Category Archives: Devil’s Advocate

Post-truth IC needs to become more fun

There are few things in life as pointless and as miserable as folk music.

I was reminded of this at an open mic night at Boris Johnson’s Oxfordshire local, writes Headlines’ CEO Peter Doherty.

Sandwiched between a cheerful guitar duo and an immersive Pink Floyd tribute experience were three worthies with sandals and socks and Corbyn beards.

Faces contorted with torment, they punished our patience with an excruciating dirge about suffering and being northern and poor.

As someone who’s spent a working life trying to create things that audiences find pleasing, I can’t imagine the twisted sense of entitlement that compels these dreary folkistas to inflict their gloom on pub-goers who leave their homes for an evening of entertainment.

By comparison, the pensionable prog rockers paying homage to Pink Floyd were positively euphoric. Scintillating guitar solos, memorable riffs and joyous melodies that swept us away on a tide of acoustic ecstasy.

It was old and unoriginal and certainly not worthy. But even “hanging on in quiet desperation” struck an inspirational chord that elevated the mood of the sweaty backroom.

So.

Now that we have apparently entered an era known as “post-truth”, what does all this mean for internal communication?

Wikipedia describes post-truth as “a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy”.

It suggests that politicians have identified that these days we aren’t inclined to take too much interest in whether something is important, or viable, or even true.

But if it offers us the thinnest veneer of mental gratification, the chances are we’ll respond positively.

As a result, they no longer trouble us with the truth or bore us with the detail. They simply tell us what we want to hear.

This fresh new approach to the way we are communicated with is born partly of our digital age.

We have succumbed to a world where the boundaries between reality and entertainment are now, at best, nebulous.

We exist on a diet of trivia peppered with small bites of fact.

Our appetite for knowledge is satiated by superficial grazing.

Many of us have conceded to letting our views be shaped by celebrity opinions or pleasing themes rather than careful scrutiny.

In politics, taking advantage of this convergence of fact and fantasy has delivered remarkable success. But does it also have implications for business and therefore internal communication?

The answer is yes.

We should not be so sanctimonious as to believe we can buck the trend. Instead we should understand and learn from it.

I’m not advocating we peddle falsehoods.

Nor that we avoid confronting critical issues or communicating essential information. That, after all, is what we are here for.

But if we’re to do a good job, we’d be foolish to ignore the post-truth truth: it is all about simplicity and resonance and positioning to appeal. And for many people the devil is the detail.

While folk songs may be deep and meaningful, they are also miserable and tedious and not remotely entertaining. They fall on deaf ears.

But carefully crafted lyrics, memorable riffs and joyous melodies lift our mood and inspire us.

What I’m advocating is that we consider IC as a form of entertainment.

Keep it simple, make it fun.

Because as politicians have discovered, whether the audience is made up of rocket scientists or road sweepers, communication works far more effectively when people find it an uplifting joy and not a worthy dirge.

Devil’s advocate: clickbait won’t help your Aston run smoothly

If you’ve made enough success of your life to own a £210,000-plus Aston Martin V12 Vanquish, it is unlikely you’d trust a bloke with an iPhone and a diploma in logistics to service it.

Unless, of course, the bloke had also graduated from a three-year Aston Martin dealer technician apprenticeship.

If he had, you could be confident he knew his stuff.

He would have been through months of formal technical training at the company’s Gaydon headquarters, followed by many more months of working alongside case-hardened experts, gaining real-world experience in the workshop at a dealership.

And when the 48 valves – capping the big V that is the engine of your pride and joy – stop tapping in harmony to deliver its full 586 horse power performance, you’d know you had a safe pair of hands to sort it out.

So what is the role of journalism in IC today?

Some say not much. In a digital age, where content creation is democratised, speed and impact counts more than depth. Everyone is a citizen journalist – who needs the real thing?

But last week Helen Boaden stepped down as Head of BBC Radio and made an interesting point.

Without the opinion, analysis and depth that comes with proper journalism, she said, the world is becoming increasingly shallow, ill informed, unthinking, frustrated and dissatisfied.

Boaden is a hardy professional who graduated in journalism before starting her career 30 years ago, knocking on doors and chasing fire engines as a news reporter on Radio Leeds.

Her observation on the impact of the current trend towards click-bait media was this: “When we slice time into ever smaller fragments and feel pressurised by this, our creativity drops.

“Our ability to perform complex thinking tasks drops and we tend to enter an unsatisfying psychological state of anxiety named by psychologists as ‘psychic entropy’.”

The answer, she said, is to balance speed with the depth, commentary and analysis that are the components of professional journalism.

“My message is: human judgment matters. Should we apply it more?

“We are unconstrained in our speed of coverage, unmatched in our fleetness of foot – but do we lack the depth that we might achieve if we took our foot off the accelerator, or put the handbrake on, and stopped to observe more closely the world on which we are reporting?

“If we do not as journalists take time occasionally to catch our breath, to pause, and slow down, and make greater efforts to explain, we may find that we are left with nothing much in our hands at all, except the indifference of an audience and a vacuous, unblinking, screen.”

Those who care passionately about the role of IC in shaping happier, healthier, more productive communities will take her parting comments very seriously.

Our adoption of digital is inexorable – and good. It has the potential to be transformational. It opens the way for free expression, networking, collaboration, empowerment and engagement like nothing has ever done before. And by its very nature, it embraces all-comers for the generation of its content.

But it is not the end of the story.

Every organisation has more complex tales to tell, more detailed explanations to offer and insights and perspectives to bring to life. Every healthy organisation wants its people to understand, to think – to be challenged, stimulated and where possible, considered, creative and innovative.

This is where journalism comes in. And, for that matter, print.

Journalism is not just a technical skill that comes from three years of classroom training and shop-floor experience. It is an outlook and an insight that comes from witnessing, reporting, understanding and commenting on the many threads that make up life’s rich tapestry.

The role of a professional journalist is to help people to understand and see things in context – a context that is relevant to them – and to offer an insight capable of prompting thoughts and actions.

The job of internal communication is a delicate and complex one, which calls for different treatments and skills at different levels. There is no room for compromise: our people are, after all, our most precious asset.

Journalism is one of those skills. Do it properly and, like the certified Aston Martin technician, you’ll work the magic that gets the engine turning in harmony and performing at its optimum.

But with the best will in the world, we seriously underestimate its value if we trust it to someone equipped with little more than an iPhone and a media studies degree.

Devil’s advocate: Why do we bother with employee engagement surveys?

In well-meaning organisations across the UK, an enormous and comprehensive survey has become an annual ritual.

It consumes time and money and produces volumes of data, consuming more time and, by implication, money. But does anything useful come of it?

People will say “yes” and point to good things they believe have improved their organisation. They’ll say this justifies the investment. But I beg to differ. Too often the return is marginal.

At worst, annual engagement surveys have been allowed to become an indulgent distraction – wasting hours and cash, producing misleading results, and focusing energies in the wrong direction. They invite complaints, place unimportant issues on the agenda, lead us down the wrong path and distract us from doing things that matter.

It’s a broad and damning condemnation. But if I’m wrong, how do we explain that, despite a massive and increasing investment in IC and engagement, productivity is getting worse and worse?

The gap between our Olympic superstate and the rest of the civilised world is greater than at any time since records began. For every hour Herman the German works, he produces 36 per cent more than his British equivalent.

The French are 30 per cent more productive. And the Italians are 10 per cent ahead of us. Hardly surprising that, like for like, the average German earns £43,449 each year – while the Brit struggles along on £27,199.

I am in no way suggesting that IC and employee engagement are a waste of time. I believe passionately that they rank among the most powerful tools in the armoury of a business. But put to the wrong use, powerful tools can be ineffective or dangerous.

My case is this: The full-hit annual engagement survey is relatively ineffective. It can waste time and money – and can lead us to focus on issues that have only a minor impact on the organisations we serve or the people they employ.

We’re a young, naïve profession and now might be a good time to consider our course. I suggest a three-pronged strategy for the future direction of IC:

1: More leading, less listening

Farmers achieve porky pigs through instinct and experience – the scales merely confirm what they already know. In IC we should listen by all means, but not let it get in the way of leading. No truly great leader governs according to the findings of focus groups. They draw
on their own expertise, experience and instinct to set the agenda.

2: Pulse check, not routine medical 

Make measurement meaningful – timely and succinct. We make choices, express opinions and change our minds by the nanosecond. Now matters. So we should listen little and often and tackle big issues as they arise. We have the tools, accessible via the mobile in our pockets. Pulse checks are infinitely more valuable than cumbersome surveys and reams of analysis.

3: Stop navel-gazing and start doing real stuff

Liberate your business, your board and yourself from the bureaucratic burden of the all-encompassing annual survey. There may be a few gems in there, but as a whole it risk being an enormous distraction. So scrap it. Let leaders lead – and invest the hours, money and energy on doing things that will actually help make your business a happier, more successful place to be.

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Productivity: Let’s talk about a national disgrace

Productivity, says the Daily Telegraph, is a national disgrace.

When it comes to the value we generate from an hour of our labour, the UK ranks last but one among the world’s leading economies.

We are 31% below the US and almost as far behind Germany. Even our serial-striking Gallic neighbours over the channel are ahead of us by a margin of more than 20%.

But how can this be?

Continue reading Productivity: Let’s talk about a national disgrace