Open to Interpretation


People use words differently. This is something I verified first hand as a linguist, and especially during my 1,200 hours of simultaneous interpreting work. And people interpret information differently. This I learned through my years in the field of business strategy and communication.

The plot thickens online. Online you're all words — often disembodied from context in micro blogging and social graphs — and information — often separated from fact-based research in the hurried nature of longer form content.

Why? Pre-emptive participation strikes. Not everyone has the luxury or time to think these days, especially after a long day of devoting thinking to client work, where it rightly belongs. Thus what you see, is not exactly what you get.

Relationships between things and people provide context; data-driven insights drive relevance. People say one thing, do another. Influence is open to interpretation.

Where words and information come alive

Words and information come alive when they come together within the construct of story. Narrative is the brain's way of remembering, thus the shortcut to being remembered. Writers know that. Some do think they check the facts and then weave them into a narrative.

We are deluged by all kinds of data these days. We measure everything, yet we take what is conveninet to shape a story. In the case of influence, numbers are often used to convey an impression of causality, thus making the world more complicated, not simpler.

Stating "we don't know why that happened" would be simpler. The fallacy in the current conversation is a constant source of costernation for marketers and communicators who so want results: Why aren't people with high scores just repeating my message? Why aren't I getting the results I was promised?

Because 1) that score is a data point, not the driver; 2) it's their story, your customers'.

Want a voice? 

I propose that whenever you want to say something important, the first thing you need to develop is a voice. Many do stop there, at voice development. If you're familiar with acting and performing you do know that voice is expression. The meaning of the story comes across through a combination of things.

The difference between good actors and great actors — yes, even in the online and offline world — is credibility. When you see Meryl Streep in a movie, you're not thinking "look, there's Meryl Streep doing Margaret Thatcher."

You're watching The Iron Lady, and believe what many thought of her — one of UK’s most influential prime ministers. According to the Daily Mail:

The film is billed as examining power "and the price that is paid for power.

It is, according to the makers, "a surprising and intimate portrait of an extraordinary and complex woman" who "smashed through the barriers of gender and class to be heard in a male-dominated world."

Streep's interpretation is the proxy that will carry that message to modern-day audiences. So while you watch the movie, you re-live history and get acquainted with Ms. Thatcher from the point of view of the movie director and writers.

They create a context for transporting you there. All made of relationships and clues in the most tiny details — some of them true to the times, others true to cinematic narrative — you are familiar with the treatment of time and narrative in movies, right?

I love using Ms. Streep as an example. We talked about honing your craft without chest thumping, and how you should have her play you. She is so good people don't really notice she's playing you, said Ephron. And at the end of the day, you discover it was one of the best days you ever had.

That is the power of a good story. A good story has both context and details. And you can watch people as they see themselves transported in it. Which is one of the reasons why video is such a powerful medium.

Interpretation influences

People join a story when they can make it theirs. When they identify elements they see themselves into, when they respond to the narrative emotionally, when it serves their interests and agenda. They will interpret and bend data to tell their story.

If it's true of history, it is true of all human thought and expression. Now we make sense of things out loud, and there's a record of it somewhere — the new publicness, as Jeff Jarvis says.

The brain's way to cut corners on remembering things is to package them into neat stories. Consider this: Why do you know what you know? Because you either 1) read about it from someone you trust; 2) experienced it, and potentially romanticized it afterward.

Your measure of influence is open to interpretation. What you see is not exactly what you get. Numbers are often used to convey an impression of causality. People say one thing, do another.

Organizations are still looking for cheap ways to enroll influence, rather than actually taking the time to understand what the market wants. There are no shortcuts to narrative. A story — anything from the tale of Creation to what makes your product different — requires a setting, characters, a problem to be solved, action, and ultimate resolution.

It's really up to your customer to write this last part from their own needs and experience. But once this happens, the story will become memorable in ways that turn customers into the next tier of storytellers.


When you think of influence as ingredients in a meal, then all of a sudden the task may not seem that dauting — or to require special pixy dust and magic powers. What's your interpretation? Submit your take here for a chance to be featured in our conversation at SxSW.


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