Those who can teach

Sometimes it’s worth stating the obvious because so often the obvious gets overlooked, particularly in the current climate.

We’re all off looking for the cash cow, the life raft, the new horizon, the thing that’s going to get us through the rough times. If what you’re seeking is the Holy Grail you may miss the paper cup and plastic spoon that are just under your nose. But they’ll help feed you just the same.

Training is a case in point. So many organisations are sitting on their budgets and trying to figure out whether they can spend a little money on a bit of website tinkering, or a pared-to-the-bone email campaign, when what they should be doing is growing their own skill base. If they do it right, they may be surprised to find how much they can do without throwing money at new projects.

Don’t just take my word for it. The European Association of Communications Agencies (EACA), Europe’s main advertising lobbying group,  is launching an initiative aimed at raising skills.

The main thrust seems to be aimed (Can you accurately aim a thrust?) at Central and Eastern Europe, where the skills gap is seen as more pronounced. But EACA International School of Advertising and Communications courses will also dovetail with UK schemes run by the IPA.

But it was the final paragraph of the story about this in a Brand Republic news bulletin that made me all warm and fuzzy inside. I quote:

Gary Leih, the Ogilvy Group UK chief executive and EACA president, said: “We’re very aware of the harsh economic climate facing agencies today, but research and experience has consistently shown that those who invest in training during an economic recession are those best placed not only to survive, but also to recover fastest.”

Well hello Mrs.Obvious and how beautifully you’re stated for us all to see.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not taking a pop at Gary Leih – far from it. He’s so on the money that I wish I could place a bet on him at Goodwood.

But I suspect the ‘swishing’ sound that keeps me awake at night is the sound of training budgets being slashed along with everything else. What a waste.

The really great thing about training (apart from the fact that your organisation ends up with people with more knowledge and a greater capacity to ‘do’) is the way it meshes with all elements of an organisation’s culture.

It raises self worth and self esteem, it supports a myriad of professional qualifications and continuous professional development (CPD) that, in turn, may be the stepping stones to career advancement. Yes, trained staff may eventually leave you (but that’s what they’re supposed to do). Plus you get a more skilled workforce in the process. People who are trained regularly and who work in organisations where the acquisition of knowledge is encouraged, tend to exhibit greater loyalty. Bring an employee on (grow your own) and the chances are their skills will always be one step ahead of their current pay level but their lifetime earning potential is enhanced. You win. They win. Everybody’s happy.

Having recently stepped down as a non-executive director of a NHS organisation I remain highly envious of the priority given to training and knowedge advancement that can be found in the public sector. I’m now a visiting lecturer in communication for our local medical school; medical and social care professionals appear ravenously hungry for a huge range of communication skills.

Training is organisational yeast. Companies with a culture of training and learning just tend to grow (even when the global economy is, apparently, going to hell in a hand cart). I say ‘apparently’ so I don’t get pilloried for using Armageddon language on my own blog.

Perhaps part of the problem is that people taking the term ‘training’ too literally.

Alot of CDA business activity centres around training. What’s the point of having the lab rats working on stuff and coming up with new ideas if all you do is sit back and feel smug. You have to set a good idea free.

Training can take a mutitude of forms. We often talk about workshops. When we ‘train’ attendees seem to get through an awful lot of colour tape and balls of string (email me and I’ll explain cdacontentlab@webwordsworking.co.uk), because we hate to see people trying to Hoover up knowledge whilst stuck behind desks pushing bits of paper about.

Training can go hand in hand with a project being progressed by taking an approach I like to call Tada! (It’s kind of a fanfare sound if you say it right.) Tada! stands for Train. Apply. Develop. Apply.

We’ve used Tada! to get a massive new website project off the ground, breathe new live into email newsletter programmes, underpin style guides and CMS systems, or just give an overworked, under-resourced marketing department some renewed fizz and enthusiasm (plus some energy conserving processes).

And then it suddenly struck me. We can just be a little iffy about the whole training thing. Consider the phrase: those who can do, those who can’t teach. What an upside down, crazy concept is that? Teaching, training, passing down knowledge… that’s a really serious project and it’s worth throwing money at. Those that can teach. Those that want to survive – learn.

The 'strikethrough' as a visual cue – and maybe hypnosis thrown in

I received a marketing email the other day which used ’strikethroughs’ in the text.

strikethrough-up-close3

For a second I thought someone had just pressed ’send’ on an early proof, but I quickly figured out that the strikethroughs were being used as visual devices designed to layer some additional meaning into the text.

I’ve given up hunting about in my email inbox for the specific example but the text went something like this:

strikethrough-sentence1

A bit tricksy? Maybe. But what was rocking my boat was how the strikethroughs were being used as visual metaphors to convey both a thought process and some softer values.

I passionately believe that the way we engage with content is being profoundly changed by the visuality of screen-based media. I’m not convinced that you could use strikthroughs in printed material and achieve the same effect. (Shoot me down in flames now, if you don’t agree.)

I also came across the strikethrough technique on a website trawl recently.

All of which leaves me with a couple of questions. Can visual clues work on a hypnotic level? I’m thinking about the use of negatives in written and spoken language eg: ‘Do not think about pink elephants!’. I know for a fact that everybody who read the previous sentence ended up thinking about pink elephants, albeit briefly. This is because you have to think about whatever the ‘not’ is being applied to before you can not do it.

If you’re still with me, I need to know how people decode the information that is ‘under’ the strikethroughs and how they weight it compared to the replacement words that are not struck through (tortuous bit of past tense, but there you go).

If telling someone ‘not’ to do something actually adds emphasis, then a word under a strikethrough should be more powerful than the word it is replaced by. But I’m not convinced that’s the way this technique is currently being used. So, if you’ve got a minute, tell me what is the lasting image you retain after reading the following:

strikethrough-test-sentence2

Shut your eyes for a few seconds and conjure up an image based on what you remember from the sentence above. Is the image closest to:

Option A

The flowers in the meadow were azure and shook as the storm howled.

Option B

The flowers in the garden were blue and swayed as the wind blew.

Comment through this post or send an email to the lab rats at cdacontentlab@webwordsworking.co.uk

PS

Extra points are awarded if you enclose a pretty drawing based on which image you found the stronger.

Twitter – this summer's chart topper?

birdie-song-cartoon

Does anyone remember The Birdie Song? The original version was released in the 1960s,  but in the 1980s a UK band called The Tweets got to No. 2 in the charts with an instrumental version accompanied by a silly dance. I use the term ‘dance’ loosely. In the same way that you might describe a bacon double cheese burger with chilli sauce, caper mayo and a side order of onion rings as ‘nutritious’.

Both the Birdie melody and footwork burned itself into a collective global psyche. (As a special treat I have included a link the Indonesian version by Warkop, who built a whole comedy routine around it, at the end of this post.) Huge numbers of people hated The Birdie Song but a frightening and equal number are compelled to hum the first few bars under their breadth in moments of crisis. Go to a wedding and sooner or later Aunty Ethel and your strange cousin will loosen their clothing and start teaching the moves to anyone who dares come within striking distance of the dance floor. By 9.30 the same evening every inch of available floorspace is given over to synchronised chicken dancing.

All of which brings me to the subject of this post: Twitter.

Okay, at first glance this may seem like a gratuitous segue based on a tenuous ornithological resonance. But Twitter and The Birdie Song connect on a much deeper level. People get very hot under the collar about this particular branch of social media (as they did with The Birdie Song). It’s a love it or loathe it kind of thing. For every Aunty Ethel desperate to teach you the Twitter moves there’s an Uncle Alfred spitting tacks about collective navel gazing.

Until a couple of weeks ago I was in Auncle Alfred’s camp. I had bigger social media fish to fry. I was interested in ‘communities’, ‘platforms’, you know, ‘big stuff’. So what if Stephen Fry could describe dolphins undulating in 140 characters or less. Twitter was witter. I took words seriously.

But if you’re going to get under the skin of social media you can’t leave anything out. I sidled up on Twitter, the same way I approached Wasabi mustard and pickled ginger when I first discovered sushi. You had to poke at the condiments just to prove you knew what you were doing. Take a little dip, decide you don’t like it (can’t see what it adds) and then get back to the raw fish and soy sauce. (Okay, a serious amount of mixed metaphors going on here, but keep up with me.)

But Twitter is a very interesting phenomenon. There are layers to it. Dismiss it as geeks meet airheads at your peril. Like The Birdie Song, its predicated on some simple basic steps. First the question: What are you doing? and then the answer: as brief as you can make it. You can teach someone The Birdie Song dance in about 10 minutes. You can start to Twitter in a similar amount of time.

I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that Twitter is the first pure-blood content progeny of the online age. It is adapted for skimming and dwell times that you can count in nano-seconds. Even the line length is perfect for screen reading, although whether that’s by design or luck, I don’t know.

Websites, although they’re getting better and better, are still caught up in their offline heritage. Websites may embrace interactive media, real-time chat and online transactional interfaces, but every now and then they drop their aitches and start sounding like printed brochures. Blogging has shifted control more firmly into the hands of users but they’re still predicated on offline values. Phenomena such as Facebook, bebo and YouTube have further societised the internet; but they are, simply, highly accessible online manifestations of yearbooks, youth clubs and the weirder hinterlands of televisual entertainment respectively.

Twitter is an online baby. For a start, your ‘standing’  on Twitter has everything to do with how many people follow your Tweets (posts). You can’t throw money at it in order to get noticed. And people only seem to follow what engages them. There’s no brand loyalty here. I’ve come across big business Twitters with 2 followers, while mums in Maryland can number followers in thousands.

Secondly, you’re only as good as your last Tweet. And if you last Tweet was more than a few hours ago, chances are it has already been submerged by newer, fresher perspectives. Twitter has taken internet ‘currency’ to a new level. When people visit the internet they want to find information that is relevant now. Yesterday’s news is so very, very yesterday. That doesn’t mean there’s no room on the internet for historic / archive content (if presented usefully) but there’s no excuse for not being up to date, as well, particularly as publishing to web is being made easier by a plethora of content management systems.

And like The Birdie Song, Twitter is all about collective impact. It doesn’t matter that Aunty Ethel is always half a beat behind the rest of the dancers, or that your strange cousin has added a couple of unique moves to the bit where you all turn round; Twitter is a collective. It’s thousands of voices threading in and out of each other on a single platform.

Twitter also exposes the associative nature of internet information connectivity. Thanks to hyperlinking, the internet mimics and facilitates the human brain (associative thought), allowing us to move from one piece of information to another, propelled by what we’re thinking of doing. It’s this hyperlinking that allows us to get from, say, checking the cost of flights to Malaga this summer to  tracking down the right kind of rice for a great paella recipe.

Twitter is highly associative. My experience is that although each Twitter post is officially provoked by the question: ‘What are you doing?’ often the question people choose to answer is ‘What I’m thinking about’ or ‘What has got me thinking.’ Twitterers point to other Twitterers’ Tweets, a signficant number of which are crafted around a stimulating thought, or which act as signposts to useful information on other websites. (Tiny URLs and Twitter – a marriage made in heaven.)

All of which has got me thinking – what next? I’m no Darwin scholar but it seems like every time there’s an evolutionary leap it spawns a period of extrordinary fertility. Get the structure right and Mother Nature pops out a huge number of permutations. Then it’s just down to the survival of the fittest.

I’m sure they’ll be Twitter derivatives but the big question is what else can evolve around user value, equal access, immediacy, succinctness, ease of publication, associative linking and associative thinking? Answers in 140 characters… or more.

The CDA Lab Rats on Twitter

Dongkrak Antik by Warkob (The Birdie Song)

Are we grunting online?

Reading University researchers have developed a computer programme that has identified the words “I”, “we”, and the numbers “1”, “2” and “3” as some of the oldest still in use.

With them I could, apparently, communicate with a prehistoric ancester. I couldn’t discuss the current “global economic meltdown” (see my ealier post on Armegeddon language) but I could manage, maybe: “I hungry, need 3 helpings of roast Mastodon. We hunt now!”.

The researchers are also predicting which words are likely to become extinct, citing “squeeze”, “guts”, “stick” and “bad” as those most likely to become obsolete first (according to a BBC article on the project).

This means the sentence: “I had some bad sushi last night and I feel like my guts are being squeezed out through my bottom, so I’ll stick to dry toast for lunch” will, one day, have no meaning.

This story has thrown my morning out of wack because I’m now obsessing about what enables some words to thrive while others do not? I can see the importance of being able to identify myself (I), creating alliances (we) and basic numbers (1, 2, 3). Does that mean usefulness is the key to language longevity? If so, are the words which die out (or are on their last legs), words which are no longer useful?

Or is it to do with the fact that we have better / alternative words? Is ‘guts’ going because ‘stomach’ or ‘entrails’ are more accurate alternatives?

And what influence, if any, does the medium of delivery have on a word’s viability? Are some words less viable because they are open to misenterpretation when skimmed at speed online, for example? And are words liable to die out through overuse. (In which case, please let ‘Welcome’ go first. THE most overused word on the internet.)

According to the Reading researchers, the less frequently certain words are used, the more likely they are to be replaced.

Other simple rules have been uncovered – numerals evolve the slowest, then nouns, then verbs, then adjectives. Conjunctions and prepositions such as ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘but’ , ‘on’, ‘over’ and ‘against’ evolve the fastest, some as much as 100 times faster than numerals.

The evolution of language interests CDA. It was one of the driving forces behind our recent language pathways white paper. I’m firmly convinced that the way we engage with language has been profoundly changed by screen-based media and this in turn is influencing language and its evolution.

Which all begs the question: have we reached a pivot point where the way we create language and meaning is changing and at an ever increasing speed? (Think about younger age groups and txt (sic) messaging and how quickly their new ‘rules’ were widely accepted.)

And what does this mean for people like me?

I think this Reading research is going to keep me awake tonight.

Eager to know more?

Reading University press release: Scientists discover oldest words in the English language and predict which ones are likely to disappear in the future

Radio 4 interview with Professor Mark Pagel about the research

CDA’s language pathways White Paper

Kindle 2 – online magazines nil

digital-magazine-cartoon

News of Amazon’s Kindle 2 has just leaked out, causing tremors of excitement amongst those of us who’d rather do anything than our day job.

The new ‘wirelss reading device’ (think what would happen if an iPod and a paperback had a baby) is sleek and gorgeous and very practical… which got me thinking.

I’ve noticed that  magazine publishers, still chasing that Holy Grail – the perfect online magazine – are increasingly settling for jazzy pdf versions that make ‘swish’ noises when you click your cursor on the corners of the pages. Is this a step forwards, or a step backwards? (Yeah, yeah – rhetorical question.)

The problem with an online graphic representation of a printed magazine is it doesn’t take full advantage of the ‘3D’ space and breathtaking functionality that the internet offers.

People absorb information differently online. They’ve spent the last few years (and online has only been around a few years) acquiring new skills and adapting old ones at a breaktaking pace. And what do we give them? Gussied up pictures of printed magazine pages. It’s a bit like passing your driving test and being handed a push bike.

Readers like Kindle 2, on the other hand, are finding new and exciting ways of bridging the space between online and offline. It gives people the offline framework – book dimensions, use of white space etc – but the ease of new media. Hurray!

Don’t get me wrong, there are some very nice magazine websites and emails out there, but we’re still a long way from doing print successfully online. In fact, should we be doing print at all? I’m seeking some inspiration here.