#13 Break Through the Noise

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes — at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Imagine you’re having a conversation while waiting to cross a busy, noisy city street. There’s construction nearby, so you shout to be heard over the jackhammer. As your friend strains to hear, you raise your voice louder and louder. Suddenly, the jackhammer stops, and everyone within a 50-foot radius turns to stare as you scream at your friend.  It’s embarrassing. But as marketers, it’s what we are all trying to do — we’re trying to be heard above the hubbub.

The thirteenth design principle is super-relevant to our industry. When everyone is trying to break through the noise in the marketplace (or high-tech expo hall) we each raise our voices and the general clamor just grows in volume.  No one really cuts through. This situation, which literally happens all the time, is also an apt metaphor for the exponential growth of media outlets — cable, network and streaming television, publications, social media outlets, online programing, email and texts —bombarding us with messages every minute of the day on the myriad devices we can’t seem to put down. We are living in the nosiest time in history — constantly deluged with more information than we can possibly sort through — to the point that it’s hard to hear any single message clearly.

Bruce Mau’s Massive Change Network probed the problem of getting drowned out in this hubbub and learned something every marketer should take to heart.

“What we discovered is that when you are in the noise, and you are trying to put your message out, there’s a linear relationship between work and impact. Between the signal you put out, and the money that you spend to put it out. If you want a certain kind of impact, let’s say that you want one unit of impact in that noisy environment, then you have to do one unit of work to get that,” Bruce explains. “Whereas … when you get above the hubbub, there’s a non-linear relationship between the investment and the impact. As you get above the noise level, the impact accelerates, so that every dollar you spend above that level gets increasing impact. That is a profound difference.”

What can we do to propel our brands or our specific messages above the hubbub? Bruce notes that most of the time, we simply aren’t investing enough in any single message to make a difference. But what choice to we have? We have limited time, people and budgets, and there is so much we want to accomplish.

It feels counterintuitive, but a better approach is to start by doing fewer things, not more. It’s not hard to understand what happens with most trade shows that have a long history of success.  We have new ideas, but don’t want to fix something that isn’t broken. So, we push the same-as-last-year button and then add a bunch of great new ideas into the mix. The problem is, when we crowd our event space with too many messages, we are creating competition for our own ideas. We are adding noise without adding meaning. Bruce recommends two techniques we can use to break through the noise:  editing and alignment. Get rid of some items. Consolidate where it makes sense. Instead of setting off a bunch of fire-crackers everywhere, all at once, we need to put our resources into a single rocket ship that can punch through the noise barrier.

“We just have a lot of inertia in the industry and in these shows,” Bruce notes, “and we never subject them to a real, critical, creative process, to say, ‘is this the best use of resources?’”

I’m an advocate of relentless prioritization. If we are doing our homework as design thinkers, we should start off every opportunity session by asking “what should we stop doing this year, so that we can consolidate our investment where it really matters?” This is surprisingly easy — most of us can point to some aspect of the show or even a specific exhibit that doesn’t further our most important objectives. Imagine what could be done if we cut 75% of our messages and put all that resource behind the things that really mattered — and represented them using the latest technology paired with the most compelling, beautifully rendered graphics.

Ironically, we often hope to get the most bang for the buck by surrounding our audience with a variety of media and messages, when this is actually a waste of valuable resources. And not just our own resources. When we fail to cut through the hubbub – when we add to the hubbub – we are wasting the most precious resource of all, which is the time and mindshare of exhibitors and attendees.

The trap we can fall into is trying to parse through good ideas vs. bad ideas. The truth is, they might ALL be good ideas. But they can’t all be equal. They can’t all be as relevant to your audience and as vital to your mission.  That’s one of the things that makes design thinking and our use of the Learning Cycle so effective — it forces us to define what beautiful looks like and helps us focus our resources to get there.

Bruce sums it up this way, “If we believe in the show, and if we believe in our ideas, we should make sure the way that we do it reflects our commitment.” What brand experience are you designing next? What should stop doing now, so you can do something else better? Consolidate, thrift and align your efforts, and see what happens when you break through the noise.