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Why comms people need to shut up sometimes

17th February 2015


Print media is dead. Vloggers, bloggers, Viners and Instagrammers are the future. They are the only way brands can reach young people. People can only digest 140 characters at a time or information in the arrangement of a list. People won’t watch videos for more than five minutes. They flick between TV channels every two minutes. Life is just too busy to finish what you start. #yolo. 

If you’ve not said something like this to a client, you’ve certainly heard it many times. You need content. Make a video. Get on Twitter. You need a hashtag. Co-create it with a vlogger. It’s what clients want to hear. They want to have a go at creating digital content in the hope people will share it. They want to lead the industry and talk about it at a conference. They want to show their bosses they “get it” and they aren't just churning out press releases. The future is alive and well in their office.

But it’s this constant hum of white noise that is causing a lot of comms professionals to forget what it is they actually do. They are there to help organisations tell relevant and timely stories to their audiences and to encourage them to change a perception or behaviour in pursuit of a bigger aim.

This doesn’t mean communicating to everyone at every possible moment through every possible channel. It is the opposite. It means picking your moments and saying something interesting and valuable that contributes to the end game, the bigger picture. And an important part of that approach is understanding the value of silence. 

When people are flaky and inattentive it is a symptom of crap content. Access to all the information and entertainment ever created is in their pocket – anytime, anyplace. Organisations and comms professionals see that as the opportunity, but it’s better viewed as a void – a new universe, exploded and expanding, filling with pointless musings that are engulfing the discerning gems that actually make that universe interesting.

The void is not the opportunity, it’s just the space. The opportunity is in understanding the value of silence, so you can be heard amongst the noise.

“Silence is one of the great arts of conversation” – Cicero

Social media is the antithesis of silence. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, obviously. Clearly it’s played a big part in social change all over the world and from a corporate perspective there is a shed load of data to show it’s a valuable marketing channel. However, its ubiquity breeds content without reason. It’s full of corporate white noise and misinformation and error from the uninformed. The attempts at Shakespeare from a room full of monkeys. Before you do anything, make sure you have a good reason to start a conversation.

“Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence” – Da Vinci

Reputation and brand are two of the most valuable assets any organisation has. Being part of the noise, or the wrong conversation, could diminish either, knowing when to stay silent might strengthen both. 

“Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom” – Francis Bacon

People care about real things. If you can make a worthwhile contribution to society or culture in your communications, then do. Paying a tech blogger to tweet about your new app "campaign" is not contributing to society. You can do better.

“Silence is golden when you can't think of a good answer” – Muhammad Ali

It’s hard to look at gaining a few more likes or headlines as an unattractive prospect when you have to hit high arbitrary targets. Just chipping into what's trending or jumping on news stories with some tangential corporate viewpoint is the same as running into a pub and flitting from conversation to conversation shouting at people. If you can’t add something valuable, don’t.

“He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words” – Elbert Hubbard

Have respect for the intelligence of your audience. The “average man” does not exist. Broad-brush stats that say people can’t read more than two sentences or pay attention for longer than 30 seconds make society sound stupid. They are not.

The reason people flick is because they are bored – you know this, you are also a person. Every time you hear that people can’t engage with long-form media, think of every person who has told you they just watched eight hours of Breaking Bad/Game of Thrones/The Wire back to back. Vice is one of the fastest growing media companies in the world and has trend-bucking viewer stats. Its young user base will watch its content all the way through because it’s good content.

Plenty of people who don’t value silence will have many examples that allow them to throw Likes and Views and RTs at this argument. Those will probably be good examples to support specific points. But I’m talking generally, and even the general theory of relativity can be argued against when using specific examples, but that doesn’t mean the overall principle isn’t sound.

Comms people see themselves as the gateway to the media, which means they need to understand how that industry is changing. The media industry is in flux for many reasons. It’s not just a black-and-white, print-versus-online, debate. Print circulations have been in decline for 20 years or more, online accelerated that trend and publishers have been slow to adopt new models compared to the rate of change. Whilst they played catch up you could get away with a throw-enough-shit approach to comms because it matched what publishers were doing, but not now.

Good publishers understand their audiences better than ever and have multi-channel platforms to dish out what people want, when they want it, optimised for however they want it. The creation of niche content offerings to super-serve audience segments is becoming common. Paywalls have ignited a fight for quality and to give people content worth paying for. The best publishers are embracing the principles of silence, and it is working. Organisations creating content need to be on the same page, so before you speak, first take a moment to think about the value of silence.

A bad meeting inspired our anonymous journalist, Hacked Off Hack, to muse on the value of silence


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