Category Archives: Opinion

Talking At Cross Purposes

My news feeds at the moment are filled with articles and papers on how and why people are increasingly disregarding facts, evidence, the scientific approach and preferring to believe what they hold to be true. What I read and hear ranges from incredulous reactions (only last week, I heard a podcast contributor for whom the light had only just dawned: “And you know what, they carry on believing Donald Trump! It’s really scary.” I felt like throttling her and yelling where have you been hiding? Do you walk around with your eyes shut and your hands over your ears?) to far more thoughtful analyses, including in some fairly meaty and academic research. A quick flick through this week’s New Yorker, for instance, offers this article by Elizabeth Kolbert, which reviews several pieces of research on just that topic.

But at the risk of sounding cynical, I am acutely reminded of the 1980s, when for a while you were submerged  with advice on how to avoid the then brand new bogey: AIDS. After a spate of adverts, awareness raising campaigns, sexual health promotion initiatives, a raft of articles came out. They all boiled down to this: when people are about to have sex, they’re not necessarily focused on being prudent and wise and cautious. Duh.

Coming back to the topic I introduced above, it’s not that amazing that people cling to their world view. It’s depressing, it doesn’t show us humans in a particularly favourable light, but it’s not difficult to understand. We like our comforts, and one of them is to maintain a belief system that feels right and fitting.

So I’m going to add my two pennies’ worth by writing a few pieces like this one. I’m starting with this essay on miscommunications, which is kind of tangential to this issue of the so-called post-factual era (a term I prefer to “post-truth era” because surely we can all at least agree that truth is eminently subjective?). Never mind misleading soundbites, quotes stripped of any context, pure inventions and fake news, we humans are not always that great at communicating in the most general sense.

It’s something I’ve been aware of for a long time. I have often thought to myself “that’s not what they said exactly!” when involved in or overhearing a conversation or other communication. I often used to pick up on linguistic differences when French or English were used by non-native speakers and the habit extended to what I saw as blips in communication even where language proficiency wasn’t an issue. And when I felt involved enough and legitimate to clarify what I thought was unclear, I did so. I do so less nowadays, at least for anything other than what I feel are the more glaringly obvious misrepresentations. And even then I only do it when I think my reaction will be noticed, which sadly excludes most of the nonsense that is currently being bandied about.

Fundamentally, the main reason I don’t often try and “correct” miscommunication is that I’m very aware that my assessment of what is or isn’t a clear message might not be the only valid one…

All Marketers Tell Stories by Seth Godin

“The lie a consumer tells himself is the nucleus at the center of any successful marketing efforts.”

Wow.

“Why did John Kerry lose against an incumbent with a near-record-low approval ratings after spending more than $100,000,000 on his campaign? Simple. He didn’t tell a coherent story, a lie worth remembering, a story worth sharing.”

Ouch. It hurts to read that now, so easy is it to transpose to a recent event.

And mee-ow. How catty can I get, opening this post with an out-of-context quote taken from a book written over a decade ago?

img_5749Well, I’ve just done precisely that and I’m not going to apologise for it. This post isn’t really going to be a review of “All Marketers Are Liars Tell Stories” (I’m not being sarcastic, that is its actual title). It’s going to be my reaction to it, which I summarise like this: it makes me foam at the mouth. Yes, my friends, I will be going for the moral high ground in the lines that follow, quite deliberately.

Disclaimer, I’m not a marketing fan, I never was and in fact, I wrote an essay about this a few years ago, trying to explain why. I looked at it recently, tweaked it a bit, ummed and ahhed about updating it with more recent examples and then decided to leave it pretty much as was. I feel a second essay coming on… (It does me good to write these things, whatever the readership. Writing is such a great way of clarifying your thinking.) However, I’d like to make it crystal clear that whatever my lack of enthusiasm for marketing, I am in no way denying that it is a highly effective tool.

And Seth Godin makes a very persuasive case for his particular approach to marketing, the storytelling strategy. I know he’s written many other books since this one and I might read a couple of the more recent ones, so thought provoking is he. In the meantime, this one about the marketers who “lie to consumers because consumers demand it” is still out there, the storytelling thing is still very much in vogue and I want to make my point about it.

Much of this book’s message is unassailable. We do indeed buy most things because we want rather than need them. We do indeed turn a story told to us by marketers into lies we believe because they conform to our worldview. I do both those things all the time, disdainful of marketing though I am. If I were going to spend serious money on a car it would be on a Mercedes; all my fountain pens have been Sheaffer ones ever since I bought one with my own money as a teenager; I pretend I’ve done a thorough survey of coffee capsules, whereas I buy Nespresso for a complex array of reasons that in truth do boil down to a story well told. (And you can tell from these pictures that I also own some Apple and Playmobil stuff, more stories…) So I get it, I really do. This strategy works, big time.

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My objection to its endorsement is a moral one (I warned you!) The heavy use throughout the book of the word “lie” is a red rag to my bull. As of course it’s meant to be. Indeed, the author acknowledges that it is part of the “going to the edges” aspect of marketing. But beyond offending whatever values it may be that make me object to lying on principle, the constant use of the word triggers my deepest misgivings about storytelling in this context.

The fact that we turn stories we are told into lies we believe is a fundamentally human trait, which I am not for one moment disputing. But recognising that this is a natural human mechanism and that marketing by storytelling is therefore a powerful and in fact consumer-led strategy and then saying: “So please, don’t hate me. Hate them. (the customers)” is surely disingenuous. And by the way Mr Godin, I don’t hate you. I’ve read my Voltaire. Free speech and all that.

The author touches on the ethics of the use of storytelling in two other ways but I vehemently disagree with the point of view he presents in both cases.

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First, he talks of the importance of being “authentic”. But he may as well have written “consistent”. In fact, he uses that word a lot too. But the two are not synonyms. For me, “authentic” implies some kind of substance, some kind of “realness” if not reality, something genuine, if you like. So I kind of object to “authentic” being used here: “The only robust, predictable strategy is a simple one: to be authentic. To do what you say you’re going to do. To live the lie, fully and completely.”

Second, after coming across a promising start in the “Keeping Promises” section that states: “The danger of writing this book is that will enable and embolden the deceitful stories”, I thought to myself “A-hah! Maybe I’m going to be able to sign up to this whole storytelling thing, after all.” So I read on eagerly, confidently anticipating an explanation of why it wasn’t deeply unethical. Oh dear. In the next breath, Seth Godin asserts that “selfish marketers” are in a minority. OK, maybe. He then surmises that “once consumers are able to see the effect that stories have on them, they’ll be in a much better position to believe the good ones and avoid the bad”, a point of view that can only be described as wildly optimistic at best. And then to cap it all, he offers a two-question “simple test for separating the honest stories from the deceitful ones” and goes on to demonstrate how it helps him determine that “SUVs don’t pass my test. Nor do some sorts of life insurance.” Well that’s all right then, I don’t think.img_5748

How about Presidential candidates? “Like him or not, George W. Bush did an extraordinary job of living the story of the strong, certain, infallible leader.” With the benefit of hindsight, it is so tempting to change the adjectives in that quote to “volatile, misogynistic, racist” and to replace the name of the 43rd President of the United States with that of the current President-Elect. After all, the latter did an outstanding job of telling a story: “No, not a story in a speech, but living a story, consistently telling us the story in everything he did and said. From the clothes a politician wears, to his spouse and his appointees, he’s telling a story.”

Yep.

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Photos: Hélène Wilkinson

Two weeks is a long time in post-Brexit politics

In case you’re new to this blog: I was firmly in the Remain camp (a non-voting supporter, despite being a British citizen but that’s another story). I use the past tense because I think it important to recognise that Brexit has been decided by the people and will happen, in one form or other.

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I’m not going to make any predictions about the possible economic outcomes of this decision, the model that will be adopted finally, or Britain’s future standing in the world. (Let’s face it, my previous record is not good, I predicted that Remain would win the day.) But I do know that there’s a lot of work to get through, work of a very practical and pressing nature.

Let’s assume that the political landscape settles down to some sort of normality this autumn. The people at the helm of their respective parties, when they know who they are, will need to devise a process to produce a new government, which itself will need a strong mandate to implement the exit plan it will have been voted on, which in turn will need to address such points as access to the single market, a position on immigration, the precise nature of the friendly relationship it wishes to maintain with the rest of Europe and also how it proposes to deal with the respective positions adopted by the various nations in the United Kingdom.

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This is a lot to take on. However, by far the trickiest task facing the next government is how to take the people with them. No, democracy isn’t perfect. And no, we can’t have another referendum, changing the rules after the event because we don’t like the result is not sensible (retrospective measures very rarely are.) But yes, people are really really cross and fed up. I won’t dwell on the rather unhelpful caricatures of Remainers and Brexiteers that have proliferated over the past couple of weeks. I’ll try and stop lamenting over the visible anger and hurt expressed on both sides, with unfair accusations of racism and exasperation about misinformation chief among them.

For my part, the main change I would like to see relates to that last point, misinformation. If there was a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs specific to information, I would put education at the bottom of it. In fact, it would take up two thirds of the pyramid. A knowledge base from which to start, the ability to process information and the nurturing of young people’s curiosity and questioning, these all depend on education, wherever it comes from.  I would label the remaining third of the pyramid “communication”.

As regards education, despite the many frustrations we experience with a range of education systems, I do believe that a lot of attention is being paid to how we teach our young. We generally care about it and a LOT of people are engaged: families, teachers, schools and education ministries.

On the other hand, I believe that we are only scratching the surface of understanding how communication really works for humans. I am becoming increasingly fascinated with this and have started musing on the subject. I propose to try and learn some more, which probably means some research. Pointers and suggestions welcome; right now I’m thinking about the power of “story telling” for instance, the insistence on the appeal to emotions to promote a message and all that sort of thing.

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Brexit is already no longer absolutely dominating British and European headlines. Since June 23rd, atrocities in Bangladesh and Iraq, shootings in the US and various sporting events have claimed column inches and bandwidth. Soon, Messrs Farage, Johnson, Gove, Cameron, Corbyn et al will gradually fade away from wordy articles, incendiary tweets, interviews, satirical sketches and cartoons, only to be referred to occasionally alongside other such former politicians as “Thatcher”, Enoch Powell and Michael Foot. O brave new world, etc.

 

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Miranda – The Tempest by John William Waterhouse