In the Aug. 13 New York Times “Sunday Review,” Neal Gabler authored a provocative opinion piece, “The Elusive Big Idea” (which could easily have been titled, “Welcome to Marc’s Personal Hell”). In his essay, he argues, with simplicity, that “ideas just aren’t what they used to be,” stating that “we just don’t care as much about ideas” as we did once upon a time.
While I would vehemently disagree with this analysis (mostly because, well, it’s kinda my JOB to make people care about ideas), his premise is spot-on. Gabler points to the glut of information overload as a primary source of our cultural idea malaise, concluding that “While these ideas may change the way we live, they rarely transform the way we think. They are material, not ideational.”
But the bigger problem isn’t the wealth of information available; the problem is the way we interact with that information when critical thinking is required. As humans, we have a fundamental bias toward labeling things. People. Places. Activities. We label. But not necessarily due to any social bias. We label because we believe inherently that if we label something, we have understood it. This is most obviously apparent in situations where divergent opinions and belief systems demand that people choose sides – e.g,, politics. You’re a Republican. Therefore, I understand that you’re pro-life, pro-gun, anti-welfare, tax-the-poor, deregulate-business and, for Pete’s sake, please-don’t-teach-my-kids-about-sex-in-school!
Does that define every Republican you know? Of course not. But it’s easier to understand by labeling. Labeling becomes a mental shortcut. Mainly, these labels are more subtle and nonjudgmental. In a research report, I’m simply a single Gen-X affluent educated urban male. I’m all those things – but that doesn’t define me. And as PR people, that’s our greatest pitfall in our creative thinking. Because more often than not, when we confuse labels with understanding, we’re confusing information with insights.
I don’t think I need to sell anyone on the idea that compelling insights drive breakthrough creativity. However, more and more of us take that mental shortcut ending with observation. If we know that our Gen-X male is shopping online for grooming products, we use that as a basis for our ideas – without stopping to ask ourselves, “Why?”
Observation alone is useless. As creative professionals, we MUST take the time to understand our target. Their motivations. Their desires. Their passions. Their fears. Because we’re trying to impact behavior. We want to change minds, change opinions, change thoughts (it’s called “thought leadership” after all). But at the end of the day, the way people think is irrelevant unless it leads to real change in the way people behave. So? . . .
So, human behavior is not linear. There are thousands if not millions of variables that impact every part of our behavior each and every day: stimuli, habit, unexpected activity, history, social norms, etc. In order for your ideas to be truly impactful, you must recognize that there are stimuli that are more important than others, that those stimuli aren’t siloed, and that you need to impact or connect with multiple stimuli in order to affect change.
In other words, you need to understand your audience. Take the time to analyze and ask why. Think critically about the information presented to you. Because as Gabler asserts, “What the future portends is more and more information — Everests of it. There won’t be anything we won’t know. But there will be no one thinking about it.”