Meaning Guide
Napoleon bombardment of Vienna

“We can’t say that!” Why not?

When you bring something abstract to life, it can be hard to predict how people will react

We did a project for a FTSE 100 company last year, in which we modelled their ecosystem fifteen years into the future, and used the resulting visual language to create videos, posters and other engagement tools.  During the initial briefing sessions the leaders kept pushing the precariousness of their position, and how they would cease to be viable if they didn’t change dramatically.  I remember one director saying “As a leader of this business it is my duty to tell the truth, and this is the truth:  People need to wake up and smell the coffee”.

I love telling it like it is, and I love these kind of briefs.  I wish we got them more often.  We mapped out the whole system and overlaid really simple narratives to show how the company was walking into a perfect storm.  We played it back.  The data was accurate, the story was compelling, the conclusions were obvious.  And how did the client respond?

“Sorry, we just can’t say that!”  “We need to put a positive spin on it or else morale will suffer.”  “Yes, that’s probably true, but what if our competitors got hold of this?”

What happened?  Did they just change their minds?  Did they forget to take their brave pills?  Why the gap between stated intent and practical follow-through?  It’s easy to call cowardice at this point, but I have a slightly more sympathetic view.  I think it points to a profound shift that occurs when something you understand in theory suddenly becomes real.

When past events become real

Napoleon bombardment of Vienna
The siege of Vienna, 1809

Here’s a slightly random parallel from my own life.  I used to hate history classes at school because it seemed to be just a long list of abstract dates and events and figures.  But I loved music, and eventually chose to study it at university.  I remember reading a biography of Beethoven, and I found it absorbing because all the events connected to pieces of music that I knew and loved.

Years later, for some reason I was reading about Napoleon at the siege of Vienna, and I got stuck on this throwaway detail that Beethoven was actually inside the city at the time, hiding in a basement.  I still recall this vividly, because it suddenly occurred to me that all these people – big names, small names, unknown names – were all just people like me, caught up in crazy events.  It became real, and I’ve been hooked on history ever since.

When future events become real

I think something very similar happens when we portray the future in a way that connects it to the present.  For us this is usually about depicting it visually, as it was for our client, but it could be many things – an anecdote, a story, a throwaway remark.  With history, events come to life when you identify with the characters from the past, but when the future comes to life you realise that you are one of those characters.  You and your colleagues, you and your family, you and future generations.  Which can be really confronting!  And unpredictable.  And scary.

As I’ve said before, shared meaning is a double-edged sword – some of us are happy to wave it around, while others are concerned with who might get hurt in the process.  There’s surely a happy balance somewhere in the middle, where we both recognise the reality of the situation while also being sympathetic and supportive to those who find it difficult to process.

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