Connections: Lateral Thinking makes for Sharable Content


PDF Slide Deck: Let’s Talk Energy March 2015

Think about the last time you found out something really interesting to you online – was it something you were even aware existed when you started looking, or was it a series of links that brought you further from your starting point but closer to what you wanted? Were you even looking for it at the time or did it ‘find’ you through your connections your other interests or a combination of those? Like the perfect Christmas gift, you never even knew you wanted it till you had it.

The internet and digital media started out as a way of sharing with the world and one of the first questions that came with this torrent of sharing was, “How do I find what I want.” The near ubiquitous answers now to that is Google: you ask your question and you get the answer or at least the first link in a chain of answers. Ever spent time on Wikipedia ending up 10 articles from where you started?

 Once a critical mass of questions and information became available the next step in connecting is something that our brains are masters at – lateral association. The surprise you get from a good riddle comes from the effect of suddenly having a hidden connection revealed; the same now applies to the furthest reaching content online.



Let’s take an example. British historian James Burke, in the hay-day of big lapelles and big hair, developed a TV series around this concept of surprising Connections. He called it Connections, just to make sure we got the point, and drew a series of them between technologies which changed society.

In a given episode, he started with something like the wool industry in medieval England, and drew a path to an unlikely place such as the internet. He did this by surprising and delighting (I do not use the word Delight lightly, it is supremely powerful compass in a sea of information). He used the “6 degrees of Kevin Bacon” Rule – the mathematics which states that you really can connect any two people or events or topics by making the right lateral jumps in thought and perspective. Textiles needed transport to market – the resulting canals needed surveyors – these surveyors needed accurate measurement – these accurate tools led to mechanical calculators that were great-grandfathers of the internet server.

So James Burke understood a bit about the power of surprise and delight. It works to get people involved in ways they never expected – it shows their interests are connected to yours and that the space between is worth exploring more in depth.

So, you have a message you want to convey – Energy Literacy. Fortunately, it is a broad topic that touches science, engineering, biology, society, economics, history and policy. Your job is to give the public the tools they need to navigate this vast space and to understand the choices they will have to make in the future as individuals everyday and as a society shaping itself.


We all know that there are a lot of complex choices ahead and each one has many perspectives. There is no one right answer, and the last thing people want is to be told what this right answer might be. So your job then is to give them the compass of delight along with a few treasure maps to let them find their own way along.

So how do you delight and educate with digital media? We often measure success by impression – how many people see or share our content. But there is no one secret formula to something that goes viral, or gets shared ten thousand times instead of twelve times. What’s the magic?

There is a famous quote that says something to the effect of:

“I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it”.

(AKA “The Elephant Test”)

Fortunately we have one pattern at our disposal. People online do not like to be told what to think or when to think it in a sea of opinion (unless they think it already and are basking in confirmation bias). They look for delight, not just facts, and they discover this through lateral connections in unexpected places.

I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it, so here is a recent example:

The Total Solar Eclipse over Germany may collapse the power grid! – Germany’s push to a renewables focused energy infrastructure include a large fraction of solar power. The public perception is that when the sun doesn’t shine, the power doesn’t flow. But instead, germany prepared their infrastructure to respond to this event well in advance. Simply broaching the topic of a resilient energy grid on its own doesn’t have this delightful and accessible entry point.

How did you have taken advantage of this?

  1. By being the local expert. asking the question for the audience: How can you make electricity when there is a disruption in its source? Are your experts registered with news outlets and mainstream media? Is their a mini media kit with a white-paper with a good diagram to support it and select quotes from your experts?
  2. Do you have an infographic of a modern grid and it’s response to a drop in a single source – how generation can be brought online to compensate?
  3. Did you post links to your relevant content  to your social media along with lateral tags such as #eclipse2015 #germany #what-if #solarpower #astronomy
  4. Notify the science centers either through those channels or more direct personal channels (like email) that you have some relevant content to both energy and solar eclipses and renewables.
  5. Help the audience answer the question for themselves: The Fraunhofer Institute is Europe’s largest application-oriented research organization. They post live charts of energy generation in germany, divided by source, including solar. during the eclipse this was noted in the charts:
  6. Be ready for the sharing: The live chart you see above was linked by a Reddit users in the subreddit “Data is Beautiful” dedicated to visualizations of complex data. Although there was not a direct interest in power grids and energy policy, the graphing tool provided by the Institute garnered 2000 “upvotes” and a healthy discussion thread. Reddit itself is monitored by social sharing sites that harvest the most interesting content and repost it, so the echoes of the content that start with available experts and a visualization tool resonate when the right note is struck in the public interest.

The more notes you can resonate with the more your tune is going to be heard. The lesson here is one of availability. Providing expert opinion to mainstream media, and self-serve tools to the general public to “see for themselves” because in the end people are two things: curious and social – they want to find out why things are not the way they expected, and then they want to share this new knowledge.

So in your efforts what are some tools to delight, surprise, and move laterally?


  • Have big ears – a network of site that you monitor for trends and events can only benefit. These are people of interest that you follow on twitter, websites and facebook accounts, other organizations with surprising connections to yours. One re-tweet of your content from someone with 100,000 followers will can increase your public exposure by orders of magnitude in minutes
  • Use the Event Calendar – having a list of upcoming events that may strike those notes of public interest. The eclipse was one here, but anything from topics of interest such as studies to be released and covered in mainstream media, to Throwback Thursdays that give you the chance to show some historical perspective on your topic.
  • Show up on time and with something to add – Digital media is fast acting with a short memory – you have to respond quickly and in a timely manner to where public interest in facing – but it is not just a waiting game – you must go out and find what topics you can laterally engage with to get your message out. You delight by showing what your topic has in common with those that are unexpected.
  • Be persistent and have tenacity – the internet is very much a What Have You Done for Me Lately place. posting once a month to you social media channel of choice is not going to work and posting several times a day with low quality (i.e. undelightful) content is not going to cut it eachother. Treat it like good meals – you want a few good ones a week.
  • Coordinate and deploy your experts – are your experts available for discussion in mainstream media as well as other venues like Reddit AMAs (Ask Me Anythings)? Are they available to be on chatroom panels to answer questions during live events?
  • Give the public tools to satisfy their own curiosity – a wall of text doesn’t do it. Or a press release. An infographic has a much better chance (How much energy does it take to fly you to your vacation destination?) and a quiz works by challenging preconceptions and by gathering and presenting the public’s biases as a mirror. Calculators and other tools that let people determine how the bigger picture affects them directly (or how they contribute to it) are also very shareable and have the element of delight that is necessary in order to be sharable and comparable.
  • Core of deep content, easily found – this all should be backed up by solid, rich content. White papers and expert testimony on your traditional website, indexable by search engines. This is the core of what you may represent in the more social and dynamic daily web. But that core has to have routes out to the real world both deliberate and delightful
  • Beware the echo chamber – sharing your content with similar organizations is going to reach similar audiences – if you are looking to get the word out you have to reach new audiences by making your content relevant in surprising ways


5 quick focus tips for your content


  1. Take the time to know how to translate it to your medium whatever that may be. If it applies for conferences and whitepapers, it applies for facebook, twitter, youtube. They are different languages with different communication contracts
  2. Be honest be clear, be transparent. The internet is legendary for finding out your real motives and counter-spinning spin. Be honest, be human, or don’t be there at all
  3. Relating is communicating – share what you are doing, share what you are interested in, make your audience part of your message, not its target (Think quizzes, simulations) We are all curious about each other and about the world we are making, be curious along with your audience
  4. Be audience-centric – you know what’s on your mind – you know what is on there mind because they post – find the bridge and cross it, don’t wait for them to come to you. Apple watch in the news? How is it’s battery life? Why can’t it be better? Suddenly you are talking about the issues behind energy storage for renewables and why an electric car may not be as environmentally benign as the daily operating costs.
  5. The Big Issues have small, daily, insistent, immediate, and often trivial touch points on people’s lives. Understand these are entry points into their daily awareness with it and you will find disproportionately powerful keys to engagement


Things have changed but they are also the same

The sound-bite is still king, the headline still has to be witty and catchy, and the public interest is something to be monitored and engaged with on its own terms. Patience and high quality content are prerequisites for when the spotlight is on you, and be prepared to walk out to where it is shining with whatever you can carry.


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