Brevity is the soul of (croquet) advocacy

In my experience one of the key attributes of successful advocacy is the ability to be concise, to make the most of what attention-span you may capture from a busy and potentially distracted decision-maker. The one-page election brief drafted on behalf of the Marrickville Croquet Club Committee is an example of the craft.

Well, it is election time for NSW Local Councils, and at the Marrickville Croquet Club (MCC) we decided that the Committee could usefully send an Election Brief to all candidates as part of our management of key stakeholder relationships.  We wanted to remind candidates of the existence and importance of the club locally and more broadly within the expanded municipality, and to seek their active support of the club in future if elected.

In my experience working as a consultant, consumer advocate and then a public servant one of the key attributes of successful advocacy is the ability to be concise – it is often vital to capture your points as briefly and precisely as possible. You need to make the most of what limited attention-span you may capture from a busy and potentially distracted decision-maker.  I think the following one-page brief I drafted on behalf of the Committee hits the mark as an example of the craft (note that the brief did not include the photos in this blog).

As an aside, to illustrate the effort in achieving concision, I was going to quote one of my favourite Mark Twain sayings:  If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.  However a little research, which led me to Quote Investigator, tells me that in fact “Mark Twain who is often connected to this saying did not use it according to the best available research”.

While many variations of the expression have been used by many famous figures, apparently the first English language example was a sentence in translation of work by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal.  Indeed I actually like what we are told by wikiquote is the literal translation even more:

I made this one [letter] longer only because I have not had the leisure to make it shorter.

A modern take on the need to be brief is the idea of the ‘elevator pitch’, which basically says you should be able to get your idea/proposal/request across to your intended audience in the time you might have them trapped in a lift … 30 seconds to a couple of minutes max.  In that pitch you need to get the listener engaged, interested and agreeing to your concluding ‘call to action’.

Not a bad thing to be able to do, although it perhaps has a bit of a Mad Men feel to it – I note Wikipedia characterises the series as an American period drama. My reflection is that you know you are getting old when period drama is set in times you can remember – I guess that’s why I get the leisure to write short blogs!

Enjoy, and remember, the opposite of a briefing is a longing 😉

Marrickville Croquet Club

Brief

Local Government Election September 2017

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The purpose of this brief is to acquaint Inner West Council candidates with the existence and importance of Marrickville Croquet Club (MCC) as a community, recreational and sporting resource in the municipality.

MCC is a Marrickville community asset in a number of ways: it offers an inclusive, all-age, low intensity recreation activity in the municipality; it is financially self-sufficient and takes good day-to-day care of the facility maintained by council; it continues to build membership and community engagement, thus increasing utilisation of the facility and contributes to diversity of recreation options.

MCC was established in 1926 and is therefore a long-standing entity and reference for the landscape of Marrickville Park. The clubhouse and lawn were recognised in the recently completed Plan of Management as a significant heritage item in the park and MCC operates as an integral part of Marrickville Park with the continued support of council in the maintenance of the facility.

The arrangements for the retention and maintenance of the croquet club in the park have worked well to date and there seems to be genuine efficiency in combining croquet lawn maintenance with that of the park oval and cricket pitch.  With this support, MCC is delighted to curate and help preserve the croquet club as a living contribution to the heritage assets of Inner West Municipality.

MCC also contributes a particular recreational asset for the area: membership is diverse and players participate across age and gender.  Croquet offers an almost unique opportunity for people of all ages to interact in a recreationally competitive environment on an equal basis relatively independent of physical capability. MCC remains enthusiastic to engage with Council as it regains momentum post-amalgamation, and would like to participate in initiatives such as Sport-A-Month and similar programs to develop and encourage community participation in the sport.

MCC is the only croquet club in the municipality, drawing playing members from various corners of the area. With the relatively recent rebuilding of active membership and engagement, the Club now has scheduled play at the facility 5 days a week.  The club is well accepted and supported by the immediate local residents and continues to engage with the broader community such as in recent events with both Petersham after school care students and the Marrickville Heritage Society.

The club is diligent in seeking relevant publicity for the club and croquet in general and is taking advantage of contemporary communication tools to build an online community using Facebook, which now has 286 supporters (increased from 102 in 2013).

We ask you to note that the Marrickville Croquet Club relies on (and is of course grateful for) continued support from Council.   Without that support, MCC would likely cease to function, which would deprive the community of an excellent low-impact, age-inclusive recreational resource, while leaving open the question of preserving the heritage value of the croquet-specific physical infrastructure which has an important place in the park landscape.

We urge you, as a candidate for local election, to publicly commit to the principle that the Marrickville Park croquet facility should be supported and preserved as a functioning and intact entity.  Your confirmation of that commitment by email would be appreciated.

Management Committee of the Marrickville Croquet Club

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Fake news anyone?

Fake news is very much in the news recently – the keynote presentation on the topic by Professor Jeff Jarvis at the launch of the new Centre for Media Transition at UTS last week got me thinking about the current erosion of ‘trust’, the shift from ‘siloed’ to ‘networked’ communications and media and how a viable business model for news media is actually essential to democracy, which in turn is essential to an innovative and adaptable economy and society.

Last week I went along to the launch of the new Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).   The Centre has the very useful goal of helping us to understand key areas of current media evolution and how new technologies and digital transition can be harnessed – to develop local media and to enhance the role of journalism in democratic, civil society.

As well as reconnection with various colleagues from the ACMA and other networks, I also very much enjoyed the keynote presentation by Professor Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. He chose as his topic ‘Fake news’, which he then with a very sensible sense of irony denounced as a bogus topic.  The real topic he suggested was the current erosion, and urgent need for restoration of, ‘trust’: trust in ‘facts’ as a basis for policy action; our ability to conduct civil community discourse; political and other institutions; and news media.

20170725_175309-02One observation I would offer on the issue of so-called ‘fake news’ is that there has been a long established practice on public relations of ‘slanted’ if not ‘fake’ media stories – although it would seem that the velocity of less-than-reliable news has sped up with the rest of the news cycle.  Jarvis raised dramatic but not alarmist concerns about the ‘weaponisation’ of information manipulation and the ability of various actors to leverage the media tools now available to foster polarization and attack the ‘truth’ through scale and speed of communications.

When pondering the trustworthiness of news, I remembered the notion that traditionally journalism has not been rated as high as many other professions in terms of trustworthiness.  I hunted out the latest Roy Morgan survey on the image of various professions, conducted in May 2017.  This finds only 20% of Australians rate Newspaper Journalists ‘very high’ or ‘high’ for ethics and honesty with 17% so rating TV Reporters.  However, looking at the time series helpfully provided by Roy Morgan, it is worth noting this is actually an all-time high for newspaper journalists on a rising trend, and up from 12% in 1976. TV reporters are shown to be reasonably stable around the mid-teens since 1988 when first measured.

This suggests to me perhaps some support for the avowed optimism Jarvis offered, with strategies and counsel about using traditional and new journalistic practice to counter the attacks on trust, to build news literacy, resurrect civility and encourage responsible sharing. What particularly struck a chord with me was his stress on the need for journalism to develop as an audience-centric service.

In my own thinking about media and communications futures I have found the application of network thinking and analysis to be very useful.  The world of communications has moved over the last couple of decades from one of massive ‘silos’ such as TV stations and printing plants to one in which the functions of those silos have been spread out across wide and varied networks, from the electronic hardware of the Internet and to the software based landscape of social media. This has been, to use an often misunderstood and sometime overused term, a ‘paradigm shift’, which has shaken business models and re-arranged social structures.

Under the ‘silo’ paradigm, agents such as journalists and regulators could see themselves as standing ‘outside’ the silos, but they are now effectively participants, enmeshed in the networks of the new paradigm. And this is where, as I understand it, Jarvis is going with his thinking and teaching: forget about so-called ‘objective’ reporting and engage meaningfully with real communities and deliver them a service they find valuable. Makes sense to me.

One important and obvious dimension of the paradigm shift has been the commercial challenges to the business models of the incumbent media industry ‘silo-owners’.  That in turn has been an ever increasing threat to the business-as-usual activities and very livelihoods of people working in them – such as musicians, photographers and journalists. This was an ever-present motif in presentation and the Q&A that followed: how can the activities of journalists be made commercially viable?

I was reminded of the classic and prescient 2009 article by US digital analyst Clay Shirky, ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable’.  His persuasive analysis was that print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting and the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers.  However, the marriage of this heavy-lifting journalism to the stream of advertising revenue was essentially coincidental.

Shirky notes “This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting … that the relationship between advertisers, publishers, and journalists has been ratified by a century of cultural practice doesn’t make it any less accidental.”   And if this relationship was under stress in 2009, things are reaching breaking point a decade or so on and Shirky’s wry observation “that ‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!’ has never been much of a business model” is becoming very real indeed.

The persistence but ‘hollowing out’ of established masthead media, was chronicled by media and technology editor Nic Christensen in his final day at Mumbrella, writing about the “ … massive changes in the media, with more to come. We are living through a media revolution driven largely by the rise of digital, but with it comes the consequence for the journalism profession of multiple ongoing rounds of redundancies, as the media business model looks to reinvent itself within what is a seismic transition.”

The same sentiments were reported for Canada by Nieman Lab: “To be clear, though, almost all daily publishers have found them themselves forced to cut, given the cascading losses of their broken print business.  … We’re not mourning the death of printed newspapers, but of all the reporting — pixels or paper — that’s been disappearing for a decade.”

Clearly a business model beyond click-bait is needed.  What that might be is a matter of urgent inquiry by many and anxious anticipation by others – despite what may be an emerging market failure, such a thing will be next to impossible to regulate into existence   News itself may be a commodity, but without a fountain-head of reliable reporting about things the great and the good might prefer we remain ignorant of, democracy has a profound challenge.

And without the great capacity of genuine democracy to renew and sustain an innovative and adaptable economy and society we all risk being significantly poorer, materially and in spirit.  Hopefully journalists find ways to be engaged, adaptive, entrepreneurial and commercially viable – all of which it must be said is much more easily advised than done – and the new UTS Centre for Media Transition can assist.

In celebration of running fast

Running fast can be exhilarating and rewarding in its own right, but time spent wandering with friends can also be rewarding and productive. Do both and enjoy the future history that emerges!

Last week I celebrated working my way back to what I regard as my peak fitness, measured by completing two full runs, being 14 laps of the park, including a full complement of 8 uphill sprints.  I was last at this level consistently about a year ago. A couple of minor health episodes back then meant momentum was lost and working had to maintain the habit, I have had to build back, gradually adding laps and then sprints.

I have always pursued my running from the perspective of sustainability rather than performance – so I do not keep track of lap times, and have not entered distance events etc. – I just keep going back week in, week out.  About 15 years ago the doctor observed my blood pressure tending to the high side of normal, despite my regular regime of walking and bike riding established in the decade before that.  So I started jogging.

And start from the very beginning it was, jog a quarter lap of the field, walk a quarter and so on and managed to cover maybe a couple of full laps this way to start.  Eventually I built up my endurance to run 14 laps of the park twice a week where we now run (after initially running with my teenage son, I have been joined in recent years by my wife).

Then a few years ago, at a work-sponsored health check, an advisor suggested perhaps adding some higher intensity elements to the run. I agreed to try, despite misgivings about possible injury – I am not going to bore you with the litany of minor exercise-related aches and issues that I have dealt with over the last couple of decades!

And you know what!? I really liked it … who knew?  I only started jogging to manage my blood pressure, and couldn’t really say I like it much, but it worked and I kept at it.  But as I took off, running as fast as I could up the (not too steep) hills in the park, I found a very rewarding sense of momentum and energy. It is difficult to convey what a contrast all this is to my youth, when I dislike exercise, loathing running in particular, and would go to considerable lengths to avoid it.

My friend Ward and I would walk around the field as others ran, usually conveniently out of earshot of the PE teacher, who basically gave up on us. Most memorably we worked out that we could walk one lap of the yearly school cross-country in the roughly the same time as it took all the others to run the required two – we narrowly escaped the embarrassment of being featured among the place-getters, which would have brought our subterfuge undone!

As we walked we would talk, and seek to unravel the mysteries of adolescence and the world – it was time spent exercising our intellects.  In fact our observation of a particular cumulus formation that resembled the fateful mushroom cloud informed my creation of the following poem some time later.  It is a narrative piece rather than a cry from the heart – a hyper-compressed science fiction story. That said, on reflection I suspect it also captures the impact of living with the more-or-less immediate threat of nuclear war current in the mid-sixties, a sense similarly conveyed by this detail from a collage I made shortly after arriving in Sydney in the late seventies.  Perhaps the poem also unconsciously references the sense of a dangerous adult world awaiting outside the school environment, as confining as it may have felt at the time.

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A Freak of Nature

Two boys play on a field.

On the road, separated from

The school by a tall fence,

A restless spectre stalks.

 

Tall, gaunt, this haggard creature

Of insistent gait paces,

Purposeful yet of arbitrary intent,

Bent to its fatal task.

 

It looks to the sky,

And a gleam fills its eyeless socket,

The reflection of awesome powers

Manifest in one excruciating flash.

 

Opaque with energy, the sun explodes,

Time collapses inwards, dragging the threads 

Of reality into its firestorm,

Tearing warp from weft.

Beyond sharing this as a non-running reminiscence, partially in memoriam to Ward, who sadly I heard died a couple of years ago, I was moved to do so by a sense of technological wonderment.  Having remembered the poem, I located a slightly scrappy type-written copy in the depths of my front-room filing cabinet.  I was then delighted to be able to take a photo of the page, do an optical character (OCR) scan to easily and quite accurately translate it to editable text, all on my phone!

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Now I already knew about OCR, perhaps better than many because I was part of an OCR experiment at the Royal Blind Society when I worked there in the eighties.

We took one of the first commercially available OCR scanners and hooked it up to an equally novel device called the DECTalk from Digital Equipment Corp, supplier of our VAX minicomputer (shown with cat for scale!)

Combining these two boxes gave us a crude text to voice machine – unheard of in 1985 and with obvious application in the world of the visually impaired, but clunky and hugely expensive.  And now all that functionality is combined into a general-purpose device in the palm of my hand, achievable as a complete by-product of its primary purpose – I stand amazed!

The scanner was based on the work of Ray Kurzweil, the principal inventor of the first omni-font optical character recognition flatbed scanner, who went on to develop a dedicated text to speech device for the blind.  Kurzweil has also built a career as a futurist and latterly Google executive.   For some time he has championed the concept of a technological singularity, which is the hypothesis that the invention of artificial superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization. A further digression, but an interesting fit with the idea of Big History referenced in my previous blog ‘The narrative necessity’ – a conjunction which may bear further exploration in this space …

Anyhooo … we have indeed run a long way here! The bottom line is that running fast can be exhilarating and rewarding in its own right, but that time spent wandering with friends can also be rewarding and productive.  Do both and enjoy the future history that emerges!