“Did you know that in Britain you don’t need a qualification to be a barber or a hairdresser?”
I was in the chair last week, half way through having my haircut, when my barber (£11.50, Elvis tribute act in his spare time) told me this.
When I asked why he was telling me at this rather pivotal moment he pointed wistfully out the window at a couple of small kids who looked as though they’d been cutting their own hair with garden shears. They were carrying little action figures.
“A new place has opened around the corner,” he said. “They specialise in kids’ hair and suck them in with an offer of a free toy.”
Put a sign on the door, make a decent offer and even if you don’t have the skills, for a little while at least your chutzpah will carry you through.
This reminded me of the story of my great grandfather who set sail from Portsmouth to Argentina in 1921, returning several months later as ‘a dentist’, a skill (ahem) he deployed, remarkably, for the remainder of his professional life.
Somehow we’ve entered a world or a universe in which it seems that truth and expertise no longer matter. A world in which the cheerful or provocative amateur can make it to the top.
In 2016 the notion of the opinionated outsider has invaded news, politics and conversation. All around us, improbable people are being lifted into positions of previously sacrosanct authority. Sit in a pub anywhere from Land’s End to John O’Groats and if you wait for a few minutes you’ll hear people readily discussing an unimpeachable lie that has greased the path of these canny amateurs.
The immediacy of information today and the tendency of a lie to accumulate currency before the truth has got its pants on is evidently a problem and a risk for all of us. Cuomo’s old truism, that we campaign in poetry and govern in prose is being updated. It can be said now as we look at the wreckage of 2016 that we campaign in vitriol or ugliness. What’s less clear is the shape of the governing bit, but it is reasonable to be wary.
What are the consequences of this skewed situation?
Before the rules of communication were swept up on the barbershop floor, the worst misdemeanour committable by a communicator was spin, something that now looks like the modest application of a bit of gloss paint to an idea in order to make it more appealing. Spin today feels like a rather quaintly subtle manoeuvre compared to some of the rather more excessive efforts to promulgate distortion or baseless contentions that have characterised 2016. Want to promote fiction? There are specialist businesses that, for a fee, will do that and distort the Google or Facebook algorithm.
For communicators seeking to share legitimate truths and preserve the ethical underpinning of their brands, the clear priority is to make the truth as interesting and compelling as the lies.
My starting assumption is that there is nothing that cannot be made that interesting. Amidst our body of work are examples of plastic packaging, cereal, esoteric software, ordinary household essentials and more that we have transformed into national news to successfully drive sales. The key, as the great Clive James puts it, is in turning a phrase to catch the light.
My message here (if indeed it is required) is to resist the allure of fiction and falsehood. There is simply no need. If integrity and enduring customer relationships are core to your mantra, have another look at what you do and tell the story afresh, or ask an independent expert (my hand is held aloft) to have a look for you.
We aren’t in a post-truth world. We are in a world in which we just need to articulate the truth in a more appealing way. If you are in the barber’s chair, for instance, asking for an orange combover rather than making the most of your actual assets is probably the wrong thing to do. Better to look for the true virtue of what lies beneath and build from there.