“Lift the kimono” but do it the right way: Cern fails with Will Self

Opening up your corporation to media scrutiny is a good tactic. You can reveal your values. You can make your corporation more personal, show its values. Yet there are dangers. And this week Will Self showed what they are in his walk around the Hadron Collider at Cern on BBC Radio 4. The European Centre for research smashes particles at great speed and with great energy to find out what’s happening in that world of physics.

Cern fails to expalin

But Cern, with all its intellectual and physical power, failed to explain to him, not a stupid man, what was going on.

Yes, particles were bashing into each other. Yes, the physicists were understood more about how they reacted to each other. But what was the big picture? Why? And what were the big issues they were solving?


Will Self confused about role this mighty particle basher: nned not be Cern had expalined itself
Will Self confused about the role of this mighty particle basher: need not be had Cern explained itself

He was perplexed. So was I.

And so should we be. We pay for Cern. Its objective is not to provide employment for scientists, but to explain. And if, in the mid-term let alone the long term, they cannot explain what they are doing, why should we spend our money on it?

Lift the kimono

Cern did something called “lifting the kimono”, revealing a bit of itself to incite interest. In this instance of corporate communications Cern failed.

The Tatler magazine “lifted the kimono” recently and it seemed to work. We saw an up market magazine explain how and why it works.

Three things to do

From the Cern case and the Tatler case we can get some guidance on corporate exposure:

1 Make sure your corporation can explain itself in broad terms throughout the organisation: piecemeal explanations without some “helicopter vision” of how their work fits into the whole picture will fragment the picture. “Helicopter vision” means that people see where they fit into the whole and can explain it.

2 Make sure you have concrete examples of what you have done and what the benefits are. Cern could not convince Self despite the great work done there.

3 Don’t just use your jargon: make sure those outside your organisation will understand. The Cern scientists used a lot of jargon to explain why their work was important. Often Self did not get it. They should have tried to link what they did to what he understood.

Will Self can be critical. Can be acerbic. But he is enthusiastic as well. If Cern had followed my rules, they would have won him over. And we would not today be thinking “why are we paying for this?” And Cern thinking: “how did that go wrong?”

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2 thoughts on ““Lift the kimono” but do it the right way: Cern fails with Will Self

  1. Alan says:

    Self had an agenda. He didn’t want to understand. That was clear from the outset, despite his comments in episode 5. The least comprehensible explanation was given by his chum from Brunel University yet he was the only physicist he credited with explaining things properly. The poor chap in episode 4 was given short thrift despite giving a very clear, succinct description of how the proton beams interacted. Please remember that you heard 5 X 15 minute extracts from a much longer visit. You got the Self version. I can tell you, having spent 4 days at Cern last February, that the particle physicists are, on the whole, superb at explaining what they do in a way that is engaging and inspiring. We spend very little money on cern (go do your sums and you’ll be surprised) and absolutely get value for money.

    I enjoyed your blog though…you can only report what you hear. Please visit cern for the real story!


  2. Paul M says:

    Come on, it’s to Self’s advantage not to acknowledge the benefits of scientific research for the sake of it. If you can’t think of 38 (number picked at random) household items/products that have come from such research in less than 5 minutes you really are lacking something.

    Let’s indulge him and give the budget over to eradicating ‘poverty’ (a metric based on averaged income so that it will never be overcome) for a few years and see what happens. Attempting to tackle a political problem financially would be true madness.

    Breakthroughs in science are what humans do best. Good luck with trying to stifle scientists and engineers but it’s not going to work. There’s a reason techies love hitch hikers guide after all.

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