I’ve been reading a very interesting book, lately, about originality and how to bring original ideas to fruition, against the tidal wave of pressure against the idea, from naysayers and sceptics. The author makes a very interesting point: when you have conceived of an innovative, new, original idea, it exists in your head, fully formed and, no doubt, rehearsed and reworked many times, before it became clear to you. You carry a high fidelity representation of that idea in your imagination.
The mistake we make, as originators of those fresh ideas, is that they are obvious to other people. We unfortunately assume that, in the absence of a high fidelity model of the idea in the audience’s heads, they will conceive of it in the same rich detail we hold, from just a few words, suggestions or notions that we convey about it. We imagine the idea to be so obvious and right, that anybody with half a brain could also conceive of it, in full, from just a few nudges in the right direction. It just doesn’t happen that way.
The challenge for all original ideas is in communicating them in the same rich detail that they have in our imaginations. Getting new ideas, or your art, accepted in any widespread way, with zealous adherents, disciples and fans, absolutely requires that you communicate enough about the idea to make even those resistant to the idea clear about what you have invented in your head. It’s all about sharing your hallucination, so that others may share the same hallucination in vivid detail.
Most art and new ideas fail to ignite the imagination of the public because we, as originators and artists, fail to communicate. We under communicate – chronically. There is plenty of evidence to bear this out. How often do you discover something good, which you had never heard of before and found yourself wondering why something of this obvious quality fell on deaf ears? I discover ideas like this all the time. They’re wonderfully described, but rarely promoted. The originator did enough to conceive of and explain the idea, but not enough to propagate it. How many more brilliant ideas never make it out of the imagination of the person that thought them up?
Propagating and promulgating new ideas requires that you have a certain status with your audience. That status is all about believability and it’s not something that you can just assert; it has to be earned and granted, over time. So, the first obstacle you face, as an artist or original thinker, is that if your audience hasn’t granted you the status of believability, granting you the power to influence the community, then you will struggle to have your ideas or art accepted. In this case, under-communication isn’t your issue. It’s the willingness of the audience to believe what you communicate, no matter how much or how well you do so.
Communicating your art or your idea is notoriously hard work and may be the reason why artists and innovators so regularly under-communicate. It feels like a distraction to have to huckster for an idea you’ve already conceived of, instead of spending your time creating more great ideas. Not only does it take a lot of time, it’s expensive. It is, after all, marketing.
Organising your thoughts so that they are palatable and comprehensible to people that lack your original thinking abilities is also challenging. How to do you teach people about something so far outside of their experience, that they struggle to even conceptualise a framework of understanding for your new idea? You can’t assume they have the same background knowledge that you do. What took you a lifetime of thinking to arrive at, in reality, may be difficult to encapsulate in an elevator pitch. People regard every new thing you introduce to them as an inconsequential, trivial, toy, until the value of it is proven. The PC was originally believed to be a toy, but look how many creative outcomes have been brought into existence for the sole reason that the creator had a PC.
A case in point is music sales. Since the advent of iTunes and its ilk, it is now insanely easy to offer new music that you make for sale. What’s harder is doing enough communication to make the iTunes client base even aware of your music and then to do enough subsequent communication to convince them that they ought to buy a copy. A full one third of tracks offered on iTunes have sold precisely one copy. 94% of all available tracks sold fewer than one hundred copies. Only about a hundred tracks, of the approximately 7.5 million on offer, ever sold more than a million units. Having a hit is an exceedingly rare event. How do you communicate enough about your brand new music track to make it the 1 in 75,000 that breaks through? Those are long odds.
The answer is you have to get enough people to notice your track, in that sea of 75,000 other tracks and then convince those people that it’s worth their time, attention and money to buy a copy. In other words, you have to show them that they will want to hear it more than once.
To achieve adequate communication, you have to be skilled at written, verbal and non-verbal communication modes, because everybody absorbs new information optimally in different ways. One communication style, at the expense of the others, just leaves large parts of your potential audience behind. Yet, all the while, people will actively resist your new art or new idea. They start from a position of not wanting it at all. Turning that around into a relationship where they desire your music, your art or your new ideas is a non-trivial undertaking.
To understand why people resist new ideas, it’s worth looking at the Kübler-Ross change curve:
It turns out that people go through all of these stages, when dealing with change. There is another interesting analogue to this curve. It is the Kübler-Ross grief curve, which shows the stages we go through, when we experience a significant loss:
Interestingly, we face change in a very similar way to the loss of something we love. We resist change for similar reasons to resisting mortality. Imagine how careful, sensitive and nuanced your communication about a new idea has to be, to get people to accept it. It’s akin to telling them a loved one has died.
It’s true to say that imaginative daydreamers would much prefer to be daydreaming, rather than communicating. It’s what they do. They get lost in their own imaginations. The trouble is, if you want your idea or art to be accepted and acceptable, you have to abandon the daydreaming, for a while and get on with communicating. In the attention economy, where attention is the scarcest resource, it’s almost inevitable that you will under-communicate, because of the intense competition for attention and its value. Unfortunately, you are a scarce and finite resource, too. There is only so much time and energy available for communicating your art and ideas, especially if you want to balance this with the time and energy you need to actually make new art and have new ideas.
For communication to be maximally effective, it needs to be structured and consistent, or it can fail. Unstructured communication might be easier to do, but it’s harder to consume and that will necessitate you spending even more time on communicating. Deluging people with information is not the same as communicating your art, idea or viewpoint in an accessible, logical and somewhat obvious way. You have to take your audience on a journey. You won’t be able to get them to make the intellectual leaps required, in a single bound. I don’t care how good your idea is.
Don’t forget that all behaviour change typically takes eighteen months. Whenever you try to introduce new art or new ideas to the world, the uptake is not going to be immediate, with the best will in the world. Every new idea has a slow burn associated with it, as people struggle to accommodate the new thing in their model of the world, which they hold in their heads and live by. Even when people say they get it, they’re still going to take some considerable time to internalise it and make it a part of their everyday lives.
In 1999, I couldn’t convince the company I worked for, a leader in mobile phone operating systems, that smart phones, heavily reliant on pictures, video and music, were going to be a big thing or even a thing at all. Now, I doubt you could find a single human being, familiar with smart phone technology, that doesn’t see this as obvious and natural, but it wasn’t the case back then. Even (especially) the experts thought it was unrealistic, mad and wild speculation. Holding the view that I did was harmful to my career and prospects within that company. Such a thing, that focused mostly on selfies, tunes and snapchats, instead of business appointments and financial spreadsheets, would be just a toy. I was a heretic for pointing out what is, today, entirely obvious.
This brings me to another important point about under-communication for originators and artists. If you under-communicate in a collaboration, you run the risk of discovering divergent intentions way too late. In the case I described above, at least I unearthed a significant difference in our visions and intentions early. I was able to go and pursue other things, instead of belabouring an idea, protected fiercely by the rest of the company, which I didn’t believe in any more. For their part, the company more or less crashed and burnt. They are no longer a leader in mobile phone operating systems.
A final challenge in communicating new ideas and art is that the gap between under-communication and overexposure seems to be precariously narrow. There is a point at which you are preaching to the choir and your didacticism is seen as an annoyance, not furthering the acceptance of your idea. Don’t be an originator that misjudges an audience and bludgeons them to death with repetitive information that they have already absorbed. Know when you have already made an ally.
So, to summarise, communicating just the right amount is essential, but especially difficult. You have no choice, though. You have to do it to get your ideas and art out there. Just don’t expect it to be as easy as creating.