End of year round-up

Some interesting things emerged in the last few weeks which might cause me to ask – what is it that David Cameron, a chimpanzee, and the company Atos, have in common? Well, all have figured in news reports during December, and all related to communication – the focus for this blog.

The first was Cameron at the EU summit in Brussels. While the news media became very excited by the “long night of negotiation” and the apparent isolation of Cameron and the UK, I found myself puzzled by the issue. The question I really wanted an answer to was not whether the outcome was the right one (however one may try and judge that) but whether it was the one that Cameron intended, since this is the test of whether a message has been successfully designed and delivered. I find it hard to believe that it was.

Of course there is a difference between designing a message for presentation and preparing for a negotiation – we assume that the summit was the latter. But this puzzles me even more. I remember that before the summit had started, Cameron laid out his requirements explicitly – this was surely not a negotiating stance but his demands for the conclusion.

I am frequently asked on training courses whether it is a good thing to state one’s “Big Idea” at the beginning as well as at end of the message/presentation. (The Big Idea is the first thing that you would design to be the last words that you would say.) The answer is that there are circumstances when you can, and indeed the symmetry of beginning and close is appealing to the ear. But of course you cannot articulate your Big Idea at the beginning if you need to take your audience through a logical, emotional or psychological journey to be able to accept your conclusion. Indeed, being explicit at the outset can alienate your audience in a way where there is no return.

One of the other key differences between presentation and negotiation is that, in the latter, you do not retain control as the speaker. We are therefore in the business of interactions between human beings and the attendant emotional responses. I wonder whether there might have been a soupcon of Critical Parent in Cameron’s delivery? If there were, Sarkozy’s rebelliousness would be easily explained.

So, the chimpanzee. A few days ago BBC Nature reported on research undertaken by The University of St Andrews. http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/16305600

Dr Crockford has identified that chimpanzees will modify their communication to other chimps dependent upon what they (the others) know or are ignorant of. This is regarded as an important finding since this ability to assess others’ knowledge or ignorance is regarded as an essential underpinning of more complex communication and language.¬† Dr Crockford explained: “Why would I bother to communicate something to you unless I realised that you didn’t already know it?” One of her comments on the research was: “when the primates called out, they were ‘very focused on their audience’.”

Matthew Cobb, Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester, explained that “imagining what another individual is thinking” is a crucial part of human language.

My reason for drawing attention to this research and associated articles, is that it is a reminder to those engaged in communication design, that a message or presentation is for a specific audience at a specific time and place. And imagining (or better, researching) what members of the audience might be thinking or feeling, before, during and after your presentation is a crucial part of design – but sadly often neglected in the world of corporate presentations. Possibly politics too.

In early December, ATOS announced its intended internal email ban. Thierry Breton is the CEO and an interview with him can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16055310. There were two main reasons for changing course in this way. Firstly new (younger) recruits were not used to using e-mail, having adopted other tools such as instant messaging and Facebook. The second reason was the amount of time employees were spending servicing their email in-box – about 50% of their time.

Knowledge about this corporate inefficiency has though been around for many years. I remember doing a small sample audit of email use back in 2001 in a firm not dissimilar to ATOS. We came to similar conclusions (although the view about the proportion of emails that were regarded as useful was much less than the 15% that  ATOS observed). But we also identified that, at that time, the source of the non-useful emails was largely the company support functions Рmainly HR and Finance Рareas that one would have thought could have been targeted.

So, the question is why nothing has been done to control and direct the use of email in companies. I am sure there must be some organisations out there that do have enforced policies and standards relating to responsible email use. It would seem though that, for some reason, CIOs have been reluctant to do much about what is a scandalous waste of human effort inside their companies.

A final thought. Where there is a technological tool, there will be abuse of it. Email is one of those tools. Powerpoint is another – vastly over-used and massively abused. John Bohannon has an intriguing angle on presentations and suggests that dance might be used as a replacement for Powerpoint. In some circumstances I am sure he is right. A couple of years ago my wife and I (it was her suggestion) went to see Babel by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet & Antony Gormley at Sadler’s Wells. The subject was language – the medium was dance. It was stunning and memorable.

I am not of course suggesting that your next pitch should be choreographed but there are many powerful ways of evidencing and illustrating your ideas. Don’t be a slave to Powerpoint!

Watch John Bohannon’s video at http://www.ted.com/talks/john_bohannon_dance_vs_powerpoint_a_modest_proposal.html?awesm=on.ted.com_Bohannon&utm_campaign=&utm_medium=on.ted.com-static&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_content=awesm-publisher

It is well worth watching. Thank you to Kath Burlinson for sending me the link (and to Satya Dunning for emailing it to her!). A good use of email I think.