Telling Tales – The funny thing about sewage

By Natasha Wiseman, founder and chief executive of Make Water Famous and WiseOnWater

Natasha Wiseman
Natasha Wiseman

What first attracted comedian Joe Lycett to making a TV programme about the water industry? I think he reveals this early-on in the show Joe Lycett vs Sewage, streaming on Channel 4.

“I find the word poo – and pretty much everything about poo – very funny,” he says.

Poo is funny, in part because it is taboo. It fits comfortably into a category of things people avoid – and avoid talking about – you are probably ready to turn the page about now.

As humans, we find poo excessively repulsive, and those of us working in the water sector smirk and skirt this taboo with precise professional words like biosolids and faecal matter, removing us from this bald and bawdy reality. By stripping the veneer away, Lycett reveals the rich, dark stream of comedy sewage offers, and off he trots to Cranfield University, where “sewage scientists” Francis and Miles have the unenviable task of tracking Joe’s poo as it travels from the toilet through various stages of clarification in a test treatment plant.

“I don’t really know what treated sewage is,” Joe reveals, which should make every water company comms team sit up. Be assured that if Joe Lycett does not know what treated sewage is, neither does most of the UK population.

Relentlessly curious, he does his level best to educate himself – and his viewers – with a very effective gamified animation of what happens when the sewerage network overflows. He also manages to navigate some of the complexities of UK water industry regulation without losing the will to live – very impressive for a 45-minute show.

Looking through the lens of communications, the biggest learning the sector can take from Joe Lycett vs Sewage is the effectiveness of humour in conveying important messages. This was a key finding from CCWater’s review of global behavioural campaigns on water conservation and unflushables, which indicates that emotions are underused.

Using emotion in campaigns – including fear, disgust and surprise – has many benefits in helping to engage people, as well as changing behaviour. As CCWater’s review says, positive emotions like humour can soften difficult messages and shift perspective – encouraging people to look again at the way they use water and dispose of waste.

Humour is shown to disarm people’s defences and make them less resistant to change, its use helps make complex information more engaging and memorable and laughter creates a sense of connection, making people more open to listening and sharing.

Effective examples highlighted in the report include Sydney Water’s video series ‘Turn it off Bob’, where a comedian is called out for his water wastage. Another came from the campaigning organisation designed to appeal to young men who use wet wipes. Looking to UK utilities, Affinity Water had comedian Sandi Toksvig deliver a set from a chalk stream, as part of the company’s ‘Stand Up for our Streams’ campaign.

A word to the wise though, to help ensure campaigns are effective and do not backfire, it is important to use humour with care, and thoroughly test with a diverse audience before launch.

Those working in water may be watching Lycett’s show through splayed fingers, wondering who is going to be named and shamed. Ready to hurl shoes at the telly when he says 1,200 years of raw sewage has been discharged into lakes, rivers and seas since 2016.

“It’s screened and diluted with vast quantities of rainwater,” they want to point out.

So what can the water sector learn? To be more Joe, perhaps. To build trust, to better understand how to connect with customers on a human level, and to use humour – where appropriate – to reach people and help bring them along.

Lycett is after all a comedian, not a professor of engineering or the head of Ofwat. He has an audience willing to listen, who like and trust him. As water communicators we can look on in awe at the platform he occupies, the attention he garners and be forever reminded to lever the essential truth – that poo is funny.



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