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How (Not) To Communicate

MullenLowe Lonson executive partner, Laurence Green, recommends resolving not to make mistakes in the first place in 2021 – rather than improving anything.


We’re halfway into a strangely familiar January. Lockdown and Zoom again loom large in our existence. When we look further out, of course, hope is in the air. But hope, as they say, is not a strategy, so it’s time for us all to grasp the nettle and set some professional new year’s resolutions if we haven’t already.

There are plenty of new communication habits that advertisers and their agencies might look to acquire this year: our natural inclination is to add more to the “to do” list and to “optimise” whatever’s on there already.

In fact, the bigger opportunity may actually be to do the opposite and snap out of some old habits instead: a provocation prompted by a recent post from agency-strategist-turned-author (and occasional Campaign contributor) Ian Leslie.

Writing in The Ruffian (his occasional newsletter) Leslie’s original post concerned itself with human-to-human messaging failures at a personal level. But his observations and conclusions beg wider application also, if only because the advertising industry is still in the business of human-to-human messaging, too.

Leslie’s contention is that rather than trying to optimise our communication (which assumes we are doing the basic things right) we may actually do more to improve the odds of successful communication by not screwing it up in the first place.

In that spirit, I humbly propose a “how not to communicate” top five drawn from Leslie’s longer list, and the obvious action each of them begs. Five habits we need to break: my professional New Year’s resolutions, if you like.

1.    Being boring.

“In general,” writes Leslie, “We care too much about being right and not enough about not being boring.” Now if this is true of our inter-personal communication, I’d say it’s doubly true of our practice as advertisers and agencies. Think about how you carved up resource on your latest project and how much time you dedicated to being right versus not being boring. (Thought so.)

Action: Say something interesting. Or say something interestingly. (There are no other options.)

2.    Saying too much.

“People have an overload of inputs and limited time. You have to assume that they would rather be doing many other things than listening to you. We easily forget that, because we’re so focused on transmitting all the things we want to say.” Ring any bells?

Action: Say less. (Ideally one thing.) But beware also of…

3.    Saying too little.

Now this is much, much rarer in advertising than saying too much, but every now and then we’ll serve up an enigmatic headscratcher. You’ll have your own examples but Homer Simpson’s bemusement when he sees McMahon and Tate’s commercial for his ailing snow-clearance business is right up there.

“Dad, was that your commercial?”

“I don’t know!”

Mr Plow Commercial

Action:  Always remember, as Don Draper once put it: “You’re not an artist, Peggy, you’re a problem-solver.” And problems are rarely solved by mysteries.

Mad Men - ’You’re not an artist. You solve problems.’

4.    Lack of attention to tone.

“The music of communication,” Leslie reminds us, your tone of voice “conveys a lot of highly compressed information about what you think of me – whether you think I’m stupid, or powerful, or sensitive. When you first start speaking, most people aren’t listening to what you’re saying; they’re listening to your tone and figuring out what it means.”

Tone is what makes me hate most radio ads, because they treat me like an idiot. (They also say too much.) Radio ads, it seems to me, could learn a lot about tone from podcasts.

Action: Put tone at the core rather than the margins… even in strategy development.

5.    Trying to convince.

“The worst way to convince someone of anything they don’t already believe is to make a confident argument for it,” Leslie concludes. Far better as an advertiser, let alone a human, to put yourself in the listeners’ shoes and go from there.

Action: Don’t proselytise… empathise.

Good luck!

Laurence Green, executive partner, MullenLowe London

This article was originally published on Campaign UK

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