Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. So here is a story that is pretty good, but not entirely true. Winston Churchill was asked to address the pupils at his alma mater Harrow School in the 1940s. He stood up in front of the packed audience and exclaimed: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never give in!”
And then he sat down.
The truth is Churchill did give a speech in 1941 at Harrow, but it was certainly more than 11 words long (you can read the whole text here). However, the essence of it remains consistent.
The contracted, if apocryphal, quotation is powerful because it says so much in so little. This was in 1941, just a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor. There were good reasons to be plagued by fear and worry. And even better reasons to stand strong and carry on with an unwavering stiff upper lip.
Today, Churchill’s words would fit neatly into a tweet or an Instagram post with a suitably patriotic picture. A soundbite to be shared.
But the words lose their lasting power in the modern medium. Today, we live on a diet of snackable content, fast food philosophy and on-tap inspiration. It’s not social media per se that is the problem – it’s the veracity of the information that we consume that is making us emotionally obese.
We crave instant gratification: likes and retweets; thumbs up and hearts. We show how we feel through emojis, rather than carefully thought out words. We are quick to take offence and judge. We reform the news into opinion. We turn fact into fiction. We live in an era of fake news and fake friendships
We do so in order to constantly win. We continuously feed our brain with shots of dopamine that reassure us that the world loves us or those who hold contrary opinions are wrong.
We never have to “give in”, because everything is on our terms, thank you very much.
Despite our emotional over-feeding, it’s a misconception that we’re having it all our own way. If anything, the world is fundamentally not being run on our terms. Politics is dominated by extremes of opinion, some of the most trusted businesses have been lying to us for years, and propaganda is very much back in fashion.
The communications industry must shoulder some of the blame. We have talked a good game about being human and open, but we have done so by talking in euphemisms; “engagement”, “multi channel” and “authenticity” are industry jargon, not a clear way of talking with real people. It seems we can’t even talk straight among ourselves, so why should the public believe us?
So, back to truth. I was recently asked by my old school (a grammar school in the middle of the Fens – not Harrow) to talk with the senior pupils about communications, and life outside of education. The Churchill “never give in” story struck a chord with the pupils – as did another passage from his speech:
“…appearances are often very deceptive, and as Kipling well says, we must meet with Triumph and Disaster. And treat those two impostors just the same.”
So, if Churchill was right, and feelings of happiness and sadness, love and hate, winning and losing are transient, what does that mean for how we communicate with one another? How do we ensure we are real, honest and human (and not just “authentic” in appearance)?
Given I only had twenty minutes to present, I tried boiling down my thoughts into simple ideas. Cue Tom Berry’s three rules for modern communications:
RULE 1: EMOTION TRUMPS INFORMATION
Looking back at my school days, the memories that stick are almost all about sounds, smells, tastes and how I felt. I can’t remember the Krebs cycle – no matter how many hours I revised it. But, I can remember exactly how the jam tarts in the canteen tasted, the smell of the cheap deodorant in the boys changing rooms and the nauseous feeling of waiting outside the Deputy Head’s office. The emotional memories are the ones that stick in the random access bit of the brain and that’s why it is better to touch people with ideas and inspiration than it is to “teach”. However, in communications and marketing, if you over play the emotion, you risk cheapening the broader impact of your message.
RULE 2: PEOPLE HAVE THE POWER
There is quite a lot of nonsense written about Generation Y, Generation Z and the changing behaviours of young people. The fact is that access to technology has changed all of our behaviours – young or old. We have unlimited choice, can make decisions based upon multiple sources and we no longer have to take the work of brands for granted. With a click (or, more latterly, an “x” in a box) people can change the future. That is why communications strategies and the media in general have become more populist. In terms of the principles of John Reith, we have skipped “Inform” and “Educate” and gone straight for “Entertain”.
RULE 3: TRUTH IS UNDERRATED
The picture of Barry Chuckle and Jay-Z at a boxing match in April caused an internet storm. Even news publications fell for the faked image. We didn’t question its veracity at the time because we wanted it to be true. The same wishful thinking applies to Brexit buses, meetings in Russian hotel rooms and misstated profits. Companies and individuals need to think carefully about the values and principles by which they communicate. The question I always encourage clients and colleagues to consider when creating stories, campaigns and messaging is this: is there a deliberate attempt to mislead in anything you are saying? If so, don’t do it, or you risk undoing everything you have worked for. As Warren Buffett said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”
The job of marketing, PR and communications is to strike the right balance between emotional impact, populist conversation and honesty. We must never forget that brands only sell two things: trust and confidence. So, we must never give in to the temptations of a “quick and dirty” comms fix.