Years ago, I remember reading a short story in which a barrister (I think it was Rumpole of the Bailey) successfully defended a driver charged with dangerous driving by demonstrating that each of the witnesses to the crime was thinking about something else at the time, and therefore couldn’t possibly have observed it accurately.

While I’m not sure this defence would really stand up in court, it’s a story that often comes to mind when talking to people about communications, as it neatly demonstrates something that many people fail to consider: what state your audience is in when you are trying to communicate with them. Too often – and particularly in internal communications – we assume that what we have to say is just as important and relevant to others as it is to us, and fondly imagine people reading every single word carefully and thoughtfully before deciding to take the appropriate action at once.

Given what we know about how busy people’s lives are, however, and how many competing priorities they have to juggle, it’s clear that this assumption is ridiculous. Not only is it hard to get people’s attention, but your message also has to compete with a thousand other messages and your audience’s own internal thoughts and biases, some of which may conflict completely with what you’re trying to say.

Furthermore, when you’re communicating about innovation, whether it’s new business processes, new products or services, or a radical new system of government, you’re asking your audience not just to listen, but often also to change in some way. That’s a big ask in a busy world, which is why communications for innovation can often feel like hurling words and pictures into a trackless void. Taking some time to understand your audience’s current state, from their inbuilt biases to how they go about their work, will help ensure your messages are not just heard, but also acted upon.

How do they frame the world?

To understand how people choose which messages resonate with them, it’s helpful to think about frames. Frames are the conceptual models we use to understand the world around us, the shortcuts we use to avoid having to analyse every single thing from scratch. They can range from our perception of which brands are high quality, all the way to our understanding of climate change, and the longer they exist in our consciousness, the more strongly ‘hardwired’ they become in our minds. A particularly strong frame for many of us in the Western world, for example, is the concept of democracy – we don’t often question the ‘one person, one vote’ idea, despite the fact that there are many other possible ways of organising society. (If you’ve read Sapiens, you’ll know that Yuval Noah Harari is particularly good at making us question the frames we use in everyday life.)

So what frames are your audiences using to make sense of their world, and how do your messages fit into that? The further your messages are removed from the frames they use, the less they will want to give them their attention. An audience for whom an accepted frame is that economic growth is always desirable will be far more likely to absorb and act on messages about an innovation if it can be positioned as stimulating and promoting growth.

As an example, a recent study by Bergman comparing how frames have been used in communications promoting electric cars and alternative transport models (in this case car clubs) makes really interesting reading. Communications about electric cars tended to invoke frames such as economic growth, technological progress, consumer choice and the idea of individual autonomous mobility as positive and desirable. In contrast, communications about car clubs focused less on technological progress and autonomous mobility, and more on frames such as integrated transport and local community benefits. Depending on the audiences addressed, you can see how the different frames might resonate – or not – with them.

‘The lightbulb has to want to change’

You’ve heard the old joke about how many therapists it takes to change a lightbulb – well, people are no different. Until your audience wants to bring about the change you’re seeking, it isn’t going to happen. Many of us will be familiar with corporate change programmes that fail not because the desired change was a bad idea, but because people simply carried on working the way they always had: inertia is a very powerful force.

It’s sometimes useful to examine the way people behave, whether at work or at home, in terms of practices rather than individuals. According to practice theorists such as Elizabeth Shove, a practice can be any action or set of actions, from cooking dinner to the financial management of companies, as long as it’s something that could be done a number of different ways. (Breathing is not a practice, because it’s unconscious and there’s only really one right way to do it.)

Practices are made up of a number of elements which are linked together by those carrying them out:

  • the materials people use (such as cooking implements or an expenses form),
  • the skills they need to perform it (using an oven, or filling in a form and adding up amounts of money),
  • and crucially, the meanings and norms they associate with it (that fish fingers and chips make a suitable meal for children, or that using paper-based expenses claims is somewhat old-fashioned).

If we take company financial management as an example, it’s clear that while using paper records is now seen as an old-fashioned way of doing things, there was a time in recent memory when paper was the norm. At this time, using an electronic system would have been a new and innovative approach, so to ensure its widespread adoption required shifting that norm. Companies that saw themselves as forward thinking and modern might adopt it first, as it would mean others saw them as innovative as well.

Once it became accepted that ‘normal’ companies would use an electronic system, the link between paper records (the material) and the norms around financial management would be broken, and a new link formed between electronic systems and financial management norms. This means that the majority of users would not just adopt the new practice, but judge any organisation that didn’t use it negatively as old-fashioned. (The classic diffusion of innovation curve demonstrates this beautifully – as an innovation is adopted more and more widely, it changes the norm of how a practice is performed.)

In fact almost any innovation, whether it’s a new product on the market or a digital transformation programme inside an organisation, requires a change in practice. Customers streaming films through Netflix rather than renting a DVD requires a change in the practice of watching films, while storing company information in a searchable Sharepoint database in the cloud rather than a rigid file structure on a local server requires a change in the practice of storing and accessing knowledge.

Frames and practices – two ways of building insight

Frames and practices are just two ways of gaining audience insight – there are of course many others. I like using these two because they can help to unpack some of the reasons for resistance to change, even when all the rational arguments seem to support it. Finding effective ways of shifting practices and frames is not easy (and a subject for another article) but it’s always worth remembering that for communications to be effective, you need your audience to be willing – and able – to listen.

Further reading/references:
Bergman, N., 2017. Stories of the future: Personal mobility innovation in the United Kingdom. Energy Research & Social Science, 31, pp.184-193.
Harari, Y.N., 2014. Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. Random House.
Rogers, E.M. (1976). New Product Adoption and Diffusion. Journal of Consumer Research. (March). p290-301.
Shove, E., Pantzar, M. and Watson, M., 2012. The dynamics of social practice: Everyday life and how it changes. Sage.