March 23, 2012
By Matt Palmer
The above link will take you to an opinion piece by Arianna Huffington about the challenges of communicating in the new media world of instant gratification, where going viral has become the end all and be all of news and advertising. Ms Huffington‘s piece brilliantly distills the landscape we inhabit, the dangers inherent in it, the lack of substance, and perhaps most importantly, the missed opportunities for communicating about and engaging people in, the most important stories of our time.
Ms Huffington is not arguing against the tools that social media gives, rather she highlights the mistakes in how they are being used. Tools are not the story. There are important questions for consideration here, relating directly to some of the current societal problems, namely how we have put issues into silos, and which contributes to increased polarization. Some of Ms Huffington’s questions include: Who is doing the communicating? What is be communicated? What is not being communicated? What opportunities are being lost as a result?
A couple of days ago I was giving a presentation about my project to a group of executives. The response to the project was great, and we had some good discussions about the challenges of communicating story. Then someone asked how I planned to reach the younger generation, in particular, how I planned to penetrate the next generations perceived short attention span, and their focus on communicating in 140 characters or less. Generation Text.
How to reach the next generation has moved my little brain into overdrive. Reaching youth, and engaging them in the discussion around the nexus of energy, food, and water is of paramount importance. The answer may not be as hard as we think. Over the last couple months, Strategic Framing has become a focus of my research. What the research shows, and it seems to obvious, yet so few organizations do this, is that we need to understand who the audience is that we are communicating too, and what is important to them.
A common complaint these days is that the younger generation doesn’t care. That may be true, but not in the way that we think. What if the answer is that they do not care for the way that we are communicating the story to them? Understanding how Generation Text sees the world, will help in crafting stories that speak to and challenge how they see the world. Is the reason that kids are not interested in politics that they don’t care, or is it that they look at the current narrative and see grown ups behaving like petulant little children in a playground battle, and see it as a waste of time, energy and emotion.
Telling stories that matter is the easy part. How to tell those stories, and disseminate them to an audience that continues to fracture becomes the bigger challenge. Using social media to reach an audience is only a tool, that will not be effective for everyone. Many people do not use social media at all, and have no interest in it. Reaching them will require different strategies. Developing those strategies means finding out what it important to them, and actually asking that audience what they want. Where are the models for this? Are we modelling appropriate ways to discuss important issues with our children at home? At school? In the media?
24 news channels are filled with discussion panels beating the same story to death hour after hour, night after night. But on most shows, they do not have real discussions. It is usually one opinion pitted against another in a shout fest to the death. Rarely is there an exchange of ideas, consideration of alternatives, or any kind of intellectual rigour. It is no wonder then that people tune out, or perhaps just tune in when the person who reaffirms their own beliefs is speaking. What kind of behaviour does this model?
I believe we can engage the next generation, and that they will have tremendous input into potential solutions. The thirst is there. Asking them the right questions, telling the story in the way that speaks to them, understanding their desires and needs paves the way. Social Media may be one useful tool. There will be others.