Old tricks

I’ve been spending some time looking at old things that are a bit like new things.

Flip books, from the Victorian Era, are a bit like little YouTube videos. You pick up the book, flip the pages and you see an animation.

Here’s a mediaeval cherub playing air guitar that I spotted in a museum in Amsterdam.

Here’s an ancient Greek noblewoman watching Season 3, Episode 4 of the Walking Dead on her laptop.

In Belgium, a project called the Mundaneum in the early years of the 20th century, attempted to capture and organise all of human knowledge on index cards. The idea was to have it at the heart of a World City. It was a precursor to the World Wide Web.

The name Mundaneum struck me. Of course, the derivation is the word for World, but when I saw it, I immediately thought of mundane, a synonym for boring. It occurred to me that the Mundaneum might have been doubly prophetic.

Connection to the Internet has damaged our attention spans. Access to everything from everywhere has siphoned our concentration into thousands of tiny receptacles.

According to my polling, 71% of us believe that our attention spans are shorter than they were 5 years ago.

We are less likely to click on links. Nearly half of us are less likely to click than we were a year ago. Clicking a link isn’t a big ask, but if the ask isn’t good enough, we move on.

There are too many calls on our time. Where once we might have had a couple of choices we have hundreds. The act of choosing itself robs us of time. Think about that and recall an evening when you might have spent more time trying to work out to watch than actually watching something. Do you remember looking at the clock and thinking, “ah, it’s too late to watch anything now, I’m off to bed”?

In the seventies, eighties and nineties, RSI was an office injury waiting to happen. Today, dithering (a sort of RSI of the brain) is, in my view, a new and growing risk. Dithering is potentially as injurious to our productivity as RSI was, and possibly more so.

That decline in predictable concentration amongst your customers that you might have noticed means that every marketing and PR intervention that you make needs to work even harder to fight for its place.

Sentences are now required to defy the laws of physics. That isn’t easy. The old words – sale, offer, discount, surprise – are all tarnished. We’ve had to resort to new techniques to engage the attention of our customers.

In my view, the expression of a strategy now needs to be a string of small, fascinating stories that knit together in an almost invisible narrative. Stories that propel your messages and incentivise your audience to share them because they are so clever.

Anything can be made interesting if you try hard enough. Exhibit A: If you put 1 million tonnes of pressure on a lump of coal you make a diamond.

That’s what communicators need to do. Put their stories under intense pressure to create something that sparkles. If you can’t deliver the gist of a story in 140 characters, try again.

It’s quite a skill.

Clive James is good at it. He described Arnold Schwarzenegger as a brown condom stuffed with walnuts.

He likened Dame Barbara Cartland’s face to two crows crashing into the white cliffs of Dover.

When he tried his hand at translating Dante’s Divine Comedy, he took the famous line ‘abandon all hope ye who enter here’ and rendered it ‘Forget your hopes; they are what brought you here.’ I like his version. It drags the past into the present and propels it into the future. It isn’t a happy line, but it is three-dimensional and makes you think more deeply. Delving into a great sentence is like stepping inside the Tardis.

As 2017 sits before us, shining with opportunity, one vital question is ‘how do I deploy my marketing budget most effectively’?

You want my view? Spend money on witty ideas to carry your story that have been compressed to become diamonds. This applies to any type of business or organisation. Wit is as compelling (if not, arguably, more so) in Boardroom communication as it is in a consumer context. For messages to work and to travel they need to engage and entertain. Ask the City Editor at a broadsheet what he or she remembers most from the past week. The likelihood is that wit, in some form, will have played a part.

The reason that the Mundaneum didn’t work is that it was before its time. We weren’t all connected. We weren’t all sharing. We are now – and your customers, all of us in fact – are linked in a Pavlovian experiment on social media that incentivises us to be interesting and first. The means of delivery are all organised. The need is to be entertained.

Feed this need with fascinating stories and it gives you a massive marketing advantage.