To nudge or to shove? That is the question

To nudge or to shove? That is the question

“Be braver. Stand up. Lean in. Speak out.”

Hearing these words made me sit up a bit straighter in my seat at a recent iPAA breakfast. While the phrase evoked influencers I admire such as Sheryl Sandberg, it was the charismatic Alex Aiken making an impact on the Canberra crowd that morning.

A dynamic and captivating speaker, Alex is the Executive Director for Government Communications at the UK Prime Minister’s and Cabinet Office. He has spent the past five years changing the face of government communications in the Kingdom, influencing his peers on a global scale along the way. Among his many achievements, Alex established and runs the Government Communications Service (GCS), oversaw the collation of hundreds of government websites into one central destination, gov.uk, and streamlined the entire process that underpins government communications in the UK.

So, what was Alex’s best insight he shared with the sold-out room, as everyone tucked into their (delicious) smashed avo on toast?

“Sometimes you nudge, sometimes you shove.”

As public servants, government communication specialists are well-versed in providing frank and fearless advice to government. We haven’t quite nailed how to conduct a five-minute meeting, as per energetic entrepreneur Gary Vanyerchuk, but we can write a killer hot-issues brief.

What we’re missing is the nudge-or-shove.

In this information age where busy-ness is often a source of pride, we risk pumping out information simply for the sake of it. Alex calls this useless activity “sending out stuff” or SOS, and it’s not the good kind that has a positive end result. Instead, it leads to information overload, and an audience that’s so over seeing your name in their inbox that they mindlessly hit ‘delete’, relegating you and your message to the trash.

There is always a fine line between too much and too little communication when it comes to government. Too much leaves your audience reeling from the perception of repeated changes in policy direction, resulting in fear for the future. But too little can leave your audience feeling uninformed and resentful. Trust won’t be earned by engaging in either extreme.

Instead, Alex suggests focusing on the objective of every single piece of content you produce and disseminate.

Whether it’s an email to staff, a page on a website or a message on the intranet, each piece of content needs to have a clear purpose and contribute to the achievement of the broader goals of the communication plan. As the comms professionals in the room, we may need to nudge management towards re-thinking that directionless email they want delivered to all.

And sometimes we’ll be forced to shove them away from the computer before they hit send. (Metaphorically speaking…I think.)

These managers may be convinced that if they just send a few thousand emails to staff, that new reform program will magically succeed, or a new policy will somehow come to fruition, and all staff will be fully informed at all times.

It’s not their job to know that the majority of those emails will either be promptly deleted or carefully filed away for later reading (ie. never to be seen again). It’s our job as communication professionals to work with those realities. It’s our responsibility to speak up when we need to, to deliver the advice no one wants to hear and either nudge or shove the decision-makers in the right direction so they can achieve their goals.

Here’s the harsh truth Alex laid out that morning as I prodded my cold poached egg: If a piece of content – an email, a newsletter, a page on a website – doesn’t have an objective, it shouldn’t exist. We as government communicators must ensure that this is understood.

Sometimes you nudge, and sometimes you shove until you get there.

Alex Aiken was the first ever guest on our podcast, InTransition. Have a listen here.


Jodi Morrell is a copywriter and communications consultant. As a former public servant, Jodi enjoys writing about political developments, philosophical speculation and communication short cuts offered by our digital world. She is constantly reminding the authors and clients she works with that they are writing for an audience – their end user – and remembering this one fact will vastly improve their communications. You can find more of Jodi’s writing on her blog at www.writingwords.com.au/blog/ and on the public forum Medium.

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