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Communicating Foresight

Group Announcement Communication Campaign SoapboxA request on the World Future Studies Federation listserv by foresighter Jim Breaux about crafting messages on 'what is foresight' got me thinking about the audience for those messages. One of the complaints in the foresight field is that explaining foresight to the public is tough, and journalists often misappropriate the term, making fun of futurists and blaming them for all sorts of things.

I believe that until futurists stop making predictions, we might just deserve what we get, but that's another story.

There's a lot of reasons people don't know about futures/foresight and even more importantly, probably don't care. The most obvious one is that the future is not real in the sense that we can experience it:

- the future hasn't happened yet - there are no facts, no data about the future - we are being urged to live in the present - we are too busy today to think about the future - even, it won't be my future so I don't care about it

and the list goes on.

People in organisations today are buried in restructures, change management programs and busyness. So a response that you often hear is along the lines of: Thinking about the future - bah! I don't have the time! And fair enough really.

But all that activity - restructures, change - is to ensure the organisation survives into the future isn't it? If you want to understand how to position your organisation for the future, don't you need to explore the future first, rather than rely on the past and the present to inform your strategic decisions? We know the future will be very different to today, yet most change programs tweak what we have today rather than design new ways of working for the future. And we wonder why nothing really changes.

The point of all this is that when you are trying to explain the value of  foresight to someone who doesn't know what it is, there is no one message that works in all situations. What you say to a client who is doing foresight in their organisation will probably be different to someone you meet in a social setting. And what you say to a person deep in a change management program will be different to someone who wants to use foresight to shape that program before it begins. The reality is more harm than good can be done by trying to convince an audience about the value of foresight when they couldn't care less and just want to get on with what they are doing today.

It doesn't help that there is no universal understanding about what foresight is, its value and how it fits into our ways of working, thinking and living today. If someone you have asked 'what do you do?' responds with 'I'm a brain surgeon', there is some form of implicit understanding there - doctor, operates, brain, wow! 'I'm a futurist' is likely to bring the immediate response 'where's your crystal ball?' and a loud guffaw. At best, you'll get someone who says 'tell me more', at worse you'll get what I called glazed eye syndrome - otherwise known as 'there is no point saying anything more'. Until there is an accepted and tacit public understanding of what foresight is all about, why its valuable in organisations, and what professional futurists do, it will always be necessary to craft foresight messages very carefully.

Understanding where your audience is in terms of their foresight maturity is necessary - before you launch into the full story about the value of foresight and why our organisations and our world need this thinking capacity urgently. In other words, on a macro level, creating that universal understanding of foresight is always essential but at the micro level, not always useful.

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Thoughts? Or a conversation?

what do you thinkI have been noticing a trend recently that seems a little odd to me. Let me know if you agree or if you think I'm getting a little odd myself! Some people are adding 'thoughts?' to the end of a social media post with a link or a few comments about an issue. Usually we don't know the point of view of the person making the post, or why they are asking for our input, so the command-like 'thoughts?' at the end of the post seems a little out of place to me.

I'm pretty sure the person is usually trying to trigger a conversation. I've seen this on social media mostly, where there's often scope for that conversation to take place. But I see 'thoughts?' and think 'well, what do you think about x?' or' why do you want my thoughts?' or 'what are you trying to do here?' or even 'why are you bothering?'.  And sometimes, the topic is so trivial, I just ignore it. In other cases though, the topic is more substantial and worthy of a conversation. I like good, meaty conversations that have a purpose.

This sort of approach is used more formally in futures workshop - the context is change that participants are dealing with or need to understand better, they are asked what is your reaction to it, or what are your potential responses? Have a conversation. And when someone invariably says 'what do you think?', the response is always 'my view doesn't matter - you are living with this change, not me'. The intent: no shortcuts here, you have to think about and shape your future, not me.

While the intent is the same with 'thoughts?' - get people to think and have a conversation - the context is very different. People in workshops are there for a purpose, they know they will have to think and expect to be pushed. People on social media or a forum have a choice - they don't have to join the conversation. So if you want them to join your conversation you need to invite them not command them.

The issue here I think is mostly time, and perhaps the medium. The person writing the post is using a shorthand - here's a topic and 'thoughts?'. There's no compulsion to respond, so it comes down to whether the person (i) thinks the topic is interesting and (ii) do I have time to think about this?

If the topic is trivial, responses will come easy because it takes little time and it's a bit of fun. If it's more substantial then without the context from the poster, it's more difficult to frame a response. I've seen responses to 'thoughts?' that range from serious to annoyed to nasty. And the latter two responses do little for the reputation of the poster and it shuts down the conversation that could have been into something useless.

Maybe it's social media that promotes brevity at the expense of context. Shortcuts have a place on these platforms maybe because of that. Blogs are certainly better for context setting than social media but not everyone has a blog or the time to write blog posts. So maybe 'thoughts?' is okay, but for me it just seems too abrupt if you want a conversation.

Here's my thinking. If you have an issue you want to discuss online then say that, avoid using shorthand:

  • this is something I think is important/find interesting/know little about,
  • here's why, and
  • I'd value your views.

You can do this on social media, even Twitter if you edit well.

For me, this is an invitation that I'd consider seriously, not a command which makes me wonder what's going on. Context matters if you are serious about garnering other people's thoughts.

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