I had a very invigorating meeting with Johnnie Moore while I was in London. We discussed a wide variety of interesting things, but there is one idea in particular that has stuck with me – that it is very important to develop the skill of choosing the best way to communicate your ideas.
Here’s the issue – when we have a new idea (and it’s one that doesn’t need to be made into something physical), we have a wide range of methods available for spreading it – we can write about it in 140 characters on twitter or 200-2000 words in a blog post, we can write it as an article for a magazine, or an e-zine, or an academic journal, we can make it into a e-book, or we can write a regular book. And those are just some of the written options – there are also video, public speeches, lectures, webinars, and many, many other choices.
That’s a lot of options, and many of us only consider 1 or 2 of them every time we have a new idea. The result is that we often end up framing our idea in a way that fits a medium that isn’t ideal, or putting it in front of an audience that doesn’t care about it. These are both huge errors if we are trying to get the idea to spread.
Picking the best medium for our great ideas is a critical 21st century skill – we all need to work on getting better at this.
This idea is obviously not new – this is part of what Marshall McLuhan was getting at with his ‘the medium is the message’ idea. The medium that we choose for our idea in large part determines who will pay attention to it, and how it will be interpreted.
This idea has many practical implications. The week after I spoke with Johnnie, I was fortunate enough to spend a bunch of time with Neil Kay working on getting a new research project up and going. He has just posted a paper on his website talking about two articles that he has had available for download there for the past couple of years. One article argues that Coase misapplied marginal analysis in his highly influential work on the theory of the firm, and the second criticises the applications of game theory in economics.
Neil has been working on getting these into journals for a while now. He has written quite a few books and had many academic papers published, so this is both a natural medium in which to work for him, and also something that he knows a fair bit about. But neither paper has been accepted yet – in part due to their controversial points (why journal editors might be hesitant to publish controversial papers is another conversation entirely).
Now normally, failing to get a paper published is very frustrating for an academic. And Neil was frustrated. Until he noticed that both papers are getting downloaded many times a day! New he’s thinking about the readers of these articles:
These already number in the thousands for the Coase paper and the numbers are still on a upward trend – and what is the expected readership for the average published academic paper? There are various estimates I have seen for this last question, and I can tell you categorically the numbers are never in the thousands.
If I do publish these papers eventually, then the standard editorial instruction will be to remove them from my website and also remove the increasing visibilty and implicit recogntion of these papers. Will I do this? What do you think?.
I plan for these papers to stay on this website indefinitely. And as for protection of my intellectual property – well, I think ventilation of the arguments are more important, and in any case many more people than I could have hoped from conventional academic distribution are already familiar with these papers, the ideas, and who authored them – that will do for me, though of course I can and will also archive them on a Working Paper site.
The conclusion that he reaches is that the papers might actually be better off not being published in academic journals. This might not seem shocking, but in many ways it is.
With so many different methods available for getting our ideas to spread, we need to be skilled at using multiple channels. If we only consider one or two methods, then we greatly reduce our chances of getting our ideas in front of the people that are most likely to be interested in them, and those who are most likely to act on them. If we want to have an impact, we have to be able to find these two groups of people.
Here are a few steps to take when you have a great new idea:
- Decide what impact you want it to have. Do you want people to talk about it? Or pay you to tell them about it? Or tell their friends about it? There are many different paths to impact – how will you measure impact for your idea?
- Who needs to hear about your idea to achieve this impact? Academics, businesspeople, customers, everyone? Figure out who needs to know about your idea if you are going to have the impact you desire.
- Think about how to best reach this group. There are an almost infinite number of media available now – which ones are best the audience you are trying to reach?
- These days, you probably need to use multiple routes. My impact here has increased substantially once I combined the blog with twitter and public speaking. Multiple routes to reaching the people with whom I want to be talking. Decide which routes will work best for your new idea.
- Finally, consider a new medium. Is there some method for reaching people that you’ve been curious about, but haven’t tried? Is there a medium that is unusual to use in your field? Try thinking about alternate ways to spread your ideas. Remember Neil’s papers – they seem to be doing very well outside of the normal academic media.
We need to be good at getting our ideas to spread. There are many different ways to do this, and many different media we can use. Matching media to our messages is an essential skill these days – if we’re good at it, we’ll be better at spreading our ideas. Diffusing ideas is a critical step in the innovation process – consequently, learning to match our ideas up with the most appropriate media is also critical.