Coppola’s “The Conversation”: the human side of the professional listener

I’ve long thought that every qualitative researcher – or anyone who has spent long hours listening back to imperfect voice recordings and working out what they mean – should watch this film. The trailer is much cheesier than the film by the way. The Conversation is really a much more subtle, tense, claustrophobic psychological thriller than this clip suggests. It’s one of the great 20th Century films.

Surprising that it’s half-forgotten these days: written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola in his prime (released in 1974), it won the the Palme d’Or at Cannes and only missed out on the best picture Oscar to another Coppola film, The Godfather Part 2. Perhaps its release around the time of Watergate, which was coincidental, led US audiences to associate it with that sorry episode in American history; perhaps it has been pigeon-holed as a period piece; or maybe it’s just too scratchy and discomfiting. But make no mistake, The Conversation is a brilliant piece of art.

conversationIt’s about a professional surveillance man, a sound-recording expert, played by Gene Hackman. He’s been tasked to bug a couple and record their conversations. He records them in a noisy public space, Union Square in San Francisco, then has the task of deciphering their words. The sentence he plays back over and over and over is “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” But Hackman has to tinker a lot with the recording to make this out; and the emphasis in the sentence seems to change depending on how he cleans and amplifies the sound.

Hackman becomes concerned the couple are in mortal danger from his employers and, against his professional training, starts to get personally involved in their case. But what he finds isn’t what he expected; meanwhile, his employers start bugging him

At one level, this is a film about surveillance, the invasion of privacy and post-McCarthy-era paranoia. But at another level it really strikes a chord with my work. Because it’s also about the internal moral tensions involved in being a professional listener.

Audio technology has moved on since 1974 ... here, the new Olympus digirecorder being put through its paces

Audio technology has moved on since 1974 … here, the new Olympus digirecorder being put through its paces by genetically engineered twins

Like Hackman, we are out there to elicit personal and sometimes emotionally revealing words from people (albeit that we do it consensually with willing research participants). We sit there with our best Carl Rogers faces on, nodding and encouraging, looking slightly blank, being good listeners. Then we make sense of the outpourings, package it all up for our clients – and walk away. But what lingers for me after my research projects isn’t, in truth, the client’s end decision to go with a bigger font and updated logo on their 500g pack – it’s the vivid glances into people’s real lives I’ve been privy to during the fieldwork.

The Conversation also depicts the process of semantic analysis, focussing intensely on the possible meanings of a few key words. It’s the best example in cinema of taking a phrase and repeating it over and over, until the meaning seems to change. It changes not just because of Hackman’s technical skill with the recording equipment, but because his interpretation shifts in the light of other information he’s discovering, about this couple and his employers. Context is all. Maybe you didn’t hear what you thought you heard. One to think about the next time you’re behind the mirror at a research facility.

I always find a Courtney Pine number a great consolation when I've torn my apartment to bits looking for bugging devices

I always find a Courtney Pine number a great consolation when I’ve ruined my house in the search for insight

Now, it is of course rare in qual research for one utterance by one participant to be quite so pivotal as the telling sentence in The Conversation. We’re not dealing in murder plots, unless some of our leading multiple grocers are using point-of-sale material to poison us all on behalf of Putin’s FSB. But there’s a lot in Hackman’s guilt-ridden listener for us I think. Hackman’s pulling apart of his own apartment at the end of The Conversation is a stark metaphor for the self-deconstruction we all do when we really question ourselves deeply. It’s the process qual researchers need to go through in the course of developing ourselves professionally. Analysing other people’s motivations, behaviours and emotions requires you to take yourself apart too – even if it’s not quite as bleak as the Hackman apartment scene for most of us.

Even Gene Hackman at the end of The Conversation still had his saxophone. There’s always something interesting left when you strip away the layers. It might even play a tune.

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“To be thus is nothing; But to be safely thus …” Loss aversion and the human cost of economic cycles

Those with a passing familiarity with behavioural economics will have heard of “loss aversion”: as described by Tversky and Kahneman, it’s the idea that losses have twice as powerful an effect psychologically as gains. No surprise then to come across an article, Out Of The Loop, while leafing through the ESRC’s “Britain in 2015″ magazine, with the sub-header:

People do not psychologically benefit from economic expansions nearly as much they suffer from recessions.

The short video above, from Jan-Emmanuel de Neve of LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance, shows how what David Cameron once called GWB (general wellbeing) gets left behind by GDP (gross domestic product – a measure of the overall economic fortunes of the nation). Cameron did say back in 2006 that GWB was the more important measure, but something tells me he may be tempted to forget that in the run up to the election. The economy is growing at last (three years later than advertised) but people’s wellbeing will take even longer to recover. There are many reasons for that, but partly it’s about the good old loss aversion effect.

Lagging behind. Lance Armstrong stopped at nothing to nobble his opponents.

Lagging behind. The guy in the black shirt really has no chance of winning the Giro d’Italia – fundamentally wrong approach to cycling there. I’m sure his wellbeing score’s going to suffer.

A period of hardship has a much bigger impact psychologically upon the people affected than is allowed for by traditional ‘rational actor’ economic theory. The lazy assumption used to be that if a country grew its GDP over the long term, that was effectively the same as growing the wellbeing of its people. Feelings of wellbeing do generally rise when GDP rises, that much is true; but there is an important caveat to how the two interrelate. It’s about how we experience – and subsequently regard – periods of loss.

As de Neve explains, measures of wellbeing show it taking a relatively big, lingering hit from even small recessions. Wellbeing sinks further than the economy does in the bad times. Psychologically we are knocked for six. And when the economy picks up and starts to grow, we are slow to follow.

Not much to show for 6 years in the gym

Not much to show for 6 years in the gym

Unlike pounds and pence, we have feelings, memories and experiences. These move to a different rhythm than the economic cycle. By the time the next recession hits, “wellbeing” may have only managed to claw its way back up to square one again.

So the link between GDP and wellbeing is not about the overall trend – it’s about the frequency of the dips, those reminders of our frailty and vulnerability. We are haunted by memories of how bad things have been and how bad they could be again. Why are we like this? Well, it makes sense.

Having to cope with negative events engages you. You face up to truths and make changes. You want to make sure you’ll be better prepared next time. Not to do so is to leave yourself vulnerable. So you see to the defences first; only when you are safe can you start to relax. In football terms, we tend to be much more like George Graham than Mario Zagallo: the beautiful game has to wait until the defence is sorted out.

Macbeth yesterday

Macbeth yesterday

Macbeth achieved his ambitions, only to find it impossible to enjoy what he thought he wanted (“To be thus is nothing; But to be safely thus …”). OK, so we haven’t all murdered our way to the Scottish throne – at least I don’t think I have.

Iain Dowie: wordsmith

Iain Dowie: wordsmith

But I wonder if there isn’t something we can do to let our wellbeing recover more quickly from the setbacks of economic slumps. Shakespeare didn’t have a word for it, but Iain Dowie, the former manager of Crystal Palace, did: bouncebackability.

A book I’m reading, Professor Paul Dolan’s Happiness By Design, offers a way. Dolan defines happiness as “experiences of pleasure and purpose over time” (my italics). Wellbeing, says Dolan, isn’t about how we think, it’s about what we do. Perhaps our recovery can be speeded up if we have a sense of wellbeing less exposed to the buffeting of economic winds and based more upon the people and activities that have meaning for us. After all, money – and GDP for that matter – is only ever a means to another end.

See also:

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A new year, an old resolution: Saying no to crap

Simon Riley:

Martin Weigel’s “Canalside View” blog gets the year off to a great start. He’s so right on this. We spend just as long – longer usually, in my experience – on the stuff that ends up being a bit bollocks as on the stuff we can be justly proud of. Goes for research as much as Martin’s field of advertising. Let’s all do less crap. Happy new year!

Originally posted on canalside view:

not funny

(It’s a new year. A good enough reason as any to revisit and recommit to an old resolution).

Look past all the rhetoric, the confident future gazing, the self-congratulation, the slick case studies, the awards, the campaigns du jour, the smartass blogs, the authoritative keynote speeches… and it’s plain that the vast majority of what we produce as an industry isn’t brilliant or even good.

Most of what our industry puts out into the world is banal, and unremarkable. Or worse, patronizing, derivative, lazy, insulting, hectoring, clumsy, polluting, stupid, repetitive, intrusive, toxic. Or just plain irrelevant.

Perhaps this is not surprising at all. Perhaps advertising simply conforms to what the American science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon termed ‘Sturgeons Revelation’ (or Sturgeon’s Law as it is often referred to). As he put it in in the March 1958 issue of Venture magazine:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me…

View original 297 more words

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So connected you don’t have time to think? Susan Greenfield at the RSA

Quite an interesting talk at the RSA this, with neuroscientist Susan Greenfield plugging her new book Mind Change, in conversation with Jonathan Rowson, Director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre (an extremely interesting bloke btw – and more about the Social Brain project is here:,-cognition-and-creativity/social-brain). Greenfield’s talk gets across some of the basic ideas about neuro-plasticity to a lay audience (and I’m very lay).

I liked this little summary of the two-way-street of experience and changes in the brain:

Every experience you are having will upgrade and update your connections and every experience you are having will be judged and evaluated through the existing connections.

So we experience everything with the brain as it is now; but the next time we come to it, our brain will have been changed a little and we’ll experience it differently. And so forth.

What your brain looks like after a night reading Hermann Hesse's 'Siddartha'

What your brain looks like after a night reading Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddartha’

It’s a simple enough concept, but actually not perhaps how many of us are used to thinking of the effect of our own thoughts and habits. We can live with the idea of little changes in our brain, but the effects of that accumulated over time – that it in a real sense changes who we are – is much more troubling.

Rowson appeared frustrated at times, during the on-stage interview section, trying to coax Greenfield into saying what she was really getting at with her book. She seemed strangely reluctant until quite late on to talk directly about her suspicion that digital technologies are having strong effects on how our brains are developing. She was eventually drawn, saying: “We might be looking at unprecedented changes.” Her thoughts echo Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which I reviewed here in warning against making computers and digital technologies an end in themselves rather than what they should be, a means to human ends.

The future of technology: Torben Friis from Borgen being attacked by his own drawing of a toy car. Can we stand by and let this happen?

The future of technology: Torben Friis from Borgen being attacked by his digital drawing of a toy car. Can we stand by and let this happen?

Greenfield urges that we spend more time thinking about what those ends should be – what the good life might look like – and use machines to help us get there. The alternative is following dumbly in the wake of the latest technological breakthrough. Technological breakthroughs happen according to their own logic and while they may thrill tech fans, they don’t necessarily point the direction we should be going. People need to do that for themselves.

The little film is particularly worth watching from about the 40 minute mark onwards, as Greenfield gets into the meat of her arguments after much prompting from Rowson. In particular, she argues persuasively that human creativity is special and something we need to protect and nurture in the digital age. By creativity, she means a three-stage process:

  1. the ability to deconstruct something
  2. then put it back together differently, combining with unusual things in new ways
  3. then, crucially, make it all mean something (the step often missed, Greenfield observes, by “people on drugs who think they’re poets”)

Our “obsession with being connected all the time” is actually an enemy of the creative process. It distracts us towards shallower, less satisfying pleasures. The danger, she says, quoting Eric Schmidt, is “being so connected you don’t have time to think.”

We are living in a 21st Century remake of Hitchcock's 'The Birds'

Are we twitterati living in a 21st Century remake of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’?

An argument, if ever I heard one, in my own field of qual, for taking time over our analysis and giving due weight to individual as well as collective work. We’re great at bringing minds together to move thinking forward; but we also need to let individual participants and collaborators breathe too. Creative pre-tasking as key, again? I do love those scrapbooks …

So, a frustrating performance at times by Greenfield but a strong voice added to a growing argument. Digital technologies will continue to change us, literally, in terms of our habits of mind and our ways of thinking. They can help us; but we need to be on our guard too. It may be time to start thinking much more seriously about how we want technology to improve our lives – and making sure it really does.

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Signs of life: why qual and semiotics are natural partners

Martina Olbertova using semiotics to suggest she's younger than she really is

Martina Olbertova using semiotics to suggest she’s younger than she really is

I came across this today by Czech semiotician Martina Olbertova, via Joanna Chrzanowska’s brilliant and generous resource, the Qualitative Mind website (; follow her on Twitter on @QualitativeMind; Joanna’s site is full of great information and resources for qual researchers and research buyers alike). Olbertova gives an introduction for the skeptical and/or uninitiated to the not-so-mystical realm of semiotics. It remains something, in my experience of talking to other researchers and clients, that most people know vaguely of, but are very reluctant to actually do. Yet it is surely one of the key tools for brand and market understanding.

I’m not a semiotician myself (yet … maybe one day!) but I’m a convinced fan of the use of semiotic enquiry to tackle tough marketing and comms challenges. Why?

Give me a sign, any sign ...

Give me a sign, any sign …

As Olbertova explains, there is a limit to what you can learn from consumers themselves. I’ve found this in my own experience. Take a piece of packaging research, for example. We get useful insights on what the pack colour means to people, even what it signifies to them, what different versions of the logo suggest, all that. But what we miss, often, is the context. What are the prevailing ways of brands expressing themselves in this category? Where does this pack sit in relation to the rest of the category? Adjacent categories?

A few years ago I used semiotics to help a leading brand in laundry adjust its image. We also used some quite original triangulated conflict groups (one for another day) and consumer laundry visual diaries, but the semiotics piece – a survey of the visual language of the laundry category and of consumer language around ‘cleaning’ – helped me hugely in making sense of what I was hearing and seeing from consumers. It provided a detailed yet clear relief map onto which I could chart how consumers saw the world of cleaning in general and my client’s brand in particular.

No wonder I keep crashing the car

No wonder I keep crashing the car

Consumers can give you a useful start on mapping out their visual worlds for you. But casting the net comprehensively across a whole category is an exercise for a semiotician with a cold towel over his/her head and a few days to work on it. That’s because the questions we’re really asking here are only partly about consumer perceptions. They start essentially as factual questions: about what competitor products look like, what colours and shapes they use, what words they use.

Consumers aren’t there in qual research projects to be comprehensive, in-depth loggers of everything that’s out there. If we ask them to do that, they stop behaving as consumers and we start to lose the point of seeking their input in the first place. What consumers give us is a piecemeal picture of the world as they see it – and that’s very important, we want that. What a semiotic analysis of a category offers (among other things) is something different: a systematic way of logging, surveying and analysing the visual environment the consumers find themselves in, noting patterns that are so hidden or indeed so obvious, that consumers may not notice their importance, even using our toolkit of projectives and all the rest. Crucially, semiotic analysis does more than just record the presence of pieces of packaging, ads, logos, images and so on, it looks at what messages those things are broadcasting. How those broadcasts are received by people encountering them is another question – and that’s where my qual comes in.

Piecing it all together

Piecing it all together

If you are seeking things like stand-out, cut-through, relevance for a piece of brand communication – and let’s face it, these are at the core of much branding comms research – bringing in some semiotic thinking can clarify things a lot. For example, semiotics can tell a brand manager: these are the standard ways brands communicate in this category – and these are ways you can play by or break the rules if you want to. Qual can then come in to look at how particular pieces of communication are received, wise to all the communicative tropes.

It went thattaway

More meaning, fewer graphs

As a qual research consultant, my approach is to bring in experts in related fields to partner with me to meet my clients’ needs in full. I understand the basics of semiotics but I look to full-time practitioners to deliver this service in partnership with Shore. I’d like to name-check Chris Arning here (; Twitter: @semiotico), who’s been a helpful interlocutor for me in recent years as I seek to learn more about semiotics. Founder of his own consultancy Creative Semiotics, he’s one of the leading UK commercial semiotics practitioners. He’s done some great introductory videos too:

Anyone wanting to really get to the bottom of a knotty brand comms problem could do worse than have a chat to Chris.

Semiotics doesn’t do away with the need for qual research; it is complementary to it. If we have the budget, we can have BOTH our real-time, self-generated nuggets of participant data AND bring in others methods for getting to richer, smarter, more actionable findings.

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No Cuts (on bagels): when you get it wrong, you “gotta” change

"This might look like an embarrassing reversal but the main point is, we listened to YOU. Just don't tell us to slice again or we'll hit you."

“This might look like an embarrassing reversal but the main point is, we listened to YOU. Just don’t tell us to slice again or we’ll hit you.”

I was surprised to see on the side of my bagel packet this morning the aftermath of an emotionally charged drama, as heart-wrenching as anything seen since Sophocles.

It appears the New York Bakery Company’s recent habit of pre-slicing the bagels has been discontinued, due to some kind of wild public outcry.

I sincerely hope it wasn’t market research that occasioned this cowardly loss of nerve by everyone’s favourite purveyors of boil ‘n’ bake yeasted wheat rings. I can only hope it was a twitterstorm or some kind of Occupy Movement sit-in that prompted this humiliating volte face. Perhaps they saw this and took it the wrong way:

We must listen to the people ...

We must listen to the people …

Call me weird, but I couldn’t help checking out how the Rotherham-based bakers’ website handled the climb-down. Here’s what they say:

Dear Bagel Fans
We have been listening to your feedback about our recent decision to stop slicing our Plain [capital ‘p’ – are you sure? Ed] bagels. We’re sorry that some of you are disappointed with our decision – trust us, it wasn’t taken lightly.
But we know that pre-slicing affected the quality of our bagels and here at New York Bakery Co. that’s what we’re all about, no compromise.
That’s why our original, unsliced bagel is back. We just wanna make the best bagels we can.

They wanna and they’re gonna. And I gotta say, I’m glad they did it.

And if you’re going to do it, do it with the chutzpah for which New Yorkers – and people who live in Rotherham – are renowned. Cos they ain’t slicing nothing no more. The customer is always right.

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A light buzz year: to infographics and beyond

I came across a link to this today while browsing the wonderful @brainpickings by Maria Popova. I know 2013 is so last year, but still – some brilliant visualisations of data on here. These examples are American, but no less interesting for that. I love the vote-weighted electoral map and the wind map in particular. Inspiration for any presentation. Or just inspiration.

Brain Pickings: the doors of perception without the acid flashbacks

Brain Pickings: the doors of perception without the acid flashbacks

If you’re a qual researcher – or a person generally – and you haven’t checked out Brain Pickings yet, you should. It’s probably the best thing on the Internet if you have a curious, arts and humanities-leaning mind. A gateway to a lot of interesting people being interesting – and not so much taking you off on tangents as showing you some great paths through the thicket of life. The best ones tend not to be the obvious ones. It’s not just some resource, it’s wise and has got a soul. That seems rare these days in world where we struggle to step off the hedonic treadmill (some interesting further thoughts on that also here). It isn’t afraid to talk about what really matters in life, not just the practical stuff we all have to do. And therein lies its brilliance (and therein), if you’ll excuse the Fall reference.

Technology was supposed to free us up to spend more time on the important stuff of life, not on more technology. So for those of us bored with meaningless distraction, who want to think more about a meaningful, thoughtful and fulfilled life – and God knows, even have one – here’s a good place to start.

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