Who do you prove yourself to be?

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A tradition is only a tradition if you keep on doing it.

Mars spacecraftThe “way the world works” only works that way if everyone agrees that’s the way it does. “Playing the game” is only effective if everyone agrees that’s how the game is played.

This is all self-evident but it comes with a proviso. It is unwise to keep using the same traditions, ways and games long after the context in which they operate changes in fundamental ways.

For example, an A+ in mathematics is excellent, but only if we all agree that an A+ is better than a B, C or D. Now let’s imagine that my local school board suddenly realized that being further along the alphabet should be higher and better than being at the beginning of it. They could then decide to flip the scale upside down with an A+ being the absolute worse grade you can get.

Imagine the outrage if this was to happen! Objectively speaking, it is an arbitrary scale that works equally well in either direction. It would, however, offend many people’s sense of tradition. That’s not how it has been done so why change? How can I congratulate my child on getting a D?

In this imaginary scenario there is no change in the environment or context that prompts the need to flip the scale. But what if there was?

Crashing your spacecraft

There are many reasons that the metric system of measurement is a good idea. International standards make trading between nations much easier. It is also more logical and less arbitrary than the imperial system of feet and pounds. As such, it is easier to learn and use.

“What it means is that technology does not make the communication less personal. It makes it more personal than it used to be. It is less filtered. It is instantaneous. It is interactive. It can be immediately assessed and a reaction instantly provided.”

Despite these and other benefits, there are many people, and three nations (Liberia, Myanmar and the United States) who will not accept it. Tradition is great – but only if it serves the present and the future. Tradition only for tradition sake is utterly pointless.

The real problem occurs when people continue to use traditions that no longer fit within the context in which they are used. These traditions are not only pointless, they often have detrimental effects.

The United States, a metric system hold-out, lost a Mars orbiter in 1999 because NASA’s contractor built part of the probe using metric and part using the old imperial system. Failure to adapt meant that a $125 million spacecraft was lost.

Unless it mounts an illogical and surprising comeback, imperial measurement is a thing of the past that clings to the present like barnacles on a sailboat.

The human animal

This brings us to “the way the world works.” Quite simply, it doesn’t work the same way it used to and this is primarily because of how our technology has affected the human animal. Note that it is not the technology itself that is producing the change. It is our decisions about how we accept and use that technology that affect the way we think and behave. And because we now think in different ways, the way we interact with each other has also changed.

For many of us, the idea of being disconnected from the online world produces something akin to caffeine withdrawal. This is particularly true for younger people who have never lived when we were all digitally disconnected.

This has changed how we think and how we act. For example, many of us don’t check our mailboxes with any regularity. It is not the technology that has changed this behaviour – it is the personal decision to look at digital communication as more effective and efficient than paper mail.

Those small decisions mean people think and behave differently. Communication is immediate and multilateral. And it has become very, very personal.

All communication is deeply personal

Woman looking at her reflection on many screensIn fact, all communication is by its nature personal, even intimate. One idea is moving from one brain to another – it doesn’t get more personal than that. The question is how does that idea move from one brain to another?

It used to be that ideas were shared on a small scale through face-to-face or telephone communication, or they moved through a slow and highly structured mass media path from one brain to many others. It was generally one way – from one brain (or collection of brains) to the receiver’s brain. There was little communication back to the sender. Also, there was little communication between those receiving the communication. Perhaps you would discuss it with the other people in your life but not with all or most of the others who received the information.

Ideas now move instantly from one brain to another with only a small intermediary step of typing or recording it and pressing send. On the receiver’s end, it usually only takes a tap or a click. The idea moves from brain-to-brain – and between many brains – at the speed of light.

Digital technology makes communication more personal

“Technology is not something that puts distance between you and a mass audience, it is one that exposes you, for good or for bad.”

We all know this. But many don’t fully understand what all of this means for communication in general.

What it means is that technology does not make the communication less personal. It makes it more personal than it used to be. It is less filtered. It is instantaneous. It is interactive. It can be immediately assessed and a reaction instantly provided.

It is much more personal that old mass communications methods. Technology is not something that puts distance between you and a mass audience, it is one that exposes you, for good or for bad.

You’re exposed

It is not what you say you are, it is what you prove yourself to be in every digital interaction, every time an idea moves from you to others. You are authentic and build trust, or you are false and lose that trust.

One expression of this change in context is that young people and even older demographics really don’t like to be marketed to in the traditional ways. They do not appreciate someone barging into their networks and discussions with crass marketing messages. Rather, they will assess you based on your digital interactions, their personal experience and what they hear from countless other sources. They often pay little attention to what you say about yourself.

Many people and organizations have not fully grasped the importance of this development. Certainly, many in the public relations and marketing fields, and many more among “seasoned” senior executives, just don’t get it.

The reality is that false and misleading advertising, spin and “message control” must be replaced with authenticity and trust. Continue to use them and you will damage yourself.

There will be many who will continue to cling to the old ways. Those with vested interests will be slow to respond, such as those leaders who have risen to the top based on their success with those old ways, or marketing and PR companies that make their living off them. They may have agreed with each other that “that’s how the world works”, but the number of people who agree with that assessment is declining rapidly.

Those who cling to old school communications and marketing approaches are much, much more likely to crash their spacecraft. Even politicians and their operatives are starting to see that talking points and spin are hurting them.

There is no escape. Now it’s personal. It’s time to get real.

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