Landing the message

“The medium is the message”.

Yeah, yeah we’ve all heard the Marshall McLuhan schtick.

Too often perhaps!

The Canadian communications theorist openly admitted that his slogan – five words not three – is a teaser. 

It is a way of grabbing attention.

And who am I to argue?

Ahem!

Good old Marshall M also said this: “…it is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium”.

And it is the character of media platforms, and what we put on them that I want to discuss here.

Napoleon can assist me here also.

It was said of him that “he understood the grammar of gunpowder”.

Gunpowder? Now, that IS an effective message delivery system!

Napoleon also paid attention to all the other ‘media’ available to him to take maximum advantage and make maximum impact.

In particular, he liked the Semaphore telegraph platform. It gave him a great advantage over his enemies. He is on record for saying that “three hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets”.

Monsieur Bonaparte knew what all good communicators must know: when it comes to getting your message across, choose your weapons AKA media wisely!

Today our weapons are the myriad platforms for our messages, and the opportunities they offer IF used well.

HORSES FOR COURSES AND ALL THAT JAZZ.

You may have a great message, but how does that message land in the most memorable and effective way in a multi-platform world?

Do we understand the individual strengths and weaknesses of various mediums and platforms well enough to ensure we get the best out of them?

These are awkward questions which have been hanging around for a while now, but it was the pandemic which forced the issue.

COVID-19 made us all scramble to deliver messages and content in different ways on non-traditional platforms. As the proverb says, “needs must when the Devil drives”. And many of us have discovered new and innovative ways to deliver.  Often under intense deadline pressure. 

Virtual conferences and webinars viewed on demand as well as live have become the rule not the exception.  They have replaced the in-person Powerpoint festooned presentations hosted in hotel ballrooms or university lecture theatres amid tepid tea urns and questionable muffins.

Training modules have left the stuffy meeting room and been sliced and diced into podcasted chunks consumed wherever is most convenient. An intimate medium has been put to good use as a one-on-one trainer.

And, most impactfully of all perhaps, public health messaging has been pitched from the source directly to the public via live updates and presentations.

The game has changed.  The ‘latest shiny object’ technologies have been put to work in a more practical, matter-of-fact way than ever before.

What next?

Now is the time to move up a gear or two.

Take the case I mentioned earlier of a conference forced online by Covid.

A conference which survived by the skin of its teeth needs to be properly re-imagined. It has to be more like a TV show than a series of university lectures and panels. 

The audience in 2020 & 2021 might have been forgiving of technical shortcomings, clunky presentations, and all too frequent “you’re still on mute” events. 

Not in 2022.

To be blunt, the camera lays things bare: poor presentation, crowded and font challenged graphics and poorly executed narratives are the most obvious shortcomings.

Events have gone virtual because of the pandemic.  Many months into Covid and “making do” will no longer do.

For this to happen government needs learn a little bit more about the “dos and don’ts of the audio-visual world AND to trust its media professionals a whole lot more.

Think of the process as like showcasing a work of art. 

(I accept most government messaging rarely reaches such lofty heights, but stick with me on this.)

Government produces the painting – the message – while the media folk find the best frame – medium – for it and the optimal location in the gallery to grab attention – even more medium!

That’s how you reach the audience.

That’s how you deliver effectively.

To do that some difficult conversations and necessary tweaks are called for.

The viewing audience, no longer in a single venue, is now watching presentations and videos and panel discussions in the same way they consume content via YouTube or Netflix or terrestrial TV.  Whether it’s the latest Scandi Noir or the announcement of a grant program for farmers the fundamentals must apply and be part of the conversation. You need to hook the audience and keep them hooked.  Or at the very least ensure the messaging is memorable.

And that means narrative. 

You need a story.

And you need a structure which suits the medium chosen.

What was once forgivable and/or acceptable in a face-to-face world will no longer cut it.

Sure, people will register and log on to events, but will they be listening and watching?

More importantly, will they remember?

THE FEAR FACTOR

Experience tells me that re-imagining events and challenging their tried and trusted formats causes consternation, confusion and, frankly, fear.

That’s why those with the content – the government folk – need to be guided and supported by the communications people. Guidance must be firm and specific.  Explain why something is not possible or highly risky. 

Some of the advice is simple: no busy striped shirts or dubious jewellery. 

Some is … tricky.

Presenting is a challenge.  On a small screen presentation needs to be far more performative than in the familiar lecture-like atmosphere of a conference. This doesn’t mean their Powerpoint presentations have to be turned into an all-singing and all-dancing variety spectacular. Far from it  …unless you have the performing skills to get away with it! (But still, perhaps not.)

And there must be some basic understanding of the medium being used. The particular platform decided must be selected for its efficacy and nothing else.

Not because it’s the latest thing or a product featured in the last marketing email that popped into your junk mail inbox.

The best platform for the task AKA horses for courses.

And as an old Chief of Staff of mine used to say: “It isn’t rocket surgery.”

PLUS ÇA CHANGE?

Going online doesn’t necessarily mean a total re-think.

An hour-long webinar moved from a meeting room to become a virtual event might not need much work in content or structure terms – save for a cleaning up cluttered slides and a properly run technical rehearsal.

However, anything longer than that – a conference or roadshow – needs to look more fundamentally at what it provides. And how. And why.

For example, the schedule style of an in-person conference with its milestones of lunchbreaks and morning and afternoon teas may not work for an online event.  Segments may need to be shorter and more focussed – telling their own story as part of a larger narrative. 

In addition, short and sharp pre-recorded segments with high production values can re-frame and re-energise the event.

But, and this is an enormous and crucial “but”, the technology being used has to be given part of the project. What it can do and what it cannot do. Its limitations and what bells and whistles it might provide.

There is a constant tension between the message and the delivery of that message.  Comms people who understand tech must be part of the conversation from the get-go otherwise reputational risk rears its ugly head. Ultimately, technological risk trumps highfalutin’ ideas. 

The experts – editorial AND technical – are there to help.

Google Meets may be a familiar platform to public servants, but does it support the kind of event you want to run with a lay audience?

Can fairly new platforms like Hopin offer the answer?

AND THERE’S MORE

And, of course, the content of a virtual event lives on beyond the live event.

The technology allows for segmentation of content and its repurposing on other platforms. The visual can become audible and spun off into a whole new audience. Well-produced content can be shared and shared, reaching beyond the invested audience that attended on the day.  That builds profile AND spreads the word.

But this must not be an afterthought or an add-on.  It too has to be part of the plan.

IT’S A WHOLE NEW COUNTRY

The plan?

Government communicators need to be ready to help departments and clients traverse all this tricky terrain. 

That comes with trust and honesty.

And at contentgroup we’ve started by actively offering clients insights into how to make their online offerings more impactful.  Our media smarts + the client’s expertise can produce a compelling product.

That combination can unlock uses of technology/online platforms/storytelling modes to take communicating to a higher level. This means discussing the practicalities of going on camera, the challenges of writing for an unseen audience, and how visuals can make an impact and not just fill the screen!

It’s not TV, but it isn’t not a meeting room either.

The right medium can land the message,

Informing AND, heavens to Murgatroyd, even entertaining.

Are you looking to organise webinars or podcasts to land your message?

Read about some of the past webinars contentgroup has organised in the past.

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