It’s not about you. It’s about them.

I spent the early part of my life in Nigeria, which has a rich tradition of story-telling, especially among the Hausa tribes of Northern Nigeria, who like to share ‘dilemma tales’ around the evening meal.

These are stories where there isn’t a prescribed ending. Instead, the audience is given a set of facts and a series of alternative outcomes, which they discuss to decide what should happen next.

In one story, for instance, a young man is treated badly by his cruel father, so he runs away. He is taken in by the kindly chief of a neighbouring village, who adopts him as his son and treats him well. But then, through a peculiar combination of circumstances, the real father and adoptive father find themselves pitted against one another. The boy is forced to choose which of them may live and which must die. Where should his loyalty lie?

In another story, the protagonist is a blind man, whose wife, mother and mother-in-law are also blind. Walking along the road one day, he stumbles over something and discovers, to his surprise, that it’s a working eye. He pops it in and, sight restored, finds six other eyes in the road. He gives two to his wife, but must then decide how to divide the remaining four eyes between five sockets. 

Should he risk his wife’s scorn by only giving one to her mother? Would it be better to upset his own mother? Or should he nobly keep just one eye for himself – but risk his wife finding him less attractive than potential two-eyed suitors? 

The stories serve a double purpose: as entertainment and as a kind of moral litmus test, a way to debate and establish cultural norms. It’s the same principle that makes Love Island compulsive viewing – and the reason why soap operas incorporate topical issues into their plot-lines. Because it gives people a chance to get involved. 

Stories are always more interesting to us when we feel involved in them. It’s a point eloquently explained in an article written some years ago by Jeremy Bullmore, the warmest and wisest man in advertising, who died this week:

Involvement seems to me to be the most important part of communication. 

If I do everything as the sender, the only thing left for the receiver to do is refute it, because the only contribution you can make is to disagree with me.

All good storytellers entice their receivers into willing and constructive collaboration. It’s a skilful, delicate and difficult thing to do – particularly in advertising where the pressures of committee and cost tend to favour the ‘explicit’, the ‘unambiguous’, the ‘message which just can’t fail to be understood’.

The explicit and the unambiguous shut out the recipient.

That’s every bit as true on the inside of an organisation as it is on the outside. 

Senior leaders often like the idea that they can bend a narrative to suit their chosen facts and then just keep hammering out a message until ‘everybody gets it.’ 

But they’re forgetting the most important rule of communication, which is that, when nobody’s listening, you’re not communicating.

As Jeremy Bullmore always understood, if you want people to be engaged with your story, you have to start by getting them involved.

Ho ho ho

Most of you have probably seen the ‘Santa brand book’ at some point over the last eight years, but it’s still (by a country mile) my favourite piece of festive promotion.

So, in case you haven’t seen it – or just fancy seeing it again – click the link below.

Happy Christmas.

https://www.quietroom.co.uk/santa_brandbook/

Indulge me

Back in the middle ages, papal indulgences were big business.

The basic idea was that, if you’d behaved badly, you could mitigate the spiritual consequences of that behaviour (in other words, reduce the time you had to spend in purgatory before being allowed into heaven) by funding good works.

A bit like carbon offsetting, really. Burn a village, build a cathedral – call it quits.

Of course, this kind of spiritual indemnity didn’t come cheap, so papal indulgences were mostly focused on the small group of rich and powerful people who could afford them.

The modern equivalent of these people might be a large multinational corporation: Coca-Cola, say, or BP.

Which is why it’s been interesting to see what happened this week when Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably football’s biggest superstar, ostentatiously removed a bottle of Coca-Cola from the table at a press conference and insisted on drinking water instead.

Coca-Cola, which had spent a large amount of money sponsoring the football tournament in which Ronaldo was appearing, was understandably unhappy.

Their lawyers rifled through the contract and forced UEFA into issuing a strict instruction that no more sponsors’ bottles were to be moved.

But the damage was already done. Coke’s share price plummeted by $4bn, as analysts across the globe calculated the likely impact from one of the world’s leading athletes pointing out that sugary fizzy drinks aren’t good for you.

It’s an odd thing, when you think about it. Nobody at Coke can deny that Ronaldo was right. So they find themselves, instead, in the slightly uncomfortable position of insisting that no-one be allowed to point out the truth, because they’ve paid for a different story.

UEFA, in the meantime, has to balance the embarrassment of indulging Coke in this story against the benefit to grassroots football from their sponsorship billions.

It’s a bit like the arts world, where theatres and galleries have had to wrestle with the ethics of accepting money from opioid drug dealers or oil companies – money without which they might struggle to operate.

I don’t really know what the answer is.

I suppose my view is that it’s good to have people build cathedrals.

But it would be better if they didn’t burn the villages first.

The right stuff

If you visit The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, one of the exhibits you’ll find in the space exploration section is a stopwatch.

At first glance, it seems fairly unremarkable.

Until you discover it’s the watch used by NASA flight technician Bob Carlton, to keep track of how much time was left before the fuel on the Apollo 11 moon landing craft would run out.

The clock is stopped with 18 seconds remaining.

In other words, after over two hours spent trying to find a safe place to set the landing craft down, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had just 18 seconds left before they would have to abort the mission and return to earth.

Man might never have set foot on the moon.  The world we grew up in might have felt a very different place.

So those 18 seconds are incredibly significant.

The position of the hands on the stopwatch is a permanent reminder of the moment when mankind became a species that could define its future in terms of more than one planet.

And, recognising the significance of the moment, Bob Carlton was determined to preserve it.

He put the watch in a box, took it home and locked it in his desk drawer.

A week later, he took it out and was perplexed to see that the hands were stopped at 22 seconds. Had he called the wrong time – made a mistake under pressure? Alarmed, he put the watch back and resolved not to mention it to anyone.

The following week, he looked again. This time, the hands were on 31 seconds. What was going on? Was the mechanism faulty? Had there been a risk to the mission? Did he need to report it?

The real explanation was more prosaic. Carlton’s teenage daughter was a drum majorette – she had found the watch in her dad’s desk and, not realising its significance, had used it to time her baton-twirling routines.

So the hands on the stopwatch you see in the Smithsonian are not stuck in the precise position they were in at the historic moment of touchdown.

They’re in the closest approximation Bob Carlton could get them into, before handing the watch over to the Museum 50 years ago.

Does that matter? Does knowing it reduce the significance of the watch – or its authenticity as a historical record?

Not really.

The point is not the watch. The point is the story – and what it tells us about the guts, determination and ingenuity of people who were prepared to fly hundreds of thousands of miles in a metal can to set foot on a totally alien environment.

You could melt the watch down and replace it with a fake one made out of cheese and it wouldn’t make any difference.

Because it’s not the symbol that matters. It’s the story behind it.

That’s something worth keeping in mind next time your business sets out on a mission to ‘rebrand’ itself.

People will agonise for weeks (or sometimes years) about the best colour ways, the ‘right’ font, the optimum balance between the logotype and the end-line.

And none of those things will make the slightest difference, if the business doesn’t also stand for something meaningful to the people who work there and the customers it serves.

Real brand is never about ‘branding’. It’s about having the right stuff.

Photo – The Smithsonian Institution – Museum of Space and Aeronautics

How to sabotage your own reputation

When you buy a ticket for an airline flight, what do you think you’re buying?

The ability to travel from A to B at the date and time on your ticket?

Not according to British Airways.

(Regular readers of this blog may sigh to hear me bring up that name again – but bear with me. I promise there’s a point…)

When I complained to BA recently about bumping me off a flight back from Texas, they handled it every bit as badly as the original incident (which is to say, they ignored it completely, until I sent a second stroppy letter to their CEO – at which point, they offered a grudging apology and a few quid off another flight).

The most interesting part was that they denied liability for any losses caused by the delay, because they said they weren’t contractually obliged to carry me on the flight they’d sold me the ticket for.

This didn’t seem to make sense, so I checked twice, to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. I hadn’t. They said: ‘BA reserves the right not to let you on the flight if we’ve oversold it.’

In other words, when you buy a ticket from BA, what you’re actually buying is the ability to travel from A to B at a time that suits the airline, even if it totally disrupts your own plans.

Or, to put it another way, if you’re counting on BA to get you to a meeting, or a concert, or a family wedding on time, you’d better hope you’re one of the lucky ones that doesn’t get bumped off when they sell more tickets than they have seats on the plane.

You might think this is a rather odd policy for an airline that claims to pride itself on customer experience.

Until you remember it’s the same airline that, this week, got hit with a £183m fine for letting hackers access its customers’ confidential data.

‘This fine isn’t fair’, whined BA’s management. ‘We’re all about customers – we’ve just spent loads on some new bag drops at Heathrow. How can we be the bad guys here?’

And that’s the point. BA just don’t get it.

You can have the best bag-drops in the world. The fanciest menus. The softest cushions.

And none of that matters if you can’t get the basic elements of customer experience right. Such as taking people where they want to go when you said you would. And not exposing their personal and financial data to criminals.

If your customers can’t trust you, nothing else matters – and, if BA really cared about their customers’ experience, they’d know that.

But they don’t. And that’s why they’re now £183m worse off.

Never trust anyone without a sense of humour

There’s nothing wrong with being professional, but it’s a good rule to be wary of people who take themselves too seriously.

A sense of humour is just common sense with the volume turned up. That’s why comedians are so good at capturing and expressing simple, timeless, human truths.

Dull, serious people, by contrast, tend to see the world in black-and-white terms. They’re not usually good at grasping alternative viewpoints or engaging with new ideas. You should be especially wary of any leader who won’t poke fun at themselves, because it’s a sign either of insecurity or of a narcissistic personality disorder.

As Eric Sykes put it: ’We are all idiots. The ones who don’t think they’re idiots – they’re the ones who are dangerous.’

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

It’s not about the camera

The word ‘great’ gets used too freely these days. But I don’t think there’s much doubt that Don McCullin is a great photo-journalist.

There’s a retrospective of his work on display in Tate Britain until 6 May. If you haven’t seen it yet, I urge you to go.

The pictures are extraordinarily powerful. As well as the war photography for which he’s best known (Vietnam, Biafra, Cyprus, Northern Ireland), there are poignant, gritty images of life in the industrial Northeast and in London’s East End, where McCullin grew up.

What makes the pictures so powerful is their ability to tell a story. McCullin’s gift is for identifying and capturing small moments that somehow express a much larger truth.

Like the picture above, taken at a protest in Trafalgar Square in the 1960s. Hundreds of photographers were covering the event and they all got plenty of pictures that showed the police and the protesters facing off. But only McCullin got this shot.

That’s partly about being in the right place at the right time, which is certainly one of McCullin’s skills. But it’s mostly about empathy – about being able to look at a scene with the eyes of a human being, rather than the eyes of a technician.

‘I use the camera like I use a toothbrush,’ McCullin once said.  ‘The most important photographic equipment I take on an assignment is my head and my eyes and my heart. I could take the poorest equipment and I would still take the same shots. They might not be as sharp, but they would certainly say the same thing.’

That’s a pretty good definition of how communication works.

You can have the best technology in the world, the coolest graphics, the funkiest presentation – and none of it will make much difference.

Because what really matters is the story.

Matt is the author of tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture, which explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.

If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)

 

 

Why not?

If you were born after 1980, when you hear the name ‘Buzzcocks’, you probably think of a slightly arch musical quiz show on BBC2. (If you were born after 2000, BBC2 was a channel on a thing called television. Google it).

If you grew up in 1970s Britain, on the other hand, there’s a good chance the name will fill you with a warm glow of nostalgia.

Even if you didn’t really like punk, it would have been hard not to be drawn to the infectious energy of the Buzzcocks’ output. Songs like ‘What do I get?’, ‘Orgasm addict’ and ‘Whatever happened to…?’. Ear-worming riffs. Whip-sharp, slightly edgy lyrics. Cocky, confident posturing. All wrapped up with a knowing grin and a three-minute play-length. It was about as close as you get to perfect teenage music.

So today feels like a pretty sad day to me.

Pete Shelley, who died yesterday, was the man who formed and led the Buzzcocks and wrote all their best songs.

He was also a natural entrepreneur, who basically invented the idea of independent record labels.

When the Buzzcocks couldn’t get a deal with one of the big record companies who dominated the industry at the time, Pete talked family and friends into lending the band enough money to start pressing their own vinyl EPs, which they sold in the Virgin record store in Manchester.

20 years before the internet was invented, the Buzzcocks went viral through sheer energy and bloody-minded determination: playing gigs, building an audience, hustling record stores and, eventually, elbowing their way into the mainstream.

Their best-known number – ‘Ever fallen in love (with someone you shouldn’t have)?’ – was a brilliant reinvention of that old pop cliché, the love song.

It was also unusual, at that time, in being written as a love song to another man. While Elton John was coyly getting married to a woman, Pete was quite comfortable talking openly about his bisexuality.

Pete Shelley broke the mould. He made his band successful without any help from the music industry behemoths.

Along the way, he helped to democratise popular music – and pave the way for a much more eclectic and authentic soundtrack to my (and many other peoples’) youths than those behemoths would ever have allowed.

And he did it all with a smile on his face.

So, if you want a template for authenticity, creativity and sheer can-do determination, my advice is to google ‘Buzzcocks’ and keep scrolling down until you get to the band.

Let the giraffes out

A few years ago, a little girl named Lily Robinson wrote to Sainsbury’s about their bread. This is what her letter said:

Dear Sainssssssssssssbbbbbbbbbbbbbburyyyys,

Why is tiger bread called tiger bread?

It should be called giraffe bread.

Love from Lily Robinson (age 3 ½)

When you look at the product, you can see that she’s got a point. Lots of spots, no stripes: definitely much more like a giraffe than a tiger.

Lily’s letter ended up in the in-tray of a man named Chris King, a manager in Sainsbury’s customer service team. He liked the letter and he wrote one back in a similar style:

Dear Lily

Thanks so much for your letter. I think renaming tiger bread giraffe bread is a brilliant idea – it looks much more like the blotches on a giraffe than the stripes on a tiger, doesn’t it?

It is called tiger bread because the first baker who made it a loooong time ago thought it looked stripey like a tiger. Maybe they were a bit silly.

I really liked reading your letter so I thought I would send you a little present. I’ve put a £3 gift card in with this letter. If you ask your mum or dad to take you to Sainsbury’s, you could use it to buy some of your own tiger bread (and maybe if mum and dad say it’s OK, you can get some sweeties too!) Please tell an adult to wait 48 hours before using this card.

I’m glad you wrote to us and hope you like spending your gift card. See you in store soon.

Yours sincerely, Chris King (age 27 ½)

Customer Manager

Lily’s mother was so delighted with this charming reply that she posted it on her blog. It quickly went viral, was picked up by the media and earned Sainsbury’s a lot of very positive publicity.

What’s interesting about this story is that Chris King was not acting in line with what was expected of him as a Sainsbury’s customer service manager when he wrote that letter. Quite the opposite.

The customer service team is there to deal with customer concerns and protect Sainsbury’s reputation as efficiently and effectively as possible. Being brutal, it’s about keeping the noise down.

Lily’s letter wasn’t noise: it wasn’t a business risk and it didn’t really require much attention. He could have just written a standard reply along the lines of ‘thank you for your interest in Sainsbury’s – please find enclosed a gift token.’ That would have been the correct thing to do; the efficient, standard, procedurally-compliant thing to do.

But Chris King didn’t do that. He wanted to be more than just efficient and professional. He wanted to respond like a human being. And, by doing that, he made Sainsbury’s seem human and likeable, too.

Not because of their procedures but in spite of them.

We’re all in this together (yeah, right)

It’s a funny word, collaboration.

Seventy years ago, it was the worst kind of insult. It meant you’d betrayed your country and helped the enemy. If you were identified as a collaborator in post-liberation Paris in 1945, you’d be marched through the street with your head shaved, so your neighbours could jeer at you and throw rotten fruit.

But times have changed and the word has recovered a more positive meaning. Politicians now speak proudly of ‘cross-party collaboration’, fading music stars ‘collaborate’ with edgy hip-hop producers – and big companies want to unlock a brave new world of creativity by ‘making it easy for our people to collaborate and share ideas’.

The trouble is: why would you want to?

I mean, it’s easy to see what’s in it for the company. They want their employees to be more ‘open’ and ‘giving’, to embrace the hackathon culture of hip Silicon Valley tech companies; to tap into a sparkling well of innovation and value.

But it’s a lot less easy to see what’s in it for everyone else. Employees who do collaborate often find it doesn’t benefit them – quite the reverse, in fact. They see their ideas co-opted by others and used as a stepping stone to promotions and rewards that pass them by. So why bother?

The problem is that we want collaboration, but we encourage competitiveness.

We want people to work as a team, but we reward individuals.

In its most recent annual survey, the High Pay Centre noted that, between 2016 and 2017, the average annual pay of a FTSE 100 boss rose by 11% to £3.93m. That’s roughly 145 times more than their average employee earns.

Now, as it happens, I know a few FTSE 100 bosses – and they are (mostly) smart and charismatic and capable people. Not the uncaring, out-of-touch corporate fat cats lampooned in the tabloid press.

But the point I always try to make to them is that, if you really want people to collaborate, engage and share their best ideas, you need to create an environment where they feel comfortable and appreciated for doing it.

Because, if you don’t, it won’t be long till collaboration is a dirty word again.