To be clear

One phrase we can all expect to be hearing a lot over the next few weeks, as the election campaign hits its straps, is ‘I am very clear…’

Like most phrases beloved of politicians, its meaning has been diluted by overuse and insincerity.

Politicians generally say it when they want to sound like they’re setting out a clear position, without actually committing themselves to anything. Or when they’ve changed their position and don’t want to admit it.

The exact opposite of clarity, in other words.

I thought about this on Saturday morning, when I was watching the rugby world cup final at an event hosted by LG in London.

The result wasn’t what the audience was hoping for, but it was an enjoyable and well-run event (and the TV screen was spectacular!)

There was also a guest appearance from Dylan Hartley, the former England rugby captain – who, but for a poorly-timed knee injury, might have been leading his side into that final.

During a Q&A session after the game, Hartley offered a fascinating insight into what it takes to build a team that performs consistently at the highest level.

For much of the last four years, he has played a pivotal role in the journey England have been on under coach Eddie Jones – starting in the aftermath of their inglorious exit from the pool stage of the 2015 tournament they were hosting.

At that point, England were ranked eighth in the world.

When Jones was appointed as the new coach, he brought the whole squad together into a room and said: ‘In four years’ time, we will be going to the world cup in Japan as the number one ranked team.’

Nobody really believed him, says Hartley. Why would you? It seemed impossibly remote from where they were then.

But Jones was relentless.

He set demanding targets. He made the players work harder than they’d ever worked.

When one player made a five-hour trip to England training after a club match, Jones asked him how he was feeling.

‘A bit tired’, said the player.

‘Tired players are no use to me,’ said Jones and sent him home.

That may sound harsh, but it’s an example of what real clarity looks and sounds like.

As Hartley explains:

‘Language is very important to Eddie. He doesn’t want to hear anything that sounds like weakness, because it opens the door to the possibility of failure. He wants you to be utterly focused on achieving your aim.’

As Jones’s captain, it was Hartley’s job to bring that same clarity and focus into the changing room conversations and team huddles.

Gradually, the belief began to shift and the performances began to improve – culminating in a dominant victory over the previously all-conquering All Blacks that booked England’s place in Saturday’s final.

They didn’t win that final, of course. As Hartley readily accepts, they were ‘beaten by a better team on the day.’

But England turned up to the match as the number one ranked team in the world. Just like Eddie Jones said they would, four years ago.

That’s what real clarity does for you.

Is this the world’s most valuable picture?

Yesterday was the 214th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, arguably the most important naval engagement in British history.

The night before the battle, Admiral Nelson invited his captains on board his flagship, HMS Victory, for dinner.

As the main course was being cleared away, he gathered them all round to outline his battle plan, which he sketched out with the few quick strokes of his pen that you see here.

The sketch was designed to illustrate a simple, but incredibly important point.

Instead of sailing in a line parallel with the Franco-Spanish fleet and simply pounding away in an exchange of gunfire (the orthodox naval tactics of the time), Nelson wanted his ships to sail straight at the enemy, break their line and engage them at close quarters.

It was risky, but it was also the only way to achieve a decisive victory. Sticking to the rule-book would be unlikely to give either fleet much of an advantage. Whereas getting in close would allow the superior seamanship and gunnery of the British crews to come into their own.

The stakes were high: if Nelson failed, the one obstacle preventing a French invasion of Britain would be removed. On the other hand, a decisive victory would give the British naval supremacy (in those days, as significant an advantage as air supremacy is in today’s conflicts).

Success depended on his captains understanding what they had to do and executing it perfectly.

Nelson knew that the best way to explain it was to draw it. If he’d just used words, his officers would have heard him, but might have assumed that they’d misunderstood, because what he was saying was unusual.

Whereas, when they saw the picture, his captains got it immediately. They followed the plan and it worked: the combined Franco-Spanish fleet was comprehensively routed.

Britain had established a dominance of the seas that would last for the next hundred years and make her the richest, most powerful nation on earth.

It’s an object lesson in the value of being able to explain an idea visually.

At the height of its Empire, in 1860, Britain accounted for a staggering 47% of all global trade. (To put that in context, today’s most dominant trading nation, China, accounts for around 17%).

Britain’s trading dominance was only possible because of the Royal Navy’s absolute control of the seas.

Which, in turn, was only possible because of Nelson’s visionary sketch.

Which makes that sketch worth around 50 trillion dollars in today’s money.

Eat your heart out, Damien Hurst.

 

 

You have to give people a reason to care

If you go in the men’s bathrooms at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport (and I realise some of you never will, so I’ve attached a pic), you’ll notice there’s a fly hand-painted on the ceramic of every urinal.

The flies are there because airport bosses had become concerned about the amount of time and money being spent on cleaning round the urinals.

It turned out male passengers were too distracted or in too much of a hurry to pay attention to their aim. Over time, these little spillages added up to a sizeable cleaning bill and a fairly unpleasant experience for travellers.

The airport’s facilities team tried a number of different ways to encourage urinal-users to be more fastidious: from polite cajoling to threatening notices to spot fines. Nothing seemed to make any difference.

Then some bright spark came up with the idea of the flies.

Men are instinctively competitive creatures, they suggested. You can keep giving them rational reasons to improve their aim and they’ll just keep tuning them out. Whereas, if you give them a target to aim at, they won’t want to miss.

The bright spark was right.

Accuracy in the trial urinal areas improved dramatically. Cleaning costs fell like a stone. And, since the painted flies have been rolled out to the rest of the airport, savings now run into many millions of Euros.

It’s a good example of the ‘nudge’ theory in action.  It’s also an example worth bearing in mind next time someone asks you to run a ‘serious’ communication campaign.

Because the best way of getting people to change their behaviour is not to keep banging on at them with rational arguments that they’re not interested in.

It’s to reframe the problem in a way that makes them want to engage with it.

When gestures trump words

Whatever else you may think of Donald Trump (and, let’s face it, even by his standards, he’s had a bizarre couple of weeks), it’s hard to deny that he’s an effective communicator. A large part of that is to do with the way he uses his hands.

The BBC made a short film about it when he first won the Presidency, which you can still find online.

The key point is the way he uses big, vague, airy movements, to characterise his opponents’ policies – then follows up with very precise, focused gestures to characterise his own. ‘Chaos’ versus ‘clarity’.

What’s interesting is that, even though a lot of what he’s saying doesn’t stand up to robust intellectual scrutiny, it doesn’t matter – because most of the audience is more influenced by his hands than by his words. His gestures make people believe him.

‘Wow’, they think. ‘This guy really knows how to cut through the bullshit and make stuff happen.’

Now, I’m not suggesting Trump is a leadership model you should copy. But I do think there’s an important lesson in this for all of us – and last month’s Harvard Business Review includes an interesting piece of research to back it up.

Joep Cornelissen is a Professor of Communication at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

He and his team contacted a large number of established investors and, posing as entrepreneurs, asked if they could send a video pitching a new piece of medical tech.

They sent out four different versions of the video, all featuring the same ‘entrepreneur’ (actually a Dutch actor).

Version one used a lot of figurative language to describe the new invention.

Version two included regular hand motions to help explain the idea.

Version three used both.

Version four used neither.

The results were striking: investors who watched version two of the video were 12% more likely to invest than any of the other groups. In other words, when you’re pitching an idea, gestures matter a lot more than what you say.

This was not what Cornelissen and his team had been expecting. Given the widespread reliance on analogies and storytelling when pitching ideas, they’d assumed use of language would be key.

In fact, the investors said they had a much more tangible sense of what the product was, and how it would work, when they saw the hand gestures. It reassured them, in the same way Trump’s audience is reassured by his repeated ‘wave and pinch’ gesturing.

The trick, it seems, is to use gestures selectively. Not just waving your hands all the time, but finding one or two killer gestures that lend weight and conviction to your key points.

Of course, it’s also important to remember who your audience is – and what they’re likely to be focused on.

When Cornelissen repeated the experiment with his students, he found they were much more likely to be swayed by the figurative language, because their primary interest was to understand the idea. Whereas investors are more interested in understanding the person pitching it: Do I believe them? Am I confident they can deliver?

A point worth keeping in mind for any CEO with a change agenda they need to engage their business with.

Never trust anyone without a sense of humour

There’s nothing wrong with being professional, but it’s a good rule to be wary of people who take themselves too seriously.

A sense of humour is just common sense with the volume turned up. That’s why comedians are so good at capturing and expressing simple, timeless, human truths.

Dull, serious people, by contrast, tend to see the world in black-and-white terms. They’re not usually good at grasping alternative viewpoints or engaging with new ideas. You should be especially wary of any leader who won’t poke fun at themselves, because it’s a sign either of insecurity or of a narcissistic personality disorder.

As Eric Sykes put it: ’We are all idiots. The ones who don’t think they’re idiots – they’re the ones who are dangerous.’

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Trust is a 360-degree thing

There’s a tendency to think of trust in up-down terms. And it’s obviously good if the people in a business know they can trust their employers. But a winning culture is one where everyone in a team knows they can trust everyone else in the team: their leaders, their peers, the people they manage.

If you don’t know the person next to you has got your back, you waste a lot of time and energy looking over your shoulder. Which is why it’s good to create an environment where no-one has to do that.

Where people can work from home without worrying that their colleagues think they’re building a new patio.

Where no-one takes credit for somebody else’s work.

Where people can express an honest opinion in a respectful way without worrying that it will impact their career prospects.

It’s surprisingly hard to build an environment like this. But, if you manage it, the benefits are extraordinary.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Information doesn’t filter up very well

There’s an old army story about an officer on the front line who needs to get an important message to his commanders:

‘Send reinforcements; I’m going to advance.’

But the telephone lines have been cut, so the only way to get the message through is to pass it up the line. By the time it gets to headquarters, the urgent message has become:

‘Send three and fourpence; I’m going to a dance.’

It’s almost certainly an apocryphal story, but it makes an important point: the more people a message goes through, the further it’s likely to stray from its real meaning.

Which is why you need to keep the lines of communication from your front-line employees as short as possible. They’re usually best-placed to know what your customers think and how proposed changes will work in reality.

But, if their feedback has to pass through too many layers before it reaches a decision-maker, a lot of its value and meaning will be lost (especially if any of those layers don’t like what it’s saying).

Your job is to make sure the right information flows up as easily as it flows down.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Don’t just listen to the bits you want to hear

In the middle ages, kings used to keep a jester (or ‘fool’) to entertain the court. An unofficial, but essential, part of the fool’s role was to offer contradictory opinions.

Not something many of the king’s courtiers would be brave enough to do, since criticism of an absolute monarch was a quick way to lose your head.

But it didn’t matter so much if the fool said it, because the opinion wouldn’t feel like a threat. It could be laughed off as nonsense – and, if it struck a chord, the king could simply adopt it as his own without any loss of face.

The same principle holds true in any business. The higher up an organisation you go, the more important it is to have someone around you who won’t hesitate to speak truth to power.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

It’s not about the camera

The word ‘great’ gets used too freely these days. But I don’t think there’s much doubt that Don McCullin is a great photo-journalist.

There’s a retrospective of his work on display in Tate Britain until 6 May. If you haven’t seen it yet, I urge you to go.

The pictures are extraordinarily powerful. As well as the war photography for which he’s best known (Vietnam, Biafra, Cyprus, Northern Ireland), there are poignant, gritty images of life in the industrial Northeast and in London’s East End, where McCullin grew up.

What makes the pictures so powerful is their ability to tell a story. McCullin’s gift is for identifying and capturing small moments that somehow express a much larger truth.

Like the picture above, taken at a protest in Trafalgar Square in the 1960s. Hundreds of photographers were covering the event and they all got plenty of pictures that showed the police and the protesters facing off. But only McCullin got this shot.

That’s partly about being in the right place at the right time, which is certainly one of McCullin’s skills. But it’s mostly about empathy – about being able to look at a scene with the eyes of a human being, rather than the eyes of a technician.

‘I use the camera like I use a toothbrush,’ McCullin once said.  ‘The most important photographic equipment I take on an assignment is my head and my eyes and my heart. I could take the poorest equipment and I would still take the same shots. They might not be as sharp, but they would certainly say the same thing.’

That’s a pretty good definition of how communication works.

You can have the best technology in the world, the coolest graphics, the funkiest presentation – and none of it will make much difference.

Because what really matters is the story.

Matt is the author of tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture, which explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.

If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)

 

 

Make the numbers make sense

Long before Dick Cheney became famous as the hawkish architect of the Iraq War, he first rose to prominence by putting free market thinking at the heart of the Reagan administration’s economic policy.

It began one day when he was having lunch with an economist named Arthur Laffer, who had an idea about tax that he was keen to promote.

Laffer’s idea was that, beyond a certain point, hiking tax levels is counter-productive, because it prompts people to work less hard and look for ways to avoid paying tax. Whereas lowering taxes encourages people to be more productive and compliant, which means you raise more tax revenue in the long term.

This was not a new idea (Laffer borrowed it from a 14th century Islamic scholar, Ibn Khaldun), but it was very much contrary to the prevailing thinking at the time and he wasn’t having much luck getting his point across.

Cheney shrugged his shoulders and said ‘I don’t get it. How can you get more money if you charge people less tax?’

Frustrated, Laffer grabbed a napkin and scribbled this sketch on it.

make the numbers make sense

All at once, the penny dropped. Cheney picked up the sketch and used it to reformulate the Republicans’ economic strategy for the next election (which they won by a landslide).

That was the moment when Reaganomics was born, along with all the dreadful yuppy nonsense that went with it.

But let’s ignore the junk bonds, shoulder pads and big hair.

The point is that, if you want people to engage with data, you have to bring it to life – and the best way to do that is with a picture. Which is why infographics have become so popular in recent years.

Apart from anything else, the process of turning complex numerical data into a single image forces you to be simple. It makes you think about the information in the way your audience might think about it. It forces you to delve into the mountain of data and pull out the one key point or pattern that explains exactly why it matters. And it allows you to express it in a way that your audience is likely to grasp.

Because the really important thing to remember about numbers is that they don’t matter. What matters is what the numbers mean.