In 1665, the last major bubonic plague to hit England swept through London killing a quarter of the population. It also spread to Cambridge, forcing Sir Isaac Newton to flea North to Woolsthorpe Manor (site of the famous apple tree). This resulted in breakthroughs of staggering creative genius, including developing the theory of gravity.
You may have seen this circulated as an uplifting COVID-19 meme recently, and also one about Shakespeare writing King Lear in isolation. The evidence on the latter is far less convincing it seems, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story!
I can safely say I haven’t yet ascended these creative heights. Perhaps the Muses are social distancing. Of course, neither Newton nor Shakespeare had to deal with block-booked Zoom calls, baying children or the social (media) pressure to do HIIT with Joe Wicks. On the flip side, they also didn’t have Ocado, Deliveroo or Amazon.
In the communications world, particularly in consultancy, we thrive by being surrounded by the bright minds and diverging ideas and experiences of our colleagues. Brightly coloured sticky notes, infectious enthusiasm and enclosing yourselves with peers in a small room are the recipes for success in breaking out of the existing tired formula.
So how can we persevere and bring fresh thinking to the table during lockdown? Here we provide our four top suggestions:
1. Put Empathy First – walk a mile in their shoes!
Uncertainty has coloured initial responses to the pandemic – is it an opportunity to be leveraged? Is the window closing? If we say something now, will it look like gratuitous ambulance chasing? But this is potentially asking the wrong question. The companies that have communicated well throughout the crisis have done so from a point of empathy and also sincerity. As Shakespeare wrote in Lear, “the weight of this sad time we must obey / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
One guiding principal for communications planning in the emerging environment is to put empathy front and centre in all creative campaign thinking. How are people experiencing and feeling the pandemic? Whatever your target audience is – HR software buyers (currently fretting about how they keep their employees motivated) or early consumer tech adopters (stockpiling their yearly purchases in a matter of weeks to relieve the boredom) – walking a mile in their shoes is critical.
2. Get it from Amazon (like everything else!)
Research seems to indicate that more meetings do not necessarily lead to more decisions and the lockdown has actually increased meetings in some cases as we seek to maintain human contact!
Instead of turning up with a blank page, try the Amazon memo route to drive an outcome. Participants need to prepare a narrative form memo to investigate a problem and a solution before the meeting and then opening this up for ‘real’ discussion (and brainstorming).
3. Cast the Net Wide for Inspiration
Likely, at this point, you may have exhausted the must-watch Netflix shows. With a little more time for reading around the edges, you can escape the treadmill of Today show, daily newsfeed, email newsletter and the weekly Economist. Deliberately try a source or section you wouldn’t normally that brings new ideas to the fore – The Guardian long reads is a good bet for content still closely tied to the current situation. For new ideas fast, try the free trial of Blinkist, even let yourself soak in music or art. It doesn’t necessarily matter what it is, just add something that brings more diversity into your information and creative diet and new ideas will emerge.
4. Embrace Boredom and an Emptier Calendar (if possible)
Projects you have always wanted to work on, but never find the time, are now a possibility given the emptier social calendar. That could be professional training or learning a new language. As a parent, you may even pick up ideas from the home-schooling curriculum and listening hard to those around you.
Increasing the frames of reference and connecting disparate ideas may in some ways be easier while we await wider easing of lockdown measures and the chance to connect more as a social species. But it probably takes more a structured approach and effort than the haphazard eureka moments that may crop up in energetic, in-person conversation.
Then again, we ought to make the effort. “Nothing will come of nothing.”