marvin paranoid android

Getting unstuck: Douglas Adams and the judo principle

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This is my favourite fable. When something seems difficult at work, I try and apply it. I have Grandpa Simpson-ishly repeated this tale over and over to younger colleagues. It’s worth repeating, it’s a brilliant way of thinking about problems.

“the trick is to use this problem to solve itself”

(Many thanks to Tom Stuart of Codon.com for this post  of his which found the quotes I was looking for. It’s also generally a really, really good blog post.)

This is about the late Douglas Adams writing the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As Tom Stuart says, “He wrote the radio series by the skin of his teeth: budgets were small and deadlines were tight, so he was writing each episode immediately before it was recorded, and each episode was recorded immediately before it got broadcast.”

The late, lovely, brilliant Douglas Adams – ‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency’ is possibly the most enjoyable novel I’ve ever read.

Douglas Adams himself tells it this way:

“I carelessly thought that it might be fun to have Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect thrown out of the airlock of a Vogon ship without spacesuits, just to see what would happen. Unfortunately, of course, if anything was going to happen, I was going to have to think of it. I got very stuck.

The problem was the sheer improbability of every solution I came up with. [The answer] came about through watching a TV programme about Judo.

If you have a problem, said the instructor on the programme, such as for instance a nineteen stone [man] in pyjamas trying to beat you into a pulp, the trick is to use this problem to solve itself.

If you can trip or throw or deflect [him] as he hurtles towards you, then the fact that he weighs nineteen stone quickly becomes his worry instead of yours.

So — I thought — if my problem is one of improbability, let’s use Improbability to solve the problem, so just for the heck of it I invented the Infinite Improbability Drive, and gave myself a whole new thing to write about.”

I’ve used this a few times in small ways at work. When I was working for Rethink Mental Illness, we discovered a seam of awful bigotry about schizophrenia through Google autocomplete (Google ‘schizophrenics should’ and see how Google thinks you’ll want to end that, based on other users’ searches). The idea was to raise awareness by pointing it out in a piece of campaign material – but it was so distressing we decided not to. However, the very fact we had to pull it from the main campaign could be used to make a more general point about stigma around the illness – as occurred in this piece written by my brilliant ex-colleague Rachel Hobbs. In any story, including the non-fiction told by charity communicators and campaigners, being faced with a impassable obstruction can often be used  to make another, different – perhaps better – story.

So if you get stuck, remember the judo throw!

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Storytelling is a joke

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Storytelling? Storytelling is hyped-up by communicators (especially in charities and non-profits) – but it’s nothing more than a joke.
And there’s fish involved too. And a goat.
Who both have the same parent.
And it could all have a sad ending.

First, the goat…

‘A tourist is backpacking through the highlands of Scotland, and he stops at a pub to get a drink. And the only people in there is a bartender and an old man nursing a beer. And he orders a pint, and they sit in silence for a while. 

And suddenly the old man turns to him and goes, “You see this bar? I built this bar with my bare hands from the finest wood in the county. Gave it more love and care than my own child.But do they call me MacGregor the bar builder? No.”

Points out the window. “You see that stone wall out there? I built that stone wall with my bare hands. Found every stone, placed them just so through the rain and the cold. But do they call me MacGregor the stone wall builder? No.”

Points out the window. “You see that pier on the lake out there? I built that pier with my bare hands. Drove the pilings against the tide of the sand, plank by plank. But do they call me MacGregor the pier builder? No.

But you fuck one goat …”

Storytelling is joke telling. It’s knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings.’

 Now imagine an email that goes like this…

Subject: Locating a missing fish
Dear supporter,
The orange clownfish (Amphiprion percula) is widely known as a popular aquarium fish.  Like other clownfish (also called anemonefish), it often lives in association with sea anemones…”

Does that ring any bells? It’s the email that the Dad in Finding Nemo would have sent if he was represented by an organisation of bad joke-tellers and bad story-tellers.

Finding Nemo is a story about the power of story. The reason why Nemo’s dad finds his son is through sharing his simple, moving story across the oceans, until it eventually reaches Australia.

Nemo’s Dad’s story, and the film itself, and the goat joke, share the same principles. They’re personal – told by and about individuals, not groups. And they use the power of anticipation to pull the audience from one end of the story to the other.

The goat and the fish are even more intimately related that that – as I said earlier, they have the same parent. The goat joke reproduced above is told by Finding Nemo’s writer/director Andrew Stanton in this TED talk about storytelling. (And if you read this far because you wanted to know what the hell I was on about at the beginning, he’s going to give me a storytelling gold star!)

‘When you’re telling a story, have you constructed anticipation? In the short-term, have you made me want to know what will happen next? But more importantly, have you made me want to know how it will all conclude in the long-term? Have you constructed honest conflicts with truth that creates doubt in what the outcome might be? An example would be in “Finding Nemo,” in the short tension, you were always worried, would Dory’s short-term memory make her forget whatever she was being told by Marlin. But under that was this global tension of will we ever find Nemo in this huge, vast ocean?’

So what is the sad ending? In microcosm, the power of anticipation is the key factor in clickbait. (And if you don’t know what clickbait is, you simply will not believe it! Check it out here!) Clickbait is possibly devaluing the currency of anticipation. It uses unresolved tension as shiny wrapping around a cheap toy. So maybe this heralds a future where we are crying out for communications that blether on for paragraphs about extraneous detail, barely ever get to the point and then don’t even have a proper

…However, for the time being until that Ballardian hell arrives, Finding Nemo (the story, and the story within the story) demonstrates that a story which uses anticipation-power, as well as the personal touch, can be rewarding and effective.

THE END

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6 Golden Rules for Managing Out-of-Hours Social Media

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The problem with social media is it works anti-social hours…

I’ve written a piece for CharityComms about managing out-of-hours social media. Go on, look at it!

(Someone on Twitter actually said it was the most helpful social media article they’ve ever read, which is possibly the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about me in a professional context. And, yes, I am humblebragging.)

That’s all I’ve got really.

Er…

Here’s a photo of two ponies wearing cardigans.

Bye!

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Rapoport’s Rules (Rapoport not Rappaport!)

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This is half blog post, half Post-It note to myself – because I keep talking to people about Daniel Dennet’s reference to Rapoport’s Rules for argument or criticism, and forgetting what the bloody things are.

Then I Google for Rappaport instead of Rapoport (because I keep remembering Time Bandits actor David Rappaport instead of Anantol Rapoport) …and basically get a bit cross with myself and Google.

Thankfully at some point I find the post written by the wonderful Maria Popova here!

Everyone should read her blog, but just for my own sake, here are Rapoport’s Rules in big bloody letters for my own future reference – and perhaps others.

Rapoport’s rules (as quoted by Daniel Dennett in Intuition Pumps)

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

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