Friday, August 10, 2012

BRAINCASE: peanut butter cookies, p's and q's

A volley of 'p's ricocheted inside floor upon floor of Atlanta's downtown Hyatt Regency during this past week's National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing, and Media.

Commenting on the array of alliteration, one presenter said "I've realized how all you health types love your p's." We "health types" heard about partnerships, populations, products, public health, presentations, planning, and more. We ate plenty of delicious (decidedly unhealthy) frisbee-sized peanut butter cookies. And we took home a few doggie-bags full of food for thought, too.

I'll include my list of observations round-up style, in no particular order.

Dr. Isaac Ashkenazi woke us all up on a sleepy humid-laden Atlanta afternoon at the conference's kick-off with a battery of slides illustrating disaster responses. In his opinion, we should crowd-source more of our emergency responses, at least during those vital 20 or so minutes while the professional disaster response personnel are still jammed in traffic. People, Ashkenazi thinks, do pretty well on their own, especially when bolstered by a few hours of training. Extending the TSA slogan of "See something, Say something," Ashkenazi would amend that to "See something, Say something, DO something."

A point well-taken, I thought, in as much as we could all benefit from being a little more prepared (but that could just be my public health bias showing. Again.) As the conference proceeded and I sat down to turkey sandwiches with a few colleagues, I took Ashkenazi's injunction to a different place: preparing to screw up. We all do make mistakes and mis-steps ... it's just more fun to pretend that politicians and criminals are the real screw-ups, while the rest of us are just getting by.

That would do an injustice to our culture, though, a culture I believe encourages self-confidence to the point of defensiveness, accusatory flailing, and unpredictable lashing out when one of us gets caught screwing up. We'd rather blame our illnesses, our extenuating circumstances, our parents and our government than admit that sometimes we actually make inferior choices that hurt others and perpetuate injustices.

What if, instead of learned defensiveness, we practiced 'apology drills' as much as we practice fire drills? A strange concept on the surface of it. But being poised to apologize, to admit wrong-doings when they occur, and to move on with sincere intentions to fix the wrongs and run damage-control plans just seems like a something a responsible human would practice.

What if we actually did that? What if we could actually screw up gracefully and then get on with things? I'd like to see a resurgence of humility, humbleness, and readiness to screw up well!

I was struck by presentations like the one Carolyn Ahlers-Schmidt made that showcased how persistence isn't always a positive trait. Ahlers-Schmidt told us how her project, a four-stage research package demonstrating how parents with cell phones would like their doctors to send them text messages when their children needed immunization appointments stalled in the final stage when clinicians, even clinicians with advanced technology, competent staff, and sufficient funding, admitted they'd rather not institute the program. Ahlers-Schmidt didn't delve into exactly why this was happening -- perhaps, she thought, clinicians didn't want to change the status quo, or were bracing against yet another round of new protocol to manage. Despite her promising results though, whatever the cause, she didn't find acceptance for her texting program, an example of when persistence serves to sink us deeper in our own short-sightedness.

One of the most highly quoted tweets from the conference was the simple injunctions one of the speakers gently made:  What if, instead of calling them the 'target population,' we called them 'our people'? This struck a powerful nerve with conference participants.

We had a whole session devoted to making communication more limpid and more easily grasped. Plainspeak, as it was termed, boiled down to the venerable principles of good writing: keep it simple. Use clear punctuation. Rope in your sentences. Evict unnecessary terminology in favor of shorter, friendlier words. In other words, be nice to your readers. I heartily agree, but was disheartened by the number of presentations by trained communicators that featured jam-packed slides, stale graphics, shoddy detailing, or just plain lackluster quality. A presenter speaking about the power of storytelling failed to include a story in her own presentation. Top policy-makers stuck to generalities. Marketers relied on statistic-loaded, blue-background slides they read aloud nearly word-for-word. So. I support much of what was said at the conference. But don't just tell me--show me what you mean.

I was privileged to present a poster. I'm only a student, rubbing sweaty elbows with some of the CDC's best, so yeah, I was nervous. But I got through it. With a few compliments, even, and with gratitude for the training I've received so far, and for the fact I can really get behind what I'm presenting, and finally, anticipation for when I'll finally be a professional with my own PhD. (Sweet tip: a 4' long poster is darn awkward to tote around, but will fit in many airline carry-on bins.)

One of my favorite poster presentations showed how soldiers with PTSD are demonstrably benefiting from an approach that fits: a graphic novel. Novel, I say!

I didn't get to sit on a real Atlanta porch. But I stood on one, a gorgeous one with a ceiling fan, attached to the lovely home of two Atlantans I couchsurfed with. In blatant contradiction to my usual Seattle longing for sun, I wanted the rain so I could enjoy it from the snugness of a real southern porch. Sadly, no rain fell. But I found a better, metaphorical porch: first in the couchsurfing experience itself, the chance to make total strangers instant friends, and second in the larger conference experience, the deliberate space created to meet professionals from government, non-profit, and business sectors all mixing, talking social media, social marketing, and sometimes just telling stories.

Popular points and puffery
As you'd guess at a communications conference, technology came highly touted. And, while I admire the capacity of Twitter, Facebook, and everything else micro-engineered to help us connect, I was also grateful for the down-to-earth presentations that pulled away from techno-glitter to remind us that stories still ground us, that technology still needs to serve our messages (instead of vice-versa), and that trying to master 'the next big thing' could distract us from continuing to do what works. Maybe the answer isn't always to copy the new marketing meme, but to just try a simple human connection. Call me a Luddite now.

I got plenty of cookies, like I said. Plus some promising connections, some new thoughts, some helpful training, a boost of confidence, and some really late hours of flying around. I'm stuffed!

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