Quietroom https://quietroom.co.uk/ thinking / writing / training Wed, 10 Jun 2020 19:41:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.2.7 https://quietroom.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/cropped-quietroom-q-logo-site-icon-32x32.png Quietroom https://quietroom.co.uk/ 32 32 Navigating 4 communication challenges facing trustees https://quietroom.co.uk/2020/06/10/navigating/ https://quietroom.co.uk/2020/06/10/navigating/#respond Wed, 10 Jun 2020 19:41:34 +0000 https://quietroom.co.uk/?p=47495 We’ve spoken to pension scheme trustees to see how the lockdown is affecting their work. There’s been lots of change. Some positive – like shorter meetings and quicker decisions – and some more challenging, like trying to get your message heard by members above the roar of the news headlines.

Here are our suggestions for how to tackle four of the challenges trustees have told us about.

The post Navigating 4 communication challenges facing trustees appeared first on Quietroom.

Written by Kathryn Papworth-Smith
We’ve spoken to trustees to see how the lockdown is affecting their work. There’s been lots of change. Some positive – like shorter meetings and quicker decisions – and some more challenging, like trying to get your message heard by members above the roar of the news headlines.

Here are our suggestions for how to tackle four of the challenges trustees have told us about. Read on below or, if you prefer, download the PDF

1. How to ask for an expression of wish

It’s a constant challenge for trustees to get members to fill in an expression of wish form. Now that more people are spending time on their laptops when they might otherwise have spent it commuting, it’s a good opportunity to collect members’ information. But in the current climate, death is a more sensitive subject. And with your members’ wellbeing in mind, you need to be careful how you approach it. We would recommend you don’t make it the sole content of your message. Instead, think about how it links to another action you want to encourage members to do.

Here’s a couple of ways you could do it.

Ask members for their email address

It might be an opportunity to write to members about the benefits of them giving you their email address. And while they’re doing that, you could ask them to fill in the expression of wish form at the same time.

Example for active DC members

Since lockdown began, we’ve been meeting more often so we can continue to make decisions in the best interests of our members during this crisis. We want to make sure you’re getting information quickly, and as post can be delayed at the moment, we don’t want you to miss out. So please send us your email address by going to [web address] or emailing xxxxx.

Even better, you can sign into our secure website where you can put some of your finances in order. You can fill out or update your expression of wish form, so we know who you want us to give money to if you die. And you can check how much you have in your pension so far, to help you think about whether you want to change how much you’re saving. Just go to xxxx.com.


Suggest members use any extra time to improve their finances

This could be a chance to suggest to members how to use the extra time they might have got now they’re working from home or on reduced hours. Point out to them it’s an opportunity to get their finances on track.

Example for all DC and DB members

The perfect time to take control of your finances

If you find lockdown is giving you extra time, why not use it to look at improving your finances?

Check you’re getting the best deal

Shop around for cheaper energy and insurance deals using sites like uswitch.com or moneysavingexpert.com.

Think about the future

Take a look at your pension and make sure we know who you want to give money to if you die. Just log on at xxxx.com.

Tell us what you think

We want to hear from you. If you have any questions or concerns about your pension, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at xxxxx.


2. How to get heard above the noise

Take a look at our writing tips on using titles and headings to make your message stand out.

Writing isn’t the only option. Think about possibly doing a short video instead of an email, newsletter or online update. We have some tips that might help, for how to film yourself on your mobile phone.


3. How to settle the nerves of DC and DB members

It’s an unsettling time for members. There’s been a lot of media coverage about the markets plummeting and they could be tempted to stop contributions, transfer out or just worry when they don’t need to. To help you tackle questions like ‘How will Covid-19 affect my pension?’ we’ve put together some answers that we hope will help.


4. How often to communicate with members

We recommend you communicate regularly and reliably. That might be every month or every six months, depending on the scheme. What you have to say doesn’t have to be momentous. But what matters is you set expectations and meet them. So if you say you’ll contact everyone again in two months’ time, make sure you keep that promise. Doing this will help build a relationship with your members.

Use our tips for how to communicate in tough times.


Download the PDF

Now watch some of our videos about tricky topics:

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Getting Guy’s ‘good’ guide to ‘great’ https://quietroom.co.uk/2020/05/30/covid/ https://quietroom.co.uk/2020/05/30/covid/#respond Sat, 30 May 2020 18:42:34 +0000 https://quietroom.co.uk/?p=47482 The guide covers a hugely important subject that many people are concerned about. So it’s worth looking at how it could be even better, just in case the producers are plotting a sequel. And, perhaps more usefully, there are some lessons we can learn from it about how to make all our pension communications even more fun than they already are.

The post Getting Guy’s ‘good’ guide to ‘great’ appeared first on Quietroom.

Written by Simon Grover

This new route map through the pensions/Covid jungle has lessons for everyone on how to write something not just good, but great.


Everyone loves a new pensions publication, and there’s a lot to quicken the pulse about the one just out from the Dept of Work and Pensions and 6 big UK pensions bodies – Covid-19 and your pension: where to get help.

It looks friendly, it’s well written, and it has some useful information, clearly explained. And it has authority, authored as it is by a pensions partnership of big hitters, from the Pensions Ombudsman to the Pensions Regulator, with a warm-up by minister Guy Opperman.

The guide covers a hugely important subject that many people are concerned about. So it’s worth looking at how it could be even better, just in case the producers are plotting a sequel. And, perhaps more usefully, there are some lessons we can learn from it about how to make all our communications even more fun than they already are.

  1. Be clear what your communication is about

Experts in any field often pack their communications with lots of information about, well, everything. The guide’s title and the first two sentences of the minister’s foreword seem to say this is the place to come if you want help on how Covid-19 will “affect my pension and retirement plans”. Great. But Guy then says the guide outlines “the measures taken across the industry to support savers”. That’s fine, but it’s moving away from the idea of me and my pension.

Even more distant is the minister’s hope that “this guide will enable readers to familiarise themselves with these [6 pension] bodies”. That’s a pretty niche interest, and a sign that someone has got confused about what the message is. It’s starting to feel like Guy’s boss might have had a hand in this. Any communication is likely to be more effective if you focus it on just one idea.

  1. Build it around your reader’s world, not yours

You might expect the guide’s contents page to be a list of the worries that you can read about. But instead, it’s a list of the contributing pension bodies. This suggests that the guide is, in fact, mostly about those 6 bodies and what they do. And indeed when you start reading, you find that the guide is mostly about those 6 bodies and what they do. It’s not about answers to questions you might have.

That’s happened because each body has contributed its own chapter. Each chapter has useful information in it but the guide is not structured in a way that makes it easy for the reader to find that information. What we have here is a guide to pension bodies, instead of a guide to questions about your pension in the Covid crisis. If you want your words to be read, you need to organise them around what your reader wants, not what’s easiest for you.

  1. Say things once, in one place

Sometimes my life feels like an endless cycle of asking people to stop repeating themselves. There is a lot of repetition in this guide. All good things, but it’s easier for the reader if we just say it once. 2 of the contributing bodies talk about not rushing decisions. 3 of them talk about scams – 2 with exactly the same list of 4 warnings. And everyone signposts to guidance that is similar, but slightly different, from everyone else. Writing like this can confuse or even annoy your reader and make it harder for them to find what they need. Save ink.

  1. Answer real-life questions

FAQs are great, but make sure yours really are frequently asked. Several of the contributors to the guide offer FAQs. But a lot of these are not questions that many people would be looking in this guide for. One of the FSCS’s puzzlers is ‘Are claims still being processed in the usual timeframes?’ While the PPF deals with that hot potato: ‘How can I prove I’m still in education so I can continue to receive my survivor benefit when my school is unable to sign the continual education form?’

These questions are, I would argue, rather too particular for this guide. We’ve put together some of the top questions people are asking right now about the effect of Covid on their pension. You’re welcome to use them.

  1. Keep it short

Rare is the pleasure of something about pensions that takes less than 5 minutes to read. This guide is 29 pages long. For most people, that’s going to look like hard work. As a result, they’re less likely to read it. That’s a shame, because it’s well written when you get into it.

It actually doesn’t need to be that many pages. The font size is surprisingly big and there are lots of graphics that aren’t really adding anything. If you also followed the suggestions above, you might get it down to 10 pages. You could probably give the main points in just 2 or 3. A lot more people would read something that length. If you have more to say, give links to further info. The pensions industry always has more to say (just because we love pensions so much). Which is why this is probably a good point for me to stop.


Other things you might like

How to make pensions interesting

Video: What ordinary people think about responsible investing

How to talk to pension scheme members in a downturn

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How to make pensions interesting https://quietroom.co.uk/2020/05/11/interesting/ https://quietroom.co.uk/2020/05/11/interesting/#respond Mon, 11 May 2020 16:47:21 +0000 https://quietroom.co.uk/?p=47465 Your pension is a tax-efficient vehicle with which to save for the future. Interesting? …no. Your pension is helping cure Covid-19. Interesting, yes?

The post How to make pensions interesting appeared first on Quietroom.

Written by Caroline Hopper


Your pension is a tax-efficient vehicle with which to save for the future. Interesting? …no.
Your pension is helping cure Covid-19. Interesting, yes?
Here’s the difference. One talks about pensions as something far away, something intangible, something complicated, and something-you-can’t-do-anything-about-anyway-so-why-bother-engaging. The other does the opposite: here are 4 tips to make pensions interesting.
1.      Show people where their money is invested right now
Usually, when you talk about pensions, you’re inviting people to think about the future. Humans aren’t very good at thinking about the future, and they’re even worse at giving up something today to get something more tomorrow.
Instead, talk to members about the here and now. Tell them their money is invested, and that it’s buying them bits of companies right now. Tell them those companies are building the world around them. Tell them how you take care of who those companies are and how they act, so we’re all building a world we want to live in.
2.     Paint a picture by giving examples of real things investments build  
When the industry paints a picture of pensions, it’s always the same: an older couple, wearing gilets, and walking along the beach. (It’s not always the same. Sometimes the older couple ride bikes.)
Instead, paint a picture to show pension savers what their money’s doing: it’s building this road, this hospital, this school. It might even be helping combat coronavirus, with testing, research, treatments and vaccines, like the companies in EQ investors’ portfolios. It might be part of a movement to tackle climate change, to stop banks funding fossil fuels. Whatever it’s doing, it’s working hard, and it’s not a walk along the beach.
3.     Talk about recognisable companies, not abstract percentages
There’s enough jargon in pensions already. Talk to people about ‘salary sacrifice’ and they assume it’s something they’re not supposed to do. (When has ‘sacrifice’ ever been a good thing?)
So, assume intelligence, not knowledge. Skip over ‘your money is 70% in equities’. Go straight to ‘most of your money is invested in companies, such as Apple and BP. Here’s what those companies do…’ Once you’ve told people they invest in companies, it’s much easier to explain everything else – such as market volatility, downturns, risk and return and even fixed income.
4.     Invite members to ask you questions
In general, people are passive when it comes to pensions. That’s because people only take action if they have to, if they know how to, and if they care to.
When you tell people what their pension money is actually doing, they will care. They might feel empowered by what they’re investing in, or they might hate it. They might want a say. So, tell them how to get in touch. If there isn’t a way, set one up. Use the systems your members use elsewhere in life, if you can – whether that’s phone, email, Zoom, or something else. If you don’t know what your members like, ask them.

Other things you might like

7 tips for keeping your team together – and remote

Video: What ordinary people think about responsible investing

How to talk to pension scheme members in a downturn

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How lockdown’s limitations can inspire us to be more inventive https://quietroom.co.uk/2020/05/05/inventive/ https://quietroom.co.uk/2020/05/05/inventive/#respond Tue, 05 May 2020 12:33:58 +0000 https://quietroom.co.uk/?p=47452 We’re all working under new constraints. Let’s use them as a catalyst to be creative.

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Written by Rhys Williams
ball and chain

We’re all working under new constraints. Let’s use them as a catalyst to be creative.

Creativity flourishes under constraints. If you’re a painter, the edges of your canvas are your friend. If you write haiku, the number of lines and syllables you’re allowed help rather than hinder. 

I think it’s something to do with what behavioural scientists call ‘decision paralysis’. We get fatigued by too much freedom. Spoilt by infinite choice. Taking options off the table unburdens you from some of this cognitive load. It liberates your brain. The tighter the brief, the freer you feel.

But there’s more to it than that. Creativity is about play as much as it is about anything. That’s one of the reasons why children are so good at it. If you watch children at play, you’ll see that there are always restrictions. Can you pin the tail on the donkey blindfold? Can you win a race with your legs tied together? Can you kick a football so it bounces off the crossbar? Without restrictions, there’s no challenge. And with no challenge, there’s no fun. 

All this talk of fun leads me beautifully into what I want to talk to you about: the global pandemic that’s threatening the wellbeing of the whole human race. 

It’s fair to say that it’s come with its challenges, this pandemic. We’re worried for our lives and our livelihoods. We’re concerned for our friends and families, our neighbours and colleagues, and for the future of the economy. We don’t know how bad things are going to get, or how or when it’s going to end. 

That’s before I even get into the lack of televised sport. 

But this lockdown also brings opportunities. When we can’t turn to our tried-and-tested methods, we have to try and test something else. 

We’ve been working with workplace pension scheme Nest since the start of the year. We were due to run a workshop for them on April 1st this year, as the centrepiece of a bigger project looking at the brand. It seemed like an awesome idea in January when we set the date. But in February, as Covid-19 took hold, our workshop began to look suspiciously like a ‘mass gathering’. By early March, it was toast. The cold, dry, unbuttered kind.

We had to think fast. Nobody wanted to delay the project, or lose this opportunity to consult Nest people on the brand’s future. But one simple fact couldn’t be ignored. The office was out of bounds. 

So we started exploring alternatives. We talked about doing a webinar. This was back when webinars were still cool. We talked about running some sort of activity for our participants – maybe getting them to write something, or record some audio or video for us. We thought about setting up an online community. 

But in the end, we decided to do something more daring than any of those options. We decided to do all of them. 

We pitched something we’d never done before: a week-long virtual festival, where our participants came together to celebrate how good they can be when they get things really right. It all happened over seven days on Microsoft Teams. Each day, we uploaded a video, filmed on our phones, introducing a 15-minute task for people to complete. We asked people to tell us stories about what made them proud of Nest. We split them into groups to discuss the needs of different audiences. We ran low-key calls to hear the views of people who were less comfortable posting them publicly. We asked people to take pictures of objects around their house and tell us why they were a good metaphor for Nest. People sent us postcards from an imaginary future, telling us what they hoped Nest might achieve by 2060. Over a weekend, we asked people to talk to their friends and family about pensions and retirement. People sent out messages to group chats on WhatsApp. The chief executive interviewed her husband on camera.

The workshop would have been good. But it would not have been this good.

More than a hundred people took part. The levels of engagement and participation were amazing. Speaking personally, it’s one of my favourite pieces of work ever: because of the amount of thinking it’s stimulated, the great ideas it’s generated, the positive vibes we’ve all felt being involved in it, but ultimately, because we arrived at this approach in adversity. 

There is no way on earth we would have done it like this had we not been locked down on March 23rd. Yet now, I find it hard to imagine going back to trying to get the same results in a two-hour workshop. That’s what this has been about for me – using lockdown to come up with something better. 

That’s what we’re all doing at the moment, isn’t it? Every day, we’re finding new ways to work together, new ways to connect with each other and new ways to get our work done. Our challenge when we’re out the other side will be to keep the best bits, and resist the temptation to default back to the status quo. 

Three quick ways to think creatively

1. Think same but different

Instead of trying to think of something similar (we were going to do a face-to-face workshop, so let’s do an online workshop!), why not try to keep the fundamentals but change everything else? Think about the difference between Delia Smith and Jamie Oliver. They both cook food on TV and write recipe books. But everything else about them is different.  Delia’s a woman, Jamie’s a man. Delia has brown hair, Jamie is blond. Delia is buttoned-down, Jamie is loose. In just the same way, Jamie is different from Nigella, and Nigella is different from the Hairy Bikers, and the Hairy Bikers are…I’ll stop there. 

2. Steal stuff that’s worked in other contexts and apply it in this one

We’d done the online-community-working-together-over-a-week thing two years previously for a health insurer. We recruited consumers on Facebook and asked them to explore how they felt about healthcare and private medical insurance. We learned stuff doing that which gave us the confidence to try it again, this time from our back bedrooms.  This kind of thing happens in TV and film all the time. Snakes on a plane. Dinosaurs on a spaceship. Badgers in a caravan. OK, I made that last one up. 

3. Use generative analogies

Writers Chip and Dan Heath talk about this in Made To Stick, a book which I never miss an opportunity to plug. They talk about the analogy at the heart of Disneyland: it’s a show. The people who work there – even the ones who mop the restrooms – are called cast members. That changes how they think about their jobs and their customers. In the same way calling Nest Brand Week a ‘virtual festival’ made us think totally differently about how to run it. It changed the tone. It changed what the activities were and how we set them up. And it changed the way people at Nest behaved too. We even suggested calling the whole thing Nestival, or Nestonbury, before our client rightly pointed out that puns and pandemics do not go together.


Other things you might like

7 tips for keeping your team together – and remote

Video: What ordinary people think about responsible investing

How to talk to pension scheme members in a downturn

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How to talk to members in a downturn https://quietroom.co.uk/2020/04/23/downturn/ https://quietroom.co.uk/2020/04/23/downturn/#respond Thu, 23 Apr 2020 10:07:23 +0000 https://quietroom.co.uk/?p=47444 Our Creative Director, Vincent Franklin, on how to keep your team together when they're apart

The post How to talk to members in a downturn appeared first on Quietroom.

Written by Vincent Franklin
Image of a load of megaphones, an illustration on our blog about making heartfelt apologies.
People are worried about Covid-19. They’re also worried about what it means for their savings, and especially their pensions.
Too many sites have bland information about the ‘long- term nature of investing’. We thought it might help to have some answers to the questions that members are likely to be asking. These questions and their answers cover both DB and DC pensions.
Please feel free to use, adapt, edit and rewrite, to help you talk to your members. You can also download a PDF of this page. We hope these ideas help.

How will Covid-19 affect my pension?

Everyone’s worried about Covid 19. As it’s affected stock markets, it is completely understandable that you should think about how it might affect your pension.

In the middle of March stock prices fell. Since then, prices have gone up again, but overall the average price of shares is lower now than it was at the start of March. It’s normal for shares to go up and down in value, but these recent changes were bigger than we’d have expected under normal circumstances.

So, what does this mean for your pension? Well, it depends on the type of pension you have, whether you’re already getting an income from it, and if not, how long it is until you plan to retire.

I am in a Defined Contribution (DC) Pension scheme – where I build up a pot of money that I can then use to give myself an income when I retire

Your pot is probably worth more than the money you’ve saved into it

If you save into a workplace DC pension scheme, your employer pays money in too. You also get tax relief from the government. So, there’s a lot more money going in there than just the money you’re putting in. Because of all this extra money going into your pot, stock market falls would have to reduce its value by a lot before there was less money in there than the amount you put in. Current stock market falls haven’t been nearly big enough to mean this happened. In other words, your pot is almost certainly worth more than the amount of money you’ve put in.

Some of your pot is likely to be invested in things that aren’t affected by stock markets

The money in your pot is usually invested in lots of different things. For example, as well as investing in a wide range of stocks and shares, you might also be investing in government bonds and in property. The value of these investments hasn’t been affected in the same way as the value of stocks and shares has been So, overall, the value of your pension pot may not have been affected as much as you think. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about your savings. It does mean that it’s worth planning what you want to do, rather reacting suddenly because of worries about coronavirus or share prices.

If you’re close to retiring, lifestyling might have reduced the effect that stock market changes have had on your pension pot

Most workplace DC pension schemes use something called lifestyling. Lifestyling changes the way your pension pot is invested as you get closer to retiring. Instead of the emphasis being on making your pot grow, the emphasis becomes protecting growth you’ve already achieved. To do this, about 5 to 10 years before the date you’re expected to retire, lifestyling starts moving your investments out of stocks and shares and into bonds and cash. As a result, changes in the stock market will have had less effect on your pot’s value than if you were early in your working life.

If you’re not close to retiring, there’s time for the value of your pension pot to recover from a dip in value.

If you are more than 5 to 10 years from retiring and your pot has gone down in value over the last few weeks, there’s lots of time for it to go up in value again before you need the money. In the past, sudden falls in stock markets, like those we’ve seen recently, have been followed by periods of growth, when markets recover. So there’s a good chance that its value will increase before you come to need it.

Can I stop saving into my pension scheme?

You can stop saving into your work-based pension scheme or change the amount you save. You may be able to do this straight away, or you may have to wait, depending on the rules of your scheme.

However, before you stop saving, it’s worth thinking about the free money you’d be missing out on. If you stop saving, there’s a very good chance that your employer will stop putting money in too. You will also stop getting the tax relief you get from the government. So you would be missing out on a lot of free money. If you stop saving now, even if you start saving again later, you’ll never get back the free money you’ve missed out on.

So, while you can stop saving into your pension, it’s worth thinking carefully before you do. Ideally, speak to a financial adviser.

Should I change the way my money is invested?

If you want to make your own investment decisions, you usually can. But members who choose their own investments usually do less well than those who let the scheme choose for them. So, while a fall in stock markets like this can make you want to take control and decide for yourself, it’s worth thinking about whether you’re really ready to make your own investment decisions.

If you’re letting the scheme decide how your money is invested, it will usually spread it across lots of different types of investment. So, as well as investing
in stock and shares it might also invest in things like government bonds and property. As you get closer to retiring, these investment options will often automatically change the way your money is invested.

This is called lifestyling. Lifestyling reduces the risks the scheme takes with your investments as you get closer to retiring by moving to investments that are less like to fall in value, accepting that this reduces the potential for growth too. If you choose your own investments, you won’t benefit from this spreading of investments or from these automatic changes that happen as you get closer to retiring.

Finally, if you sell your investments now and use the funds to buy other investments, you will be selling those investments when they’ve fallen in value. Few people would choose to sell a house when there’s been a fall in house prices, so it’s odd that someone would sell their investments when they’ve fallen in value.

This recent fall in the value of your pension pot hasn’t necessarily happened because you’ve been investing in the wrong things – lots of stocks and shares have fallen in value because of worries about coronavirus. So, while there is no guarantee, there is a good chance that in 6 months, 2 years, or 5 years’ time, as things get better again, so will the value of your investments.

I am in a Defined Benefit (DB) Pension scheme – where the amount of pension I get is based on how much I earn and the number of years I’ve worked

Whether you’re getting an income from this type of pension right now or will be in the future, the amount you get isn’t affected by stock markets and share prices.

I am in a Defined Benefit (DB) Pension scheme – but I also make Additional Voluntary Contributions (AVCs)

Whether you’re already getting an income from your DB pension, or will be in the future, the amount you get isn’t affected by stock markets and share prices.

It’s unlikely that all your AVCs are invested in stocks and shares

If you’re building up a pot of money alongside your pension by making AVCs, the value of this pot might be affected by changes in the stock market. However, most AVC pots are invested in a range of different types of investment. So, while you might be investing in stocks and shares, you might also be investing in government bonds and property. If this is the case, it will have reduced the effect that changes in the stock market have on the value of your pot. This spreading of investments is often done automatically when you set up AVCs.

If you’re close to retiring, lifestyling might have reduced the effect that stock market changes have had on your AVC pot

Lots of AVCs also use something called lifestyling. Lifestyling changes the way your AVC pot is invested as you get closer to retiring – instead of the emphasis being on making your pot grow, the emphasis becomes protecting growth you’ve already had. To achieve this, about 5 to 10 years before the date you’re expected to retire, it starts moving your investments out of stocks and shares and into cash and bonds. If your AVC pot is invested with lifestyling and you are close to retiring, changes in the stock market will have had less effect on the value of your pot.

If you’re at least 5 years from retiring, there’s time for the value of your AVC pot to recover

In the past, sudden falls in stock markets, like those we’ve seen recently, have been followed by periods of growth, when markets recover. So, there’s a good chance that its value will increase before you need it. If you have 5 years, there’s a very good chance that your pot will recover and even grow to more than you had before. If you’re more than 5 years away from retiring, those chances get even better.


Other things you might like

7 tips for keeping your team together – and remote

Video: Why designing for excluded groups makes things better for everyone.

What growing anxiety means for financial services.

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11 writers’ secrets that will increase your readership https://quietroom.co.uk/2020/04/14/writers-secrets/ https://quietroom.co.uk/2020/04/14/writers-secrets/#respond Tue, 14 Apr 2020 08:25:49 +0000 https://quietroom.co.uk/?p=47431 Our Creative Director, Vincent Franklin, on how to keep your team together when they're apart

The post 11 writers’ secrets that will increase your readership appeared first on Quietroom.

Written by Vincent Franklin
ink bottle blog image - green

“Never judge a book by its cover.” It’s a saying. It’s a crazy saying. It’s crazy because, until you’ve read it, what else are you supposed to judge a book by? Most of us never have to write something that will come with a dust cover, but we face the same challenge as the book designer – how do you get someone to open up what you’ve sent them?

And once someone has agreed to open it, how can we make sure they get beyond the first sentence? How can we make sure that even a quick glance is useful for them? How can we convert a quick glance into five minutes of their precious time?

Titles and headings are two of the arrows in your quiver. Here are some simple ways to make sure they both hit home. 



What’s your offer? Is it more interesting than what the next person wants to bore me about? Combine a few of these techniques to pique my interest and make me click. 
1.    Ask a question
It’s the oldest technique in town. The incomplete nature of a question – it’s only completed once answered – is a tried and tested way of getting people to open things up. Try and ask a question that’s about your reader, not about you.

“Are loss of taste and smell key coronavirus symptoms?” (BBC website, 1/4/20)

2.    Keep it short
Grammar rules don’t apply to titles – there’s no full stop, so it isn’t a sentence. Choose short phrases, short words and cut fat. If cutting something doesn’t change the impact or the meaning, cut it.

“Cheap and easy ways to cook straight from the tin” (BBC website, 1/4/20)

3.    Use emotional and distinctive adjectives and adverbs
Adjectives and adverbs are often used in a way that adds little to what we write – ‘she wept sadly’ doesn’t need the word ‘sadly’. How else do you weep? Now, if she wept ‘manically’ that would add to the picture. It’s an intriguing and unexpected word in this context and it grabs attention.  
So choose adjectives and adverbs that work hard. If you’re showing me a way of doing something, telling me it’s ‘effortless’, ‘free’, ‘instant’ or ‘essential’ is interesting and attractive. But adjectives like ‘great’ or ‘effective’ are less compelling. Why would you show me a way of doing something that isn’t effective? They’re only one step up from ‘nice’. 
“James Bond – the ultimate celebration” (Empire, April 2020)
4.    Make a bold statement – boldly
I want to know you have something to say that I haven’t heard before. So offering ‘an update on…’ or ‘a review of…’ or ‘some recent developments in the world of…’ just won’t cut it. It’s the language of the monthly newsletter and no one ever got excited about those (except the printer). So look to say something unexpected, useful, even controversial about the subject.
Once you’ve found your bold statement, make sure you don’t water it down. I promised you 7 secrets that ‘will’ increase your readership’. I didn’t say ‘may’ or ‘if applied correctly, have the potential to…’. I’m not suggesting that you write titles that are actionable, but ‘You can make your pension work harder for you’ is stronger than ‘You may be able to make your pension perform better over the long term’. 
“Even the US is doing more Coronavirus tests than the UK. Here are the reasons why.” (Buzzfeed website, 1/4/20)
5.    Hypnotise people with a numbered list
A numbered list is second only to ‘ask a question’ when it comes to tried and tested techniques. It’s a sure-fire way to get people clicking through – we’ve all stayed up until the wee small hours to find out whether Fawlty Towers is number one in the list of Britain’s favourite sit-coms. We can’t resist a list.
By the way, research suggests that, even for small lists, figures are more effective than words – so offer 7 secrets, not seven. Ignore your brand guidelines – trust the science. 
“10 simple ways to get your garden ready for summer” (BBC website, 1/4/20)
6.    Solve your reader’s problem
If I have a headache, a title like ‘3 Ways to get rid of a headache’ is more likely to make me read your article, than ‘the latest thinking about headaches, their causes and cures’. I’m not interested in headaches, but in how to get rid of them. 
“22 top tips to help you through lockdown” (BBC website, 1/4/20)
7.    Use ‘why’ and ‘how’
These are words that tell me you’re going to reveal something. “How to make sure people read what you write” would have a good chance of grabbing me – especially if it’s about solving my problem.  If you combine ‘why’ with a bold and provocative statement, it can work really hard – ‘why no one reads what you write’. 
“How a video game led to one man working for NASA” (BBC website, 1/4/20)


Okay, so you’ve got their attention with a good title. What about the headings and subheadings that sit below it? These are the things that can make your reader’s journey easy and valuable. They can make sure they stay the distance.  
1.    Break things up into sections and give each section a heading
Even if you’re reading a book that you absolutely love, you get a little moment of elation when you turn the page to discover that the chapter ends in three lines time and the next page is blank. These open spaces make things seem less daunting. They give the reader breathing space.
So don’t fill your reader’s brains with big chunks of copy. Look to break things up into short, meaningful sections. Then make sure that each section has a heading or subheading that sets the reader up for it. It’s not a mystery novel, so you don’t have to reveal things slowly. This also gives you a handy checker – does what sits under the heading belong there or did you stray off topic? If you did, edit!
By the way, when you’re breaking things up, avoid the trap of making an article just a series of individual sentences, each one purporting to be a paragraph. Lots of online professional publications do this and it can make your argument clunky and difficult to follow. 
2.    Use repeated language patterns to create unity
When things follow a pattern, they seem logical and reassuring. So if you have a series of headings and subheadings, try and make them follow the same pattern and structure. If your first heading is ‘why we grow grapes’, a second heading that says ‘how we grow grapes’ is more effective than one that says ‘There are different ways to grow grapes’. 
3.    Make the headings tell the story on their own
When we’re writing a letter that’s explaining something important to investors, scheme members or patients, we make sure that, even if they just read the headings, they still learn something. Headings are the spine of the whole document. 
  • You told us you want to retire on 5th June
  • To make sure we start paying your pension on time, please fill in this form
  • Send your form to us by 5th May
  • Call us on 01234 567890 if you have any questions

Using these sort of headings, can also help you order your thoughts and make sure you’re sticking to the point – the heading is about the date they want to retire, so this isn’t the time to talk about the deadline for sending in the form.
4.    Don’t swap clarity for clever
Puns, jokes and intriguing metaphors are great. They can make a reader like you. But if you’re explaining something that the reader may be unfamiliar with, headings need to help them find their way, move forward and even come back to something later. 
Of course, the best tip of all is to steal! Steal techniques from magazine publishers, online media companies and advertisers. These are people whose very livelihood depends on people biting at their bait. 

Other things you might like

7 tips for keeping your team together – and remote

Video: Why designing for excluded groups makes things better for everyone.

What growing anxiety means for financial services.

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7 tips for keeping your team together – and remote https://quietroom.co.uk/2020/03/24/team-apart/ https://quietroom.co.uk/2020/03/24/team-apart/#respond Tue, 24 Mar 2020 13:24:50 +0000 https://quietroom.co.uk/?p=47425 Our Creative Director, Vincent Franklin, on how to keep your team together when they're apart

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Written by Vincent Franklin
blocks with question marks for Quietroom blog

Along with loads of other companies, we’ve transformed into a virtual office. On the surface, this move should be pretty easy for companies like us. Lots of us spend a big part of our day sitting at a keyboard, writing stuff for or to our clients. We can do that almost anywhere. I once wrote a letter for a board of trustees from a layby on the A40.

But clients need more from us than just one person’s words on a page. They need to benefit from the collective experience, knowledge and creativity of the team. And our people (with maybe one or two exceptions) are social animals. They don’t come to work just so that they can swap their toil for a pay cheque. They want to feel part of something bigger, learn from those around them, connect with other people, and have a laugh.

How do we make this happen when we no longer sit opposite each other? Here are seven things we’ve learnt.

1.    Create a new geography, where everybody remains a human being in the landscape

As we moved out of our office, everyone shared a photo of where they were now working from – the view from the window, the special place to stand a coffee cup, the guitars in the corner of the room. The mess. We all did it. As people have built up their nests, they’ve shared more photos. We created a new office geography. So, when we’re sending each other messages or giving each other a call, we know where the other people are, what they’re looking at and what kind of coffee mug they like best. No one has been reduced to an email address.

2.    Meet every morning to start the day as a team

Before we all decamped, we had a couple of team meetings each week. We’re a small team, so this, along with informal chats and meetings about work, is enough to keep us together. But now, we meet at a Google Hangout every morning at 10.00. It may only be for ten minutes, but everyone is there and we can make sure we’re all okay. Our Director of Copy chairs it, as she’s not the person who will talk all the time and make it all about her. Initially, we said it wouldn’t be a three-line whip. But now it kind of is. This is because some people, quite understandably, thought they didn’t really need this chat, were up against deadlines, and wanted to crack on. But other people do need these meetings. And they need everyone there. It’s a way of starting the day as a team.

3.    Set up an informal network for chat – but not one that invades people’s space

Tea is the fuel for lots of workplaces. But it’s not just to keep up our liquid intake. People who need to get their head out of what they’re doing for five minutes offer to make tea for others. Or they join the person who’s already making tea and lend a hand. Sometimes a couple more people join them. They might pick each other’s brains about a tricky nut they’re trying to crack or they might just chat about the latest developments on The Voice. This stuff matters. Both the five-minute break and the chit chat. We’re not work units.

We can’t make tea at the moment, but we can have teatime. We’ve set up a channel on an app called Slack that lets us to text or chat in groups of different sizes. We’ve added a new channel, called teachats. If people need a break, they start a video chat on it. Anyone who sees a chat has started, can sidle over and join in if they want. Or not. No biggie.

And when it comes to these every-day social interactions, a little and often works best.

4.    Keep going out together – even if you’re staying in

We socialise together quite a bit outside office hours. We run a Pilates session in the office on Monday evenings, we go to events, we sometimes have a drink down the pub – though we never drink to excess and we’re always home in time for Newsnight. These events help to define what it’s like to work at Quietroom. They matter.

Lots of these things can still be done with a bit of imagination and a touch of technology. Our Pilates session is going ahead tonight – via Zoom. In fact, we’re going to start doing it twice a week. My colleagues don’t know it yet, but I’ve planned a pub quiz for them next week. They’ll have to bring their own beer, wine or camomile tea – but there will be prizes! And every day at 11.00 we used to do a stretch – just to get people out of their chairs and nicely loosened up. We still do it, only now it’s at a Google Hangout.

5.    Make it easy to ask for help

When we’re just across the desk from each other, we quickly spot the person that’s under some pressure. So, it’s easy to offer help, check they’re okay, shift the load. That’s not so easy when you’re all in different counties. We already had a ‘help me’ channel on Slack, where people could ask for someone with the time to give them a hand – but now it’s doubly important we encourage people to use it.

6.    Manage projects closely, set short term goals and keep checking in

We have a fantastic team who run our projects. Now, more than ever, we need to let them run things. So, just because you’re working on your own in your shed, don’t go rogue. Make sure there’s a plan and that you’re checking in regularly with the people who helped you put it together. And project managers – don’t set people a massive task and then leave them for a day or two to sort it out. Regular check-ins and short term goals that you can achieve and celebrate are much more conducive to everyone’s mental health and productivity. 

7.    Give people time to adjust

These are worrying times. People are understandably distracted from the day-to-day business of work by the extraordinary things going on around them. When our lives are in flux it’s difficult to settle down to work. So we need to do all we can to give people time and reduce the pressure that deadlines put them under. 

Other things you might like

Why ‘default’ is a faulty word.

Video: Why designing for excluded groups makes things better for everyone.

What growing anxiety means for financial services.

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How better words can un-break trust in financial services https://quietroom.co.uk/2020/02/11/build-trust/ https://quietroom.co.uk/2020/02/11/build-trust/#respond Tue, 11 Feb 2020 14:25:49 +0000 https://quietroom.co.uk/?p=47417 Our Lead writer, Simon, on how using better words will help build trust in financial services.

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Written by Simon Grover
Broken pencil blog image - red

For people to trust you they need to like you and think you’re competent. Here’s why the financial services industry is missing both marks, and how we can do better.

A depressing number of corporate brand guidelines include ‘trusted’ or ‘trustworthy’ as one of their ‘values’. It’s depressing because it tells you nothing about how the company differs from its competitors or what the company is like to deal with. But it’s also depressing because it suggests that the company doesn’t understand that trust is something you get from others. You can’t decide to ‘be trusted’. Trust, as we all know but often seem to ignore, is earned.

Why people trust other people

 How do you earn it? Well someone will trust you if they think you’re competent and if they like you. So they need some evidence that suggests you’re good at what you do. And they need to feel a personal connection – that you seem to be part of their world, a bit like them, someone they’d be happy to spend time with.

Someone once told me they decided what to do with their pension by asking the guy who runs their local chippy. He makes cracking fish and chips. He’s a lovely, ordinary bloke. And he gives you ketchup sachets for free. Competence + likeability. So people trust him and what he has to say.

When people are getting financial advice from a chip shop, we can begin to see where we in the financial services industry are going wrong. The communications our audiences receive about us give them little reason to like us or think we’re any good at what we do. And we always charge extra for ketchup sachets.

Why people don’t trust us

Why don’t people think we’re any good at what we do? Because they have no tangible evidence that we are. We don’t drive a bus or teach kids or mend shoes or grow apples. Something other people can witness or get a sense of. What we do is invisible and unimaginable. Unless people think of us all as aggressive stock market traders. Let’s hope not. Most people’s ‘evidence’ for what we get up to is the personal wealth some of us parade (despite our promise to make customers better off) and the constant media tales of bad service and scandal.

And why don’t people like us? Because we give them no reason to. We’re like a party bore, spouting incessantly about ourselves and our processes and our products, instead of having a proper conversation in which we take a genuine interest in the person we’re talking to. We have invented a sprawling, complex language in order to sound clever and important. If we ran a chippy we’d offer ‘elongated starch-based comestibles’. People don’t like that. They like to hear words that they would use themselves. They like people who seem to be their equal, not superior. And they like language that sounds like it comes from a fellow human, not a faceless corporate monster run by cyborgs.

How to show we’re good at what we do

Of course, our industry does do a lot of good. We help people have more comfortable lives after work. We help them save for special occasions. We protect them from life’s unexpected shocks. We make possible pretty much everything you see when you look out of your window. What we’re not good at is bringing that to life, telling those stories.

There’s a great opportunity to talk about how financial services connect to real things around us. Pensions and investment people are just starting to do that, talking about the great things that your money is doing while it’s growing. Let’s tell stories of people winning at life thanks to us – the happy pensioner, the insured accident victim, the thriving business. Advertisers tell these stories for individual banks and insurers, but we could do it much more as an industry.

As well as telling good stories about the people we help, we could tell good stories about ourselves too. I always encourage pension trustees to put photos and little articles about themselves in their newsletters, so members get a sense of who they are. Again, advertisers know about this, always showing us smiling bank cashiers and sympathetic loss adjusters wading through someone’s flooded living room. Anything to balance the narrative of Lotus-driving louts.

How to show we’re likeable

To build trust, we need to stop talking like we are, and talk like, well, a normal person. If you transcribe the words of an average person talking you’ll see a very different language from ours. You’ll see short sentences, each expressing one idea, rather than the endless commas, brackets and caveats that our industry uses. You’ll see lots of verbs, like ‘walk’ where we would probably use a ridiculous noun like ‘perambulation’. You’ll see short, meaningful words like ‘help’ instead of the soulless corporate standard ‘assistance’. You’ll see Anglo Saxon instead of French or Latin. And you’ll see lots of ‘I’ and ‘we’ and ‘my’ and ‘our’ instead of talking in the third person like the writer of this sentence is doing here.

It’s not difficult to communicate like this – we all do it every day when we’re not at work. But it can be hard to break the habit of corporate comms, and to convince senior people that it’s the way to win people’s trust. There’s lots of science to back up that it works. But it’s also just common sense. People will like you more if you stop talking like a robot and start talking like a person.

Channel the chippie

Transparency, as usual, is the answer. Let’s stop hiding behind walls, behaving like we’re separate from and superior to our audience. Let’s stop putting obscure and arcane language between us and them. And let’s take the mask off and be ourselves, like we’re chatting in a fish and chip shop.

Other things you might like

Why ‘default’ is a faulty word.

Video: Why designing for excluded groups makes things better for everyone.

What growing anxiety means for financial services.

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Opening up about mental health at work https://quietroom.co.uk/2019/11/20/mental-health-at-work/ https://quietroom.co.uk/2019/11/20/mental-health-at-work/#respond Wed, 20 Nov 2019 15:20:19 +0000 https://quietroom.co.uk/?p=47371 Quietroom’s Strategy Director Rhys took some time off this year to deal with mental health problems. Here’s his story, and five things workplaces should keep in mind when it comes to mental health.

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Written by Rhys Williams

I sat on a panel this week at the Women in Protection conference, a brilliant event from a brilliant group that’s all about making protection insurance more open and inclusive. The idea for the panel started off as a joke – a token panel of men talking about ‘softer issues’ at a female-dominated conference. But it turned into something really powerful.

On the panel with me were Adam Saville, editor of Cover Magazine, and David Smith, Chief Innovation Officer at Uinsure. Adam was incredibly honest about how bereavement and burnout led him to stop drinking. David told the room how he’d been diagnosed with testicular cancer 15 years ago. The illness was almost the easy part, he said. What he struggled with was the fear.

I spoke about my own mental health problems. Earlier this year, I took some time off. It was the last week in February. I’d been working round the clock since Christmas. That Monday, I looked ahead to the week and knew that I did not have it in me to get through it.

I thought I had a work problem: too much of it. I thought I had a sleep problem: too little of it. I thought I had a medication problem: the wrong dose. I tried to address each of these things in turn. Time off. Less stressful work. Herbal sleep remedies, washed down with warm milk. Double the dose of antidepressants.

It all helped. But nothing helped as much as opening up about why I’m like this in the first place.

I wrote a blog on the subject which you can read here. But to boil my entire childhood into a paragraph, I had an extremely difficult upbringing. A lot of very bad stuff went down. You may have heard the term Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs. There are ten, ranging from verbal, physical and emotional abuse to parental drug and alcohol addiction. Half the population have experienced at least one. One in seven will have lived through four or more. I’ve lived through seven. With every extra point on your score, the risk of long-term effects increases. If you score more than five, you’re more likely to be a high-risk drinker, a smoker, to use crack cocaine or heroin, to have been violent or to have been a victim of violence yourself. You’re more likely to suffer from chronic illness, to develop type 2 diabetes, to have a heart attack and to get cancer.

On the face of it, I’m doing pretty well. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I only do crack at Christmas. But the truth is, I’m not OK and I never have been. The things I’ve struggled with this year are the things I’ve always struggled with. 

Why did I have a work problem? Because I put myself forward for too many things and overestimated what I could do. Why do I do that? Because when I was a kid, I held our family together. You end up feeling like you’re responsible for everything. That endures even when you’re not. 

Why did I have a sleep problem? Because I lay awake at night worrying about everything. Why did I worry? Because that’s been my default position since I was 12.  

Why did I have a medication problem? Because I was always going to. If your ACEs score is more than five, then you are 100% likely to be on antidepressants. Literally everyone in the study was.

This doesn’t mean my fate is sealed, of course. Even with the background I’ve had, I’m just as able to change, learn and grow as anyone is. But the things that happened to me still happened, and the effect they had on me isn’t going away. Acknowledging that has led me to take some really positive steps this year. They might not be right for you, but they’ve worked for me.

I’ve opened up. That’s been the biggest thing. I told my kids, I told people at work, I wrote a blog, I supported a campaign to raise awareness of ACEs and the effect they have, and I sat on a stage on Tuesday and told a couple of hundred strangers the whole lot.

I’ve started being kinder to myself. That doesn’t mean mini breaks and baths by candlelight (I mean, it totally does). It mainly means treating myself like someone I love and respect, and allowing myself to get it wrong now and then. Life’s not Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. One wrong answer doesn’t mean you lose everything.

The other thing I’m trying to do is make this a positive. I said on the panel on Tuesday that most of the peaks in my life have followed troughs like the one I’ve just been through. This one will be no different. It’s not a breakdown, it’s a breakthrough. I’m using it to make myself better, to help people in predicaments like mine, and to spread the word about how we can all deal better with mental health at work.

On that note, here are a few things I would love to see workplaces keep in mind to help people like me.

1. Remember that everyone is dealing with something you can’t see

It doesn’t have to be heavy childhood trauma. It could be two days worth of dishes. But everyone has got stuff going on you don’t know about, without exception. So next time someone at work behaves in a way you find challenging, take a moment before you judge them or criticise them. Ask yourself: is this an opportunity to listen, to help, to be kind? (Trick question: it is.)

2. Remember everyone’s problems are real

On Tuesday’s panel, David Smith said he had felt lucky that his problem was ‘smaller than mine’. He had life-threatening cancer of the balls! Neil Armstrong admitted at a reception for the greatest achievers of the 20th Century that he felt like he didn’t belong there. He walked on the actual moon. So what if you’re scared of big forks (like me) or level crossings (also me) or you cross the road at the same place every day on your way to work (you guessed it). It’s not a competition. Your stuff is important.

3. Foster a culture where being open about your feelings is normal

Not everyone will want to open up in the way I have. But everyone should feel they can. If you run a company, or lead a team, then make a public commitment to listen to anyone who wants to talk. More than that, talk yourself if you can, especially if you’re someone others look up to. It’ll help you, and it’ll give others the cue that they’re OK to speak up too without being judged.

4. Have a plan for being well at work

You probably have a plan for what you’d do if the server went down. But what if the people need turning off and on again? If you haven’t yet, make a plan now to resolve mental health crises – before you need it. Better still, make one for avoiding them. Every workplace, every culture, every environment puts stress on the people in it. That’s a fact of life and we can’t change it. But we can change the degree of stress we put on people. We can review where stress comes from and whether anyone’s bearing more of it than they can manage. It’s actually our legal duty as employers. So do a risk assessment, just like you would if your employees were lifting breeze blocks or climbing skyscrapers all day.

5. Help your people get it right

Dealing with this stuff is hard and people are often in a quandary about how to handle things. It’s a skill, so we should train and coach it like we train and coach other essential skills. My next-door-desk-neighbour at Quietroom, Caroline, has just done a Mental Health First Aid course. She’s going to share what she’s learned with everyone else. We want to be better at being there for each other. This is a great step towards that.

One last thing: on Tuesday, I told a couple of hundred people some stuff about my childhood that only a handful of people knew before this week. I was surprised by how few people came up to me afterwards. I get a bigger response when I talk about commas and full stops. I wasn’t upset. I thought I must have said too much, freaked people out, misjudged the tone of the day. But then I got home and found an inbox full of LinkedIn messages of people telling me I was brave, offering support and telling me about their own struggles. I’m still getting new messages every day. When people stay silent, it doesn’t mean they don’t care. They just might be finding it hard to speak up. You almost certainly have more sources of support than you think you do.

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Are you getting your comms ready for the future? https://quietroom.co.uk/2019/10/15/future-comms/ https://quietroom.co.uk/2019/10/15/future-comms/#respond Tue, 15 Oct 2019 13:41:16 +0000 http://dev.quietroom.net/?p=47323 From interactivity to AI, here are four things we’re thinking about as a business, to help us get ready for the world that’s coming. s should consider taking bolder responsible investment steps.

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Written by Rhys Williams
Smashed crystal ball image illustrating a blog on educating the finance industry.

Great communication is a moving target. Aim for where it is now and you’ll miss the mark.

The first email was sent in the 60s.

The first commercially available mobile phone was released in 1983.

The first smartphone came out in 1994.

The first video was uploaded to YouTube on 23 April 2005, before my children, its biggest fans, were even born.

So, if our conversations about the future of communication are to do with going digital, going mobile, optimising for smartphones, or producing video for YouTube, isn’t there a risk that we’re preparing for a past that’s long gone, rather than getting ready for a future yet to come?

Here are four things we’re thinking about as a business, to help us get ready for the world that’s coming.

1. Communication beyond the click

Once we put pen to paper. Then we put hand to mouse. Before too long, it was finger to screen. But within the next few years, even that will begin to feel too slow. We’ll be using our voices, our eyes and maybe even just our minds to interact with the world around us.

Take healthcare as an example. Amazon won a patent in 2018 that can identify your physical and emotional state. If it hears you coughing, it will prescribe you cough drops. Consider that Amazon have also acquired Pill Pack and you get where this is going. Then there’s therapist service The Difference, which allows users to connect with a therapist through Alexa, with no appointment necessary. While you’re waiting for your therapist to arrive, it’ll play you a guided meditation. Eventually, the smart device might become the primary way you interact with everyone, your first port of call for getting stuff done. Microsoft’s Cortana assistant can already diagnose with greater accuracy than a human GP, based on symptoms alone. But it can also call the ambulance, brief the doctor, and book your bed, meaning the humans have more time to look after you.

Where do we go after that? Well, this time last year, researchers at the University of Minnesota announced they had prototyped a 3D-printed light receptive array – or bionic eye, if you will. It converts light to electricity and they hope over time it could restore sight to people who are blind. Then there’s the Teslasuit, a full body haptic suit that uses electro-stimulation to provide users with physical sensation, in a piece of news welcomed by deviants across the globe. In a live demo recently, they got one Wasps rugby player to tackle another from 100 miles away. In July this year, Elon Musk’s startup Neuralink announced plans to implant the first brain-computer chip in a human by the end of next year. At first, they want to understand and treat brain disorders. But ultimately, they want to enhance human brains.

Put all this together and you can see the direction of travel. We all want to spend less time and effort getting the things we need. As communicators, we have to be looking for every possible opportunity to reduce friction and effort, and to increase connection. Technology is just there to help us do it at speed and scale, for a lower cost.

2. Interactive narrative

Charlie Brooker’s Bandersnatch won two Emmys last month, one for Outstanding Television Movie and one for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media. It also won an award for Best Game Writing. So what was it, story or game?

It was both: an interactive story where viewers made choices on behalf of the main character, who himself was adapting a choose-your-own-adventure book into a video game. It was made possible by a bespoke program called Branch Manager. Branch Manager maps out all of the possible paths through the tale via a system of flowcharts, and also keeps track of viewer choices. It’s now available to anyone who wants to create interactive narratives on Netflix. And like everything else on Netflix, it generates an extremely valuable stash of data and insight on what people like and how they behave – so much so that in February, a researcher asked Netflix for the data they stored on him under GDPR. Another team of researchers concluded that Netflix would be able to tell what food and music people liked, but also more sensitive information like viewers’ affinity to violence or their political preferences.

Why is this interesting to us as communicators? Because the same techniques Brooker and Netflix used to grab viewers’ attention, involve them in the story, guide them through a complex network of choices, and glean insight from them are just as useful to us when we’re trying to do the same. In the areas we work in – from pensions to long-term insurance to healthcare – we’re always struggling to encourage people to project themselves into a future they’d rather not think about. But now imagine a story that allowed us to experience now some of the difficult choices we might be faced with later in our lives. We could make financial choices, or lifestyle choices, on behalf of a character. Or, with ‘deep fake’ style visual trickery, we could see ourselves on the screen instead. Make the choice, experience the consequences, simulate the future, then return to the present to live it for real. We think there’s loads of potential here – not just to engage people, but to discover more about how they think, how they make decisions and how they learn.

3. Colossal data

It’s like big data, only bigger. With 500 billion devices predicted to be connected to the internet by 2030, each one collecting information which can be aggregated and analysed, we are going to know an awful lot about ourselves and companies are going to know an awful lot about us.

Already, there are smart bottle tops on the market that prompt you to hydrate, track how much you drink, and reorder water for you when you run out. There are tablets that tell your doctor when you’ve taken them and contact lenses that tell your health insurer how well you’re managing your diabetes based on the blood sugar in your tears. There are smart beds that cool you down if you’re too hot at night or boil the kettle for you when you start to stir in the morning. Connect everything up, and you can learn a lot about yourself. Would you like to know how long you spend in meetings, how much of that time you actually spend reading your emails, and what happens to your blood pressure? It’s all possible.

Data like this is engrossing to us. It promises to tell us things we know about our own lives. But it’s also engrossing to the organisations we deal with. They use it – to find out about us, to understand what we need, and to give us more of what we like. We might feel a little queasy about how much they know about us, but we get over that quickly when we experience the benefits it unlocks. Better health. A better night’s sleep. A nicer start to the day. Insight into things that make us happier. More prosaically, it unlocks messages and recommendations that are unique to us. It makes mass personalisation possible – not just communication that’s tailored (though that’s a big step forward), but also exercise regimes that are based on our DNA, personalised supplements based on the micronutrients missing from our blood, personalised beauty products based on the health of our skin.

What are the implications for us as communicators? Well, we need to look at the data we’ve got and make better use of it. And we need to collect any data we might be missing. It doesn’t have to be hard numbers. It’s also useful to know how people feel about their interactions with us (the equivalent of the smiley faces next to airport queues, or thumb emojis under Facebook posts).

4. AI = IA

The rise of the machines has prompted a fair amount of alarm amongst people of working age. How will our jobs change? Will they even exist? While the received wisdom is that creativity, imagination, empathy and emotional intelligence will be the hardest skills for computers to master, there are parts of Quietroom’s work that we can see changing already. But we prefer to see it as an opportunity rather than a threat. Everything the algorithms do for us is something we don’t have to do for ourselves. In the time we save, we’ll do things that make us happier and add more value for our clients.

Again, there are lots of opportunities.

Algorithms can change the way we read. IBM Watson can analyse tone and personality, for example. It’s not a substitute for the sort of close reading we do, but it can help us generate some hypotheses or validate some assumptions. It can read and analyse more text than we could ever manage and do it all in the time it takes us to make a cup of tea (we have a very slow kettle).

They can change the way we write. In May 2019, Microsoft announced a new feature for Word that suggests more inclusive terms when writing. Besides analysing spelling and grammar, the feature gives you suggestions for more inclusive language you might use – such as “police officer” instead of “policeman”. There’s a Gmail plug in which will make your emails more assertive (by removing ‘unnecessary words like sorry’, it claims – proof that not all innovations qualify as improvements).

They can change the way we interact. Research shows that people are happier asking a bot basic questions, because they know it won’t judge them. We can see a future for Quietroom where we’re putting brilliant explanations of complicated things into the mouths of virtual assistants and chatbots more than websites and emails.

And they can change how we build our understanding of the people we’re here to serve. We’re piloting a linguistic model, along with the brilliant Digital Forensics and Data Science people at insight agency Flamingo. The model reads social media posts from consumers about the subjects we’re interested in. Using machine learning, we’re clustering the words people use when they talk about money, for example, and looking for patterns in the data that we can visualise, from the way the conversation changes over times to which words are more likely to appear together. It’s a new way to understand what matters to the audience we care about. It helps us understand what their thought processes are, how they feel about the sectors we work in, and how they feel about the clients we work with. I have never been a fan of reading the bottom half of the internet. Now I don’t have to, because the algorithm does it for me.

That’s how we see artificial intelligence changing our work. It won’t replace us, it will teach us to be better. By picking up some labour-intensive parts of our work for us, it will free up time for us to do things that make us happier and our clients more successful. Not so much AI, as IA: an Intelligent Assistant.

We need to stop trying to catch up with the past. It’s moving too quickly for us. Instead, let’s look forward and leap ahead. Our audience will expect nothing else.

Other things you might like

Why ‘default’ is a faulty word.

Video: Why designing for excluded groups makes things better for everyone.

What growing anxiety means for financial services.

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