VITAL SIGNS: Improve your media diet

VITAL SIGNS: Improve your media diet - The sociology of knowledge - who knows what and why - is a glorious study in itself. What do you need to know for competitive advantage, and how should you go about acquiring the knowledge? How is your 'media diet' (

by PETER YORK, in his persona as Peter Wallis, managing director ofconsultants SRU. e-mail: peter@sru.co.uk
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The sociology of knowledge - who knows what and why - is a glorious study in itself. What do you need to know for competitive advantage, and how should you go about acquiring the knowledge? How is your 'media diet' (the term media planners use when looking for parallels in an audience or readership, such as the overlaps between Hello! and the Mail on Sunday), and is a media diet alone the answer?

Some of your information media diet is a no-brainer. Of course you read your trade press, you read the research pumped out by City analysts and the sector specialists of the big consultancies, and you trawl the internet to supplement that. More generally, you read this magazine and relevant sections of the FT and the Economist. You watch the Money Programme, now that it's good again, and you listen to Nigel Cassidy doing his business moment on the Today programme. You do all that, don't you?

But your competitors will be doing the same. You need more to stretch the mind and enable you to read all that stuff in a faster, cleverer and more lateral way. If you change your information diet, you can change your world view - so you can approach the business of getting noticed in a more idiosyncratic, maverick way.

You need to know how to form real opinions. You may think you are producing informed, authoritative views for the CEO and the board, but how do they see it? Do you come on like the Guy Who Swallowed the Airport Book Whole?

Don't read that stuff simply to learn the latest jargon or memorise the conclusions that all the no-hopers in Kansas City will be quoting tomorrow. You need help to develop your own take on issues.

When you utterly know that Irving Thalberg and Lucius Ericson of the University of Kansas Business School have their bums out of the window in terms of real-world economics, then you've got an opinion, home-brewed.

That's not to say you shouldn't crib, but you should be cribbing from people and institutions you genuinely understand and admire.

And you need to enrich your intake with different ingredients - things that give you a helicopter view of your own small world. Remember, very few views or specialities are absolute. Very little is rocket science.

Look for soft information as well as hard. Not just facts, but current conventional wisdoms.

Ask yourself what might affect your sector and your company down the line - not just the impact of obvious changes, but threats and opportunities from left field. Develop your hypotheses and follow them through by reading eclectically and surfing broadly.

If you're in a business-to-business corporation, ask yourself what's happening at the end of the line - with your customers' customers. Trends affect every kind of business. Who recognised 25 years ago the influence the environmental lobby would have in the west?

Remember that business is ultimately people, and their standards and expectations. Don't leave the 'style' and 'culture' sections of the Sunday papers to your wife or the child doing media studies. Don't ignore even the tabloids or celebrity magazines (your proprietor might be in there).

Here are some favourites to broaden the mind. thisislondon.co.uk is the London Evening Standard online, and maybe you should have a look just because you're not a Londoner. The Motley Fool (www.fool.co.uk) serves up a fresh mass of business and financial material of varying quality, and The Week online has a distinctive world view.

To read the nation's mood, watch and listen to the audiences in Question Time and Have I Got News for You. Clever comedians are important - if their jokes are funny it is because they resonate.

Two things to remember. First, follow people who write or speak well because we retain best what we enjoy. Business insights don't need to be dull. Second, no amount of reading is any substitute for knowing people.

Yes, I am actually saying that it's not what you know, but who you know.

You need the company of clever people in the 'big picture' thinking business.

It all looks different when you know where and who it's coming from - and that kind of company provokes you to think for yourself. This is why ambitious young people often work, for little money, for the stars of politics, academia, literature and entertainment - so that they might learn early on what really matters in life.

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