rebrief the senior leaders who couldn’t be bothered to turn up the first time

– One to craft the message

– A committee of 28 to review, edit and approve the message

– One to research bulb-changing good practice

– Two to devise the channel framework

– One to create the PowerPoint deck

– Three to comment on the font

– One to search Google Images for a suitable graphic

– Four to train the middle managers on managing change

– Two to organise the cascade

– One to remember that cascades never work

– One to ‘just do publishing’

– Two to develop a convoluted measurement process that won’t reveal anything

– One to check the distribution lists

– One to prepare the awards entry

– Two to obsess about ROI

– None to actually sit on the project team

We don’t have enough finales

I took my daughter to a children’s creativity festival this past weekend.   It’s a great little festival called ‘Just So’, now in its third year, combining painting, storytelling, music, magic, circus skills, den-building, crafts, drama, writing, pottery, getting very muddy and generally having a jolly good time.   Fun for us grown-ups desperately trying to hang on to our inner child too.   Anyway, we attended a talk by a children’s author.  She spoke about how to write stories and gave an insight into her personal style.   She explained that she always starts her one-page story plan at the bottom, with the finale –  imagining how the tale will end.  Will it be a sad ending, a happy ending or a cliff-hanger?    Then, she works backwards, creating a setting and a central character and adding a number of key ingredients – one of which was that the ‘hero’ should always have something that he/she very, very badly wants.    Another is that there should also be conflict.   So, in the way that my mind wanders, this got me thinking about our organisational stories, like delivering change programmes and meeting objectives.    Conclusion:  We don’t have enough finales in business.   We have all the ingredients of a good story –  colourful and heroic characters, a desire to achieve something, a call-to-action and plenty of conflict but we don’t have finales.   Our ‘endings’ are usually a list of bullet points from a business case setting out a (finger in the air) list of benefits, outcomes and cost-savings.    But what we should be aiming for is a finale– an eye-watering, soul-stirring, heart-lifting, air-punching, morale-boosting climax.   Organisations are great at starting things but terrible at ending them.    It’s one of the reasons most change programmes fail.   We don’t start with the finale.   I mean, we don’t articulate the ending in a way that drives the rest of the story.    So the lesson for communicators –  start at the bottom of the page by imagining the outcome of the change (or the strategy, or the project) as a finale.  Make it dramatic, emotional, colourful, inspirational and then work backwards, creatively filling in the gaps to author your own dramatic storyline.   Next week, how to build a den in the office (only joking).

Bring on the Meaning Makers!

OK, one last Olympic-related posting, then I’ll move on.   What most struck me about spending some time at the Games last week was the enthusiasm of the volunteers, or Games Makers as they were called.   These purple-shirted members of the public were from all walks of life, giving up their time for two weeks to be part of something special, something they could tell their grandchildren.   Some were assigned to queue control, some were posted around London to provide help and information, and some were given duties at events.    At the volleyball, for instance, they even had volunteers whose job it was to wipe the sweat off the courts between points!   So it got me thinking about how far people will go, and how enjoyable it is for them and others, when they are truly engaged.   Engagement is about having an emotional connection to a cause, a theme, an idea, a purpose.    The Olympic volunteers had this engagement in spades but it can be replicated in any organisation if the sense of purpose and level of involvement is strong enough.   Games Makers reminds me of the term Meaning Makers, referred to by Dan Pink in his book A Whole New Mind about the rise of the right-brained worker.    Meaning Makers are people in the organisation who ‘get it’ and have the skills to make sense of the world to those around them.   And it is a skill.   Meaning Makers don’t read out briefings and deliver PowerPoints.   They interpret and convey messages in a way that connects because they are truly engaged with the subject matter themselves.  They communicate with passion, clarity and credibility.    One of the problems we have in internal communications is that we allocate communication responsibilities based on job title and status rather than on ability and character.   Of course, some communications need to be delivered by leaders, but many don’t.    Meaning Makers can be those subject experts who just have a flair about the way they communicate, like those scientists who can explain the laws of physics and astronomy to schoolchildren.    I’d love to see organisations identify and appoint Meaning Makers who can take on some communication and education responsibilities in addition to their ‘day job’, like the London Games Makers.    Let’s have people with a passion for communication and an ability to engage others be recognised as official Meaning Makers on a particular topic, so that anyone in the organisation can go to them to learn and gain clarity on whatever topic they specialise in.   For instance, who is the Finance Meaning Maker who can explain transactional finance and SAP in a way that engages and makes sense?    Who is the Operating Model Meaning Maker that can bring structure and processes to life?    I’m not saying Meaning Makers should all wear coloured shirts but I would like to see them recognised formally – maybe they have a sign over their desk or a badge so people know who they are and that they are there to help colleagues make sense of the world.    London Games Makers were selected not on their occupation or role in society but purely on their enthusiasm, personality and their ability to connect with people.    So should Meaning Makers.   Creative internal communication is not about doing it all yourself, it’s about using the talents and skills of those colleagues with great communication skills in the organisation.   So bring on the Meaning Makers!

It’s us we’re cheering for

By now you would have gathered that I love the Olympics.  Yesterday was why.   It wasn’t just the fact that it was a great day for Team GB, which I could appreciate and celebrate as a patriotic sports lover.   It was the fact that I found my heart thumping, my mouth dry with anticipation, my hands clammy with nervous excitement …. because of shooting!   Shooting?   Are you kidding?   What’s more, I punched the air in celebration in a judo match.  And then I was shouting at the TV and feeling like a proud father… because of canoe slalom!    I even found myself watching some boxing yesterday, a sport I can’t stand.   Every four years I find myself magnetically attracted to sports I wouldn’t otherwise shake a stick at.   You wouldn’t catch me near a horse in a million years but yesterday I watched an hour of dressage!   And what’s more, I loved it.    But from a human behaviour perspective, I also find big sporting events fascinating.    They tell us a lot about patriotism of course, but also a lot about engagement and the need to belong.   Yesterday I picked my daughter up from a summer camp and while I was waiting with the other parents, all everyone was talking about was the gold medals GB had won that afternoon.   People were happy and excited.   What I noticed most was the fact that everyone was referring to “we” rather than “them” or “GB”.    I’m proudly wearing my Team GB t-shirt as I type this and next week I’ll be sitting in the Olympic Stadium myself with a silly hat and giant flag.    So why do we do this?   The fact is, we don’t do it for the team, we do this for ourselves.   When Sir Chris Hoy crosses the line to break the world record and grab a fifth Olympic gold, we don’t cheer for him … we cheer for us.   We don’t celebrate because we’re “pleased for the athlete”, we celebrate because we’re pleased for ourselves.   If a shooter we’ve never heard of wins a gold medal for our team, why are we so happy?   It’s because we feel part of the team and we share a common sense of purpose.   What he’s done has made us feel successful.   For many of us, sport reflects our own values and aspirations in life.  We all have dreams and goals but we also know that life is hard and, as Mick Jagger keeps pointing out, we can’t always get what we want.   I know I’ve written about this before, but I love the way that sport brings us stories that we can all relate to – struggle, the pursuit of excellence, personal commitment, overcoming adversity, dealing with tragedy, the reliance on others, fluctuating self-confidence, the desire to ‘live the dream’.    We also use sport to reflect on our own lives – our health and fitness, the choices we made when we were younger,  the opportunities we wish we’d had, the regrets we have now.    I’m a middle-aged, slightly overweight bloke with a bad back.  When I watch the Olympics, I wish to God I was ten (my daughter’s age).    We see ourselves in those athletes.    When they do well, we feel it.   When they fail, we feel it more.   Not because we’re athletes but because we know what it feels like when things go well, and when they go wrong.     But you know, it doesn’t have to be sport that incites these feelings.   Work can do this too if only we’d build better workplace communities, engender a greater sense of purpose and meaning, tell more human stories of achievement and ‘struggle’, allow people to express themselves, encourage cross-functional education and experience.   And of course, if we were more creative in the way we communicate.   We need to humanise the workplace.    It is possible to create an environment where the bloke in Finance feels motivated and becomes more productive because he’s been inspired by the woman in HR doing a great job?   Where people talk about ‘we’ and ‘us’ rather than ‘them’.   Where organisations recognise people as individuals rather than resources.   And where one team has a group hug because another team has been successful.     Sorry for all these Olympic-related posts.  I’ll stop now.

Ten great Olympic inspirations for communicators

Communication is a team sport

What the Olympics can teach us

Let’s see some ‘creative acumen’

It’s great to see the futurist Anne-Lise Kjaer named as the keynote speaker at this year’s Melcrum Summit in October.    I’ve never heard Anne-Lise speak, but from what I can see she champions the ‘whole brain’ approach to developing a healthy and productive workplace, in which we learn to utilise both our analytical left and creative right brain to get the best out of our leaders and colleagues.    Of course, I don’t claim to be in Anne-Lise’s league by any means but this is the very theme that lies behind this blog – urging greater right-brained thinking to enable us and our leaders to become better communicators.   To me, the next-gen skills for communicators will be things like creative storytelling, empathy, novelty, meaning and play.    We dabble in all of these at the moment, but they aren’t yet core attributes.  And we’re not nearly as creative as we could (and should) be.   I think communications professionals should be the most creative people in the organisation, constantly pushing the boundaries and encouraging creativity in others.    We often see ‘business acumen’ on the list of desired skills for comms people (quite right too) but I’d like to see ‘creative acumen’ on there too.   This isn’t just about being creative communications professionals ourselves, it’s also about identifying and exploiting opportunities for creativity in the workplace, particularly in terms of leadership and culture.    It’s a skill, and it requires a different kind of thinking.   I’m sure Anne-Lise’s talk will be an eye-opening insight for us communicators, so well done Melcrum for such an inspired booking!   I just hope the audience doesn’t just see it as a novel and entertaining side issue before the ‘real action’ about (yawn) intranets and measurement.

Related blog entries:

Ten ways to be more creative

Let’s get serious about laughter

Forget vision, it’s purpose that counts

Hey lazy brain, get some perspective

Why Aristotle didn’t need PowerPoint

Time to ditch those job titles


Shakespeare’s warning

My family and I went to watch an outdoor theatre performance of Twelfth Night in Chester at the weekend.    I’m no Shakespeare scholar and I can sometimes struggle to keep up, but I do try to listen carefully and I often find long passages of prose that completely blow me away.   From Twelfth Night this line stood out for me, spoken by Feste the clown to express his distrust of language:  “A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit.  How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward.”  The castaway Viola (disguised as a man) replies, “Nay, that’s certain. They that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton.”    Now that’s a prophetic 430-year old piece of advice  for corporate communicators if ever there was!   Workplace communication, with its tendency for meaningless jargon and ambiguous or politically correct language can so very easily be misunderstood.   Sometimes our (perfectly well intended) communications are so dressed up with context, background and justification that the true message gets lost mid-way down page two after acres of pointless preamble.    Such communications can indeed backfire on us if we’ don’t follow the golden rules of clarity, brevity and consistency.     Not only does the message get lost, but the style becomes part of the culture.   There are plenty of “good wits” in our organisations ready to turn our over-crafted sentences against us.   Similarly, “they that dally nicely with words” by trying to inject unnecessary and unwarranted hyperbole “may quickly make them wanton” by over-using expressive adjectives and diluting the true meaning of potentially powerful messages.    We could do worse than take the advice of the Bard.  He knew a thing or two about getting a point across…. even if 400 years on no-one knows what the hell a ‘cheveril glove’ is (some sort of loose animal skin apparently).

By the way, at the same time as I was posting this entry, this article appeared on LinkedIn.  Similar sentiments but much better written than mine!

Why optimism comes naturally

Just back from a week’s holiday in the sun to find my blog had over 500 hits from more than 20 countries last week, so thanks everyone for visiting.  Anyway, I’m feeling refreshed, energised and looking ahead to the Olympics. But it seems that’s not the case with everyone.  According to the latest poll, 53% of the UK public aren’t interested in the Olympics.  I just don’t believe that.  Who are these grumpy cynics anyway? (don’t answer that, I really don’t care). I also read yesterday that most business leaders in the UK are sceptical of the official figures that show Britain in a double-dip recession, claiming that the drop in unemployment and their own order books suggest we’re not in recession at all, and that this run of downbeat official statistics is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. So what’s going on? Should we be optimistic or pessimistic? Well, as it happens, I’ve just read a book about optimism. Apparently, we humans are hardwired to look on the bright side (no, really). But whilst we tend to be optimistic about our own futures, we also tend to be pessimistic about everyone else’s! The difference is in the choice and control we have in our own lives. Ask people how they rate their driving ability and most people will rate themselves in the upper quartile. Ask people to rate the likelihood of them getting a serious disease, like cancer, and they will usually put themselves below the national average.  Most people will rate themselves high for their ability to ‘get along with others’. Most people believe their children will do better than the national average at school.  Most people underestimate their chance of losing their job. But most of us can’t be better than most of us, right? Our inherent optimism bias comes down to the way our brain works and how we feel psychologically about the choices we make. Here’s an example. Researchers asked volunteers to rate a number of paintings out of ten. They then picked two paintings that were rated the same (say, 8 out of 10) and asked the participant to pick one to take home. They could only have one, so the volunteer would have to choose between two paintings he previously rated the same. Let’s say the participant chose painting A and rejected painting B. The researchers then asked the same volunteer to re-rate all ten paintings again. This time, the participant (in almost every case) would rate the painting they chose (A) higher and the one they rejected (B) lower, even though they rated them equally the first time.  The study proved the psychological impact of choice. If we choose something, we tend to value it higher. If we don’t feel we have control – like running the finances of the country – we tend to be pessimistic, but if we do have control – running the finances of our own family – we are more upbeat. Now bring this into the workplace. Why are people often cynical and pessimistic about change programmes or delivering on corporate objectives? Usually it’s because they’ve seen previous goals and change programmes fail to deliver and because they’re not personally in control. Give them greater choice and a reason to believe and their natural optimism will kick in. Maybe we should do more to set choices out for the workforce – we could do things this way or that way – and let them have more of a stake in the decision? Companies who have given their employees the choice of taking a pay cut and avoiding redundancies or maintaining current pay levels and cutting the workforce have actually seen their productivity and engagement go up when the employees have been involved in the decision (usually to take the pay cut). Maybe we should thank people more for choosing to work for the organisation?  Optimism can be a powerful factor in business.  Optimists are more productive, more creative and more fun to be around.   They live longer as well.   This isn’t just about employee engagement, this is biology.

Do you know who you’re talking to?

I was in a meeting the other day with a bloke called Mark.    I’ve known Mark for some time – he’s a project manager in IT and we’ve been working on some comms stuff together.  We’d attend the same meetings, say hello in the corridor and exchange emails, like you do.   All very cordial, all very workmanlike.    In this particular meeting my phone went off (how unprofessional, I know).  My ring tone is an old Genesis track.    Mark recognised it and told me he’d been listening to that exact song in the car that morning.   We continued the conversation about music, and he then mentioned that he plays in a band.   So did I once.    It then turns out that Mark is a mad motorbike nut, spends most of his weekends ‘on the road’ with his mates and also likes walking in the Lake District, as I do.     So ‘Mark the Project Manager’ became ‘Mark the bike-riding, guitar-playing, fell-walker’ in the space of five minutes brought about by a ringtone.   If my wife hadn’t called to ask me to pick up some cat litter on the way home, I wouldn’t know all this about Mark.   Why does it matter?    Well, because knowing about a person and finding common ground builds relationships, breaks down barriers and creates a more informal and relaxed (and creative) environment.    When we’re at work we have a persona – a title, a role, a way of working and a framework of behaviour set out by written and unwritten rules, convention and perceived good professional conduct.   We all try to be businesslike and professional at work, of course we do.  Work is serious business, obviously.   But behind the persona is the person – the lives, loves, likes, dislikes, passions, fears, motivations, frustrations, obsessions, dreams, hopes, experiences, secrets, relationships, problems, stresses and releases that make us all human.    And the colleague we see in the office may not be the ‘real them’.   There’s the person who never speaks in a team meeting but who performs amateur dramatics at weekends.  The office junior who can’t be trusted to order some paper clips but who runs a scout group on Tuesday evenings.   The person who says they’re not creative in a brainstorm but who goes home and whips up an amazing stir fry.  The manager who delivers dull presentations but can bring people to tears with his piano playing.   The quiet part-timer in the corner who answers phones for the Samaritans for two hours every other night.  Not only does this highlight the complete waste of experience and creativity that organisations could exploit but don’t, but it also begs the question what would our workplaces be like if we all knew the people behind the job titles.   Collaboration would be improved, business relationships would flourish, ideas would be voiced, circulated and nurtured, innovation would boom, productivity would increase because people would be relaxed and happier, retention would go up, stress would go down.   All because we’d be working with friends with substance not colleagues with note pads.    So let’s take time to get to know the people we work with.    Opening up a team meeting with tales of what we did at the weekend shouldn’t be considered small talk, it should be big talk.     I’d like to see HR departments formally recognise the skills and experience people have outside of work.   Let’s see communicators do more to identify, share and celebrate the achievements of the workforce out of hours.   And let’s create environments in which people can come together to talk about stuff other than work.   Having conversations and finding common ground with others is naturally human.   And conversations about holiday destinations will soon become conversations about solving business problems.

But that’s where the world is …

British education guru Sir Ken Robinson tells a lovely story to illustrate the creative confidence of small children.  It’s drawing time in kindergarten class and the teacher approaches a quiet girl at the back of the room.   Teacher:  “What are you drawing, Katie”.  Katie:  “God”.   Teacher:  “But Katie, no-one knows what God looks like”.  Katie:  “Well they will in a minute”.   So why is it that if you ask a roomful of four year olds who can sing, most of the class will raise their hand, but if you ask the same question to a room of ten year olds, most hands will remain firmly under the desk?   What are we doing to our children to snuff out their creativity, douse their confidence and suppress their imagination?  It’s called school.   Sir Ken’s views on education are inspirational and I urge you to watch his wonderful Why schools kill creativity TED presentation from 2006 which has been downloaded more than ten million times.   His basic contention is that creativity is as important as literacy and that we should move away from the ‘test till you drop’ factory model of education to one that is more organic and personalized, so that children grow up in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.   Picasso said that all children are born artists.   We just dislocate them from their natural talent by sending them to left-brained schools.   And then it’s on to work, with our rules, standards, policies, hierarchies and oppressive cultures.   It’s not surprising organisations are killers of creativity.   It’s no wonder that so many people go through life without realising what talent they have and not enjoying what they do.   They endure rather than enjoy.    And it starts with schools.   I was listening to the author Michael Morpurgo at a festival last year and he was recounting how his teachers used to tell him off for looking out of the window.   “But that’s where the world is” he used to think.   And he’s right.    One of my daughter’s teachers described her as “a bit of a dreamer” the other day.   Fantastic, I thought, that’s my girl, keep it up.

Why Aristotle didn’t need PowerPoint

I’m just back from four thought-provoking days at the wonderful Hay Literary Festival.    This year, I took the opportunity to attend a number of talks and presentations about subjects central to the theme of this blog – philosophy, science, creativity and the future of work.    I believe we communicators can learn a lot from emerging developments in neuroscience and some of the latest thinking around human behaviour.    But I also think we can learn from history – from some of the great thinkers, communicators and innovators from the past.   By doing so, we might be ready to change some of our traditional approaches to internal communication and employee engagement.    The more I learn, the more convinced I am that we are doing some things wrong.   We need a new mindset, or if I may say so, a new philosophy, for workplace communication.     It’s a view I’ll expand upon in this blog in the coming weeks.   Anyway, one of the many interesting conversations I had over the four days was with science writer Christopher Lloyd, who that day had written an article in the Telegraph bemoaning the absence of rhetoric in modern life … a point reinforced in an excellent lecture by the philosopher A C Grayling the same day.     2,500 years ago, in Ancient Greece, rhetoric was one of only three subjects taught in schools (the others being gymnastics and geometry).    Without any recognised form of written literature, the ability to speak in public – to articulate an idea through persuasion and language – was a key skill for Greek students wanting to get on in the world.    Great philosophers such as Aristotle (pictured) and Epictetus would lecture whilst walking, using the music of their delivery to teach, persuade and convey ideas.   But the rise of writing, and then printing, steadily eroded the power of rhetoric.   As A C Grayling said, we live now in a post-rhetorical world of TV sound bites and perfectly crafted autocued speeches.    In business, modern day communication ‘crutches’ like PowerPoint have made us even lazier still.    We rely too much on left-brained writing which starts on page one and moves in a linear way from top to bottom, start to finish.   That’s now how humans evolved.    We started with pictures and the spoken word.   In the workplace, few of us have leaders who can orate and communicate via ears alone.    The written word is of course a wonderful and accessible way to learn and to seek engagement, but let’s try to learn from history and recognise the power of rhetoric to persuade, motivate and articulate a message.

“Exciting” … Oh, come off it!

I’m a wordsmith by trade, so I have a tendency to sprinkle more than my fair share of adjectives and expressive language into the communications I write.   Expression, even over-expression, is part of human communication.   Just watch two Italians having a conversation.   We exaggerate heavily to emphasise a point, we use carefully chosen adjectives to add colour to our sentences and we intensify words with italics, capitals, underlines and bold fonts to get the message across loud and clear.    In electronic and SMS communications, we love to use emoticons to leave our reader in no doubt of our meaning or mood.    As communicators in business, we’re probably all guilty of excessive hyperbole at times, but that’s fine.   It beats that bland corporate text book style you see in some organisations.    But I do object to the over-use of the word ‘exciting’.   I saw a communication from a bloke the other day who wrote, following his recent appointment, how “tremendously excited” he was to be joining the legacy software decommissioning project.   Oh come on.  I’m all for exaggeration, but let’s keep it real.    I do feel the word ‘exciting’ is becoming part of the leader’s lexicon of yawn-inducing jargon – “exciting strategy”, “exciting opportunities”, “exciting roles” etc.    What does that mean exactly?   If you genuinely are excited, show me, don’t tell me.   Then I might engage.

What the Olympics can teach us

Watching the thousands of people line the streets to welcome the Olympic torch through the streets of Britain is not only great news to those of us who support the Games, but it tells us something about community and the inherent human desire to ‘be part of something’.   It also shows why we should be careful about over-reacting to criticism.   You’d have thought from reading some papers and listening to radio phone-ins over the last year that most of the population is against the idea of the London Olympics, such is the prominence given to criticisms about ticketing, cost, London-bias and alleged corruption.   But the streets don’t lie.   Seeing the excitement build on the torch relay is a great, uplifting example of what happens when communities engage with an idea.  It’s momentum.   OK, it’s very well orchestrated and certainly over-marketed momentum, but there’s something also quite basic about the fervour that’s building across the UK.   When interviewed, you hear people say “well it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity”.   What is?  Seeing a bloke in a tracksuit walk up a road with a torch?  It’s not even the same torch (each runner has their own torch with ten minutes flame time).    Of course not, people turn out to FEEL part of it.   It’s symbolic.   It’s what it represents.   It’s an opportunity to engage with something big, patriotic, influential and inclusive (we can’t all have tickets but we can all connect with the Olympics through the torch relay).   And what does this desire to be part of something tell us about people’s motivation at work?   To me, it’s a reminder that we should keep looking outside of our industry to see how people react to events and messages, and to see what we can bring back into our own world.   There are lessons out there in all walks of life.