It has ever been thus, actually. Haldane draws attention to body language: “In the 1920s, the Governor’s “eyebrows” famously became one of the Bank’s means of communicating. The eyebrows were, in a way, a primitive form of emoji: sterling crisis – sad face. Nonetheless, for even the most malleable-faced Governor, the ‘eyebrows’ were an imperfect communications medium.”
Imperfect, yes, but as a video adds flesh to the bones of written text, they added a richness of meaning.
Haldane does an excellent job of analysing the complexity of central bank speak, again using rigorous analytics, comparing the complexity of the US Fed’s Federal Open Markets Committee utterances with Elvis Presley lyrics. He prefers Elvis.
He concentrates on complexity but could have attacked jargon, equally culpable in excluding the understanding of a broader readership while suggesting a lack of credibility in the user – although maybe this is best left to the incomparable Lucy Kellaway from the Financial Times.
Haldane’s most important argument though is around dwindling trust. “It reflects a widening gap between trust in institutions among the elites (which has held firm) and among the general public (where it has fallen),” says. “This trust gap between elites and the general public averages 15 percentage points globally, having been around 9 percentage points as recently as 2012. In the UK and US, this gap is around 20 percentage points.”
Part of that dwindling he attributes to recent history, part to modern media, part to a habit of broadcasting by institutions rather than listening.
“Claude Shannon, the grandfather of information theory, did not define information by words or digits,” he notes. “Instead he defined it by whether uncertainty was reduced on the part of the receiver. If receivers are overwhelmed by the depth, discouraged by the density and bamboozled by the complexity, reporting can be disinformation on Shannon’s criterion. For a chunk of society, the very volume of reporting may be increasing uncertainty and impairing information, understanding and trust.”
Haldane is no Luddite or nostalgist. He urges central banks to use modern platforms, listen to the public, using gamification – in short, actually communicate.
The lesson is clear in this climate of information which is personalised, socialised and distributed: organisations can’t demand trust; they must demonstrate not preach their purpose; they have to speak a language the public understands – and they have to listen.