Are We Looking the Wrong Direction When Predicting Trends?

Posted on August 28, 2012

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In conducting media training, we consistently remind our clients that a story becomes newsworthy only if it’s timely. To illustrate the point, I have frequently asked participants over the past few years, “When was the last time you read a news report about West Nile Virus?” I usually get a chuckle in response as everyone remembers how this big story from 1999 evaporated into obscurity—until this summer.

West Nile has re-emerged with a vengeance—more than a thousand cases in 47 states, with dozens of deaths, statistics that are very close to home in my suburban Dallas neighborhood.

In the same vein, I recall that, in the aftermath of 9/11, an astute colleague reminded me that we used to accuse journalists who reported arcane, often irrelevant stories of practicing “Afghanistanism.” The events of the 9/11 immediately made Afghanistan the most relevant of topics.

A sudden turn of events can transform our attitudes, our focus and our daily lives in completely unexpected ways, but if we take the time to examine our current situation and the forces of change that have been gathering over a period of time, we should not be surprised. West Nile did not disappear in the United States over the past decade; it simply slid to a less severe plateau, always with the potential to re- intensify. September 11 was not the first time we heard of Al-Qaeda; other attacks on the World Trade Center, the USS Cole and the American embassy in Kenya had been attributed to the terrorist group. We could have anticipated it would rise up again.

These and similar incidents should stand as a collective lesson for communicators: we must learn that we often can do a much better job of looking forward if we first look back to the past. Whether predicting trends in technology or geology, politics or pop culture, we are likely to improve the accuracy of our assumptions about the future by examining the influences of events in recent years and decades.

Will gasoline reach the much-hyped $5 a gallon? What have economic factors told us during past price surges? Will China’s economy/Apple’s stock price/Facebook’s members/auto industry sales continue their breakneck pace? Step back to look back at parallel situations to see what we can learn before stepping forward with a prediction.

Certainly future events are not solely the offspring of past occurrences; new events may reshape them. Equally as certainly, however, the jolts and disruptions we are about to experience do have roots that we can unearth and examine. As communicators, we must dig into the past before we build expectations for the future.

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