Beat The Clock

The clocks go back on Sunday morning, as British Summer Time comes to an end. We’ll all do it. It’s so normal to join in with it, that none of us considers not doing so. It’s a brilliant ‘behaviour change intervention’; it’s so easy and so normal to do, that we don’t even recognise that our behaviour is being changed. This got me thinking …

A few of my projects involve introducing a behavioural layer to local authority communications. To do it, I have to read through current comms (letters, leaflets, press releases) and identify why they don’t work behaviourally.

For fun, I’ve taken some of the tropes I’ve spotted in existing comms and used them to write a fake Council magazine article or web page trying to get people to delay starting their day by one hour for the next six months, in a parallel universe where the clocks don’t change seasonally.

Why? Because some of you might find it amusing. And because it might help me make my point that much current comms is not behaviour-smart.

‘One Hour Delay’ Project

As part of its policy to ensure that daylight hours are used as effectively as possible, the Council is preparing to launch an initiative aimed at increasing the number of residents who start their day an hour later.

Beginning every day an hour later is an easy way for us all to make a difference to the way light is used and help meet the targets in the Council’s Light Use Strategy.

Councillor Jones said: “Residents will need to set their alarms an hour later than they currently do. Unfortunately, we will not be able to provide this service, due to cuts in our government funding.”

The tendencies I’m clumsily trying to illustrate here are:

  • Not being analytical enough in identifying the target behaviour, so losing the chance to ask directly for the act that will make the most difference (in this case, changing the time on clocks and other devices).
  • Describing the ‘reward’ for the behaviour in terms which relate to policy, rather than emotions that are vivid to people.
  • Featuring the Council (and its decision-making) prominently, though this distracts from the ‘ask’.
  • Introducing a ‘loss frame’, where we tell residents what we can’t do for them.
  • Using convoluted language and concepts which (though many are familiar to officers) add to the ‘cognitive load’ of the piece, and so make behaviour change less likely.
  • Not presenting a way of making the desired behaviour easy.
  • Not having as the central message either the emotional reward for the target behaviour (“you’ll arrive at the right time”) or the clear behavioural ask (“put your clocks back on Saturday night”).
  • Not using social proof or referring to social norms, when these would fall in our favour. “Everyone else is doing this,” is a useful message, as hardly any of us is comfortable being the odd one out.

OK, OK, I’m exaggerating in my imagined article. And I know I’m treading a fine line. Lots of Council communications is good now, and it has improved rapidly in recent years. Respect to those responsible (including LG Comms and Dan Slee). But, in my experience, very little of it yet reveals a sophisticated understanding of human behaviour, clarity around target behaviours, or an appreciation of what makes a real difference in influencing what we do. It’s no surprise: much of the evidence I draw on is recent and challenges the assumptions of many professions, that people are, essentially, ‘rational’.

Many of my workshops have as their main takeaway message: “stop trying to change people’s minds: make your target behaviour easy and normal“. I think that’s what I’m trying to say.