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How many light bulbs does it take to change a communicator?

We all love that light bulb moment.

We’re constantly looking for it, that moment when we can see what we couldn’t see before. Isn’t that what our job is as communicators? To shine a light, to light a candle? People need to know things, right? They’re in the dark and we’re the ones who turn the lights on.

And we’re all at it. I turn on one light, you turn on another, our colleague turns on a third.  At first they illuminate, but as the light bulbs keep turning on, especially if they’re all giving off the same kind of light – the same repeated ideas, the same perspectives, the same tactics, the same jargon – eventually, they become blinding to our audiences and our message, if it’s not pure and piercing and essential, is lost among all the others.

I was recently lucky enough to attend a private lecture given by Roberto Verganti, a Professor of Leadership and Innovation at Politecnico di Milano and it was one of those moments that shone insistently through all of the noise; where the light was different, and for this communicator at least, it was a moment of change.

Working beautifully to brief as an innovator, and challenging us with a counterintuitive notion, the essential premise of the Professor’s address was that the problem and limitation with innovation, is innovation itself – or at least, with the way we currently go about finding solutions to modern problems.

While the democratic nature of innovation practice now invites everyone to contribute ideas and solutions to any problem (a wall covered with Post It Notes anyone…) Verganti contends that this explosion of creativity and inclusiveness is often actually counterproductive and creates a confusion of too many ideas – where a genuine, targeted solution to the actual problem is often difficult to identify. How many times have you come out of a brainstorming workshop less sure of the direction you need to take than when you went in? Instead, Verganti’s  belief is that true innovation comes first, not from looking for an idea – or for asking the market for an idea, but from an individual who has thought deeply about the problem and already has an idea; who and who has discovered a solution by looking at the problem differently. An individual like Steve Jobs, for example.

One of the challenges communicators face is that we’ve traditionally been the people responding to things  – a crisis, the need for sales, the need for attention, to sway an important opinion in order to initiate a particular action or decision, to galvanise support behind something that happened somewhere and gave us a sense that we had to respond and be part of the solution.

But what if there’s no problem? At least not the one that everyone else is talking about? And what if technology increasingly enables automated or pre-packaged responses to most common or obvious communications challenges. What if the actual problem is one that most people don’t see, and that requires not the generalised creative enthusiasm of the mass to solve it, but the resolute vision of a special individual, prepared to put something on the line?

Continuing to challenge our assumptions, during the lecture, Roberto Verganti revealed to us an example of his contention. He asked us how many candles we guessed were in our house while we were growing up. Most said only one, perhaps two. Why? Because candles were a pre-electricity invention and in modern society, relevant only as an emergency measure in the event of a power outage.

He then asked us when, in the entire history of civilisation and invented illumination, did we think candle sales had peaked. While the guesses were many – the Middle Ages, Victorian times, before the Industrial Revolution, the answer was actually in 2017, and they’re still rising. Why? How many candles do you have in your house now?  Most likely more than one and most likely, not necesarilly one you’ve bought yourself.

Verganti described how, at some point relatively recently, someone started to look at candles differently. They started to decorate them, perfume them, put them in jars and re-imagined them not as a utilitarian, common as muck household item only relevant in an emergency, but as a gift –  something that you shared with someone, that transformed a room or a house or a time that you spent together.

Our effectiveness as communicators, and the change we can make often comes down as much to intent and vision, as the skills we have or the language we use. It’s the choice we make about what role we see ourselves and our work playing in the lives of our audiences and the directions our businesses take.

It comes down to that question.

Will you be the candle hurriedly retrieved from the drawer, only when the crisis or the obvious need has to be met, or will you be the re-imagined source of light and mood and experience, transforming what our audience sees, feels and understands?

OK – it’s a deep question, I admit, and not one that’s easy to answer. Perhaps we can do what communicators do really well and discuss the challenge over a glass of wine at IABC Victoria’s End of Year celebration. Please join me and my fellow IABC Victoria Board members to celebrate the achievements of 2017, and let me know what your answer is.

As ever,

Ivan

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