Friday, May 31, 2013

The science behind successful communications

My colleague Chris (who is a senior comms bod) challenged my previous assertion that communications is essentially a science.

He tweeted: “Good stuff. But science can be challenged especially when it relates to comms.” And then after we discussed it “But tested knowledge often doesn't apply if the personalities, time, timings and environment differ a bit.”

He has a point, of course. Depending who you have in the experiment, and where you do it, changes the experiment. And I would go further and say it’s not that the science can be challenged but it should be challenged. We always need to test it – does this rule or law still hold true? How can we refine it? Do we need to redefine it?

But I still think my basic point holds. If the comms activity has been researched then there will be one way of doing it that’s better than the other. We may want to continue testing it, but we can’t just ignore it. Unfortunately, in my experience, people have chosen to ignore the science, either because they prefer to go with their gut instinct, or they think their idea is brilliant, or whatever.

To take a field that I write about quite frequently: healthcare. There is a real battle in ensuring that the best practice in any given clinical discipline spreads everywhere. It takes 20 years or so for better, safer procedures to become standard. That’s a very slow adoption rate.

Why is the adoption rate so slow when the benefits have been researched and proven? I don’t have the science on that. It would be a fascinating project. The suggestions people have made to me is that people don’t see the need to change, or they don’t believe that the change will be an improvement, or they don’t think the science applies to them.

That final point crops up a lot. A very senior healthcare leader once told me that every doctor thinks they have a uniquely difficult case-mix and that what works for other people won’t work for them because their patients are different. As an argument for maintaining the (unsafe) status quo, it’s very hard to disprove.

I remember an argument with a different manager about including a P.S. on mailing letters. All the research shows this is one of the most likely things to be read in a letter, and so you should repeat your big offer there with an exhortation to take up the offer ASAP. You shouldn’t introduce new information in the P.S.

My manager said he didn’t see the point of repeating information and we should ditch the P.S. His comment was ‘It makes us look like we’ve forgotten something.’ He didn’t realise that was probably why people are more likely to read a P.S. than other parts of the letter.

I lost the argument (seniority again). We dropped the P.S. The mailing flopped. We reverted to the older version of the letter for the next mailing, with the P.S., and it performed better.

I’d take the credit for that, but it wasn’t my research. I didn’t do anything other than read what other, brainier, people said worked for them, and then applied it. But that moment is when I became a believer in the science of comms.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Counter-intuitive Communications Knowledge

I've heard a couple of counter-intuitive pieces of knowledge that interested me from a professional point of view this week.

The first was from my friend Kate, in a guest-post for a comms blog, talking about communicating with young people. Her counter-intuitive finding is that regular through the letterbox snail mail is quite attractive to teenagers. There's a tendency to assume that the only way to reach young people is through social media, but if everyone is piling on there trying to get noticed, maybe a good old-fashioned, co-ordinated, well-written marketing mailing might be the thing instead.

The second thing was an article from CopyBlogger I saw posted on LinkedIn that cites research showing that the more emails you send the fewer people unsubscribe from your list.

I remember having an argument with an incoming senior manager at a place I used to work who said  people were complaining about 'getting too many emails'. As a result he wanted us to cut down the frequency of our regular newsletter. I said I thought that was a bad idea as even if you mailed every week, the most you would spend 'in front' of the reader was 2-3 minutes per email. Even at five minutes for a lengthy email newsletter, mailing once a month gives you an hour's exposure per year. That's not much at all if you want to use it as a relationship-building tool.

Anyway, seniority trumped common sense, as it often does and the newsletter got scaled back. The organisation that relied on relationships with the people who supported it suffered badly in the recession, and eventually the senior manager left in an undignified manner. Depending who you talk to he quit or was given the boot.

The thing with comms is you can't argue with the science, even the counter-intuitive stuff. I meet lots of people who don't get comms, and that's the main point they don't get. Good communications don't just happen.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Welcoming plastic Joe

I've talked about the decline of the high street on this blog before. Here’s another example of how despite my best efforts I ended up resorting to Amazon.

This story begins with a young boy called Joe who began playing in goal for the Shrewsbury Town youth team. A few years later, after breaking through to the first team, a big money transfer, and becoming England’s number 1, Joe Hart has now been replicated in plastic as a tiny Soccerstarz model.

The 1 inch England’s number 1 was released at the beginning of May and I wanted it for my embryonic collection that Cathy refers to as my ‘Shrine to Joe’. I had a hunt in the toy shops in town, and the out of town Toys R Us, plus one or two other places I thought might have it. WH Smiths stock the first wave of SoccerStarz, but didn't have the new releases, and neither did any of the toy shops.

So, at Cathy’s suggestion I resorted to Amazon. It was a few pence more expensive online, but there was no postage to pay, and it arrived today

(I know people bemoan the desperate state of retail at the moment, but is it too much to ask that shops stock the latest things as they come out? That’s the trade off. I resent not being able to buy things simply because shops make the decision not to stock them, or are too disorganised to get them in. As customers we are made to feel to blame for the decline of real-world shopping, but this is a two-way street (no pun intended). I went shopping but couldn't find the things I wanted. Who is at fault here?)

Anyway, SoccerStarz Joe has arrived and fits in neatly with the two Topps figures I've blogged about before, although new Joe looks less stern than his colleagues.

(Sorry for the slightly fuzzy photos. My phone camera isn't great.)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Irritant TV

Judging by my Twitter stream while its on, and the conversations in the office the day afterwards, most people watching The Apprentice can't stand the wannabe apprentices. I heard the radio ads for the show and knew there was no chance in Hades of me wanting to spend any time at all in the company of those people.

So why do so many TV shows seem to be going out of their way to find the worst possible people to compete. (For my money, that's when Big Brother stopped being watchable; when instead of real people it turned into a 'find the freaks and stick them on TV' show.) We've got past the idea of telly as entertainment. The TV programmes that make the ratings seem to have embraced the idea of telly as an irritant.

I guess it's because it's hard to make TV that people love. You need skill and imagination and be willing to put in a lot of graft. It's a lot easier to find some obnoxious twazmuppets and stick them in front of a camera. People will still watch. You'll still get the ratings. You'll still have a hit. You just won't have to work so hard for it.

Why has there been such a groundshift in 'reality TV'?  I suppose 'Real' reality TV was too boring. Normal people are too nice - even the 'characters', whether its that bloke from Airport or a particular wheel-clamper, or whoever. Most of the first generation of reality TV stars were relatively grounded (no pun intended regarding Airport) and seemed to have some self-awareness. Get people with no self-awareness - now that's the difference!

In one way I can understand this thinking being quite important for the Apprentice. If they got together a group of genuine bright young things and gave them various business tasks that they accomplished in a cohesive and collaborative way, that would make fairly dull telly.

But where shows like Made in Chelsea, Geordie Shore, and The Valleys, differ is that the people selected are pretty clueless about why they have been selected. They think it's because they're ace. Everyone watching knows it's because they are generally pretty awful specimens of humanity. Their chronic under-appreciation of how they are regarded isn't helped by the way the tabloids and 'celeb' mags play them up as if they are real celebrities who have actually achieved something. (Which leads to worrying copycat behaviour of young teenagers who think being on TV = successful.)

The Apprentice is a great example of using the human capacity for self-delusion regarding one's own skill levels to produce very successful irritant TV. People tune in every week because the battling apprentices are so odious and so full of themselves you want them to come a cropper. They are idiots and you want them to get their comeuppance.

The other reality car-crash trash TV plays on similar themes. We 'love' certain people, we 'hate' others. It's real-life drama and we all want our lives to be more dramatic. And, for many of us it's a chance to sneer at the underclass or the clueless snooty rich. We like to think we are better than those people on TV. That's not a particularly nice trait and I wonder if we would be better people if our personas were being skilfully crafted by anonymous people in the editing suite. (I know how you can make people say pretty much anything you want them to. You do not see the real people on reality shows.)

Irritant TV works because we are drawn to spectacle and we like to see nasty, vain people getting what they deserve. A sharp 'You're fired'. It's all about ratings and the TV companies don't care if people are tuning in because they love the show or because they hate it. And they know that we have reached such a point of dependency on television that we don't switch off even if we hate what we're watching. We just bitch about it on Twitter - which probably drives up the ratings even more.

If it's true that societies end up getting the culture they deserve, then truly we are doomed.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

If there are a lot of me, then I'm a lucky one

Last year I returned to a medicated state and started taking anti-depressants to combat increased levels of anxiety. As has happened when I was previously on a-ds, the thing I noticed is that going on the drugs and trying to wean off them are both accompanied by bizarre night-time brain activity.

To say, at my age, that I have bad dreams seems a bit childish. But the transition from a very real-feeling unreality to a thankfully mundane reality can be difficult some mornings. Like this morning I dreamt that a comet or meteor had collided with Earth and that I was one of the people who had survived. Remnants of the comet were still raining down, so if you went outside you had to hold your hands above your head to protect yourself - it would work for the smaller rocks. If a big one hit you, that was it.

I had to travel from ruined house to ruined house checking on people, and inbetween each one shielding my head from falling comet debris. When I woke up I felt stressed, harassed, and kind of numb as if I'd just been pulled out of a dangerous situation and was now back home and at a loss of what to do. A Hurt Locker moment.

Although they are weird scenarios, dreams like this often have their own internal logic and very specific details, which makes them feel more real than the dreams I have without the pharmacueticals in my system.

I'm interested in the idea of a multiverse. It's intriguing to think there may be other versions of myself out there, living in all kinds of alternative scenarios. I wonder sometimes, if we are all connected. Do I dream their lives? Do they dream mine? Is there a psychic scream that crosses those universe boundaries at times of great stress - is that why I dream do much of being in danger, feelign afraid, facing death?

If my dreams are insights into other realities, then I'm glad I wake up in this one.