One of the characters in the British comedy series, Allo Allo used to say: “Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once”. But the problem for PR practitioners is that those we communicate with are rarely listening very carefully – so we need to look at how we say something more than once.
I’ve been thinking recently about the increased importance of repetition in communications. This is nothing new, as the classic Aristotle approach to speeches is generally known in the adage: “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them and tell them what you told them.”
But is that simply structure of a message enough? Indeed, is it possible to build such repetition into today’s succinct formats of tweets or soundbites?
In the case of micro-messages, the medium of Twitter, Facebook etc can be ephemeral and mean your words vanish as quickly as they are typed. If you weren’t listening at the precise moment the comment was made, too late – a zillion other micro-thoughts have passed by. On the other hand, retweeting and search facilities mean that such comments can have legacy and build momentum and so increase the listening potential for your message.
As with soundbites, it is the memorability and remarkability of your messages that aides repetition. Like the catchphrases from favourite comedy series, being “sticky” helps ensure ease of repetition.
I recall the Blue’s Clues example of this from Gladwell’s Tipping Point book. Again, the idea is not new – as anyone who has ever read children a favourite book will know. The success of this show is in part due to the clear narrative structure, and repetition of the same show over a week. Rather than getting bored, children respond well to repeat performances. Indeed, as those bedtime readers know, children demand that you “read it again”, even if they’ve heard it 100 times before.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible, or feasible. As educators, we generally only get one shot at delivering a lecture or seminar – so those who are not “listening very carefully” need to hit the books or otherwise they will not even notice that a topic has been covered. Even if we incorporate more engaging activities, we may find that we have to go over theoretical concepts or practical examples more than once for understanding (even more important than listening) to occur. I also learned on a speed reading course that the key to increased retention and understanding is repeated reading as fast as possible – each time with a different focus in mind. For skim readers, repetition of information is even more important.
In PR terms, I’ve found that it is necessary to repeat information several times. Indeed, including the same information in several emails and other forms of communications seems to increase response rates to invitations, surveys, participation in elections and so on. Which leads me to believe that it is true even when simply communicating information without any persuasive or behavioural intent.
In advertising, it is possible to adopt a saturation strategy. However, with today’s diversification of media and overload of other messages, even the approach of repetition is hard to really achieve (even if you can afford it). Nevertheless, the idea of surrounding someone with your message has merit. It is at the heart of an integrated marketing communications approach where all forms of communication should work cumulatively. It also means that once initial awareness of a message has occurred, then people rapidly notice the message elsewhere. We all know that sensation of never noticing something and then suddenly it seems to be all around us.
It is interesting in media relations work, the focus of PR practitioners is often on the message reaching as many people as possible, rather than reaching the right people several times. Getting coverage in every publication is the goal – and even though we can aggregate such breadth via search engine results, we are not necessarily reaching those we wish to engage more than once if they have narrow media usage (which is increasingly likely).
Another limitation within the focus of many working in PR is the campaign mentality. This takes a short-term approach to communications with a big hit of “awareness” the goal rather than the longer-term necessity of drip-drip repetition. Indeed, as I’ve noted before, with my Goldfish Memory theory to Public Relations, repetition of a campaign seems to see others using the same idea rather than one organisation “owning” a concept and developing it for the long-term.
Repetition is an important aspect of communications, particularly if we wish to establish thought leadership or take a clear positioning on an issue. We may need to find fresh ways to revisit the message (although there are many publications that one may suggest cynically would recycle your press releases without realising it!).
However, expecting others to be listening very carefully as we’re going to say something only once is inevitably going to deliver limited results.
Indeed, I would suggest this is becoming more and more important as attention spans and retained memories seem to be ever shorter. Shall I say it once more? Or as the Teletubbies might cry: Again! Again!