What do you mean?

When communication matters – really matters – it has to be crystal clear on two levels: meaning and intent.

Recent legislation banning ‘Legal Highs’, Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 is so all-embracing that caffeine, alcohol and tobacco had to be specifically excluded.

In terms of policing, the Act is completely and utterly unworkable unless some dumbass starts selling the stuff on the streets in front of the local nick. So why on earth did Parliament pass a law that on the face of it looks impractical and stupid?

I don’t buy into the creed that maintains politicians are generally stupid. We elected them and it follows, neatly and logically that if they are, by default so are we.

I looked into the background behind this legislation. The substances concerned mimic the effects of dangerous and illegal drugs, including cocaine, ecstasy and speed, by being chemically altered at a molecular level to evade previous anti-drug laws. Because of a legal loophole they could be sold under the guise of something else, such as plant food or bath salts.

The problem is that none were tested for human consumption and reactions to them are unpredictable. Taken with alcohol or other substances the risk of deadly seizures, mental health issues, brain damage and heart problems is unlimited. They are implicated in at least 76 deaths according to the Office for National Statistics.

The intent and purpose of the Act is perfectly clear: to warn people that by taking these substances, the responsibility is theirs alone if they are damaged or die as a consequence.

What this law is, in fact, is a form of communication, dressed up as an Act of Parliament that means what it says. Its intent is to advise people who might be confused: avoid these substances because they are dangerous, have dodgy origins and can kill you.

Will it work? Depends on how dumb we are.

Porkies and pies

Scientists use variations of working language and terminology which, to the uninitiated, cause confusion.

Evolution started life as a hypothesis presented by Charles Darwin. Using all available testing and evidence, in time the scientific community, having exhausted all possible alternatives, posited a scientific theory.

This isn’t the same as a theory you or I might have about, say, the effect of either result in the upcoming referendum. That sort of theory is untested until after the 23rd of June and is, by definition, based on zero evidence until then. It’s a hypothesis in other words.

This train of thought came from reports about events at the National Obesity Forum. This body published a report which, in summary, claims that saturated fat in meat and dairy is better for you than low-fat foods. It blames refined sugars and an excess of carbohydrates for the global obesity trend.

Key members of the organisation’s board have resigned in protest. The chairman and others have attacked the report’s detractors with the claim that they are in cahoots with the food industry, in their eyes the guilty party responsible for ever-expanding waistlines.

Just like the MMR vaccine scandal in 1998, when experts argue in public about facts that are actually scientific theories, we are confused which can result in our acting dangerously.

When journalists, who should know better, do no fact-checking but leap upon one claim or another and present it as fact, the problem is compounded. Sometimes it looks as though the choice of claim to leap upon is made by the ad director (DPS from burger chain trumps facts) as opposed to the editor.

Clear and honest communication, whether served up as reliable content on a news page or face-to-face, depends upon a common understanding of language.

Misunderstanding and misusing the words hypothesis and theory makes people believe all sorts of nonsense. For evidence, look at all the extremely fat people in rural parts of religious America.

Death by acronym & other incomprehensible prose

If you are keen to sow confusion among your enemies and allies alike, best to interact by acronym.

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Air forces the world over, and their suppliers, are class leaders in this puzzling means of communication. The US Department of Defence (spelt locally as Defense) even produces its own Dictionary, the preamble to which says: The DOD Dictionary is managed by the Joint Education and Doctrine Division, J-7, Joint Staff. All approved joint definitions, acronyms, and abbreviations are contained in Joint Publication 1-02, DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms 08 November 2010, as amended through 15 October 2015.” A useful work of reference indeed.

Our own boys in blue recently came up with a cracker of their own: ‘T2W’. It stands for Thinking to Win and is the new leadership strategy for the RAF.

Apart from suggesting a rather worrying concept, namely that the leaders of this key force had not thought about winning previously, the specifics are baffling.

The eight individual initiatives of T2W are :”… based around having a common vision, training to win, driving innovation and change, supporting ideas, recognising talent, developing diverse thinking, finding new ways of applying air power and then finding ways to better promote them.”

Do you recognise the same meaningless, corporate bovine effluent spouted from the rear ends of corporations the world over? It even uses the same passive tone “… finding new ways of applying …” as opposed to …find new ways to apply… beloved by CEOs and their advisors who believe in this sort of guff and know next to nothing of the nuances of grammar.

The strategy, aim and purpose of the Royal Air Force was stated, extremely simply, by Hugh Trenchard the man who founded it. He said that air power concerns combating missiles that travel through the air, whether fired or dropped. Did the committee (it had to be a committee) which crafted T2W consider this elegant construct in its deliberations? Somehow I doubt it.

It was reassuring to see in the Letters page of the most recent edition of ‘Aerospace’magazine, published by the learned Royal Aeronautical Society, T2W receive the pasting it deserves.

The general opinion is that the senior folk who had coined T2W should PUFO (British Infantry acronym; now also found in urban idiom) that requires no formal dictionary to be clearly understood.

Much smoke; can’t see the mirrors

My name is John Blauth and I am a smoker. It is 26 years since I last smoked a cigarette. Not a day goes by that I do not crave Lady Nicotine’s caress and comfort. I cope with calorie excess. Read more

Don’t panic. Or mention the war

There is an increasing air of shrill desperation as campaigning builds for the In, Out and possibly shake it all about, event on 23rd June.

Aware that the consequences of the ‘wrong’ choice will be slow to manifest themselves, I have taken to switching off when either side takes to the air. I note, with grateful approval, the BBC’s desire to remain impartial in its coverage though I despair at the bluster, and often fact-free communications, the Corporation has no option but to report.

Other media are less ambiguous. There is no doubt that The Daily Mail and its unlikely bedfellows at Murdoch Central want out. Left-leaning outlets are keen to point out that those who see a comfortable future for Britain outside the EU tend to be distinctively whiter, noticeably richer and considerably older than those who wish to remain.

It was inevitable, therefore, that Dad’s Army and the Second Scuffle would come into play sooner rather than later.

And so, on Sunday, inevitably it was Boris who came out and said that Hitler (and before him Napoleon) had sought to unify Europe, that both had failed and that the EU is: “an attempt to do this by different methods.” As a Classics scholar he should also have mentioned that not even the Romans could keep Europe together, yet theirs was the most successful of successful Empires, despite, or because of, the differences between all involved parties.

I am disappointed that he did not assume the sartorial standards of his spiritual mentor, Nigel Farage, and wear ancient tweed armour as he presented his version of history.

The communication battle for the hearts and minds – aka votes – of Britain’s electorate is heating up and I am fearful that facts have become innocent victims in the communication conflict.

In truth no-one knows what In or Out looks like.

The issues are fearfully complicated, a real-life Game of Thrones if you like, where income and prosperity based on trade comprise the prize. I believe that we would be better served were we to be provided with accurate data and evidence-based information as opposed to opinion from those who appear to see only personal advantage from backing one camp or the other.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on 17 May

Is Google now The Matrix?

Last week Google announced that its latest seduction has resulted in the conquest of an NHS Trust comprising the Royal Free, Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals.

1.6 million patients have had their records passed over to Google for ‘research’, apparently into kidney disease.

Behind the mirrors and smokescreen, Google is a publisher whose income comes from selling advertisers access to you and me. Its killer app is that it can already trawl through just about every email you send, because you have said that it can. It knows and remembers each search you make, because you have said that it can. It records each page on which you land and, irrespective of the settings on your browser, Google almost certainly knows more about your online activities than your family, your friends and your government. Now it knows everything about the health history of those 1.6 million souls. Everything.

And when we are told that: The trust says the data will remain encrypted, meaning that Google employees should not be able to identify anyone” am I the only one alarmed by the use of the word ‘should’?

In an alarming aside Google has said that it has not ruled out using the data for other purposes. What other purposes?

By using pretty beads and baubles, the media giant – which makes the Murdoch empire look like a corner shop – has bemused, befuddled and confused politicians, administrators and citizens into handing over our precious assets. You have to admire the company’s communication skills for dressing up what it does as somehow being for our universal benefit. Rather than admire, better that we should be absolutely terrified at the gullibility of the people whom we have tasked to guard our data from outfits like Google. It even calls the individual health data mining programme ‘Deep Mind’.

How many more clues did the Trust need that handing over patient data is not a good thing?

Two weeks ago, a small group of ordinary people achieved an extraordinary victory.

Through their tenacity, grit, strength and using brutally honest communication,  they forced apparently unassailable forces into retreat. The families of those unlawfully killed at Hillsborough showed us that power does reside in the people and that authoritative bodies can only exist if we will them to be and give our consent to their being.

For 27 years those amazing people fought for truth because of the respect that their loved ones deserved then and deserve now. They have brought to life Einstein’s challenging statement: “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

Best not to regard Google as a corporate deity. It might believe itself to be a global power and stronger than any single government but it is neither of those things. Look very closely at what it does, how it does it and question why not being evil was quietly dropped from its code of conduct last year.

Ask these questions through all possible means and continue asking until they are answered satisfactorily. Though this might take a lot longer than 27 years, as the Hillsborough Families so brilliantly demonstrated, giving up is not an option.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on 10 May

Uh-oh: here comes the c-word…

You’ve just gone through the hardest work weeks for some time, built your new web site and here you are, days away from go-live, the pressure building and your web developer suddenly c-bombs you.

“Where’s the content?”

“I thought you were writing it,” you reply.

“No; we build the site and make it work. You provide the content.”

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The most sophisticated means of communication this civilisation – and your company – has ever seen is now thrown into panic and turmoil by this exchange.

How and why has this happened?

Mostly it is because you and your developer have become so wrapped up in colours, apps, toys, functions and incomprehensible technology that you both forgot the content. Content mostly comprises stuff you forgot: the words, pictures and videos. Everything people want to read and see on your site, in fact.

Graphic and web designers are wonderful people.

Coders and developers are equally magical.

But their imaginative brilliance and technical genius invariably loses sight of the key user interface fact: that we mortals need words and images. Why? Because they make sense.

Words and images, moreover, that are clear, crisp, engaging, relevant and current.

Words and images that tell stories, the intent of which is to charm customers into action.

And words that are true.

That is how to stop the conversation disintegrating and being punctuated with vile and vulgar expletives.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on 4 May

Communication, doggy-style

When we want to emphasis how hard life is, we often use a common expression: ‘It’s a dog’s life’. In common with so many common expressions, it fails to tell the story with complete accuracy.

Dogs’ lives are, mostly, outstanding; they live like Egyptian Pashas.

No other species has trained a larger, more powerful, supposedly more intelligent one to house it, feed it, groom it, play with it and pamper it. Oh yes, and spend fortunes on its health, welfare and upkeep.

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One of my friends has a Maremma Sheepdog. These are hardy, independent and when full grown, huge. Bred by Italian shepherds to guard flocks of sheep, mostly solo and with the shepherd at some distance, they have become fashionable in the domestic environment.

When they join the human family, they can be tricky to train. Maremmas will always politely listen to your requests when you communicate them. Then, if they wish, will comply. More often they do not so wish and will regard you in the same way that a parent regards a child exhibiting signs of idiocy.

My mate’s dog refused to leap into the back of the car. He invested in an expensive ramp so the beast could mount the vehicle like a Dowager Duchess going aboard a yacht. As soon as the dog saw the ramp, it ignored the apparatus and on a single word of command from my chum’s wife leapt into the car like an athlete.

All owners are convinced that they can communicate effectively and in a meaningful manner with their pets. Many sentimental types, for example, believe that face-licking is a dog’s way of communicating love.

Possibly; though possibly not…

A puppy is first introduced to licking when its mother cleans it immediately after it leaves the womb. Puppies quickly learn to lick and clean all areas they can reach.

According to Fine Canine magazine, sent ’free’ to policy holders by a pet insurance company (and what a lovely earner that niche business is) dogs which lick our faces are more likely to be showing deference. They may also be communicating their desire to emphasise how dependent they are on us though it is more likely that they are reminding us about our duty to care for them.

Humans and dogs have different agenda. Generally, though, both parties are happy in their respective beliefs about the other which proves, quite clearly, that perception really is reality even though neither owner or dog actually  understands completely what the other is communicating.

Is that helpful for those of us in the communication business? I believe it is.

Poo and politics

I have a mate, let’s call him Peter because that’s his name. He is wont to repeat the trendy polemic mantra that “… all politicians are corrupt, lazy and greedy…” and variations on the same theme.

I believe that he is wrong; that this is a lazy judgment.

Politicians, on the whole, are the same as us. They make the same errors and mistakes, albeit under more intense public scrutiny. We get the politicians we deserve because they are the ones, not us, who step up to the plate to manage the stuff we happily delegate to them. Asserting that only corrupt/lazy/greedy people become politicians is specious and plain wrong.

This came to mind because I received in the post something rather wonderful: the opportunity to, ahem, collect samples and send them to be tested for bowel cancer.AAEAAQAAAAAAAAh2AAAAJGI0ZWMwYTA0LWE1Y2QtNDU3NS1hYmZlLTdkYjJmYTVhOGMxZg

Why wonderful? Because until recently, three top killer cancers for blokes were testicular, bowel and prostate. All below the waist and all in areas we fastidiously avoid having checked. This proactive programme will help some, possibly many, live longer.

Politicians enacted the plan that led to my postal delivery.

Some months ago another mate, let’s call this one Mike, had a free check for prostate cancer. He was found to have it and through the magnificence that is the NHS (free healthcare at the point of delivery is, unquestionably, magnificent) is now well on the way to full recovery.

The NHS is a political creation, along with just about everything else that we take for granted: roads, law and order, free schools, defence of the realm and working drains for starters. None of it is perfect but then, what is?

Certainly not the way that politicians’ work is communicated. Poor communication is arguably their great failure and is the root cause of Peter’s confusion. He could do more to search out the facts but would it not be easier all round if these were more easily available and presented unwrapped, and unadorned?

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on 19 April

“You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God, the British journalist.” *

At a recent ‘Media meets Business’ event, a leading industrialist asked the editor of one of our grandest and most respected newspapers why his newspaper contained so many factual, grammatical and spelling errors.

“Because we no longer have the time to check these things,” he replied. He could have added that his organ, in common with most newspapers and magazines, no longer employs trained and immensely knowledgeable sub-editors to do this all-important job.

The industrialist concerned, who told me the story, confesses himself to be nonplussed.

“Imagine if we told our customers that we had no time to check that all the bolts were tight before we delivered new cars,” he commented. “We would swiftly have been out of business, and rightly so.”

Car company customer service departments are staffed by people who, whatever their personal beliefs, tend to make Zen Buddhists look hyper-active. Hour after hour, day after day, they politely listen to people who complain about real and imagined product failures to demand either a refund, or compensation, often both.

Now what, I wonder, would happen if newspapers and magazines were faced with the same rigorous customer scrutiny? In fact, why are they not?

Perhaps their products are too cheap and thus regarded as having little value beyond entertainment? Or perhaps readers subliminally get that they largely contain paid-for editorial and PR fluff?

In other words, it simply doesn’t matter that much to us. Public scrutiny delivered via social media, we hope, will eventually deliver the truth or at least a close enough approximation of it. But knowing what is, and is not, independent editorial remains a difficulty.

Private Eye (No.1414 18-31 March) illustrates the point.

Will this alleged lack of distinction between advertising and medium have any affect on What Car’s or VW’s credibility and sales? Almost certainly not.

In every commercial sphere, consumers prefer transparency in the communication they receive from brands and the people who work for them. Comment on social media – and as always in the Eye – is increasingly intolerant about unverifiable content, whether indirectly from brand leaders or directly from their customer service teams.

Is ‘blow smoke up our backsides and we’ll go elsewhere’ the new zeitgeist? Maybe sometime soon but not, I suspect, just yet.

*Humbert Wolfe 1885-1940