Flying Without a Net


As part of my new life as a sole trader, I have built up a nice little business running what I call ‘Brand Essence Workshops.’ The title might sound wanky, but I flatter myself that the process isn’t.

For the purposes of this column, it is not necessary to explain precisely how they work, suffice to say they are designed to help organisations of any kind distil their essential nature and purpose, and so help them communicate who and what they are to the people they service. Put simply, it’s hard to tell people who you are if you haven’t quite worked it out yourself.

Over the past few years I have run them for all sorts of organisations including schools, unions, law firms, accountants, car dealerships, alumni groups, arts organisations, charities and professional associations.

I begin each workshop with an exercise I developed myself, designed to break the ice, be a bit of fun and really get inside the skin of that particular organisation’s target audience (please excuse the marketing-speak).

After 30 years in the communication business, I refuse to talk about target audiences in terms of demographics or groups. ‘There is no such thing as a mass audience,’ I tell them, ‘there is only ever an audience of one.’ To that end, I get the people I’m working with to define their audience as if they were a character in a play. They must decide if this character is a man or a woman, give them a name, an age, a job, a partner (or not), kids (or not) a proper back-story. They flesh out this person as I imagine a professional actor might.

I’ve lost count of how many of these workshops I’ve run, but it is impossible to ignore that the person who emerges from this exercise is always the same one. I now recognise them almost as soon as they begin to appear.

No matter their gender, their age, their relative prosperity, their social class or nationality, their concerns and fears. The people or archetypes who take shape on my whiteboard are all struggling with the same problem.

They have no support.

They all work long hours. Many have experienced marital breakdown; and those who have not, struggle with competing levels of exhaustion, with each partner expecting but neither receiving support from the other. Every hour is spoken for, either by their work, their parenting or by their personal responsibilities.

Many of the characters the groups create particularly, it must be said, the women characters spend much of their working and personal lives supporting others, but they get none in return. Any supports that used to be in the workplace have long gone and the more ‘successful’ these people are, the less support they have.

I get my audiences to name the characters they’ve conjured up, and so there’s Doreen the primary school principal, Mary the single parent tattooist, John the truck driver, and Susie the accountant. And when I ask them what these individuals use for support the answers are the bottle of chardonnay, fast, calorie-laden food, and, increasingly (and depressingly) anti-depressants.

During their working day these characters function often to a very high standard but at night, when their duties are finally over, they crumble and reach for the only props they have left. And just as I suspect my audience is describing themselves, I do not separate myself from this archetype. I look forward to that glass or two (or three) of wine in the evening just as much as everyone else does. Particularly, perhaps, after one of these workshops, from which I emerge exhilarated but also exhausted.

There, on my whiteboard, over and over and over again, I am looking at the cause of our epidemic of obesity, rising alcohol abuse and increasing levels of depression. We are all working without a net, and we know it. One slip and we will come crashing down, with nothing and no one to reach out and save us on. How can anyone reach out? They’re all working without a net too and if they let go to help us, they’ll follow us into free fall.

How much longer we can go on ignoring this and continue to work longer and harder, I do not know. Loyalty from employers disappeared decades ago and loyalty to them disappeared shortly thereafter. We all know we are ‘cost centres’ and that success brings not just more responsibility, but more vulnerability. The more successful we are the more we tend to be paid and, therefore, the more could be saved if we were fired.

Worse, if we achieve our targets either in sales or profit we merely catapult the next target even higher, thereby punishing ourselves for doing well.

In these days of saturated markets, profits are increased by cutting costs, and it is we who are the costs. If we work for government, we increase surpluses and solve moral panics by doing more and more with less and less.

No manager ever gets up at the staff Christmas party and announces that, because the company’s made a motza, everyone can either have a pay rise or work shorter hours. No, they always get up and tell their already exhausted staff to redouble their efforts and put their noses to the grindstone. And this is supposed to be motivating!

Human beings require support. They need to be allowed to stop sometimes and just be. What is the point of success, however defined, if there is never any time to enjoy it, never any time to rest (albeit on our laurels)?

If we want a more effective and productive workforce, we’ve got to give them the help they need to do their job properly and using chardonnay, fast food and anti-depressants as a cheap shortcut is merely forestalling an even bigger disaster.

Put back that net, or a lot more will come crashing down.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.