Never underestimate the power of a good number

Pick a number. If I take only one thing away from my first encounter with #Wonkcomms, that will be it.

If you want to turn a gargantuan piece of highly-important research into a talking point that will captivate the public and policy makers, then pick a number.

Richard Darlington (@RDarlo) from the Institute of Public Policy Research, speaking at Monday’s gathering at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in York, showed how important it is for think tanks and campaigners to tailor their communications if they don’t want to be drowned out.

Get your communication wrong, and your incisive study could sink without a trace. Get it right, and you can influence policy, appeal to the media and capture the public’s interest.

And numbers are vital. Richard cited an important but superficially-dry report about the need for more graduates in nursery teaching. He lobbied his colleagues for weeks to put a figure on the shortfall. When they eventually did (12,000) he was able to pitch the story to the Daily Mirror, where it was used as a page lead. Equally importantly, it meant the IPPR’s own researchers were able to give precision to their own claims if pressed.

Similarly, fellow speaker Richard Caulfield (@caulfieldr) from Voluntary Sector North West said Monday’s news story about major investment in Manchester airport was stronger for the approximate figures on the cost (£800m) and the possible jobs boost (16,000 or thereabouts).

On a simpler scale, Leonora Merry (@leonoramerry) from Social Market Foundation showed how well women’s magazines utilise the power of a figure – “8 foods that will make you thin” and such like.

Beyond the number, speakers time and again highlighted the need for thoughtful communication in an age when we are bombarded with information, data and competing calls for our attention.

Nick Scott (@nicknet) from the Overseas Development Institute quoted a study showing we each process five times as much information in a day as we did in 1986.

Use digital forms to amplify selected messages, he said – but don’t feel compelled to amplify everything you say. Shout from the rooftops every day, and you’ll end up being ignored even when you have a good story, was the underlying message.

As a daily newspaper journalist, I can vouch for that. A pitfall for organisations seeking media coverage is to over-egg the mundane and earn a reputation for desperation – like the child in class throwing their hand into the air and shouting “me, me, me” after the teacher’s every question. Far better to build close relationships with individual journalists, keep them in the loop, and then deliver when you have genuinely important studies, stories or findings.

The same, it appears from Monday’s #Wonkcomms, applies with politicians, the public and experts.

And don’t fall into the trap of using one communication tool for them all. For your peer groups, argued Richard Darlington, data-packed graphics and a considered overview of an issue will appeal. For mainstream media, a clear news angle is more important. On social media, a snappy video may be better.

There are countless under-used ways to convey a message, between the heavyweight report and a short tweet, he said, ranging from videos, to data-maps, to photo sideshows. Use any or all on a case-by-case basis. Try to appeal to both the studious detail-junkie and the passing browser, in essence. Or, as Richard said, to the equivalent of both Lisa and Bart Simpson.

Leonora focussed less on getting people talking and more on getting things done, looking at how the north could influence Westminster. Where a problem, a proposal and politics converge simultaneously, there your policy window opens. Climb through it then and you are on your way.

Just make sure you’re armed with some numbers.

Gavin Aitchison is News Editor of the Press in York

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