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.

 

 

If you can remember it, you weren’t there…

This weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival – widely regarded as one of the most important musical events of all time.

Woodstock allowed people in Vietnam-era America to believe another world was possible. It defined a generation and became a catalyst for a different way of thinking.

It brought liberal ideas into the mainstream, as people who’d spent their lives cast as outsiders suddenly realised there were plenty of other people who felt the same way they did.

Of course, that’s not how everybody experienced it at the time. In amongst the dewy-eyed reminiscences of peace and love, you’ll find descriptions of 15-mile traffic queues, basic sanitation that was quickly overwhelmed by a crowd ten times larger than anyone had anticipated, scheduling delays, sound problems – and a devastating storm that ripped through the festival on Saturday night and turned the field into a quagmire. If it happened at Glastonbury, people would be wanting their money back.

So it’s probably just as well that the song which best articulates ‘the spirit of Woodstock’ was written by someone who wasn’t actually there.

Joni Mitchell was supposed to be playing a small set at Woodstock, but her manager, terrified that the traffic gridlock would disrupt a scheduled TV appearance, made her pull out. She wrote the song ‘Woodstock’ in a Manhattan apartment.

David Crosby (who was at the festival and later became one of 347 artists to cover the song) described Mitchell’s song as ‘the perfect description’ of what Woodstock represented, rather than what it actually was.

When Crosby, Stills and Nash released their version of it, it went straight to number one – alongside the three-hour film of the festival, which filled cinemas up and down America, as an entire generation suddenly wanted to be a part of what was becoming a cultural phenomenon.

So, when baby boomers talk about Woodstock, they’re not usually talking about the festival itself. They’re talking about the spirit of the festival, as articulated in the song and the film.

That’s the thing about change. When you’re experiencing it, it often feels difficult and uncomfortable and chaotic.

Which is why, sometimes, you need to just take a step back and make sense of it. If you can do that, if you can articulate the change in a way that captures what it means, why it matters and how it feels when it’s at its best – that’s when you’ve got a chance of making the change stick.

If all anybody remembers is the mud and the traffic jams, you’ll never change anything.

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.

People can’t score if they don’t know where the goal is

The American business magazine INC asked executives in 600 companies to estimate how many of their employees would be able to name their company’s top three priorities.

Their average estimate was 64%.

When INC then asked employees in the same companies to name those priorities, only 2% could do it accurately.

It’s a reminder that most businesses are a lot more complex than their leaders realise.

They have too many priorities – and those priorities change frequently and often contradict one another. Which makes it very hard for anyone outside the leadership team to know what they should be focusing on.

Businesses that win are the ones that find a way to simplify the complexity and make it easy for people to know the right thing to do.

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.

 

Beware of spurious correlations

Human beings are wired to look for ‘meaning’, which makes us eager to spot connections that sometimes simply aren’t there. That’s never been truer than in today’s era of ‘big data’.

Tyler Vigen is a criminology student at Harvard who set up his own website to highlight how easy it can be to draw ludicrous conclusions from data because of the way we’re taught to look for patterns.

Vigen has loaded up a number of different sets of random data on his site and then cross-related them to identify apparent (but clearly nonsensical) statistical similarities. For example, as you can see above, there seems to be a clear link between the divorce rate in Maine and the per capita consumption of margarine in the US.

Similarly, you might say there was a link between the per capita consumption of cheese and the number of people who died by becoming tangled in their bedsheets:

chart (1)

Clearly, there isn’t really a link in either case. But it’s easy to imagine that people might accept there was – and unnerving to realise how readily we accept this kind of correlation when presented to justify a medical or scientific or commercial conclusion.

Vigen calls them ‘spurious correlations’. You can find many more examples (and even create your own) by visiting www.tylervigen.com. It’s quite amusing.

Alternatively, you could look a little harder at some of the ‘facts’ that get used in presentations around your own business and see how many of them actually stand up to robust statistical scrutiny.

Not so amusing, but potentially more revealing.

 

I wouldn’t start from here

There’s an old Irish joke about a city boy from Dublin, who comes out to the country for his cousin’s wedding.

He can’t remember the way, so he stops to ask a farmer for directions. The farmer looks at him, scratches his head, thinks for a moment, frowns and says:

‘You know, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.’

I feel a bit like that when I’m talking to clients and they ask me (always with the same slightly embarrassed tone) how to make their SharePoint pages more engaging.

Let’s face it, if you were setting up your internal channels from scratch, how many of us would choose SharePoint as the hub? It’s an archive system, originally designed for document retrieval. Which is fine, if you want people to use it like a reference library – but not much use if you want to get them engaged with what’s going on in your organisation.

Not surprisingly, every single comms person I know agrees that SharePoint is, at best, a mediocre solution to their communication needs.

And yet, nearly all of them work for organisations that insist they use it, because ‘it’s the industry standard’. It comes as part of Office 365, it’s easy and cost-effective, the IT people are comfortable with it, it’s a done deal.

So the comms people accept it as a regrettable fact of corporate life. And, every now and then, they give us a call to see if we can wave a magic wand and make people interested in using it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to have the work.

But imagine if that happened in your marketing department: ‘We want you to make our brand really cool – but we don’t want to spend money on TV or digital, so we’ve booked you some slots on post office noticeboards…’

Or your logistics department: ‘Yes, I realise articulated lorries are a more efficient way to shift large loads, but the chairman breeds Alpacas, so that’s what we’ll be using…’

It makes me wonder whether these organisations have understood the importance of engaging their people after all – or whether they still think communication is just a box to be ticked.

Because, if you really do want to engage your people, I wouldn’t start from here.

The power of the press

Archaeologists in Greece have just unearthed a clay tablet containing the oldest known extract of Homer’s Odyssey.

Although it dates back thousands of years, the tablet is nowhere near as old as the Odyssey itself, which is thought to date back to the 8th century BC.

In those days, of course, most stories were never written down, because very few people knew how to write. The only reason the Odyssey survived is because it was such a good story that people would learn it, word for word, and recite it around flickering campfires.

All that changed in 1439, when Johanes Gutenberg invented the mechanical printing press. For the first time, it became possible for written information to be shared beyond a tiny elite. It was a hugely significant moment in the emergence of the modern world: it democratised learning and led directly to the renaissance, the enlightenment and the revolutions (both political and industrial) of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

It also transformed the way we tell stories. Thanks to Gutenberg and those who followed him, we have the luxury of being able to forget things, because we know that forgetting them no longer means they are lost forever.

Which, in some ways, is a bit of a shame.

Like the ancient world to Homer’s Greek audience, modern businesses are complex and confusing things. The people who work in them, or buy from them, are busy and often distracted. And, like those ancient Greeks, they’re searching for meaning to help them make sense of it.

But the stories we tell have become much more complex, too. We don’t have to keep them simple any more because, thanks to Gutenberg and his successors (such as Microsoft and Google), we can write down and share as much detail as we like. We can weave in lots of different narratives and ideas. We can use film and graphics and satellite technology to add richness and detail and immediacy.

This can make our stories more engaging. But it can also make them less clear, harder to remember and, somehow, a bit less real.

When was the last time you heard someone in your business (or any business) give a compelling speech or presentation straight off the cuff, with no props?

When was the last time you read a company’s mission statement or values and thought ‘wow – I’d love to work for them’?

Is it time we stopped being so clever and got back to telling better stories?

Try this test on your own business:

Choose five people at random and tell them to imagine you’re someone they’ve just met at a party. Ask them to explain, in one sentence, what the business does.

Then ask them to explain, also in one sentence, what they do and what difference it makes to their customers.

That should give you a pretty good sense of (a) whether the people in your business actually have a shared sense of purpose and (b) whether they can articulate it in terms that are meaningful to anybody else.

If the answer to either of those is ‘no’, you’ve got some work to do.

 

The uncomfortable truth about fake news

You hear a lot about ‘fake news’ these days. Politicians use it as a label for stories they don’t want you to believe. Pundits use it to explain results they didn’t see coming. And most of us, if we’re honest, have a nagging worry about the truth being hijacked by unscrupulous rogue states and alt-right conspiracy theorists.

Are we right to be worried?

A few months ago, researchers at MIT published a study in the journal Science about how news spreads on social media.

They analysed 126,000 stories posted on Twitter between 2006 and 2017 and found that false stories were 70% more likely to be retweeted than true ones.

They also found that the true stories took six times longer, on average, to reach an audience of 1,500 people.

In both cases, a massive discrepancy. And perhaps the most interesting finding from the research was that automated bots played no part in it.

As the authors of the study concluded:

‘False news spreads more than the truth, because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it… False news is more novel and people are more likely to share novel information’.

In other words, the reason fake news spreads faster and further than real news isn’t because the people who spread it are malicious or gullible or especially tech-savvy.

It’s because the fake news is more interesting – and we’d rather listen to an interesting lie than a dull truth.

That’s a lesson most organisations could learn from.

Most organisations go out of their way to present information in a formulaic and predictable way when they’re communicating with their workforce.

They use language that’s been carefully approved by committee (words that sound positive, but vague enough to be deniable if things don’t turn out as planned).

They repeat certain key phrases with mantra-like insistence, to ensure their messaging is ‘consistent’.

They strike a relentlessly upbeat tone, even when they’re talking about something everyone knows was a mess.

And then they wonder why the people in their organisation are far more interested in hearing about last night’s Love Island or rumours of a possible takeover.

The first rule of communication is that you can’t talk to people who aren’t listening.

If you want people to pay attention to what you’ve got to say, start by making sure it’s not dull.

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…)