Listen very carefully – I shall say this more than once

recycle 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!

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

4 thoughts on “Listen very carefully – I shall say this more than once”

  1. An interesting piece. I the time it took me to read this, having linked from Twitter, your original Tweet had disappeared way down my Twitter list. AS you say, communication is transient.

    However, the fact that Social Media is now becoming so easily integrated with blogs and other content, the ‘long tail’ of communication – whether a few minutes old or many years old – being sourced, received and re-communicated is greater than ever.

    With regard to behaviour, there is research which states that it takes something like 128 repetitions of a single action before it becomes a habit. That would suggest that people have to read the same message an awful lot of times before it becomes significantly behaviour-changing. I suppose it’s about the point at which you are ready to throw a chair at the TV if you see the same GoCompare advert one more time!

  2. Heather, a great nuanced post. Yet I rebel somewhat in the pursuit of clarity. I agree about the need for repetition (reinforcement is the other term I love: Q: Why does the PR department do press cuttings? A: to remind the bosses everyday at 8 A.M. that we exist and that we’re agenda setting). My problem with the discussion on listening is that it can encourage dishonesty: taking one’s lead from the crowd while doing no such thing; as BP’s Beyond Petroleum strategy clearly did. I’m certain that BP did listen well to what the public said it believed. Its mistake was to think that it had to endorse in reality or in fiction what the audience seemingly demanded from the company… My point is that listening, however vital an attribute, is no substitute for leadership and integrity. Hence, I say the “listening mantra” requires a health warning and should be treated with caution given how it has been shown to be subject to such abuse.

    1. Paul, I think you’ve misunderstood my reference to listening here as I was talking about others hearing our messages which is surely the point of communication? This post in no way relates to the ‘cult of listening’ as you imply it ie PR focussing on listening to others.

  3. Heather, I got that, which is why I agreed with most of your post. But whenever PRs talk about listening I feel compelled to point out how this has become one of the most confused and misunderstood issues within PR. It is now virtually impossible to discuss the issue meaningfully without probing definitions and questioning preconceptions about the relationship between being heard (listened to) and listening. Hence, repetition and reinforcement was my objective in this instance.

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