What a 96-year Old Taught Us About Communication

Denis Norden, left, and Frank Muir in their office in the 1950s writing scripts for the radio show Take It from Here. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Denis Norden, who died on September 19, 2018, was one of the UK’s most beloved comedic writers and broadcasters. He also lived a long and happy life that encompassed the ‘golden years’ of British broadcasting. One of his great skills was his ability to connect with his audience, which is where we can all start to pay attention.

Many efforts at communication today rely on sending out large amounts of information and hoping some of it will stick. Far less time is spent trying to actually engage – or empathise with – the audience. Most PR agencies will be guilty of this at one time or another, usually under the guise of ‘thought leadership’, a label that many reporters despise.

The art of captivating your audience

This outward-looking approach to communication is too often viewed as one-way, and there is good reason for that. In Norden’s early and middle years, there were only a few communication channels in the UK, most of them run by the BBC. You had the captive audience that communicators of today yearn for – but you had to engage with them. To become part of their families as they sat by their radios or more recently, watched their TV together (now there’s a concept).

As David Aaronovitch wrote in The Times today, Norden specialised in wordplay to great effect. He became part of the British lore, whether on his radio or TV shows or behind the scenes in ‘Carry On’ movies. Perhaps his most famous line, ‘Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me,’ was only surpassed in the Carry On genre by ‘Rectum? Well, it didn’t do ’em any good!’, which was not his line.

Another of his great skills was the ability to present humour without a sharp edge. It is disappointing to see so much polarised political verbiage spewed out in the media and on Facebook, and it actually does little to bind communities together, except in mutual hatred.

Connecting communities: start small

In the financial sector, the issue is more one of focus. With everyone so busy, connecting with an audience is tricky. Certain industry events serve this purpose, as do a shrinking number of reputable trade media outlets. But in general, we are witnessing a tsunami of content, fuelled in part by the obsession with content marketing. But my suggestion is, let’s not focus so much on marketing content, but in creating and binding communities that have mutual interests, regardless of how small. If you start with the idea of building bridges, communication plans might start to look very different.

In conclusion, thank you, Denis, for being part of a generation that pulled people together through the art of engaging, relevant and humourous broadcasting. If you are interested in learning more about this wonderful man, try The Guardian Obituary.

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