From the archives: Nudging your way to impact

This review was first published in April 2016 on LinkedIn Pulse.

Researchers are under increasing pressure to show the impact of our research, and there are heaps of theories, methods and associated manuals to help navigate the wealth of information out there about what we have to consider to create any impact, how we report impact, and everything in between. It can be a minefield, so sometimes it helps to take a breath and read around the subject.

A couple of books on the subject of impact have caught my eye recently, and with both I’ve been up into the wee hours reading, but then I am a geek. The first is Inside the Nudge Unit by David Halpern. The second is The Research Impact Handbook* by Mark Reed.

Inside The Nudge Unit gives us an insider’s view of how the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), then part of the UK Government, came about and how they used psychology to influence citizen behaviour for the better, e.g. more taxes voluntarily paid up, more organ donors registered, more people off government benefits and into work. This team of carefully selected academics and psychologists became known as the Nudge Unit and they managed to influence policymakers using evidence from randomised control trials – the gold standard of design methodology (see the Alliance for Useful Evidence’s recent report for the low-down on methods). They had challenges (who doesn’t when working with policymakers), but broad backing too. This book is essentially a chronological account of how the BIT used their privileged access to influence even the staunchest of critics; their access to gatekeepers, elite circles and funding put them in an enviable position.

Not so for most of us, but all is not lost. Us lesser mortals can also have a significant impact with our research. Bravo then to Mark Reed for The Research Impact Handbook and the bods at Fast Track Impact for their resources. How very refreshing to read something that isn’t over-theorised, has common sense solutions running throughout, and is just so practical. I had a look at my own policy briefs when I finished reading and thankfully I meet Mark’s standards.

Mark Reed’s journey of how Fast Track Impact has grown is just as interesting as the core subject of the handbook. His stories of failure and embarrassment are a reminder that things can and will go wrong, and that building flexibility into a project is essential. Mark’s message is simple: creating impact is fundamentally about engagement; building trust among those you wish to represent; understanding the power that you may or may not have with different groups; being human and humble; and maintaining positive and constructive relationships with people along the way.

This is a robust, practical handbook, made all the more credible by the huge amount of research and lived experience upon which the content is based. Detailed suggestions from researchers and stakeholders are weaved throughout the book and there are many sections that you can implement straight away, particularly around early impact.

Read together, both books offer the psychology and the practical tools for researchers to create some impact in the short and longer term. Inside The Nudge Unit makes for a good read, but for something more practical, I recommend The Research Impact Handbook.*

*I reviewed the 1st edition in April 2016. The 2nd edition out now.

Writer’s Rant: The distant hum of white noise (from the archives)

Attending The Good Immigrant reading last night has prompted me to revisit a VERY old post from my archives, first published in The Asian Writer (March 2011). Does it still ring true?

As an extension of Farhana Shaikh’s earlier rant about Asian writers being outsiders looking in, I have to confess that watching New Novelists 12 of the Best from The Culture Show left me a little queasy about the lack of diversity in the their list of ‘up and coming’ authors in British literary fiction.

The Guardian Comments section sparked a healthy discussion about the lack of ethnic diversity in the short-list, but no one expressed a huge amount of surprise at this ‘glass ceiling.’ It’s a shame that the long-list wasn’t made available online for us readers to make our own judgments and recommendations. I realise that the group of ‘judges’ convened for the Culture Show (which included the show’s own editor, Janet Lee) is one of many panels charged with producing lists such as this throughout the year. We know that each time a list like this is given prominence (two and half pages in the Guardian Review section a week earlier), it pushes up sales for both long- and short-listed authors. A published long-list by The Culture Show would have gone a long way in benefiting more than just the 12 authors showcased on the night. It would also have given us a glimpse of a more diverse range of debut novelists; 57 novels were submitted, and I spotted Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart amongst the pile.

Of the 12 books presented on the night, I’m afraid I’m only likely to pick up one, David Abbott’s The Upright Piano Player, firstly because the wonderfully eloquent Helen Oyeyemi described it as having ‘a quiet dignity’ and secondly because he is the man who wrote the JR Hartley commercial for Yellow Pages in the 1980s (I can’t help it, I’m an 80’s nostalgia geek).

On the same night, In a Million Books for Free: A Culture Show special, raised questions about how writers are selected for promotion. In an interview with Jamie Byng, Chairman of World Book Night, Andrew Graham-Dixon glossed over any questions of why new authors were not considered. According to Byng, the criteria for making it onto the list was that the books should be ‘great reading experiences,’ and there’s no doubt that each of them are. This suggests, however, that forcing titles from anyone other than ‘star’ authors onto the public would not provide enough of a hook for them to continue reading or, crucially, buying books.

Don’t get me wrong, the event itself was worth staging for many reasons, and I really enjoyed handing out books at my local library. World Book Night has its supporters and its critics and I’m not going to rehash those discussions here, but next year I would like them to seek out lesser known authors.

This brings us back to lists again. Given that 23 of the 25 titles given out freely have reportedly seen an increase in sales from being featured on World Book Night, imagine how many more authors would have been able to pay their gas bill if they had been promoted in a similar way, and their back catalogue or debut novel sales had increased as a result?

I suppose it’s early days for initiatives such as World Book Night, but the broader question remains. How do we promote a diverse range of writers without relying on closed or elite circles of critics and judges (largely based in London)? And what is the criteria for making it onto a judging panel anyway? Maybe The Asian Writer should set up it’s own panel?

For events like World Book Night, diversity appears to mean ‘a conscious attempt’ to include thrillers, memoirs, crime, literary fiction, poetry and cross-over novels (no short stories though).  It seems that what is viewed as ‘promising’ is highly subjective and that the power of recommendation and the marker of critical acclaim still lie in the hands of a predominantly white publishing industry; an industry where we are indeed outsiders looking in.

Maybe we’re outsiders because we present problems for marketing teams; we’re too Asian, or not Asian enough, or too niche, or too serious, or too predictable or just not producing what the industry expects from us.  Terrorism or arranged marriage is what we do best, or so we’re told. Or maybe it’s just that our voices are being drowned out by the distant hum of white noise.

Nilam McGrath is a writer and researcher for the non-profit sector and author of A PhD Rollercoaster. She is currently writing a novel. She can be contacted through LinkedIn and Twitter @NilamAMcGrath or @TalkingEvidence. Website: www.nilammcgrath.com

Here’s the list of the “12 Best New British Novelists” according to The Culture Show:

David Abbott – The Upright Piano Player
Jenn Ashworth – A Kind of Intimacy
Ned Beauman – Boxer Beetle
Deborah Kay Davies – True Things About Me
Samantha Harvey – The Wilderness
Adam Haslett – Union Atlantic
Rebecca Hunt – Mr Chartwell
Stephen Kelman – Pigeon English
Jim Powell – The Breaking of Eggs
Anna Richards – Little Gods
Eleanor Thom – The Tin-Kin
Evie Wyld – After The Fire, A Still Small Voice

Here’s my original article first published by The Asian Writer in March 2011.

Book review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

There is a wall that separates Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport from the neighbouring Annawadi slum in Mumbai. Along the wall are adverts for Italian floor tiles with the corporate slogan ‘Beautiful Forever’ running it’s length. This extraordinary work of narrative non-fiction is about the slum dwellers of Annawadi residing behind the ‘Beautiful Forever’ wall, hidden and without a voice, until now.

This was an undertaking of 3 years that involved documenting conversations and observations, working with translators,  using video and audio tape and verifying data using over 3000 public records. As such, this book a testament to the value of rigorous research and the skill of a seasoned journalist who not only knows how to handle data, but can tell a ripping yarn too.

The stories of Annawadi residents are played out against a backdrop of the sorry state of the Indian justice system and of the abuse of vital resources that rarely reach th

ose they aim to help. It is utterly hopeless and unbelievable at the same time, and nothing brings this more into focus than when one young girl ingests rat poison as a way out. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is not an easy read, but you will not want to put it down when you start.

Book review: Tender Hooks by Moni Moshin

On the surface, Tender Hooks (also published as Duty Free) appears to be a light read, but it soon becomes clear that our nameless narrator’s naive judgements are vehicles for poking fun at the social norms governing Pakistan’s elite, and the inner workings of her closed circle of opinionated, Prada-wearing, back-stabbing friends. The stock subject of familial ties is also ever-present with our narrator being pulled by her shamelessly snobby Aunt Pussy into finding a wife for her ‘bore’ cousin Jonkers.

And so begin the trips to visit ‘illegible girls’ with good ‘baggrounds’ (the malapropisms are perfectly selected and made me laugh out loud). The wedding circuit holds the key to Jonkers’ second marriage, and proves fertile ground for acerbic monologues. When she sees one of her closest friends at the biggest wedding of the year, she simply can’t help herself:

Mulloo was wearing a sequenced sari I’d seen twenty times before and so much of blush that she looked as if she’d just been given two tight slaps. A thin little choker with tiny, tiny diamonds was buried in roles of fat in her throat. She grinned at me. I wondered if I should tell her that she had lipstick on her teeth. She noted my necklace with her slitty little eyes but didn’t compliment. Typical.

Wealthy, cocooned, and oblivious to how bitchy she is, she still manages to perceive herself as a kind-hearted woman of the people who lets ‘buygones be buygones.’

Knowledge of social norms in South Asia will probably make reading some of the scenarios more rewarding, and you can see the plot turns coming from some distance, but that doesn’t take anything away from them when they arrive. It is a cleverly written satire with a strong voice, and a blessed relief too from reading South Asian fiction about family dynasties and war. Funny, biting, clever.

Review: Count Arthur Strong, Somebody Up There Licks Me, Harrogate Theatre, March 2015

I absolutely love Count Arthur Strong. I discovered him on Radio 4 when I was doing my PhD – a wonderful distraction from the months of coding and analysis – and I’ve been a loyal fan ever since. During his Command Performance in 2012, I thought there wasn’t a wasted word or movement in the stage show, and the Count has since come to life on our screens and so the visual cues and facial expressions are even more honed.

The Count’s most recent tour – Somebody Up There Licks Me – has had excellent reviews, so I won’t repeat the sentiment here, except to say that the reviews are well deserved. Instead, I’m going to try and push you towards his earlier work – the genius that is his radio performances.

Radio is a great medium for visualising the chaos he leaves in his wake. Sit back and listen to the Count’s blood pressure rise at the slightest question, comment or conversation that he can’t quite grasp, his twisted logic and blundering conversations, his claims to fame (Juliet Bravo and ‘that vet programme All Things Bright and Beautiful’), his links with stars like Danny La Rue, Anita Harris and Edward Woodwardwardward, to name a few.

Sit curled up with your cocoa as you’re introduced to his long suffering friends – Wilf the butcher (who unwittingly hosts a book reading for him in his shop), Geoffrey the church hall caretaker (forced to engage with the many, many auditions and revues organised by the Count), Gerry the cafe owner (never has taking a breakfast order been so stressful) and Sue the regular at the Shoulder of Mutton (will she ever be able to have a quiet drink?).

Bartering, queuing and conversations with customer services departments are the staple of his annoyance with everyday life. Then there are the inexplicably frequent events to which he is invited, woven together with a thread of delusion and self-importance that is the hallmark of the Count.

From the smallest of errands at post offices and libraries, through to appointments at hospitals and opticians, and grand days out, there is not a moment of everyday life that doesn’t descend into farce and borderline horror. The range of ‘incidents’ span a cookery show on cable TV (Ready Steady Dinner with a cabbage, package of ginger nuts, half a bottle of vodka, packet of odour-eaters and chewing gum), a murder mystery evening (comedy gold), a book reading (a ‘cricketly acclaimed’ book), ‘Piddler on the roof’ (the title says it all I think), and various speeches at universities and WI events (after a wee tipple of course). The best moment for me was when he thought a full Brazilian was a type of breakfast (‘I know that’s real cos someone on the estate’s had one of those’). Priceless.

“Can you say something inspiring?” said the lovely lady from the library.

“Can you say something inspiring?” said the lovely lady from the library.

“Er…inspiring? Er…”

“Yes! You know, about your volunteering experience, and your library project and how it’s helped your career?”

“Er…I’ll do my best.” And here it is, an edited version of my 20 minute keynote speech at an event celebrating the achievements of young volunteers who have helped Kirklees libraries in recent weeks:

Can I start by saying what a great thing it is that you’ve done by volunteering at the library. Volunteering can be hard. I know, I’ve done it. You give your time, your energy, your passion for the subject and your skills to an organisation who, in this case, really couldn’t have done that particular thing without you. Sometimes, in the chaos of the day, it feels as if you get very little recognition in return, but that’s only if you end up volunteering in a company that doesn’t really understand what you can bring to an organisation, or how best to nurture you. I happen to think that you’ve hit the jackpot by volunteering at the library, but then I’m biased. Continue reading

A small, excited audience with Jhumpa Lahiri

You could feel the excitement contained in the tiny 8th floor lobby at Broadcasting House. Thirty of us had gathered to listen to the Pulitzer prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri – a woman whose short stories are so powerful and evocative that you believe she is writing about your own life – being interviewed by Harriett Gilbert for the World Book Club. The experience taught me one thing: never meet your heroes (I explain at the end).

Harriett Gilbert was a delight; animated and gracious and sporting a very cool tie. It’s a shame that her warmth wasn’t matched by her interviewee. It’s not unusual to read about Jhumpa Lahiri being reserved or distant and luckily this doesn’t take away from her exceptional talent and maturity as a writer (and she’s only human, after all). In spite of her coolness in demeanour, there is a genuine depth in her explanations. She spoke of writing about profound shifts and of growth and loss, nodding once again to her two favourite authors William Trevor (she is nourished by his short stories) and Flannery O’Connor. Writing for Jhumpa Lahiri is seldom an intellectual process, but rather intuitive. In the interview she describes vividly how she inhabited Ruma’s father (in Unaccustomed Earth) and wanted to know and write his side of the story.

The questions from the audience were great, but she neatly sidestepped any real discussion on writing about wealthy, academic migrant experiences, instead of writing about the skilled, educated migrants who end up ‘driving taxis and cleaning’. I guess she’s earned the privilege of never really having to justify what she chooses to write about, as her writing is no longer ‘young’. What’s clear is that she understands her craft, not the craft of writing and owns it wholeheartedly and unapologetically. Such is the conviction of a seasoned award-winning writer – listen for yourself.

So, why the ‘never meet your heroes’ comment? Well, I travelled over 200 miles and took a day of annual leave from work to attend this event, head streaming with a nasty cold. I own 4 of her books: I love her writing. I brought all 4 books with me, hoping she would be able to sign each copy: 2 minutes of her time. At the end of the event, myself and another women approached her with our books to sign, and she along with her PR person visibly balked at the request. I never did get my books signed. So there we are: never meet your heroes. On the way home, a very nice man in a local cafe gave me a free hot lemon drink for my cold. Every cloud, I guess.