“The invisible actors behind most human successes are prosaic and dull compared to great, all-powerful leaders… These are the invisible people working in a web of related services that make up society’s institutions. These are the people we should celebrate when things are going well. Brave and patient servants of a functioning society, rarely ever mentioned – but the true saviours of the world.” Factfulness, Hans Rosling
by James Morton
Here’s a quiz question for you: how many of the world’s one-year-olds have been vaccinated against some disease?
A) 20 per cent
B) 50 per cent
C) 80 per cent
The answer is C – but if you didn’t get it right, you’re far from alone. Neither did a significant majority of the world’s academics, executives and politicians. Only 15% of people in the UK knew the right answer.
Herein lies the essence of factfulness – developing a fact-based viewpoint to shift misconceptions, calm fears and see the world as it really is.
It is a concept so inextricably linked to our work and the world we are trying to communicate, I am making it my New Year’s resolution.
Our world as public service communicators is often defined by our quest to tell the full story. To give the real picture. And, increasingly, to evaluate and explain our worth.
Factfulness provides us with our manifesto and can help provide a route map to being better communicators. And saviours of the world.
The Negativity Instinct: recognising we are far more likely to receive bad news
Hey, guess what? Most of the things our organisations do are actually good and help people.
But the instinct to lean to the negative or dramatic will always triumph. The media (including social) lens inevitably accentuates this further.
Our job is to close that gap. News of gradual but important improvements (waiting lists, crime figures) may not be deemed ‘real news’, but are an important counterbalance to providing residents or patients with a fact-based view.
A vivid or extreme example may be more memorable but is probably the exception, rather than the rule, and takes our focus from the job in hand – providing accurate, trustworthy information for people to make up their own minds.
The Fear Instinct: frightening things grab our attention but urgent responses are rarely necessary
You’ve been there. The Friday afternoon media call about a huge fire. The Twitter pic of your chief downing a pint in the local an hour after announcing job cuts.
A crisis will provoke an irresistible, gut-churning response in us all to leap into action immediately.
Ignore it – or at least wait for it to pass. Fear and urgency shuts down our ability to analyse and make decisions.
Take the time to gather important facts or information and don’t allow the now-or-never brigade to take over. And don’t just obsess over the worst-case scenario – there will always be a range of possible outcomes. Never underestimate the role of comms as a calming force.
The Size Instinct: don’t get wowed by big or small numbers, get things in proportion
Our comms world is increasingly being overwhelmed by numbers. Click rates. Page views. Reach. AVE (errr….)
Your video just got 1,000 views on YouTube? Bonza – but how did that compare to the previous one? Or the council up the road? And how long did people spend watching it?
Numbers are just as important in our storytelling but again context is everything. We can tell £1bn is a big number – but tell people its five hospitals and they’ll get you even quicker. And if Brexit has taught us nothing, it’s to beware the majority – 52% may be a majority but it sure don’t mean it’s everyone.
The Single Perspective Instinct: if you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail
It’s nice to be an expert – in social media, internal comms, video. But it might just be hampering you.
Increasingly a comms pro is expected to be able to pull all of those tricks and more out of their locker. A video whizz you may be, but it might be that a simple email would achieve far more effective outcomes.
Keeping your skills current and knowledge refreshed is paramount to stay relevant in our fast-moving comms world.
The Blame Instinct: resisting the urge to find a scapegoat and understanding the system instead
Which brings us to our heroic denouement. How us humble public servants end up as saviours of the world.
Conversely, it is by often being on the receiving end of this instinct - as the scapegoat - that we emerge victorious.
Blame games can often mask the real cause or issue – something systemic and usually a confluence of interacting factors.
Taking the time to understand these causes – and, as importantly for us, explain them - opens the door to preventing similar problems in future.
Likewise, where things are going well and things are improving – as is actually the case most of the time - so the system, and those behind it, should be celebrated.
And that’s us - hurrah!
So, a script that casts us as saviours of the world - who’s in?
*All ideas and inspiration nicked from the quite brilliant book, Factfulness by Hans Rosling.
James Mortone is communications manager at Winchester City Council
image via the US National Archives