How Merlin helped us understand how to talk about our Public Square project

Andrew Peacock, of Calderdale Council, explains the techniques we used to help us understand how we could communicate about their Public Square project, which envisages a different kind of relationship between citizens and the council.

How do you make toast?

Anyone who’s been involved in a workshop knows the value of a good warm-up exercise to get people feeling relaxed – and, if you’re lucky, maybe even a bit creative. 

There’s one task in particular that’s guaranteed to stimulate grey matter: a challenge for people to draw their answer to the question: ‘How do you make toast?’

For some it’s a simple illustration: bread in a toaster. Others show much more of the process – queuing to buy bread in the shop, catching the bus home, right through to applying the butter and jam. Some go into even greater detail!

If such a simple exercise can generate such a variety of responses, communicating a complicated project or idea can be much more of a head scratcher. And when people talk about the same thing in different ways it can create confusion, a lack of consistency and clarity that leaves audiences disengaged.This is where working out a central narrative comes is really helpful

Telling a story

Recently, staff from Calderdale Council and the Public Square team came together for a creative workshop to co-design a central narrative for our project – in this case as a way of increasing people’s  involvement in local democracy. 

Because the project envisages a new relationship – something new and not yet defined – it’s not easy to talk about. As a result, we chose to run a series of exercises that would help the group to explore what the project was about and how it could be conveyed.

The first exercise was simple – one word from each participant to define what we were trying to achieve, forcing us all to condense our thoughts into a single idea. It was interesting to note the synergy that came back from the answers. We might have described the project differently when explaining it at length, but the single-word answers were all about trust, relationships and conversations.

The magic ingredient

From here, we ran a Merlin exercise, based on the Arthurian legend of the famed wizard that aged backwards and could therefore ‘remember’ the future. The group was asked to imagine themselves in a future where the Public Square project had been a success and we collectively remembered how we got there; how had Calderdale changed in that time? What do we do differently now? What were the key moments in the project’s success? The result of this conversation helped us to define why the project was important and the potential it had. 

We then used that thinking to revisit how we currently talk about the project – emails we have sent, conversations we’ve had – and applied our new understanding to the language we’d used previously – in what ways will we communicate differently in future? What words were important? Which should we avoid?

This exchange of ideas was used to inform the central narrative, one that gives clarity to the aims of the project and one in which we could all see our thumbprints. The narrative can be changed and adapted for different audiences but it will be built from a central place giving us the confidence to communicate effectively. And if nothing else, that’s worth toasting!