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

January 9, 2019 6 By Duncan Green

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.