Anticipation Nation

By Matt Bennett, Senior Vice President, Washington D.C. Practice Lead

This week, one of Washington’s most-read political reporters tweeted the following fact:

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The 2016 election is exactly 700 days from today.

Think about that. We just finished the 2014 elections and the new Congress has not even been sworn in. Christmas is still two weeks away. But we can visualize how many days until the next election and what that might mean for all the potential candidates.

Over the past two election cycles, we’ve seen the rise of detailed analytical “prediction” models from statistical experts like Nate Silver and news outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times. There are even articles comparing the models and public fights between the predictors. While the deeper insights these models can provide are useful, maybe we can actually look at the campaigns and see what is happening, rather than predicting what might happen?

We live in a constant state of anticipation. Our news is filled with “what might happen” or “what comes next” stories. Think about the buzz before the annual unveiling of the new iPhone or more recently, the new Star Wars movie trailer. While the “teaser” is by design supposed to offer only a glimpse and give fans something to be excited about, it created a maelstrom of speculative conversation a full year before anyone sees the movie.

There are appropriate times for speculation, or more accurately, projection. Economic models that project GDP growth or weather forecasts that estimate the chance for rain tomorrow provide helpful information. But we’ve gotten to a point where we offer daily conjecture for everything, from the college football playoff to the spread of the flu (which, if accurate, might be really useful). And, I really liked this one – how you could have predicted something happening (in this case a rise in corporate earnings), conveniently written after the fact.

So how do we communicate effectively in such an environment? Does “hard news” have to be equipped with a forward looking aspect that extrapolates the current announcement to future happenings? Does today’s product launch automatically have meaning (that must be analyzed) for the next one?

I believe the news or the message you are trying to provide to your target audience is still primary. It is not what you “might” do, it is what are doing right now that truly matters to your customers or constituents. Is it more helpful for a company to say “we predict that we’ll launch a new CSR program next year” or is value better created by announcing a specific initiative with measurable outcomes? Analysts and extrapolators might dissect the program, but the company has a real effort with tangible results and not just the promise of something that could happen.

We can all enjoy the prognostication and endless debates about what may come, but to meet our goals – business, public policy and others – we need to focus on the act, not the anticipation.

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