Posts Tagged 'Green shoots'

Week 39: sell joy, buy gloom

Seeing as the Western economies are all going to hell in a handcart by the end of 2011, I thought I’d take a look and see how much residual optimism is left.

To do this, I constructed the TN Joy Index, by taking the numbers of articles that mention the word “joy”, and dividing them by the number that mentioned the word “gloom”. In this case, I’m showing the results from news sources in the US (omitting sport, where both emotions are cheapened commodities, and obituaries, which might skew the data). I figured the US is the bellwether economy for joy. It is still the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter of optimism, though not all of it is of the highest quality these days. for example, only the US could have produced the following three books, demonstrating how competitive the market in misplaced optimism used to be:

They'll be correct, just not yet

For would-be students of the TN Joy Index, I present three results. The first is that newspapers are still, on balance, happy places. Not one of my results contained a month where there were more articles mentioning gloom than joy. I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend a newspaper to cheer yourself up at the moment, unless your personal Joy Index is low indeed. If that is the case, buy the official Talk Normal book instead. That’ll make at least one of us happy.

The second result is that, despite a lack of concrete reasons to be cheerful, the US has been steadily recovering the joy it abruptly lost in 2007 and 2008. In 2011 joy has been up to almost pre-crash levels of exuberance. I suspect that joy is more in evidence among high earners. Still, if you’re unemployed or in foreclosure, look at this and you might be encouraged:

Not for long though. The Weekly TN Joy Index is plunging like an overworked plumber. In week 32*, beginning 8 August, we reached historically low levels of joyfulness, with only 1.62 joys for every gloom. For comparison: in the week that Lehman Brothers collapsed in the US, the index was at 1.97. In the week after 9/11, it was at 2.24.

The short-term market for optimism seems to have collapsed, but I refuse to be downhearted. I may write a book called “Joy at 100,000!!!” predicting a time when gloom is all but forgotten and a sub-2 index seems unthinkable. It’s about as likely to happen in the near future as the Dow at 40,000 – but, when the market turns, there will be money in unrealistic optimism once again. I want my cut.

* TN TruFact: Since 15 June 1988, there has been an International Standard for week numbering, to give management consultants something to report on when they visit wall chart manufacturers. It is defined in ISO-8601 and, according to Epoch Converter, “The first week of the year is the week that contains that year’s first Thursday.” If that doesn’t restore your faith in the ability of developed economies to create jobs out of thin air, nothing will.

What the government would like to say about economic recovery

Selfridges opened its Christmas shop last week, specifically to irritate people like me. I prefer my new bag. It’s £4.99 at Modern Toss.

The power of positive thinking

Many people claim to me that journalists are only interested in bad news. Why can’t we write something happy for a change? Who wouldn’t want to read a story like “weather tolerable, light breeze”, or “mild work problem solved”?

I may mock, but those who want more happiness in their news might be getting your wish. the graph below is an index of how often the words “positives” and “negatives” show up in Factiva’s global major news stories database. I’ve taken 2002 as the base because, in 2002, there were about the same number of positives and negatives in the press.

As you can see, the graph doesn’t change much until the end of 2008. Then it whizzes up. The number of stories mentioning negatives hasn’t changed very much, but there are hundreds more stories mentioning positivity. We’re obviously learning to look on the bright side.

I excluded sports stories from this on purpose, because I had chosen the jargon noun “positives” (the thing that footballers “take”) rather than the more common adjective “positive”. There are few setbacks so appalling, no disappointments too depressing that a news story can’t quote someone taking positives from them.

The news business is changing: it is less about what’s happening, and more about how people feel about what just happened. These reactions may not be informed or relevant, but they’re certainly easier to report quickly. It is news for the Facebook generation, because we can all get involved. Not only have we taken the positives, we’re evidently not ready to give them back.

Talk Normal in meatspace

"Tools that help us": keeping my options open on instruments of torture; you never know.

Thanks to Claire Thompson and her extremely constructive The Tools That Help Us initiative, I’ll be a panellist in a session called Cleaning Up Communications at Tempero, 14-16 Great Portland Street, London W1W 8QW, on 25 June at 2pm.*

Click on the link to sign up. It’s free. Also on show: Darika Ahrens, Grapevine Consulting, on #fixpr; Richard Ellis of the Public Relations Consultants Association; Molly Flatt, 1000 Heads; Adam Parker, An Inconvenient PR Truth.

I’m allowed to talk for five minutes – rather than the five hours I’d prefer – so I’m taking advice on what to say if you’re coming along and want me to do requests.

Otherwise, show up and ask me a question, and we can exchange ideas. Remember when we used to do that? Now we can go to Twitter and ask the opinion of millions of people we don’t know, instead of just five of us. But let’s give this conversation thing one more go. For old time’s sake. Promise I won’t ask again.

* To save you the trouble of looking it up: North Korea v Ivory Coast, Brazil v Portugal.

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I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand

Durham Tees Valley: flights 56 per cent off

There’s good news and there’s bad news, but there’s more good news. I’m not just trying to make you feel better, there really is. I divided the number of stories mentioning “good news” by those mentioning “bad news”, and there’s a steady increase in good news stories in the last 15 months:

We certainly have pluck. On this sophisticated measure, levels of non-specific hope are even higher than at the height of the boom:

It’s also worth pointing out that the long-term good news ratio in the newspapers is consistently above where it was 20 years ago. And in those days newspapers were in black and white and you had to pay to read about misery rather than just ignoring it on the internet. Terrible days. Still, they didn’t have Richard Littejohn then, so not everything’s changed for the better.

The press might be at a historical hope high because of the dead cat bounce theory (even a dead cat will bounce if it falls far enough. Try it). In this case there is so much real-life bad news that papers have just looked harder for something chipper to write about.

Exhibit A: “Bosses of the region’s two airports say they are seeing the green shoots of recovery,” said a hope-filled article in the Newcastle Journal this week, which, as far as I could see, contained almost no evidence of any green shoots at all. The article is about how the managers of local airports were hoping things would improve after average passenger numbers in the UK fell 7.4 per cent last year. At Newcastle Airport the drop was 9 per cent, and Durham Tees Valley 56 per cent. If you exclude the better-performing airports, the article points out, Newcastle declined less than the average.

Of course, if you exclude enough of the better-performing airports, even Durham Tees performed better than the average. But if you’re the boss you have to tell the local press that stuff is going to get better, honest. It’s your job. I note that it is a journalist’s job to point out when you’re talking crap (a 56 per cent decline in business is a clue in this case). But, sometimes, we all need a hug.

So it is with the “green shoots” mentioned above, now used not as economic analysis, but as a signal of faint and desperate hope that we won’t have to cook our pets for dinner or traffic the kids yet. Business Minister Baroness Vadera in January 2009 and Solicitor General Vera Baird in March 2009 both claimed to have spotted these shoots. They must have a big magnifying glass in the UK Treasury, because GDP fell 2.64 per cent in the quarter beginning in January 2009 , and 0.63 per cent the next quarter.

If you want an example of how meaningless and transient news-based optimism can be, there was a gigantic peak in UK green shoots stories last summer – mostly, in the ones I read, estate agents saying they were a bit busier:

But note how quick they died away. Hope is a powerful drug – but it wears off quickly. Dead cats bounce; just not very high.

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The Win-Win scenario

You might recall I promised to buy an Oxfam pig to help a family in Cambodia if 285 of you signed up to receive Talk Normal by email before Christmas. The excellent news was that at least 100,000 times that number of people assured me that they were just about to sign up right now just as soon as they had finished doing this thing that they were doing just this minute, but of course many of them (translation: “you”) were lying. As long as you keep coming to visit we’ll overlook it; but if you stop reading Talk Normal don’t come crying to me when your conference calls last three hours or you can’t understand your own press releases.

Thanks in part to you but mostly to me, Win-Win the Talk Normal charity pig has now been purchased. He’s happily snuffling around his sty in Cambodia, as you can see from this official photo:

Subscriber or not, thanks to everyone for reading, commenting and suggesting in 2009. The long yet rewarding process of Talknormalisation continues in 2010.

Giving your all (plus 0.8 per cent)

Hero of the USSR Alexey Stakhanov, by my criteria, gave around 3,000 per cent.

As we’re getting close to the time of year when people like to make resolutions to try harder, I thought I’d do a quick bit of research to work out how much harder we ought to try, and who should be trying harder to try harder.

I searched for stories where people claimed to give certain percentages (or % or per cent) of effort to find how hard we have been trying in the last few years. I examined a spread from “give 120 per cent” down to “give 80 per cent” on the assumption that anyone claiming to give higher or lower percentages is either a fantasist or lazy enough to ignore.

Ideally any society will have a cadre of capable people who tell you they are giving 110 and 120 per cent. The most noticeable tend to work in professional sports, though as they also tend to assure us they are taking each game as it comes, we can’t assume this is a long term trend. If it is, I’ll be over the moon.

Imagine if we let the 100 percenters carry on as before, then we pair each person who claims to give 120 per cent with someone who wants to give 80 per cent, each person giving 110 with a 90-percenter, and so on. By finding the average I’m effectively measuring who is left over after we do this.

Note that I assume that someone claiming to give 110 per cent is as likely to fulfil that promise as someone who claims to give 90 per cent. This is obviously problematic from a strictly statistical point of view, because it’s what statisticians call “impossible”. So that’s problematic in the sense of “not true”. But I don’t make up the numbers, I just report them.

We need our hyperbolic elites to balance out those who shamelessly give 90 or 80 per cent and aren’t scared to tell the press about it. In normal times a society can celebrate both over- and underachievers, and so will score a solid 100 per cent. Yet, in times of crisis, perhaps more than 100 per cent effort is required – which is why I looked at the statistics for 2009. We’re averaging 100.8 globally, so that’s all right:

I conclude:

1. We’re doing better than we used to. At least, we’re saying that we’re doing better. The global effort mean for the noughties was about 96 per cent.

2. The BRIC countries say they’re trying harder than we are. Anyone who has ever spent a couple of hours in the presence of an Indian company manager, watched all those drummers at the opening cermony of the Beijing Olympics, or looked to see where all your spam comes from will believe this.

3. The UK and the US are above average. Our economies are dead in the water and we’re basically owned by China, but the index shows that we keep telling people that we’re trying; which is endearing.

4. Journalists claim to work harder than politicians. But I’m sure politicians are also claiming another couple of percent in their expenses – not least because they score less than 100 per cent.

5. Surprisingly, sportspeople are below-average hyperbolists. An odd result considering the number of high-profile bullshitters who work in the business. The low score is maybe because, even if they insist they’re giving 120 per cent, they’re giving it twice a week for an hour and a half (though I’m not sure how this would be reflected in the data). Or it might just be that cricket, a game where it’s not polite to try too hard and which is the only sport deliberately scheduled around sit-down meals, drags the average down.

Good news: if you’re worried that your New Year’s resolution might be too testing, you don’t need to try as hard as you think. If your peer group wants to top the charts next year all you need to do is let the press know that you consistently give 101.7 per cent. You’ll be top of my pile for hyperbolic ambition, if not for quotability.


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