Why we finally need to face up to information fatigue in 2019 (and 3 ways to do it)

Guest post by Caroline Cassidy, a freelance communications specialist and associate for ODI and On Think Tanks

2018 was an intense year. On a personal level, I moved countries and became freelance, so that probably has a lot to do with it. But I don’t think it was simply that. Recently, every year seems to be intense. Communications plays a big part in this:  keeping up with the news, social media, friends, family, colleagues, world-wide doom and gloom. We are bombarded on a minutely basis from all sides. We’ve known this for years (and it’s nothing new, just ask Dominican Vincent of Beauvais, who complained in 1255 of, “the multitude of books, the shortness of time and the slipperiness of memory”).

We are all trying to keep up, and we’re exhausted. Over the year, I spoke to government policy-makers, senior executives, researchers, and communications staff in different countries and almost everyone is losing the plot in their own way. “I don’t have time to read anything”, they tell me. “I go from loving social media, to wanting to opt out,” I’ve heard. I could go on. And yet, here we are bombarding everyone with our communications, hoping that our data and messages will somehow slip through the cracks and get noticed.

Credit: David Sipress, the New Yorker

We keep ignoring this information fatigue, because we can’t seem to get off the horse. We’ve been behaving a bit like digital toddlers: not listening to our audiences as much as we should or taking the time to understand them properly, shouting our messages as loud as we can, embracing our short attention spans.  People are consuming information more quickly than ever  – our communications are often like “social snacking”. They can temporarily satisfy an audience but lack nutritional content.

It’s time to stop. We need to radically rethink our communications in 2019 and beyond. We must stop ignoring what is in plain sight and what we already know. Authenticity, values and personalisation are all essential components of any form of communications. Success is contingent on having depth. Communications needs to be human in nature (not solely based on stats), value-based as much as evidence-based, and led by the need for strong and long-term relationships. It also needs to touch us in some way – surprise, outrage, laughter. People want to be entertained and educated in equal measure, but also inspired.

Last year, the growth in the movement against plastic consumption was one of the best examples of what successful communications looks like. I’m pretty sure it didn’t begin with a barrage of tweets, a shiny report or in a conference. Communications were word of mouth, community driven and, in many cases, inspired by multimedia and a TV series with Sir David Attenborough (certainly in the UK).  Above all, it took time to reach this tipping point.

Obviously, not all communications are going to achieve this scale of success, but how do you move away from just producing white noise? Here are my three top tips.

Put more energy into getting to know your audience inside and out. Draw on the behavioural sciences in your comms, a trend that is on the rise across many sectors. It’s no longer enough to identify your audiences with a nice stakeholder map and decide how you want to reach them; to influence them, you need to know what makes them tick, a deeper, clearer picture of evidence users as human beings. What are their knowledge needs and preferences? Many NGOs and think tanks have been doing a fantastic job at this for a while now. Think psychology, psychographics, careful framing and mindful messaging. This takes considerable time and energy – there is no escaping that, but it does pay off.

Listen to your audience more. Sounds completely obvious, but we often don’t put in enough time listening deeply to our audiences. Even just simply asking what they think of our communications. Which leads me to…

Make your messages more participatory. We are so used to thinking of messaging as a type of broadcast. The plastic example

(https://hbr.org/2014/12/understanding-new-power)

became a global, but also a local-level conversation that we had with our close friends, peers, colleagues; a sharing of knowledge, values, urgency and something concrete that we could do something about. Yes, it was all backed up by evidence and the idea was pushed around the globe via social media. But it was the messages that touched audiences in a way that simply putting out information about how bad plastics are could not achieve. It became personal and adaptable.

These same principles apply no matter the topic or ambition. If you have a very technical, but important piece of research to feed into policy-making, you still need to find a way to make it strike an emotional chord. In philanthropy, Henry Timms talks about redefining the term “donors” as “owners,” to encourage greater interaction.

I don’t think for a minute that we should stop producing great infographics, easily digestible reports, building social media campaigns or thinking of innovative ways to get heard. This is all the backbone of success.  But we mustn’t forget the need for depth.

We are now in the age of digital adolescence. And as we all know, those teenage years aint easy- lots of growing pains. But they mean more conscious actions, long-term thinking, deeper relationship and above all, questioning of what has gone before.

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Comments

7 Responses to “Why we finally need to face up to information fatigue in 2019 (and 3 ways to do it)”
  1. Masha Scholl

    A very relevant topic, I would add a few concrete tips:

    (1) When I’m asked, “Why don’t people read our newsletter?”, I often ask back: “And how many newsletters do you read?” As you can guess, they either read none at all, or they read high-quality newsletter from brands such as McKinsey that are several levels above most development products in quality.

    Everyone in the organization should spend more time consuming content from external sources than writing & reading internal content. For many of us it’s the other way around because our direct job responsibilities usually include reading and writing our own organization’s reports, memos, emails, and then there’s no time left for articles, blogs and reports from other organizations. This attitude leaves us in our own bubble of information, circle-jerk, and undermines our professional relevance and objectivity. This is especially bad today because to stay afloat in a rapidly changing world, where technology is constantly disrupting the status quo, we can’t lose our touch with reality. And we forget what it means to be a consumer of information and how high the quality of our content should be for others to invest time in it.

    (2) One of the best ways to listen to your audience is digital analytics. People may be too polite to tell you that your articles are too long, but if you see on Google Analytics that they spend on average 3 minutes on your 2,500-word article, it is obvious that most are not reading it to the end.

    (3) If you want a certain person, organization or other target audience to read your publication, invite them to co-author it, interview them, or at least ask them to provide a quote for your article. In my experience that’s the most efficient way of ensuring that they will end up reading the final product, sharing it and subscribing to your publication if it’s regular (in addition to enriching your content with an external perspective).

  2. Excellent thoughts.

    I also often feel overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of things that I either have to or want to read. I always try to put aside distractions (turn off my phone, radio, and laptop) and read something in depth, taking notes with pen and paper. Coffee or tea always helps. Ear plugs and/or 60 seconds of meditative breathing is great, as well.

    The other thing that I really do not do often enough is step back and have a really good conversation. For this reason, I think I am going to jump on the podcasting bandwagon and reach out to people who also work in water and international development and try to have critical discussions about things that work and don’t work.

    Ed
    http://www.edbourqueconsulting.com/blog/

  3. I really like this, thank you for sharing. I completely agree with the information overload we are experiencing all the time, as you mention from every angle. The brain is like a sieve, we just have to train it to catch the right stuff. As a Communications Manager for a research project, this has been especially useful and will definitely encourage me to pause before sharing something I think is useful! Nice one!

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