Nudging your way to impact

This article 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 amongst 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.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

There is a wall that seperates 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 verifiying 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 those 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.

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.

The Library Book (published by Profile Books in support of The Reading Agency)

Confession: when I read the press release about The Library Book last year, I approached Profile Books on a whim, hoping they would be interested in including extracts of my Living Library research as an ‘epilogue.’ I knew I was living in la-la-land just clicking the SEND button, but to quote my brilliant mum ‘if you not ask, then you won’t be getting...” I got my quickest rejection to date: 3 minutes for a ‘no thank you and good luck’ (I posted an extract here instead, and found out last month that it got a readership of over 3500). So, when The Library Book finally made it to the shelves of my local library, I couldn’t wait to review it. The library, of course, had to jump through hoops to get it: justify the spend on this book, approve the spend, order it, receive the order, catalogue it, ring me to tell me it’s arrived, put it somewhere for me to pick up. This process took 4 months. Good grief, I could have handmade a copy in that time. But I have it now, and it was worth the wait.

The book consists of memoir, essays and extracts of novels. Many are testimonies to what the libraries have given the authors, whilst others present fictional worlds, or form the backdrop to pivotal events. As with any collection of writing, some contributions are more engaging than others. The standout piece for me was by Bella Bathurst, simply because I recognise so much of what she writes about in the libraries that I visited during my residency. She gathers stories from librarians and patrons (which no other contributor does) to bring the modern public library to life. My other favourites include Zadie Smith, whose account of the library as a ‘gateway’ for her entire family is beautifully written and gathers pace to question the concept of Big Society. Caitlin Moran too provides a similar argument with lightless. Anita Anand and Hardeep Singh Kohli offer engaging insights into the immigrant experience (again, I can relate to this), and Val McDermid’s reliance on libraries as a writer echoes my own. Fictional work by Julian Barnes and Kate Mosse are superb, and Susan Hill’s memory of accidently meeting E.M. Forster and T.S. Elliott is spellbinding (I think I held my breath for the last two paragraphs). Robin Turner’s interview with Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers provides a much needed departure from some of the more clichéd appreciations of libraries (and is tightly written), and Karin Slaughter’s call to action makes for a sharp conclusion.

For all the weightiness of the subject matter, it is a light read. I clearly have my favourites, and there’s enough in this slim volume for you to discover your own. You get the gist, this is a book worth reading.

Book review: Get Her Off The Pitch! by Lynne Truss

For four years, Lynne Truss was a sports writer for The Times. Plucked from her comfort zone of writing theatre reviews, she launched into the worlds of boxing, tennis, golf and football. Navigating each world brought its own particular tensions, and she recalls her experiences with an enthusiasm that eventually ebbed away. As she moves through her four year journey, her exhaustion becomes palpable, and her stoicism against the cold-shouldering of colleagues is admirable. I’m guessing that the temptation to punch the gits who made her life miserable must have been ever-present. It’s a touching tribute to an important part of her life. She says goodbye to this part of her career with a sentiment one would reserve for an ex-boyfriend who was tolerated for too long and turned out to be a pain in the arse. When she leaves sports writing, she is free again.

It is told with humour and she becomes more open about her frustrations as she continues her narrative through the different events she covered. Chapters are peppered with detailed statistics on sporting particulars, and her rants about Alan Shearer and the football fraternity are priceless.

It’s worth picking up this book just to scrutinise the cover photo of Truss with Lineker (that’s Gary, in case you didn’t know). Funny, frank, and a good holiday read.

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Fact: I was given this book as a present.

Fact: I don’t know what they were thinking.

Fact: The book is too big to fit into my handbag.

She began reading the first chapter, her eyes skimming over the name Robert Langdon. Great, now I’m always going to think of Tom Hanks whenever this name comes up.

She sighed, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before a mind-bending plot would reveal itself in the form of clichés, italicised thought processes, short chapters and blatant hooks.

It won’t take long to finish this.

On the first evening, huge chunks of plot fell off the page, which she saw coming even before she had finished reading each chapter; the tattooed stranger, the Masons, the weird science lab. Is this guy for real? Oh good, Justified is on tele now...

On the second evening, as the tattooed stranger went berserk, and Robert Langdon was conveniently beset by claustrophobia that set in motion a fairly predictable plot twist, something was beginning to form in her mind. It’s like the book is trying to tell me something. As she cleaned her fishtank, searching for The Truth, she spotted a cipher hidden under the pebbles:

What could this mean?

As she read on, Tom Hanks’ face spiralled into view and the truth of what she was holding in her hands became clear: A Ron Howard film wasn’t far off.

In another blinding flash, she saw the future. There was a not-so-secret, unremitting formula binding the 500 pages, and this formula would continue to be exploited as long as there were enough trees on the planet to print the books. On and on she ploughed, through wave upon wave of set phrases and bad story-telling. How many trees were felled for this?

As she embarked on the final chapter, she realised that she would never get those hours back.

I have been duped.

Book review: The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

Hmmm, I’m not sure about this one. Charles Unwin is a clerk in a detective agency. When a lead investigator goes missing, Unwin finds himself leading the search. He is aided by the Manual of Detection, with the mysterious ‘Chapter 18’ missing and a sprinkling of characters who are clearly moulded from the detective genre. Some are sly and secretive, others are henchman or masterminds. What will our hero do? So far, intriguing. The story shows promise – who doesn’t like a good mystery? – but when Unwin starts to delve into the darker recesses of his surroundings, the story begins to dip, the pace becomes a little choppy, and the hard work put into making the beginning so strong begins to unravel somewhat. That said, the writing deftly weaves the characters’ charming little quirks, and the city they inhabit, into a surreal landscape, and then again into an eerie dreamscape. Better as a novella? Possibly. Odd, surreal and intriguing in equal measure.

Chef by Jaspreet Singh

For five years Kirpal Singh (Kip) worked as a chef for the General, based in Kashmir. Fourteen years after handing in his notice, he is asked by the General to be the chef at his daughter’s wedding. Both Kip and the General are cautious at this invitation, having not spoken since Kip’s sudden departure. The long train journey to Kashmir gives Kip a chance to relive the events that have haunted him since his time in the hills. The reader is shown young Kip’s slow awakening to the political landscape, his father’s legacy as a military man, and the motivations of people around him. The imagery and language, however, are that of a dying man; sparse and without sentiment. His thoughts come across as somewhat stilted and cold, often giving him a desolate frame of mind. Regret and guilt surface in his recollections. Nevertheless, the backdrop of conflict in Kashmir is strongly evoked, as are the tastes and smells of Kip’s banquets, and his relationship with his mentor Kishen. On some level, the journey to Kashmir is a chance for closure (or not) with people from his past, but ultimately, Chef is a novel about secrets that “trouble our bones.”

Gifted by Nikita Lalwani

If you are a second generation Indian, the mantra that is the undercurrent of this novel will be familiar: get an education (top grades only), get a job (doctor, lawyer, accountant), get married (to who we say), and do your family proud (no back chat to your parents). With this mantra come other, familiar emotions: conflict over trying to fit into more one than one culture, and the disappointment that this type of shape-shifting brings. Gifted is a novel about Rumika Vasi, and her journey, from the ages of 5 to 15, as a maths prodigy forced to study for early entry into Oxford University. The result is the story about expectations, both shared and mismatched. Rumi is as conflicted as any child of immigrant parents, and her parents ensure that her expectations remain tethered to their own; she simply isn’t allowed a childhood.

In her teenage years, Rumi expects that her superior maths skills will eventually allow her to leave her oppressive surroundings, whilst her parents, particularly her gloomy father, expect her to study hard to fulfil her potential, irrespective of the effect this may have in later years. Add the hormones, rage and wilfulness of a teenage girl into this mix, and the consequences of such rigid expectations lead the family to breaking point, derailed by events that are often tinged with sadness.

Distractions for Rumi come in the shape of boys, and although they are fleeting, they leave important imprints that propel the plot. Rumi eventually inhabits an adult world, but it becomes woefully apparent that she lacks the social skills to make this work to her advantage. Her tender age is all the more apparent in a university setting full of young adults with access to a social life and all that that brings.

The conflicts and tensions between Rumi and her parents are played out with empathy and precision. Indeed, the entire novel is written with an economy of language normally reserved for short stories; tightly woven, pitch perfect and full of surprises.

Book review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

When Rhoda Janzen is left ‘broke and broken’ after her husband leaves her for a man he met on Gay.com, and in the same week suffers serious injuries in a car accident, she retreats to her Mennonite family for a taste of the familiar. What follows is not a misery memoir, although it could have quite easily trodden that path given the circumstances, but a funny and frank account of what it takes to begin the healing process, and the value of finding your roots again. Her descriptions of married life are often painful, such as when her husband’s lover rings their house at midnight, and she ends up leaving their marital bed to sob in their guest room, but her openness gives us an insight into why we stay in unequal relationships for so long, and how love really can be blind.

Amongst the fog of hurt and disappointment, there is a tenderness that radiates from her family and friends, particularly her mother, Mary. Her grounded nature remains the shining beacon that begins to move Rhoda out of the ‘dark waters’ to somewhere safe, where she is free to be herself again. She uses her cultural heritage to good comic effect without compromising the dignity and faith of her family and the Mennonite community.

There is also a sense that this book played a cathartic role in Rhoda’s physical and mental healing. Readers going through a similarly tough divorce may find that her musings resonate, and if nothing else, no other book will have the capacity to make you laugh about hysterectomies.

Last Seen in Lhasa by Claire Scobie

What begins as a trip to Tibet in search of a rare red lily develops into a spiritual journey for Claire that eventually spreads over several years. Her friendship with Ani, a nomadic nun, is one of the two threads that run through the book, the other being the changing tide in Tibet. As Tibet unfolds in Claire’s narrative, we are able to glimpse behind the heavily curtained country to a land that is complex and politically raw, and where younger generations are having a crisis of identity. Their new identities are a hybrid; Chinese and Western influences sit uncomfortably with the spiritual and political history of their country, and their increased marginalisation is a stark contrast to the more spiritual passages of Claire’s story.

As her bond with Ani becomes stronger, we get a sense of Ani’s grace and unshakable belief in herself, but above all, Claire has captured what it means to care for another with your whole being, unconditionally. So palpable is the connection between Ani and Claire that it pulsates from the page. This is a book full of heart, short on clichéd sentiment and not afraid to explore the links between poverty and foreign influences, as well as the darker aspects of the mountaineering subculture. A book as rare as the red lily itself; beautiful.

Serious Men by Manu Joseph

Ayyan Mani is a dalit with an IQ of 148. He is the personal assistant to Arvind Acharya, the (Brahmin) Head of the Institute of Theory and Research in Mumbai. In an attempt to lift his family out of the chawls (high-rise tenements with shared toilets on each floor) Ayyan positions his son as a maths genius – a blatant lie that spirals out of control. But Ayyan is exceptionally shrewd. His years under Arvind have taught him the value of information, and he proves to be a gifted, if unethical, strategist. In contrast to the academics around him, who move only within their small, impenetrable circles, unable to relate to the ‘peons’ who make the Institute function, Ayyan deftly gathers information about his high ranking masters through his vast network, thus illustrating his power. When jealously attacks Arvind’s reputation from more than one source, Ayyan understands how to mobilise his knowledge to help his boss, and help himself in the process.

Manu Joseph’s writing is economical and stark, and thankfully lacks any patronising tones about poverty and slum living. Serious Men is a clever insight into the caste system, its rigidity and the power of subversion. Winner of the Hindu Best Fiction Award 2010, and rightly so.

Review: True Stories: Guilty Pleasures, Channel 4, March 2011

Julie Moggan’s True Stories: Guilty Pleasures gives a unique 360-degree view of the Mills and Boon romance. Told through the viewpoints of three readers, one male model (with over 200 covers to his name) and one writer, we are given a touching insight into the realities, fantasies, and individual expectations of finding and keeping love. The three readers (Shumita in India, Hiroko in Japan and Shirley in England) have been either let down by past encounters, raw and exposed by betrayal, or yearning for excitement in an otherwise satisfactory relationship. In a sense, their real lives match the narrative arc of the books they read.

The readers are very articulate; they express their desires and expectations of a relationship with extreme clarity, often setting high standards - standards that have been set by the fictional scenarios they read. Fiction sometimes acts as a catalyst for their lives, such as Shumita getting back together with her husband, Hiroko taking up dancing lessons and eventually persuading her husband to take part, or Shirley finding stability after a prior rocky relationship. When we see Shirley with her new husband, who is going through a bout of depression, it’s clear that love means supporting someone when they are at their lowest.

Back at the dance studio in Japan, the reality of tight finances threatens to overshadow Hiroko’s newly found joy. The spontaneity of taking up dancing to add some excitement to her marriage now seems misjudged to the point where events become ‘painful.’

In India, Shumita asks ‘what happened to the promises these books made to me?’ She is coming to terms with separating from her husband for good, and says that the books ‘have made me see the complexity of my life,’ concluding that ‘real life starts where the book ends.’

The most intriguing viewpoint, however, comes from male model Stephen, who finds love first by learning to accept himself whilst searching through the stack of self-help books by his bedside. His new relationship ‘will become what it will become,’ he says, not wishing to push the early, giddy days of love.

But this is more than a documentary about readers’ lives. There is much for the aspiring writer to take away from what initially seems like a snapshot of a booming industry, but it is actually a wonderful account of how writing, and storytelling, can provide escapism and hope.

Review: Milton Jones, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, March 2011

If anyone can generate belly laughs with an overhead projector, Milton Jones can. The surreal one-liners come thick and fast, but he paces himself by letting his ‘granddad’ and supporting comic James Acaster warm us up a bit. Although the gags hark back to the days where comics told one-liners and used props, this is certainly not a predictable routine. He cleverly links tiny aspects of the show together at unexpected moments and shows that a ‘Sshhh’ to a heckler goes a long way. This is simple gag telling and word play at its best, and told in Milton’s gentle, mad-eyed way. The 3 best jokes for me were about Manchester United, REM and cyclists. I won’t ruin it for you, go and hear them for yourselves.

Review: Count Arthur Strong’s Command Performance, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, March 2011

Like a mad uncle at an ill-advised family reunion, Count Arthur Strong guarantees to astound and amuse in equal amounts. Steve Delaney’s character is a delight. He is also a nincompoop. Wonderfully deranged, oblivious to the chaos in his wake, and choking on self-importance, he is a joy to watch. It’s worth taking a moment to watch the audience during his performance; you won’t be alone in shaking your head in disbelief at how Doncaster’s finest aging thespian manoeuvres himself into corners during monologues and arguments with his long-suffering friends. Some of the material may sound familiar from his Radio 4 series, but the visual dimension is well honed and gives the Command Performance a fantastic, old-fashioned variety-show feel. Every moment of this performance is perfectly timed. There is not a wasted word or stage direction from the Count and the wonderful Malcolm, his unfortunate lackey.

This is slightly surreal and bonkers at times, but a real testimony to the years of work that Steve Delaney has put in to polishing this rough diamond. I recently read that the Count may be gracing our screens. About time too.

Review: Mark Thomas, Extreme Rambling: Walking the Wall, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, Feb 2011

The Israeli-Palestine conflict is not the most obvious choice of theme for a comedy tour, but this is no ordinary tour and Mark Thomas is no ordinary comedian. Aided with a gigantic map of Israel and the West Bank as his backdrop, the evening begins with Mark explaining how he funded his latest work – a walk along the 750 km wall that divides Israel and Palestine – with a thank you to the Metropolitan Police. In 2010, Mark was awarded £1200 compensation from the police for an illegal stop and search they had undertaken in 2007, so he put the money towards funding the walk. ‘I asked them if it was alright to use their logo’ he says with a cheeky smile, ‘and they didn’t reply, so I thought, yeah, why not, I’m just showing my appreciation.’ Although his energy and writing are superior, what ties the show together are Mark’s impressions of his companions on the walk. The characters are brought to life with great comic effect, but it is the stories that stay with you long after you leave the theatre; stories told with poignancy and precision timing. Mark is a gifted storyteller, and this is easily his best tour to date. The story of the wall, his experiences both side of it, and the people that made the extreme ramble possible are all stories worth telling. Ultimately, he is a performer, and understands that this is a complex issue that cannot be played just for laughs – that simply isn’t his style. The stories of humiliation faced by the people he encounters, are often followed with a loaded silence, which he then punctures with a quick line offering some light relief.

The show is a testimony of courage too. In one town, Palestinian children as young as six are regularly stoned by Israeli settlers as they make their way to school. On the day Mark watches them make their journey, they gambol over the hill unscathed; they’ve made it. ‘This is the best it gets for them,’ he says. The silence is deafening, and a few sniffs can be heard amongst the audience.

Mark’s reputation as a campaigner has gone from strength to strength, helped by his tenacious attitude and passion for justice, and this tour sees him on form once more. The show comes highly recommended for those of you who want to look beyond the media images of suicide bombers and army tanks. Entertaining, thoughtful and very moving.

Review: Mark Steel, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, January 2011

First night of Mark Steel’s new UK tour - Mark Steel’s In Town - so ‘it might be great or it might be complete bollocks.’ It was a good start. I reviewed Mark’s previous tour over three years ago when he was last in Huddersfield. The crowd was smaller then, but tonight was almost sold out, and quite rightly. Mark’s presence on Radio 4 panel shows, such as The News Quiz, has allowed him to test his material, as has his column in The Independent and his blog (click on How I Spent An Afternoon – priceless) which has gone from strength to strength and shows off his love for history and politics. His writing, both on the page and on tour, is definitely sharper, but what stands out this time is his extraordinary talent for regional and country accents – Geordie, Northern Irish, London, Cornish, Brummie, Welsh and Scottish, each one matched with precisely the right combination of swear words that make the accents sing beautifully. He is quite the performer; articulate, smiley and potty-mouthed. Four stars, if anyone’s asking.

What happens when you clean up your website...?

...you find some old book reviews that could probably benefit from seeing some daylight. That's right, I've given my website a good spring clean and a makeover (after 3 years!), moving my book reviews and some articles to this blog in the process. This means that all my subscribers are about to be bombarded with old book reviews as I post each one here over the course of this afternoon. I promise to leave you all alone for a while to scroll through it all, and if nothing else, you might rediscover some good oldies. Happy reading people.