Rule Number One is to pay attention. Rule Number Two might be: Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.”
Howard Rheingold

If I were the sensationalist type, life would have handed me a perfect opportunity this morning, and you’d be reading an article called Balls to the Treasury. If this isn’t just a case of delayed reaction on the search engine’s behalf, it’s almost encouraging: the easy attention-grabbing option has, for once, been resisted. Maybe there is hope – in a way that I’ve been pondering since listening to Lord Puttnam’s keynote speech at the Workworld Media Awards earlier this week.

Anyone who can stand up and hold an audience’s attention using words alone always deserves a little respect: no matter how we might disparage creatures for the ability merely to stand on two legs and talk, the trick is no mere party piece. A man who can do so when they’ve had no sleep for 37 hours (as he has been participating in the House of Lords debate) – in front of an audience of journalists, writers and editors who cover work, political, economic and social issues for a living – certainly earns his heartfelt round of applause (and a reasonably comfy chair shortly afterwards).

His short speech covered a great deal of ground, but left some important messages for those who communicate on important issues. Set against the backdrop of a changing media world (and the struggle of many printed news outlets in the age of the coming of the Internet and 24 hour TV news was picked up by event host, Will Hutton), it is understandable that channels – in the broad sense of the word – try to make a big impact. We only have so much attention to give, and every media outlet must therefore compete for it. (That simple sentence does the whole concept of ‘the attention economy’ no justice whatsoever: to get you started here are some articles by Michael Goldhaber, Alex Iskold, and George Franck.)

The impact of the attention economy might, however, give us pause for thought. I’ll try to explain my train of thought by citing a couple of parallel arguments. I was blearily pondering the whole topic over my breakfast cuppa this week when Radio 4 interviewed Michael Gove about proposed school curriculum changes. Gove’s point was that Government should tell teachers what to teach, but not how. Whether teachers impart knowledge or the ability to learn is another (rather long-winded) debate, but there’s a parallel with communicators: should they be encouraging us what to think, or how to think? And should they – much as leaders are encouraged to do to improve their effectiveness – be paying more attention to the impact of their actions and behaviour?

Lord Puttnam’s immediate concern may be the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituency Bill debate, but he saw the backdrop as broader than mere politics. Coverage of the Bill (at least until their Lordships collective battle both with the Bill and with insomnia) had focused largely on the AV Referendum: an attention grabber, not least for its possible implications for the composition of future governments. The Bill’s proposed reduction of the size of the House of Commons, by contrast, has taken a back seat. Where it has drawn comment, this has been around gerrymandering. (Which, as he pointed out, invites adversarial politics: the Labour Party will, one day, be back in power and would therefore be tempted to redraw the boundaries again.) His concern was with two different points of greater subtlety – and so far little noticed.

The MPs Expenses scandal (a word I’m using to reflect popular use rather than personal opinion) grabbed headlines for weeks on end. Some MPs were – as the law has subsequently found – indeed corrupt. As he pointed out, however, the number who were literally corrupt was small. Many more repaid expenses that had previously been approved. Yet public perception was shifted by media coverage to the point that most of us now perceive all politicians as little better than … well, bankers. Our sympathy with those in both Houses has plummeted, at which point the idea that we might make do with fewer of them becomes more appealing.

Now take a step back and consider how we are governed, why we are governed and who is governing us. As Lord Puttnam pointed out, Parliament (and in particular the HoL) contains some of the nation’s brightest and most informed minds (with a handful of bad apples stirred in, much like human nature implies will be the case in any grouping of humanity). If, as a society and an economy, we wish to have a coherent and sustainable future, a key stage of the process is the scrutiny given to legislation by the parliamentary committee system. If legislation is going to have lasting impact (and if it isn’t, why pass it?), it is in our collective interest that legislation be well-drafted and mindful of its consequences: this necessarily requires time and attention.

Yet research by some of the peers contesting the amendments being added to what they see as a hastily written bill have looked into statistics on attendance on these committees: from a pattern averaging over 90% a couple of decades ago, the figure for the last few months is 37%. In a world where our sympathy for MPs has been reduced by media coverage that overplayed an issue to grab attention, we are unlikely to be interested in knowing the hours they work. It is easier to comment on how empty the chamber looks during televised debates than to consider that MPs have constituency business, draft legislation to read, personal offices to run and committees to attend and prepare for. In the meantime, our MPs are struggling to give full attention to the drafting of legislation that will effect our organisations, businesses and individual lives: it may not be a topic from which a tasty headline can be spun, but it surely can’t be unimportant?

The issues being used as examples here are drawn from national politics. As such, they serve a broader point about communication: my intention here is not to encourage you what to think – your views on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituency Bill are your own – but I would be very pleased to know that you do think. Some communications – and I’m thinking particularly of internal communications – will encourage their audience what to think: there is little point issuing a communication that seeks to persuade staff that a new learning and development initiative that scrupulously avoids any attempt at persuasion.

Nearly all communication happens for a purpose. Where the communicator lives or dies (financially) on their audience paying to hear, what they choose to say is chosen to ‘sell papers’ – often to those who already share their outlook or wish to bash the same targets. (In which case, why exaggerate – if you’re preaching to the converted, why not calm down and save your energy?). It’s a sad fact that we expend far greater time, energy and money on training people to communicate to audiences than we do on training audiences to interpret what they hear, see or read. (Two fine books on this aspect of our day and age were written in the late 1990s – David Shenk’s Data Smog, and Paul Gilster’s Digital Literacy. Fresh encouragement to question the validity, coherence and value of the information clamouring for our attention seems overdue, yet it’s a strand of commentary of the digital age that has – to no advantage to the majority of us – petered out.) Merely stirring opinions is relatively easy. To quote from a post from the Nutmeg Lawyer that I linked to in another recent post:

It’s fine to be angry, but make sure your anger is based on factual information. I would be angry too if I believed the president was a muslim-terrorist-communist planning to set up mass sterilizations and death panels to kill my grandmother and the remaining Golden Girls. The issue of Health Care is complex. It concerns me that people are basing their decisions on catch phrases, soundbites and rumors.”

But doesn’t communication come with a responsibility not to mislead, over-state or mis-represent? Who exactly benefits from a misinformed audience, or one that has grasped the wrong end of a stick? What we communicate and how do it not only creates an impression of us; it also influences the thinking and outlook of those we communicate with, and influences the wider atmosphere. Cry wolf and sling mud too often, and you wind up grubby and disbelieved. Bury bad news with distractions too often, and that bulge under the carpet where all the buried stories have been swept will become either too big to ignore or a trip hazard. Decide you’re busy to think through communication and just dash out announcements or comments, and you may find yourself repenting at leisure. It’s your decision, but do you have the time to spare for all that leisure?

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