“How long before we’re all using solar-powered cars,” asks Del Arani, ABC TV’s morning show presenter, of a UNSW student who’s played a role in building one. It’s a simple question intended to glean just how far the technology is from being mature, but there are a couple of logic issues at play here that underlie (or should underlie) effective communication.
Technology doesn’t mature overnight, it’s a gradual process. If you bought a Blackberry you might have kicked yourself for not waiting another year for the iPhone. If you bought a 2002 Yamaha WR426 you might have been annoyed you didn’t wait for the 2003 electric-start 450cc model. Like I was. Some people are early adopters of new things (anyone buy a 3D TV?) while others will wait for the next iteration, or the next one after than, before committing.
Our young solar-car builder can’t possibly know how long it will be before his cars – or the ones built by his own students one day – will be taken up in any great numbers. It might never happen. A change in thinking or an unexpected roadblock might see further work on these cars shelved. Hydrogen and electric vehicles might win the race. This young bloke isn’t a social change engineer; such a person would be in a better position to comment on how quickly people adopt new technology and the kinds of things that prevent them from doing so. There are so many unknowable factors at play.
* I get that this isn’t really fair – Del Arani is clearly one of the cleverest financial analysts going around at the moment and I’m a big fan. My point is that even she falls back to communication mediocrity, at least under the pressure of live TV.
The next logic issue is the failure to understand the concept of the limit (in the mathematical sense). There are still first-world city dwellers who don’t own a mobile phone, and there will always be some. Uptake of even this most useful of devices will never be 100 per cent, either through choice, availability or affordability. The same goes for alternative-energy cars. How long before we’re all using them? Not until no-one is making gas guzzlers anymore and the last functional one dies of old age. A long time indeed.
The conversation should really have been steered towards finding out how soon such a car might be ready for affordable day-to-day use, or, more pertinently, whether the construction and testing of such a vehicle is yielding any insights into solar energy technology in general. Why are they building these cars? What do they hope to achieve? Your cars are getting better, does what are the implications for solar power in industry?
False metrics are everywhere in our media. There’s a TV commercial from QBE insurance that asks,
“What's the chance of this young woman getting a great deal on car insurance? Maybe five per cent? Ten per cent? Actually it’s one-hundred per cent, because we know she’s a safe driver.”
Firstly, the advertiser is seriously asking the audience to have a stab at quantifying an answer even though a) we have no idea of who this girl is, what her skills are like, or what her claim history is, and b) we can't possibly know how QBE goes about its assessment of insurance applications. To then offer us options of “five” or “ten” per cent, only to then chastise us for being mistaken, and then saying the correct answer is one-hundred per cent, is just plain folly.
One-hundred? Based on the fact that she’s willing to install a little GPS boxy thing? What if she’s a drunk, or likes pills, or is blind in one eye? Based on a few seconds of watching this girl and her dog in a car I wouldn’t be willing to offer up a guess on the probability of her qualifying for insurance cover. I bet QBE wouldn’t be either.
A comms person would rebut my critique by telling me that I don’t understand marketing, that it’s the message that’s important – and the cute animation and the friendliness of the voiceover guy – and that the details play second fiddle and in any case won’t stand in the way of my next marketing award.
To them I say bollocks. Is that the best you can do? Ooh, shiny.
I fear that as a consumer society we’re all getting dumber, and the primary cause is declining standards in the media.
But at least 3D animation is getting better.
Serious stories about communication
told in a silly voice.
Me: Bruce Ransley
I dig a little deeper than most comms folk. From science at university, to a cold-and-wet career as a commercial diver, to working underground, and for the past 13 years as a communicator-at-large, I've had my fair share of weird experiences in all sorts of situations. It's given me a fair-to-middling grounding in all things explanatory.