“It’s the way I tell ‘em”: the medium, the message and the channel

Having a pop at ‘business speak’ is – as we’ve said at least once before – a fish-in-a-barrel job. With big fish, small barrels and automatic weapons. An online acquaintance pointed out a recent example from The Watford Observer, quoting Mayor Dorothy Thornhill on the topic of local authority budget setting:

Once this budget is put to bed, we need an away day to do a bit of blue sky thinking and see where the red lines are.”

We’re not snide people: we congratulate Mayor Thornhill on her repeated electoral success as a directly elected Mayor. But we can’t help but be slightly alarmed that a former assistant head teacher could come out with a sentence like that. We’re prepared to give the Mayor the benefit of the doubt, but doing so would imply that either the reporter (Michael Pickard) or an unknown communications professional in the Council’s employment produced that deathless sentence. (We hope not, given that both are paid to string sentences together.) Whoever was responsible, they seem to have forgotten one of the first considerations of any communication: the audience, who are likely to read that sentence and be a) cross, b) baffled or c) overcome with giggles.

In the context of a meeting of councillors, the sentence would have been less objectionable. There would still be no reason to have avoided plain English, but fewer opportunities for mirth or satire. As a sentence to include in a local newspaper with a general readership, it’s hard to see who or what exactly it’s intended to present in a better light. Given communication is an important job role for Mayors, reporters and press officers alike, it shows how easy it can be to get it wrong sometimes. And that’s just words in print. In recent years, we’ve moved on from Gutenburg and Caxton. Leaders – in business as in public life – now have as many channels as an irrigation system. To squeeze in a multi-levelled pun about the dilemma of choosing the right one for the moment, it’s tempting to quip that it’s not just a medium, it’s an enormity.

(That pun was chosen to illustrate that many people assume that ‘enormity’ means ‘massive’. It may have started to mean that through common usage, but its primary meaning is something quite different – as Seth Godin once pointed out. Am I the only one to have noticed that many of the books designed to help us avoid making mistakes like that are written by people formerly employed as proof readers or sub-editors who cherish the view that communication is more credible when it is fully literate?)

While a lot of attention has already been paid to the rise of social media, this has tended to be focused mainly on its general use. In a work context, the concern is that employees will either waste time on it or behave inappropriately. While we all adjust to the existence of widespread social media use (which is still in its infancy, not just technologically but culturally), there’s comparatively little emphasis on analysing or measuring its use by senior managers. Some do blog (though far fewer than in the US), but the lingering impression is that their main use is likely to be LinkedIn, which is perceived as a business networking tool (albeit one in which many of its users are actually discretely angling to be recruited elsewhere).

Many organisations have embraced the web at a broader level, but senior management presence is typified by a biography or profile and possibly ‘an introduction from’. I don’t wish to cast aspersions, but it’s quite likely that many of these have been ghost-written – not only because their printed forerunners would have been and the tradition is simply be transferred to another medium, but because the cultural difference between the web and print is difficult to grasp by those who don’t frequently use it more interactively. (The short – and probably non-definitive – list of UK CEOs that blog at The NewPR Wiki includes, even at first glance and without further research, a majority who work in either media or software/networking. If the Internet is a new marketplace, our CEOs are surprisingly slow in racing to be first to reach it.)

But the medium that particularly triggered my attention to write this is one that is coming to greater prominence because broadband connections are now a viable reality for the majority of us: video. With faster Internet connections becoming a commonplace, web video has become a much more plausible communication medium. And the attractions of the medium are many: combining live footage, sound, inserted graphics or animation, voiceovers and other elements creates a much richer experience than text or pictures alone. Among the proponents of video as a medium you’ll come across the frequent use of adjectives such as ‘compelling’ and ‘immersive’. (Just remember that you’ll also come across phrases like “Contact us know to find out how our video production service can … “.) Online video has many real strengths: it can invite comment and feedback, and can be measured in terms of number of viewings. Provided you remember not to outstay your welcome, different surveys show that online video is often watched for longer than the average web visitor will read a video-free page – and they’ll ‘sit through’ a greater percentage of the content too. Brevity is, however, important: in a live presentation, you can see the front row check their watches. In a video shoot, you need to rely on your own judgement, and that of the production team.

The comparative riches of video – using sound and pictures (and overlaid text too) can communicate more in less time, although there’s no guarantee that it necessarily does – athomas davenport, re one aspect of discussion of the Attention Economy. (Difference aspects of which we’ve commented on recent, and noted – in a less positive light – in our review of Michael Foley’s thought-provoking The Age of Absurdity.) The various commentators on this phenomenon draw different conclusions, however. Writing in John Beck comment that:

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, those on the cutting edge of attention technologies are finding new uses for streaming stored video, high-quality audio, hypertext, distant connections with real humans, and high production values. Tomorrow, for all we know, what constitutes attention-grabbing technology may include holograms, virtual reality, smellovision, and teleportation of humans.”

(Personally, I find having my species referred to as ‘humans’ more alarming that the prospect of smellovision.)

In his rather more free-ranging book, The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information, Richard Lanham quotes Lev Manovich on the way in which the rise of cinema actually predates and shapes much of a shift towards images and away from text across the last few decades:

A hundred years after cinema’s birth, cinematic ways of seeing the world, of structuring time, of narrating a story, of linking one experience to the next, have become the basic means by which computer users access and interact with all cultural data. In this respect, the computer fulfils the promise of cinema as a visual Esperanto {…]”

Like Lanham himself, I’m not sure we’ve broken free of the alphabet just yet. (Although I’m a writer: I would say that.) But from experience, I can see the adjustment to video may not come without its initial difficulties. Having recently helped a group of colleagues in another company to produce a series of individual interview videos, I was struck by how anxious many of them were about the process. People who can write clearly and engagingly (including a former MP) were nervous of the camera, and the disembodied process of speaking to an audience that isn’t there. (Unlike King George VI in The King’s Speech, none had a severe stammer to overcome but several were still alarmed and unnerved by the process.)

Delivering to camera fluently is a distinct skill: like many skills, it takes not just courage and knowledge but practice. (Having studied drama at University, including acting to camera, and previously been interviewed for both tv and radio, I was much calmer about the process: I don’t want to watch it played back anytime soon, but practice had instilled at least a sense of calm.)

But until we have a generation of leaders used to the video camera and the language and medium of video, I think a gentle please on behalf of the audience is deserved. There’s plenty of technical advice about using video for presentation and communication around (Andrew Biss’s now retired SellToCamera blog is one starting point), but I hope we can learn the lessons of PowerPoint and desktop publishing: any tool is only as effective as the use to which it is put. And content really does matter: a talking head is only as interesting as what it has to say. As Lucy Kellaway pointed out in an article on the rise of video in corporate communication, Words fail them, in the Economists’ World in 2011:

With this shift will come a change in management style. Numbers and facts will be supplanted by appeals to emotion to make employees and customers do what they are told. The businessperson’s emotion may be no more genuine than the politician’s, but successful bosses will get good at faking it. Others will struggle: prepare to cringe in 2011 as corporate leaders spout a lot of phoney stuff that used to look bad enough when written down, but will sound even worse spoken.”

There are, however, two reason to look on the brightside. As Lucy points out, smart companies will think harder about what it is they are trying to get across. And, unlike a memo or a presentation, video comes with a fast forward button. Happy viewing …

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Filed under: communication, HR, leading performance, motivation, relationships
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