Buzzin’ — The Goldfish and The Inverted Pyramid

Buzzin’ — The Goldfish and The Inverted Pyramid

Morning Buzz by Bridget Kozlowski

What I’m Reading: “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng

What I’m Watching: Trading Spaces re-vamp

What I’m Listening To: Cardi B’s new album (specifically “I Like It”)

TL;DR: Short attention spans means information has to be flashy enough to capture attention but also concise and informative. Use the journalist’s inverted pyramid model (image below) to maximize your communication’s effectiveness.

When I left for college in 2005, I joined Facebook. I created a Twitter account in 2008 and Instagram in 2011. Since, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed using social media both personally and professionally. It’s a place of expression, sharing and enjoyment for me. However, I won’t deny that I believe social media consumers (including myself) have incredibly short attention spans thanks to a mass of information and a borderline unhealthy addiction to our smart phones. According to a few articles, we can only focus on one thing for about eight seconds, or about the attention span of a goldfish. (More here). So, like it or not, we’re all goldfish.

For those of us that work in government communication, this is a challenge. Our work isn’t just about getting people to buy a product or attend a concert — the information we peddle (aside from good news and positive city marketing) is often highly important to our residents’ daily lives. From road closures to police matters to refuse delays and beyond, we work to share our daily flow of information that’s more in the “need to know” category. Our goal is always to make sure we’re doing our absolute best to get the information in front of people to avoid confusion and phone calls. An informed resident is a happy resident, right?. Well, mostly…

Social media continues to be our greatest strength and biggest challenge as we navigate communication. It’s quick and fast and colorful — but are we capturing the attention of our goldfish? How can we share our important need-to-know information in a way that makes sure people are getting the information they need?

I have an example from a topic we’re struggling with here in Michigan this winter. If you’re not familiar, Michigan has the lowest state spending on roads per capita of all 50 states. It does seem ironic doesn’t it, that the “Motor City” and the state that drives America would have the worst roads? Well, it’s true. The roads here are crumbling, and municipalities are bearing the brunt of blame as drivers call their local officials and demand reimbursement for popped tires and broken axles due to potholes the size of kiddie pools. Cities aren’t receiving the necessary state funding to fix roads, and thus a cycle of deterioration perpetuates. Angry and loud Michiganders got the Governor to add $175 million to road funding for this year, but it’s not enough. And municipalities (specifically their customer service staff) are getting beat up.

Enter our problem: As a department that handles all city communication, we work closely with engineering and public works to put out information on pothole patching, road resurfacing and closures as often as possible. In the past, we would begin the social media post with a friendly introductory or short background paragraph to the post’s topic and then begin to list the road work planned. However, this proved to be ineffective. Why? Well, we had an influx of commenters who would only get to the “pothole patching planned for March 5…” potion of the post and immediately drop down to comments to fire off. They would almost always mention or request the patching of a street actually mentioned in the post, clearly not taking the time to read our message.

I do absolutely understand the anger of these residents. When your day is derailed by a flat tire — and you’re forced to pay for it, you’re angry and looking to place blame. So for us, this ultimately meant we had to re-work our strategy. Given the heat of this topic and the short attention spans we’re working with in most scenarios, we had to begin simplifying the post to start off by immediately listing the roads getting the repairs and other very basic details at top, and then would further down include any supplementary information or links below. We began to better use the inverted pyramid.

In news, journalists’ strategy is to present the most important information first, and follow with details from most important to least important. This is the inverted pyramid. Information should be stacked most important to least important. This isn’t a beautiful chronological way of storytelling — this is making sure our goldfish gets the information it needs so it can swim on informed or act if needed. There is an art to the inverted pyramid, something I admire greatly in talented journalists. Back in my day as a journalist, I think I was pretty decent at it too. Think of the inverted pyramid as the TL;DR of communication strategy. If you know the person won’t read beyond the first three sentences, what must you include to get your message across? We must first grab attention then be concise and informative. If you’re not sure you hit your target, check yourself. If you get three sentences in to reading the post and don’t have the most important information yet, start over.

What’s encouraging to me as a communicator is there is still a place for creative and flowery social media posts using details, chronological order and storytelling. For example, our Digital Content Coordinator does a beautiful job telling stories about our public safety department and their positive interactions with people. She sets up the scene, includes a lot of details and always makes sure to use at least one photo. It’s always heartwarming and generates double digit shares.

For the feel good posts, use your creative license. For the important, I recommend the inverted pyramid.