Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Communications in a polarized world

(A speech at the World Bank Communication Forum May 19, 2004. Extracted from Voice and Noise 2006)

Dear Friends,

I am just a hobbyist communicator, not nearly as accomplished as Jim Wolfensohn … or Jimmy as someone referred to him today. Therefore I feel more honored about this chance to speak to communication experts than Jimmy needs to be when he plays with fellow virtuoso musicians in Carnegie Hall. As an Executive Director, I should not be seen being any less intimate with the President of the World Bank.

What I then would want to use this precious one-lunch-speech-chance-only for, is to talk about a world where opinions seem to become every day more polarized, which is an issue that has worried me a lot lately, coming as I do, from a very polarized country that is a living proof of the dangers of it.

To illustrate the problem, and as we are supposed to be learning from cases, let me use as an example my very own amateurish case.
Every week I sit down to craft out an article to publish in a major Venezuelan newspaper. Believing myself to be a sensible man, prone to reasonable attitudes (though some might say that’s just trying to make up for other types of behaviors), I usually find myself on most issues in an in-between position, where I can identify a lot of pros and a lot of cons.

The true challenge for any writer, who is not into darkness, is to transmit the message in the clearest possible way. In this respect, I like to think of myself as a conservative jumper from a diving board who prefers executing the easy-graded jumps well, rather than going for the spectacular triple in-and-outs, where you could indeed score higher, but you could also completely lose your reader trying.

Therefore, after duly taking inventory of all the pros and cons, carefully turning them around and finding suitable allegories and metaphors and similes that illustrate the topic at hand, I finally come up with what I normally believe is quite an excellent script. Cautioned by experience, I then take the script to my editors. If it is in English, to the closest available qualified colleague and, if in Spanish, then even much closer, to my wife Mercedes.

These critical editors, who probably assess my script in somewhat more realistic terms than my self-assessment, at the best murmuring a “so-and-so,” then usually proceed to split up my 5-line sentences into five 1-line sentences, to be shuffled around. Their professionalism is evident since they always seem to come up with a product that means exactly what I intended to say. I never understand how they can take it to pieces and still manage to put it back together again.

I then send the embryo away and sit down and wait until early Thursday morning, I can see the newborn on the newspaper’s Web line.

Let me now describe how my readers, through their e-mails, react to my babies.

They mostly start with a direct Per Kurowski, as many believe that “Per” is my title and not my name and just as many think that Kurowski is not my name but my alias. In life, I am frequently greeted with an “Oh! Per Kurowski, I didn’t think you existed.”

Their responses classify then in the following three significantly different categories:

“I hate your yellow . . . despicable . . . how could you . . . . Have you no shame?”

“I hate your blue . . . despicable . . . how could you . . . . Have you no shame?”

“Oh, thank you for explaining it so well and in such clear terms!”

Although I obviously prefer the amicable intentions of the third group, and they do help support my ego, I am still never sure whether their praise of my explanatory power is because they managed to see the green I wanted to show them, or just because they saw an even brighter yellow or blue.

And this is the big polarization that is blocking communications and creating worldwide divides.

In 1872, the British Parliament decreed Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park of London as a place reserved for free expression, and initially it attracted all those extremists who, although qualifying as nuts, still had the right to vent their opinions. Lately, we have all witnessed how the original Speaker’s Corner speakers moved into Speaker’s Studios and now radicalism, anarchy, or fundamentalism is voiced on prime-time television. All of us others, modest low-key analyzers or rational in-betweens, have to settle gratefully for slots in after-midnight cable television, dubiously sponsored by the most traditional professional services. As rationality could soon be viewed as symptomatic of a modern nut, we might all have to line up at Speaker’s Corner.

As you understand, this polarization poses many challenges.

How on earth, in an ever more colorblind world, can we be sure the reader knows what color we talk about?

How on earth do we know that we have communicated, when clearly rating is not all nor should be an end it itself and, on the contrary, sometimes a big rating just guarantees a bigger confusion, as when everyone finds it easy to read in his preferred color.

How on earth do you communicate, when the receiver is no longer decoding the message into its yellow or blue components, but only receiving the whole message, as is, through his one and only yellow or blue pipeline? There are times I actually suspect we are going through a genetic mutation, in response to modern information overload.

And friends, this is not a problem just in communications, as color blindness can hit us anytime, anyway, and anywhere. For instance, in the World Bank, most of those who currently speak about Public-Private Partnerships do so only because they feel they have found a more politically correct way of defending a 100% private or a 100% public alternative and not because they would truly believe in PPPs, or even understand what they are.

As you can understand, this raises all types of serious issues, especially for a World Bank that wants and needs to communicate so much Knowledge with Yellows and Blues but that—for it to become the development Wisdom the world so urgently needs—must all be mixed into various degrees of Green.

So, what do we do? You tell me. You are the experts! Anyhow, armed with the blissful ignorance of an amateur, let me daringly point out some directions.

We can perhaps keep it a very simple green so that there is no way it could take a blue or a yellow meaning, though running the risk of watering down the message so much, that it is just ignored.

Or—we can complicate it so much that the receiver is blocked from any channeling of the message, as he cannot even start to understand it. Though this does not at all sound very promising, it might in fact be the route some researchers in the World Bank are exploring. Just last week, I read a document that was very cleverly obscured in academic jargon, mentioning “modeling this in a tractable way using autoregressive conditional heteroskedasticity” and including so many footnotes that a comparable reference to healthful food would most certainly have included a note: “(Mother. 1958. Published on the magnet memo board on the Fridge)

Or—keep the colors so pure that a blue channel would choke on a yellow message and vice versa. This could be a stupendous idea, but only if we were looking to be ordained as High Priests of the Purist Blue or the Purist Yellow Churches.

Or—do we need really to diversify and open two or three Web sites? One for each color extreme and one for the mix, and how do we hyperlink them?

Or—should we use ex-ante censorship, like some radio and TV channels, where you are only allowed to call in your opinions on line yellow or line blue, to help the producer avoid mixing colors? By the way, this new era of media apartheid seems already to produce its counterrevolutionaries as we can already hear an insurgent movement of color cheaters, the blues on line yellow and the yellows on line blue.

Or—set up ex-post filters with questionnaires that the receiver is obliged to answer before being allowed to leave?

Now, as long as I have you all sitting there, let me also dare some recommendations that could generally help the World Bank in reaching out to a world that does not seem to hear even our loudest fire alarms.

First, I dislike the concept of “The Knowledge Bank,” as it sounds too much like arrogant yellowist or blueist to me, and I would much rather prefer a more humble “The Search for Solutions and Answers Bank” or, even better, “The Learning Bank”: knowledge comes from learning, and the Bank—although having acquired a significant stock of cumulative knowledge over sixty years of operations—has still a lot to learn from its clients. Such an approach would stand a better chance to transform its knowledge pool into wisdom, which, at the end of the day, is what the developing and the developed world really needs.

Second, we need to start talking more with the world instead of with one another, hoping the world listens in. I myself would prohibit the use of all acronyms. I am certain that Mary Poppins would never have been able to communicate as effectively had she used an SCE instead of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, much less Shakespeare had he used a TBONTB instead of a To Be Or Not To Be. Today, I tell you after having asked around, the sad fact is that our lead product, the MDGs, has very low name recognition among the NONNGOs, the normal citizens, and this does not bode well for our future. Do we need a flashy MDG logo?

Third, whatever we do, let us not badmouth the NGOs, since they might very well be, at least for the time being, the only wall that echoes our voice and so, without them, we could find ourselves with virtually no voice at all.

Fourth, we all might benefit from better focusing. Doing and communicating about so many things, ninety and then some thematic themes, might signify, or at least leave the impression, that we are not doing anything at all—which might also be true. For instance, the way the Board is drowned in tons of communications, might be exactly the reason why, frankly, it is currently quite nullified.

Fifth, I believe that it would not hurt if we also lighten up our ways of verbal expression. It has lately become an unbearable fashion to speak in a grave voice, in a tone of solemnity, and with an accent that could come only from using the same tutor as Robert Williams used for the role of Ms. Doubtfire.

Finally, as for myself, as a true green, a radical of the middle, an extremist of the center, with perhaps poor ratings and condemned for ever to Hyde Park Corner, I will go on, doing just the best I can, searching to communicate with simple natural and organic ingredients, while following Dori’s safeguards of … just keep swimming … just keep swimming.

Thank you and, now I am ready for your answers.

NO ANSWERS … just questions, some on the issue of voice.

Q. What do you think about more voice for the developing countries?

A1. Before we worry about our voices in the Bank we should perhaps worry about the voice of the Bank. The sad fact is that were it not for a couple of NGOs, the whole world might be unaware of our existence. Hey! They even ignored our 60th Birthday. We were not able to rouse up even 60 protesters. Is that not a sign of irrelevance?

A2. I could have a big voice and still not be heard at a Knick final at Madison Square Garden, or out in the desert of Tucson. I could have a small voice, and still be heard a lot, if the acoustics are right and so, let us work on the acoustics. At this moment, with about a thousand formal board documents that come our way each year, plus about four thousand other projects, plus about a hundred seminars and brown-bag lunches, plus having to call home now and again, in fact no one at the Board has a voice … and so in the famous words of Alfred E. Neuman: “What, Me Worry?