Ten reasons why we don’t understand stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Test your creativity – No 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now tell me we’re not propagandists

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

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

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

 

Test your creativity – No 1

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

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

cambridge

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

FlipFlop

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

fedEx

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

Tiger

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

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

More next week.

The future’s not what it used to be

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

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

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

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

People don’t complain about communication overload

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

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

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

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

What to do if your boss is a psychopath

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

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

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