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JCBs in the basement??

This blog post first appeared in the Somerset County Gazette.

We are in the middle of building chaos at Chez Wall. Not that anything has actually started yet…no brick has actually been purchased, no sod literally cut. But I am juggling the demands of planners, building regulators, surveyors, CAD operators, mortgage providers and various craftspeople in an attempt to get it all done at some point before I retire.

The children are being helpful by telling me how they want their new rooms decorated, and planning a time capsule that we can put beneath the extension. This will allow their grandchildren to see what life was like in the early 21st century and marvel at the references to strictly come X factor, 5SOS and the fact that life is, these days, apparently all about that bass.

Much as I complain, I recognise that we are lucky in Somerset to have the options of building stuff.   In London, where I lived for the first 35 years of my life, there is now officially no room. You cannot build up as the planners won’t let you, and you cannot build out as you’d be in your neighbours lounge.

So people have started building down. There is a real trend in building new rooms in the basement. Homeowners (I guess at the wealthier end of the spectrum) who have been refused planning permission for a traditional above ground extension are instead hiring companies to dig out the foundations under their house; creating new vast rooms underground where gyms, swimming pools, granny flats and the like can be safely inserted.

They do this using JCB diggers; they dig down as they go, making the space and kicking out the soil behind them.

But when they’re done, you have a problem. It is very difficult to get a JCB out of what is now in effect a deep hole. In fact, it costs more to do this than actually buy a new JCB. So they don’t bother. The JCB is buried as part of the new foundations and the builder gets a new toy for their trouble.

Dozens of houses across London now have a JCB digger buried beneath their basement.

This fascinates me. In centuries to come archaeologists will dig down and find these magical buried monsters. They will no doubt assume that we worshipped the creatures, or maybe that they were a servile species kept in the cellar until their usefulness was over or perhaps that we were attacked by them and these are the remains of the vanquished.

Either way, it’ll no doubt be the subject of many a TV documentary. And of course presents a significant challenge to me and the girls as we try to make our Taunton based capsule half as interesting…..

Why Harry Potter will decide the next election.

This post first appeared in the Somerset County Gazette on October 30th 2014.

My kids love Harry Potter.

Perhaps I should be a little clearer: my kids love Harry Potter with a passion and commitment that would shame the most devoted ascetic, the most pious monk and the most die hard West Ham fan. They adore, revere, obsess about and utterly devote themselves to the strange boy with the pudding bowl haircut and glasses that are just a little bit too big.

My 12 year old has devoured the books so comprehensively and repeatedly over the last few years that she no longer reads but recites them. And her 9 year old sister is working her way through the series with the appetite and ambition of a wannabe X Factor finalist, impressively never confusing her Sirius from her Snape, her Bartemius Crouch with her Bathilda Bagshot. Any car journey is now full of the mellifluous tones of Stephen Fry, coaxing us through the complex narrative with an assurance that is strangely bewildering, and certainly absent from the shrill voice of my sat nav.

This has never bothered me. I am not concerned that they will start putting spells on their friends, or concocting potions to ward off, or attract I suppose, potential suitors. I have never been worried that they will run head long into the wall at Kings Cross station, or want to own an owl.

But I was hugely encouraged recently to see a report showing that readers of Harry Potter were more likely to be political active and liberally minded. The Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont, Anthony Gierzynski, researched almost 1200 graduate students. He found that across the board and regardless of other influences, Potter fans were more tolerant of diversity, less supportive of tactics such as torture, more sceptical about ruling powers and more eager to participate in the political process.

It is not a new idea that literature influences our thinking, but this is surely a step forward. With Halloween this week there is a danger that we can adopt the dark arts as an excuse for tricking, scaring, hiding away and even despairing of our world. In fact, as the great Dumbledore himself says: “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light!”

Happy All Saints Eve!

When the Robots take over

This article first appeared in the Somerset County Gazette on 4th September 2014.

I travel a lot for work, and stay in a lot of hotels. This used to be fun, but to be frank the novelty soon wears off. Hanging around on your own in a town a long way from home is not a great night.

But I find ways to cope: I have my little routines, and the hotels I stay in get to know them. So whenever I am in the guest house in the midlands that has become a second home, the team know that beyond a “good morning” I prefer to be taciturn in the morning. I read my paper; I work through a plate of meat the size of Durham (hospitable lot in the midlands) and drink gallons of tea. I don’t talk.

Until recently. I was at breakfast, contemplating the day ahead and perusing the latest transfer news when I noticed a middle aged man sitting at a table near me. He was smiling in that way people do when they want to initiate conversation; a sort of half embarrassed and overly polite grimace grin.

I smiled back wanly and carried on reading. But he didn’t give up and after a few more extravagant smiles he coughed and said “anything good in the paper?”

This is not easy to ignore. I sighed internally, gave up on ever finding out if Spurs were planning to sign an unknown Swedish centre back and made some vague comment about football.

He told me his story: weather bad the previous night, decided to stay at the pub, heading home today. But with a tedious inevitability we moved onto a slightly more challenging agenda.

“The military – they are years ahead of us you know. Everything we have, they have really advanced versions. Their technology is so powerful, really frightening. We’ll never find out but they have robots and stuff that can do just about anything.”

So far so good. Interesting enough, if a little Hunger Games for my liking, but certainly not threatening. He leaned in closer. For a horrible moment I thought he was going to nick my bacon.

He whispered conspiratorially: “The thing is, after a while they are going to realise they are more powerful than us, aren’t they?” It took me a moment to understand what he meant.

“The robots will realise that we need saving from ourselves and they’ll take over. To stop us killing the planet and each other. Stands to reason. We programme them to help us and automate our lives, make us safer, but they’ll take over. Where will we be then?”

I nodded, trying to create a respectful yet authoritative distance between us. After an acceptable delay of about 30 seconds I looked at my watch, made my apologies muttering something about meetings and headed off.

I walked to the car laughing. Robots? Taking over? I activated the car’s auto start. Realising they know more than us? I switched on the sat nav. Changing things to keep us safe? The car’s speed and distance limiter kicked in, making sure I couldn’t hit anyone. Automated decision making? The blue tooth chose a track I liked. Technology taking over? The cameras showed me the space behind as I reversed and the automatic handbrake released itself. It’ll never happen?

Honestly, the things people believe.

Top Tips for a PR campaign (part two)

Having sorted 1- 5 on top tips for a PR campaign, lets take a look at 6 – 10.

6. Sounds silly but you really do need to know what you’re talking about. Vague ideas of “raising awareness about stuff” or “bring our offering to market” just don’t work. The old naff tricks are the best: if you had 15 seconds in a lift with a potential investor, what would you say? Can you sum up your product service or whatever in a few lines? Me? I “use communications strategies and media management to help grow your business”. Not Pulitzer stuff I grant you, but at least you know what I think I can do.

7. “Tell em what you’re going to tell em; tell em; tell em what you told em; tell em again.” Repetition may be rude at dinner parties but is necessary in PR. It is not good enough having the best slogan and the sharpest marketing line unless people walk away with it. I am told that no one listens until they have heard something for the 7th time. Makes sense to me. This is why I am now at…

8. Don’t lie. Another obvious one, but you’d be surprised. And by lie I also mean don’t exaggerate to the point of obscurity or embellish to the point of perjury. If your message isn’t very good, then don’t spin it, re visit it.

9. Use real language. Don’t use abstract concepts (unless your company is “Abstract Concepts Inc.”). Use concrete images and active words. For reasons too complicated to explain, if you use the passive tense, a puppy somewhere dies.

10. There is no ten. Sometimes you need to break the rules

So good luck with your PR campaign. And if you want help, please feel free to call me for a free chat.

Top ten tips for a PR campaign

Ten Top Tips for a PR campaign (part one)

There are so many ways to launch a PR campaign. And I would guess that most fail. So, here are my ten top tips (there are always ten, don’t ask why, it is just the way life is…) for a decent campaign.

  1. Have an end game. You would never invest cash without having a clear sight of what you want to achieve. So why oh why oh why do people spend time effort and real cash on media marketing and PR campaigns without having any idea what they want to get out of it. It can be anything; more referrals, more business, increased press coverage, people recognising you in the street. Doesn’t matter what (well…..), but do some thinking.
  2. Be innovative. Don’t use the same old methods that everyone else has already done. Challenge every assumption, think of weird ways to get attention, ways that will cause a double take in your audience. Talking of which…
  3. Know your audience. Throwing stuff at a crowd doesn’t work; giving one person something individually does. So segment, segment and segment again. The tighter your defined audience, the better your chances of connecting.
  4. Don’t say too much. People will only remember 2 or 3 things you say. So make sure they are the right 2 or 3 things. Journalists only read the first paragraph of your press release and customers only skim your leaflet. If you have 2 or 3 killer facts that you refer to again and again, then you have a chance of getting through.
  5. Stories not statistics. People like stories, they don’t enjoy facts. So think about the story you want to tell – your narrative – and tell it. Where we were, where we are now and crucially where you’re going. And why your audience need to know this and be involved.

So that’s 1 – 5 out of the way, 6 – 10 will follow soon.  Watch this space.

The Play’s the thing…

This blog post first appeared in the Somerset County Gazette.

It is play season in my daughters’ school.

I don’t mean that the kids are just playing all day now that SATS are done. Perish the thought.

And I don’t mean that the educational establishment has given up the long battle and finally agreed that Minecraft does in fact count as an exam subject and so can happily fill the school day.

No, it is time for the thespians to emerge; for speech to be enunciated in a slightly forced way as if speaking a new language for the very first time; for makeup and cross dressing to be brought firmly, fairly and non-judgementally into the mainstream.

It is the year 6 play.

We have had months of rehearsing, long evenings of line learning, and the CD on constant repeat so that the same songs rattle round my head as if a careless neurosurgeon had lost his iPad with the setting on “Disney songs”.

Finally, Aladdin was performed this week.

And very good it was too. The jokes were hardly Jimmy Carr (no bad thing) but generated a guffaw or two. The story was well known but still dramatic. The action was fast moving, and performed without a safety net. Everyone remembered their lines, and no one froze. Some songs were genuinely moving, and voices shockingly good. The crowds cheered and clapped and paid their £2.50 without a word of complaint.

A few of the parents got involved too spending happy hours setting up lighting, running long leads, plugging things in and shouting “one two” into mikes as if the whole experience had robbed us of the ability to count any higher.

What did I learn?

Well, the small parts are the ones that really make the play. The principles do a great job, but it is perhaps the actor with one line, or just one action to bring props in at the right moment that impress me. These are the things that make it all professional and slick.

Teachers do give up their time freely to direct, act, sew, paint, coach and support. Not a big surprise to many I guess, but in my day I’m pretty sure they were all down the pub by 4.

And much as I may mock, an ensemble piece of theatre does bring out the community spirit in us all.

What I didn’t learn is how in fact to find a genie. The lamps in our house are all suddenly well-polished, but no puff of smoke and no wish in sight. But I’ll keep trying: the show must go on.

Albert knows best?

This article first appeared in the Somerset County Gazette.

 

I have recently acquired a new car. I can’t really say I bought it as it still belongs to the leasing company. But it feels like mine. We have christened him Albert.

As with all new cars, Albert assumes I am stupid. He automatically controls the lights and the wipers; sorts out my speed, tells me if I am too close to the car in front and actually brakes for me if he feels I am not taking his warnings seriously enough. He decides on my route, and beeps, very annoyed, if I get too close to anything that might hurt me. When I am foolish enough to try to reverse Albert immediately produces a screen giving a clear camera view of what is behind, with red lines on the screen that I mustn’t cross. What he seems to prefer is that I press a series of buttons so he can park without my intervention. It is quite scary to let go of the wheel and hand over control, but to be fair he does a far better job than me.

In a way this sums up many people’s parenting style. Our job is to keep the kids away from harm, to make sure they don’t get too close to danger; to plan out their route; make sure they can see clearly; not let them do anything stupid or too risky; to protect them from the elements and themselves and do as much for them as we can. Because to be blunt, we are better at it, having had far more practice. We’ve got the experience and a techy car; but our kids have no experience and the equivalent of an 8 year old Cortina

And so we very easily become the automated drivers of their lives.

But of course as they get older things change. Our children are now far better at many things than we are. They want to make their own decisions; take their own risks; try new things out; choose their own routes; sort out their own speed; park for themselves. This is tricky stuff and of course they will get some things wrong, but just as we did at their age, they will become better people as they learn from their mistakes.

The clincher is that I am not sure Albert trusts me: there will always be a bit of competition and irritation as he thinks he knows best, whereas I want to practice and become a better driver.

Hmm. I think I’ll turn the auto park off for a bit.

What is customer engagement?

Customer engagement is a common phrase these days.  Used by lots of people in many contexts, it is in danger of becoming one of those phrases that can mean just about anything!  Like strategy.  Or love!

So, here is my take on what it is, why it’s important and how you do it.

In short, if you know what your customers (users, funders, commissioners, stakeholders, etc.) think about you, your product or service and your future ideas, you will be more successful.  It really is as simple as that.  This is not reactive, it is not about abdicating responsibility for having ideas, but checking that you are trying to solve a problem that does actually exist, and in a way that the people who might use it think is sensible.

And engaging allows you to do this. 

Engaging is not telling, not broadcasting, and not advertising.  It is a conversation or discussion which aims at understanding the views of your audience.  Using open questions and easy access platforms, you can gain insight into people’s views about what you do.

So start by working out who the people are and how to get to them!  Easier said than done, but make sure that you are targeting the influencers as much as possible, the people whose views will have resonance with others.  And remember to communicate in a way they want to be communicated with, not in the way that you feel comfortable with.  Social media is vital, but only if your audience use it.  I was working with a client recently and talking about all the whizzy modern ways we could send out information to her staff.  Then she reminded me that her home helps did not have offices, computers or any real social media knowledge.  So in this case a newsletter sent out with the payslips was the best plan. 

Then give good content.  Talk about what you are doing, and be frank about what you do not know. Much as it pains me to say it, people can see through PR.  If you tell them your plans and ask for their help, most people are happy to give it.

Respecting individuals means incentivising.  Why should people give you their time and opinions?  One consultation I am involved in at present pays people a small amount in recognition of their efforts.  Sometimes a free offer, or sample might work.  At the very least, make sure they realise that you are grateful, and crucially that you WILL act on what they told you.  There is nothing worse than giving your opinion and having it ignored.

Questionnaires, one to one interviews, formal market research, focus groups, insight interviews, open forums online…there are many options.

The key thing is to do it.  Try, fail, learn and try again.  And getting expert help is crucial.

Engagement works, and the only real failure is not doing it at all.

 

Chocolate Productivity

Note : This blog first appeared in the Somerset County Gazette

Do kids eat too many sweets?

I hear lots of people moaning about how parents just spoil their kids with chocolate, or treats.

It is certainly true that most children’s focus on sweets is fairly impressive.  “Hmm, how many mouthfuls of broccoli will I have to eat to persuade the old fella to let me have some pudding….maybe 3, perhaps 4 tops.” I have been tempted sometime to resort to chocolate covered broccoli. (more…)

Voting

Note : This blog first appeared in the Somerset County Gazette 

I was in the pub with my two children the other week and they started talking about Scotland. ( I should emphasise that we were having lunch after a good long walk.  Well a walk from the house to the pub anyway.)

This was not a “what do Scotsmen wear under their kilt” type of sniggering conversation, or even a “what is Hadrian’s wall anyway cos I need to know for school” discussion.  Instead, out of nowhere I was hit with the question “so if Scotland becomes independent, what will their flag look like?” (more…)