the art of storytelling

James Surowiecki, financial columnist for The New Yorker, set the tone in his plenary talk at this year’s Communications Network and CommA conference, held in Los Angeles a few weeks ago.

Surowiecki’s premise—and the topic of his 2005 book, The Wisdom of Crowds—is that a crowd, when assembled according to some fairly specific criteria, is able to give a better answer than an expert or even a group of experts. This may seem counter-intuitive, but Surowiecki has the data to back up his claims.

The mechanics of assembling the crowd and aggregating their answers effectively aren’t easy, of course, but the implications are profound. There were at least a half dozen big ideas in Surowiecki’s speech worth sharing, but I’ll limit myself to three:

  1. Crowds and Market Research

    As communications professionals, we’re used to targeting audiences as narrowly as we can, and when we’re researching messages, we often start by assembling a group that looks a lot like our target audience. To arrive at better answers, Surowiecki suggests market research should use large, heterogeneous groups.

    The key to using these crowds is to ask questions that get your research subjects to give their opinions on what other people will think and do. It turns out that people are quite good at understanding and predicting the behavior of their fellow human beings. By asking a large group, you also control for some of the bias and obfuscation that can result when you ask people to be honest about themselves.

    Fifteen minutes into his presentation, Surowiecki had my attention—and had me questioning one of the basic ways that we do our work as communicators.

  2. The Role of Communicators

    To work correctly, wise crowds need to have legitimate independence of thought, which is quite hard to come by in the real world. We tend to form like-thinking groups throughout our work and personal lives.

    If independence of thought is so important to optimal outcomes, where does that leave us as communicators, focused as we are on message discipline and repetition to break through the noise of everyday life? Surowiecki’s ideas point communicators toward a role as connectors, aggregators, and promoters of the best ideas—shaping conversation by activating our large networks of loose connections. This idea aligns with the shift away from mass media to social networks, and reinforces the importance of authenticity in our communications work.

  3. The Value of Diversity

    Perhaps the most important point I heard in Surowiecki’s talk was a powerful argument for the value of diversity. Wise crowds depend on it. Part of what gives wise crowds their power is the way in which a group of people from different backgrounds—socioeconomic, cultural, education, life experience—can reach conclusions that a more narrowly constituted crowd (even one filled with “experts”) would miss. The diverse group can see into each others’ blind spots and explore a broader range of potential solutions to a problem. Their diversity of background also gives the group cognitive diversity, and they reach better solutions because of it.

The mechanics of assembling wise crowds and aggregating their answers are complex, and I wish that Surowiecki had had time to go into them further. Applying these lessons to the complex social and policy questions that we most often deal with is also challenging. But the ideas presented by Surowiecki were truly thought-provoking, and worth the price of admission alone.

And that was just the first session at the Communications Network conference! For descriptions of and reactions to some of the many other fine sessions, check out Philanthropy411, which brought together a team of bloggers to cover the conference, and of course, The Communications Network blog.

Wise crowds, indeed.

(image courtesy Flickr user TheBigTouffe, Creative Commons)
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Heath Wickline is a raconteur at LightBox Collaborative. He is looking forward to the upcoming series of communications trainings that LightBox Collaborative is hosting at CompassPoint. First up: “Your Communications GAME Plan” on October 21. Register today!