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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Why you must worry about context

In a previous entry, I discussed the importance of using pre-existing schemas, themes, and ideas that your audience might be familiar with as a way of connecting with them and getting them to care about your message. Today, we add another concept to that list, establishing context.

Establishing context accomplishes a very important goal, it provides a backstory for the ideas you are trying to get across.  Providing context is especially important when your audience is not familiar with the topic and doesn't even realize why they should care about it.  By filling in key contextual details, you can give them reasons to feel invested and more involved.  Without a proper context, your audience is unable to situate themselves and gain perspective.  As a result, it's going to be difficult for them to care or feel connected with the issue.

Yesterday, I attended a conference on water issues in Southern California.  One of the speakers presented her organization's strategy for making their message relevant for their audience.  The organization was called "Surfrider" and their goal was (is) to get people to care about pollution in the ocean and our coastlines.  Initially, they tried to convey their message through statistics and descriptions on how pollutants end up in the ocean.  However, this did not work.  Their next strategy involved making an animated film and following the path of water from the users, towards its ultimate disposal:

Following a drop of our water from its origin, through its use to its disposal reveals an expensive and often wasteful journey and makes it clear we could be using water more wisely.

 Surfrider also simplified their message and titled it "Know Your H20."  As discussed in a previous entry, this message is simple and gets to the core.  It is prioritized and the less important details are cut out.  Surfrider is trying to educate its users on where their water goes after its used, how it gets there, and what happens to it both along the way and at the end of its journey.  The simple message "Know Your H20" perfectly connects with this objective.  However, in addition to utilizing simplicity, the campaign establishes context.  It situates the typical water user in a complicated system and makes him realize that he is part of that system and his actions DO matter.  Here is the link to the video:

The new communication campaign ended up being much more effective than before and Surfrider even won awards for their film.  I believe this is a perfect "real world" example of how effective communication strategies and concepts can and DO work.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Show weird names some love

Over the years, I have often been frustrated, annoyed, and downright embarrassed with my name.  "Vahagn" is a difficult name to pronounce for nearly everyone I have met in a variety of settings.  Even fellow Armenians have had difficulty pronouncing my name.  Individuals from other cultures have an even harder time with it and I often have to correct them a few times before they get it right.  But, even after they get it right initially, they sometimes mess it up yet again if they have to pronounce it again at a later time.  As a result of such experiences, I often use alternate names such as "Victor" or "David" (or my personal favorite, Dante) when I am speaking to people over the phone or giving my name at restaurants.  I had also developed some bitterness against my mother for giving me this name and making my social interactions somewhat difficult.

BUT, all this is in the past and I have finally learned to love my name for one very simple reason: it's memorable.  In the past, I had never realized the importance of being remembered because I wasn't actively looking for work or attempting to network.  I would LIKE to think that people remember me because I come off as intelligent and charismatic but let's face it, I can't deny the fact that a lot of times people have remembered me because they have struggled with my name.  This phenomena is actually related to a previous post I made about eliciting an emotional response (such as surprise or confusion or mental struggling) from your audience as a method for being persuasive and having your ideas be memorable.

Consider the perspective of the people you meet when you have a difficult name.  You are clearly breaking a pattern when you give your name to a person who is used to "easy" and more common names such as John, Brian, Kate, David, and so on.  By breaking a pattern, you are introducing an unexpected element into their day and as a result, you are creating a memorable experience.  I could certainly be reading too deeply into this but I've often had people remember me simply because they struggled with my name or we had a humorous exchange where I had to correct them several times when they pronounced my name incorrectly.  Not only did I break a pattern but I also elicited laughter, which is an additional emotional response.

Here are examples of some comments people have made when I contacted them after my initial interaction: "Oh yes! I remember you now, I had trouble with your name!", "I apologize for messing up your name," and "Yes, I remember meeting you. As I recall, I was having difficulties pronouncing your name."  These people actually admitted the reason for remembering me.  I imagine that others might have remembered me for similar reasons as well but never admitted it.

Until very recently, I had never realized the obvious: my name isn't a hindrance and it shouldn't be a source of frustration, it's a blessing in disguise.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why you must always strive for objectivity

You can NEVER put too much importance on objectivity and professionalism. To me, these values promote honesty, accountability, and transparency. They also ward off sloppy work, manipulation, and let's face it, straight up lying. If the leader of a research group or an organization stresses objectivity and solid work at all costs, he is setting the right tone for his staff and I believe this research group/organization WILL get respect and become a trusted source of information. 

When you gain a reputation for being unbiased and objective, people listen to you. Even people that would normally disagree with your conclusions. These people will listen to you as well because they know you have a reputation for carrying out non-biased work and only go where the facts/stats/evidence take you. You don't cherry-pick your results and you don't skew or manipulate the data that you DO find. I believe this also applies to news organizations that report the facts and do their homework. They don't try to persuade you in one direction or another. They present the info in the most responsible and honest manner possible.

Having said all that, you ABSOLUTELY must acknowledge the fact that those outside the organization or research group ARE biased, subjective, have agendas, are emotional, and will use underhanded and manipulative methods to push their agenda. But I don't think this should stop you from continuing doing your work and striving for objectivity and the proper interpretation of the facts. You simply need to realize the context you are working in and be on your guard at all times. You have to constantly fact check and call people out whenever they are being manipulative or trying to lie. You can't control the underhanded methods and strategies of everyone else but you can certainly bring attention to them whenever you can and continue making yourself more credible in the process.

Of course all of this is the ideal version of how things should happen and there are gray areas EVERYWHERE. For instance, do I have an agenda because I think we should live in an environmentally sustainable and conscious manner? Am I biased for supporting environmentally safe decisions and environmental regulations at the expense of businesses and deregulation? Perhaps, BUT, if you gave me a case and told me to analyze and research it properly, I would NOT let my biases cloud my work.

For instance, I am a proponent of increasing the amount of energy we get from solar. My boss gives me the task of analyzing how expensive it would be for a project to get its energy from solar instead of traditional sources like natural gas or coal. He then asks me to compare the costs and present the info. I would NEVER try to "massage" the numbers or use favorable statistical parameters that push MY agenda on the matter. If solar comes way behind in terms of cost, I wouldn't go back to try to manipulate the numbers and "bend" the truth in any way. I would present my analysis and be as professional and objective as possible. 

Of course I would still add some commentary in there on how the negative environmental effects of coal and natural gas are NOT factored in because we haven't placed a price tag on them. I would point out that this skews the calculation and that natural gas/coal COULD be more expensive if you put a price tag on pollution. But, my original analysis will remain intact and I wouldn't pull "pollution cost" estimates out of thin air and put huge price tags on them. If such estimates exist, I would try to find data on them and incorporate them in the calculation.

Here is an example of an analysis gone wrong. Consider a criticism of the California High Speed Rail Authority. In one of their reports, they heavily overestimated their numbers of ridership projection for the train. The data was slim on how many people would ride the high speed rail and they basically cherry-picked outliers that supported high speed rail. I believe this is an example of irresponsible analysis. Transportation experts called them out on their mistake and in the process the High Speed Rail staff lost respect and tainted their reputation for doing irresponsible work. They now have to redo the numbers to gain back credibility and respect. If you think about it, did the staff "lie" in this situation? I don't think they did. But, they were certainly being dishonest and manipulative because as any statistician knows, you CANNOT use outliers to make major conclusions. You are using the exception and making broad generalizations. This is not proper work.

Either way, I think ultimately you CAN have policy preferences and "agendas" such as supporting green buildings, public transportation, and renewable energy. But, as I outlined in my example above, you must ALWAYS be as objective and professional as possible or else people will quickly label you as biased, having an agenda, and presenting untrustworthy info. If this happens, you have basically shot yourself in the foot and you will have limited success in creating change in areas you care about.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What could this post possibly be about? I ain't tellin'

The communication strategy of today's post is related to the confusing and one might say... MYSTERIOUS title of this post.  An effective way of keeping people's attention is utilizing this communication concept.  One can use it to grab people's attention by accessing their sense of curiosity.  It's actually an ingenious, and I would go as far as to say, a manipulative method of grabbing your audience's attention because it's also utilized in the dating world.  Both sexes use this tactic to grab and hold the attention of the opposite sex.

I won't drag it out any further, the key is to create a MYSTERY for your audience.  People are generally curious about what happens next or what the mystery is about.  "What will happen next? How will it turn out? We want to answer these questions, and that desire keeps us interested."  This might be one of the main reasons why people watch bad movies.  I've found myself watching terrible monster movies because I wanted to see how the filmmakers designed the mysterious creature that they hadn't been revealing the whole movie.  The creature keeps taking victims but the viewer can never get a full glimpse of it. The movie can be awful but the curious person is still watching because he wants to get a good glimpse of the creature before deciding to give up and move on.  For instance, as I was writing this post, I noticed an advertisement for a movie I do not care for on the side bar of my facebook homepage.  The name of the movie is "Chronicle."  The ad reads: "Like the movie page to get access to the brand new trailer."  The movie looks unimpressive and I am most likely not going to watch it.  But, I was very tempted to visit the page and "like" it so I could see what is so special about this new trailer.  The advertiser used my sense of curiosity and withheld information from me in hopes of dragging me into the page.  It almost worked on me and I imagine it probably works on many people that see that ad.

This sense of curiosity is related to a similar concept.  When we encounter mysteries, we create "gaps" in our knowledge.  This is a concept that was first described by the behavioral economist George Loewenstein.  "When we want to know something but don't, it's like having an itch that we need to scratch."  We strive to end the mystery and fill in the gap.  In the process, we have effectively been dragged into the author's message.  We are now aware of our ignorance of a specific piece of knowledge and there is a gap in our understanding.  We realize that someone else is aware of something that we aren't.  We start forming ideas on what the gap might be and as a result, become more invested in the author's message.  We want to find out what the mystery is about so we can confirm if our guess was correct.

Let's apply this theory to an energy conservation example.  You are trying to market an energy-conserving product.  Here is an example of how you can use mystery to gain your audience's attention: "What fits in the palm of your hand, changes colors, and helps you conserve energy?"  You hook your audience in with the mystery then reveal the product.  The product in this case is called the "Ambient Energy Orb."  The energy orb
"changes color to inform  motivated users when their conservation efforts are particularly rewarded.  With the Energy Orb, you can do your part to fully participate in critical demand periods and help reduce the negative effects of electrical supply shortages."
If you had simply presented the product from the beginning without a sense of mystery, you might not have had the same level of interest.  You would not have created any gaps in people's knowledge and utilized their sense of curiosity.

When it doubt, start gettin' mysterious.

Quote sources:

Monday, January 16, 2012


Please ignore my pathetic attempt at eliciting SURPRISE with the post title.  But, that failure aside, the element of SURPRISE and unexpectedness is the topic of this entry.  These two reactions (emotions??) have a key role to play in effective communication.

The reasoning behind this effectiveness is relatively simple.  When people are surprised, patterns are broken. "Humans adapt incredibly quickly to consistent patterns.  Consistent sensory stimulation makes us tune out."  There might even be a biological (or evolutionary) basis behind why surprising things and pattern-breakers grab our attention.  When there is something new or unexpected in our environment, we are jolted into action and our attention is focused.  Our goal at this point is to understand why we were surprised and as a result, we start paying attention.  By paying attention and thinking about what surprised us, we are much more likely to commit ideas into our long-term memories.  We are now more invested in the problem than before and are actively seeking to solve it instead of being passive participants.

However, the only goal isn't to simply go for surprise.  The surprise or unexpectedness must be followed by the insight that you are trying to get at.  I know that this is getting redundant but I enjoy examples using environmental behavior so I am going to continue with that theme.  For instance, if your goal is to urge people to conserve water, you could first surprise them with an unexpected statistic and then once you have their attention, you can continue on with your insight on why they should be saving water.  You could craft a message such as: "Each additional minute of showering could provide enough drinking water for 10 people for a whole day. Think twice about how long your showers need to be."  In this example, the surprising statistic is supposed to be how much water is used up every minute and the insight is to urge people to conserve.

A personal favorite example of mine deals with grass lawns.  Apparently, lawns were used by royalty in 17th Century England to display wealth. "Only the rich could afford to hire the many hands needed to scythe and weed the grass, so a lawn was a mark of wealth and status."  Additionally, a lawn was used to show that the individual (or family) was rich enough to essentially waste agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes.  After I heard about this surprising origin of lawns, the information stuck in my head and it made me even more likely to support native vegetation and gardens instead of grass lawns.

A little bit'o surprise can go a loooooooooooong way in making your ideas memorable...

Quote sources:

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Analogies galore

In keeping with the effective communication strategies theme, today's post is going to be about analogies and why they can be essential for getting your ideas across.

The underlying concept is very simple.  To introduce your audience to a new idea, you approach them with a preexisting idea that they are already well familiar with.  Psychologists call these preexisting and known concepts as "schemas."  Tapping into these schemas allows you to build towards a complicated and foreign concept by using familiar and simpler ideas.  For instance, you might not be familiar with how a microphone works but if an engineer broke down all the individual parts and compared them to objects you were familiar with, you could slowly connect all the smaller and less complex pieces together and start understanding how everything comes together in the end to build a functioning microphone.

This is where analogies come into play.  "Analogies derive their power from schemas and make it possible to understand a complex message because they invoke concepts that you already know."  Something easy to think about is substituted for something difficult and foreign.  When you think about it, this is a "no duh!" approach for explaining something new and potentially complicated.  But, if conscious effort and attention isn't paid to how messages are tailored, the final message can come out very convoluted, technical, academic, complicated, confusing, and foreign.  Analogies are essential for avoiding this disappointing result.

The best way to drive the point home is through breaking down an example that I believe properly uses schemas and metaphors.  I came upon this picture on a friend's profile on Facebook.

(Please note that this picture does not represent my political views on this matter. I am simply using it as an illustrative example!)

Let's consider what this graphic is doing.  Issues related to the US federal budget deal with hundreds of millions, billions, and even trillions of dollars.  The vast majority of individuals will NEVER personally deal with such amounts of money or work in positions that will give them direct experience with handling such vast levels of resources.  We simply do not understand the scope of such numbers and we really have no idea where to even start.

This example attacks this problem by comparing the federal budget to concepts that we are much more likely to be familiar with.  For instance, most of us can understand numbers that aren't in the millions, billions, and trillions.  Most of us are also probably familiar with balancing a budget, paying off debt, and using credit cards.  By tapping into these preexisting schemas, the picture makes a poignant analogy by comparing the national budget, borrowing, and debt, to a household budget, personal credit cards, and personal debt.  With the help of this analogy, the audience is hopefully less confused about the scale of the problem and the relative importance of the solutions being outlined.

However, we have to be careful when using analogies because we can "dumb down" an issue and make false comparisons.  There are NUMEROUS differences between a national budget and a personal budget.  The issue is obviously much more complicated than this simple graphic depicts.  But, by starting with simpler terms and concepts we are familiar with, we can hopefully trek towards greater complexity.  Analogies are essential for starting this journey towards deeper understanding.  When utilizing analogies, the ultimate goal is steadily increasing the level of complexity, not dumbing concepts down and leaving them in such a state.

The next time you are having difficulties communicating a novel idea or concept, try searching for schemas your audience will already be familiar with.

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