Tuesday, August 9, 2022

how reading in the bath changes the world

I was recently invited by those nice people at Social Value UK to be the 'main attraction' in an open lunchtime conversation about how we might understand the ways in which the things we write (blogs, books, manifestos, etc) actually create change amongst the people who read them.

This was, in part, prompted by my openly committing earlier this year to be deliberately seeking to identify the impacts that my book on imposter syndrome is creating - over the last few months, I've started to capture evidences and illustrations of some of the changes that people are experiencing and adopting as a result of engaging with my ideas in the book. This open conversation therefore allowed me an opportunity to reflect with fellow social value and impact practitioners on these emergent practices and approaches to challenge my own thinking to date, and any bias that may be creeping into my 'navel gazing'...

The below summarises what I took from the conversation as encouragement, challenge, and further provocation. It's shared in hopes of helping to continue this conversation, and also capture the insights and ideas shared for the benefit of others:

"Impact should be able to be recognised and celebrated, even if can't be evidenced" - there's often a fervour to capture feedback forms, survey responses, and such like in the rush to prove that good things have happened. But as any good scientist knows, the very act of observing something changes its nature, so sometimes we should be OK with being able to accept and acknowledge impacts on faith, without needing to see reams of data and charts behind the assertion?

"All impact is subjective" - we live in a world of very few moral absolutes: what is important for me is less so for you (think Marmite), so how should we recognise and prioritise the impacts that our words create? To take this idea further - for what purpose are we wanting to understand the impact that our book is creating?  For me, that's actually easy to answer: I never had any intentions to write or publish a book - rather to 'scratch an itch' about an idea, so in the spirit of lifelong learning, I'm genuinely interested to see what it causes. This is because that will ultimately help me better decide if there should be a 2nd edition, a book about something else, or I should hang up my author's quill altogether... 

"Will we still be reading books in 200 years time?" - the impact of books can echo far further into the future than our current ways of considering impact can hope to capture - Charles Dickens wrote books 200 years ago that still speak to us today as encouragement and challenge, as do the works of Shakespeare from 400 years ago... Should we then, at least, hope that the books we write today will still be pertinent to what it means to be human and how we live our lives in the centuries to come?  Unless, that is, we're wanting to create impact around a specific current issue - because if our words work in the way we anticipate they will, then they it will no longer be of relevance or interest beyond the next generation. Which takes us to the next point...

"Why are we writing in the first place?" - what impact are we hoping to create from the books we write? We know that Dickens and Shakespeare, as well as writing for the entertainment of others, sought to use their books as ways to try and influence societal practices and cultures that they felt uncomfortable with. And we know that some writers today are seeking to influence lifestyles and worldviews to mitigate climate damage, and/or help us better think about our relationships with technology. But I wrote my book without any specific intended impact in mind that it would create in others, other than to try and widen conversations people had about feelings of imposterism - as authors, do we need to have a specific intention of how our words will create impact (although it might be easier to track progress against them if we do)?

"Are we wanting to change the reader, or change their world?" - and to extend this idea about the impacts we seek to create in others - are these impacts focussed on the individual who reads the book (in that the changes they subsequently make benefit them), or are they more altruistic in seeking to influence the readers' behaviour so that they will in turn magnify and create benefits primarily for others around them?

"How far should we hold responsibility for what we write?" - but if we talk of intended impacts, we also need to consider unintended impacts: after all, as an author, we can't know or control how what we write will be read by others, understood by them, or selectively referenced to support their own agendas and positions. The way we publish can have some sway in mitigating this (self-publishing means that the authors 'voice' hasn't been edited, censored, or rephrased at the request of an editor), but it doesn't completely resolve it.  

"What's the impact of a slogan?" - how far does the medium and format of written words also influence change in/for people - for example, can slogans on tee-shirts have the same impact on a person's life as a book that they read?

"But what about the author?"  so far, we've considered impact of the book (or similar) on the people who are reading it - what about the impact on the author who writes it? What changes and benefits do they gain through this process (and how far should we be concerned about the benefits gained by this key stakeholder to the book?)

"Be the best stalker you can be" - Whilst the above all prompt further thought and reflection, the conversation also turned to practical matters - if you publish a book, you don't have any automatic way of knowing who's read it or who they've shared it with (outputs); how it's engaged them emotionally, and through that, prompted them to make changes in their circumstances (outcomes); and what changes in their life as a result (impact). This gave rise to some salutary reminders about not over-claiming impacts (after all, we don't know what people have also been engaging with alongside reading our book). Also, that comments people make in reviews about intentions can't be taken as assurance of subsequent changes they'll make in their future behaviours; and how do we even hear about what people are saying and sharing if we're not part of their networks?  

I can't speak (or write!) for the others who were part of the conversation - although I hope that they'll find ways to share with others what they took from this conversation in turn. But for me, I found it a very encouraging and progressive conversation that's given me plenty to keep reflecting on as I continue to seek to understand how proud or shamed I should be by the pocket-book I accidently wrote.

And for anyone wondering if anyone really did join us from their bath - and so qualified for a free copy of my book: hats (or rather, shower-caps) off to Charlotte Osterman of Social Value UK:

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