Mathew Lowry

I recently had a great live Hangout with Ezri Carlebach and Charlelie Jourdan to discuss visual communications, taking risks and creating energy in conferences.

[update, 21 October: skip down to ‘Risks and Rewards’ to find out more about how the ESA’s Head of Communications managed to pull off the ‘Ambition’ campaign].

In the leadup to the EuroPCom conference, communications consultant Ezri Carlebach introduced himself to the Public Sector Communications Group (from which this is reposted – see disclaimer, below) thusly:

“I’m hosting a ‘Rápido’ session at Europcom on behalf of the European Training Foundation. It’s a format I devised, inspired by Pecha Kucha … presenters have 5 minutes and are encouraged to use images (as opposed to the dreaded bullet points…) and tell a story”

That caught my eye, and I wasn’t alone – Charlelie Jourdan, co-founder and Creative Director of Old-Continent and moderator of a EuroPCom workshop on visual communications, connected with us both via the Group’s Forums, and we decided to catch up online.

Rather than just another Skypechat, however, I managed to convince them to use a Hangout-on-Air, creating the video, below. The main points follow it.

But don’t hit Play if you’re expecting a polished video. This is simply three guys having a chat about a common topic of interest – something that would normally be hidden from view, but which I thought might be more interesting to open up because I’m exploring new ways:

So here in no particular order are some of the main points I took from the chat:

So what’s Rápido?

Rápido’s overriding goal is to create “conference energy”.

First introduced by Ezri into a 2013 IABC conference to liven things up, Rápido is essentially Pecha Kucha, with a few tweaks: all presentations are on the same theme (at EuroPCom: “What makes me feel European“); each is trimmed to a 5 minute story; and the whole thing is curated beforehand.

While each presentation could theoretically be image-free, Ezri works with each presenter on the quality of their images and to get them into the best running order.

“It’s an opportunity for a five minute story – the best way to keep the audience interested – so the presenters need to think about how the visuals can support that story.”

For Charlelie, this approach puts the audience where it needs to be – at the centre of the workshop:

“You’re telling your speakers that their presentations are important, but it’s more important that the public is energised, and that they are the focus. The speaker is there to make a conversation happen.

Which reflects Ezri’s stipulation that Rapido speakers must not be speaking at any other conference workshop:

“Let’s get a bunch of people who aren’t on the Speaker list and let them have their say. I have a really eclectic bunch of speakers; the idea is that each story has its own trajectory, but you put them all together and something extra emerges.”

But where is the conversation, I asked Ezri, if the session is composed of a series of rapid-fire presentations?

“The idea is that the speed of the presentations and the combination of different presenters will spark a lot of conversations, but they’ll take place in the coffee break after the session, over lunch, or online. There’s no traditional Q&A.”

Given that Rapido sessions are there to energise the audience, I wondered, wouldn’t it more beneficial at the beginning? This led to us riffing through a bunch of ideas:

  • an online competition before the event allows delegates to pitch their Rapido contribution, with the winners kicking off the conference
  • ‘pop up Rapidos’ during coffee sessions and/or in corridors
  • Rapido sessions kicking off every morning and afternoon to keep everyone up to date with the sessions they missed

The last idea sounded good until I realised that any images grabbed from your typical conference session would be deadly dull, so Charlelie suggested providing, on site:

“a good image database, an image curator and a professional graphic artist to help them compose their show quickly.”

For me, this is probably a far better way of bringing an event to an online audience than simply webstreaming it:

“You need somebody there to capture the essence of the event, transmute it into something visual and then send that out, with a call to action to the full slideshare and other information”

An Ambition for visual comm: more What, less How

Meanwhile, Charlelie’s session emerged from one of the biggest problems his company has (as do others) in the way clients commission work:

“Most of our clients come with solutions and ask us to produce them. But most successful campaigns start with the client coming with a problem, and asking creatives to find a solution.”

This led to a series of training workshops for their clients, to one of which they invited the European Space Agency’s Professor Mark McCaughrean to explain how he created the ‘Ambition’ campaign for the Philae comet-landing.

Let’s start with the teaser:

When that was premiered at the London science fiction festival, noone knew it had anything to do with the European Space Agency – people simply got excited by the appearance of Littlefinger from Game of Thrones in a science fiction film.

It wasn’t a feature, but a quite superb 7-minute film – enjoy:

Now that, my friends, is visual communications or – as McCaughrean put it:

“a seven-minute trailer to a 20 year mission.”

Embrace Complexity or Keep it Simple?

But was it worthwhile? As Ezri pointed out.

“you have to be careful that it’s not just a flash in the pan that doesn’t really change things. The world is becoming more complex”

Creating an arresting visual without hiding the complexity behind it is a real challenge. This is seen also in science communications, which has a lot of parallels with communicating EUrope (see Of technocrats, journalistic balance and telling EU stories). There’s probably no adjective more insulting in a scientist’s or technocrat’s lexicon than to call something simplistic, so how do you balance capturing a simple image with capturing nuance?

For Charlelie, first you need a communication strategy which segments your audience:

“You can’t communicate the same sort of idea and the same level of complexity to everyone. You need different vehicles for different messages.”

Segmenting the audience allows you to address the right tool, image and channel for each audience. This is then framed within a pipeline which takes audiences on a journey.

[For example, the ‘Inverted Pyramid’ segmentation developed in 2002 for DG INFSO segmented the audience by their level of interest and knowledge in the areas touched by the Information Society. Within that strategy, a multilingual, cross-EC thematic portal specifically addressed the ‘interested general public‘: explaining EU Added Value in an area they were interested in (e.g., eHealth) in non-technical, non-condescending terms; and then deep-linking them onwards to more specialised and less multilingual sites by INFSO’s various Units, other DGs, EP committee(s) and more.]

So an image does not have to be a jack-of-all-trades – as Charlelie put it:

“An image is there to provide a context for the idea – it carries a surrounding meaning and gives a perspective about something but can’t explain every detail. It’s there to help the speaker propagate his universe.”

Storytelling the Hero’s Journey

So what, I asked, was the call to action that took a casual viewer of Ambition through that pipeline, so that that they become progressively more interested in the science and the ESA?

The key is in using timing to create suspense:

“The movie was launched before they woke up the robot which had landed on the comet. So nobody knew if the robot, after a 7 year trip through space, is going to wake up or not.”

This is classic storytelling, straight out of Conrad’s Hero’s Journey – the campaign draws the audience into the story with a simple, burning question: is the Hero dead, or will it return to life after its journey through darkness?

Crucially, this interested the media, always on the lookout for a good story.

Risks and Rewards

Of course, those told by their hierarchy to interest the general public in the latest consultation on radio frequency allocation will rightly retort that space exploration is inherently more interesting and visual. And few of us could imagine deploying Ambition-level budgets.

But consider this. If you were to commission an agency to promote the Philae mission, would you have imagined Ambition? Or would you have created something worthy, but dull?

And if you had come up with that idea, would your organisation have taken the plunge and forked out the cash for a Hollywood actor and Oscar-nominated director?

How would your Institution have reacted?

Heroic journeys are not without risk. What if the robot had not woken up, and the ESA was left with their expensive film and no robot? The story angle (“it’s about having Ambition”) would have dampened the damage, but it still was a risk to commission an expensive film on an inherently risky project.

But the biggest risk was probably a simpler one: what if the video turned out to be crap? After all, most corporate videos are. Charlelie:

“They commissioned Tomek Baginski – an Oscar-nominated animator and a superb artist. When you ask the good people who are passionate about a topic you get the best results”

True – if you let them. Somebody must have been quite heroic to sell the idea into the ESA and then manage to shield it from Death by Committee.

[update, 21 Oct: I caught Marck McCaughrean at EuropCom – the above question can be answered very easily…

… although the EC comms officials watching can only dream of such conditions. I guess that’s what Ambition is all about. Also: the film’s producers, Plattige, only charged a fraction of the normal, $1million-a-minute rates.]


Creating change

Which is why I’m really looking forward to McCaughrean’s presentation, which will:

“detail the process by which he passed such an idea into an Institution like the ESA. We really think his experience can help others build similar campaigns…

So this is more about the cultural change required, something Charlelie sees as essential:

Brussels is very good at writing paper – but visuals is a much more universal language than the vocabulary we use in Brussels. But its not part of the culture of the people working here – their background is economics, political science or law… A lot of comms gets done, a lot of information is public but nobody gets interested. You can see that with each new election where abstention simply increases…

[Not quite so: turnout over the last two elections remained flat, although where many abstained in 2009 more were actively hostile in 2014; still, his point remains valid.]

In the private sector, if you’re marketing manager and you lose 30% of your audience, you don’t stay long in your position. In Brussels, even after 20 years of losing our clients, we still apply the same strategy with the same people in place. We can change that. We need to start from scratch, understand why we have a problem and learn from each others’ practices.

Which is why conferences like EuroPCom are useful, but not enough. If you’re in the communications game and you only learn from your peers once a year, you’ll always be well behind the curve.

As I’ve been arguing since before EuroPCom’s first edition, public communicators across Europe need an online community through which they can learn from each other every day – for example the pilot K-Hub Group which brought Ezri, Charlelie and myself together for this chat.

Hopefully, this will not be the last time I learn something from it.

PS Literally an hour after writing the above line, I noticed a new member of the K-Hub Group: Adrian Capon, Strategic Communications Manager at Yorkshire Housing. From his profile (fully visible only to Members – here’s why) I spotted a blog post about the return of #HousingDay, where I read:

“#HousingDay 2014 travelled at nearly the speed of a comet… produced a staggering 30,000 tweets and countless real stories, trending on Twitter all day. It peaked at number two behind #cometlanding with 6,000 contributors, reaching a potential audience of seven million people.”

#HousingDay #OurDay combined 18 November 2015, Adrian Capon

So now I know that Philae’s #cometlanding was top trending topic of the day, and am now connected to the guy responsible for #2. Could anyone find a better example of the sort of serendipity which only an online community can create?

[Disclaimer: Knowledge Hub (“K-Hub”) has engaged me for a few days to manage the “Public Sector Communications” Group, which I accepted because it’s needed and I think K-Hub rocks. My opinions remain my own.]


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