Finding the right words

In this post, I share my reflections on ‘Finding the Right Words in a Crisis‘. This is a follow-up post on my series of reflections on graphic design, in which I focus on how to craft good content. In my working context, a lot of communication is done via words rather than visuals. While the latter will help sell the former, it is vital for me to choose words carefully to help convey a complete message, and for my audience to digest it more easily and readily.

Key Ideas

Carmine Gallo shares some best practices about how to sharpen your communication in a time of crisis:

1. Replace long words with short ones. Gallo cites Daniel Kahneman (whom I very briefly mentioned in my post on gut feelings), who writes, “If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.” Gallo writes that “effective leaders speak in simple language – and simple means short.” Effective communicators avoid bureaucratic jargon and keep messages simple and concise. For instance, the now-universal anti-coronavirus slogan “Stay Home, Save Lives” is simple and goes straight to the point. Everyone can understand it and follow it. Gallo also cites Churchill’s memo to government administrators to replace “woolly phrases” with single conversational words, pointing out that brevity equals clarity, and directness makes things easier to understand.

2. Find analogies. Analogies “…act as mental shortcuts to help us understand complex events. Leaders who are great communicators in a crisis are skilled at finding analogies, as they have to persuade people to act quickly”. Gallo cites the use of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fire hose” analogy in the 1940s, when Churchill appealed to the US for arms and supplies. Roosevelt proposed the Lend-Lease program to do so, and sold it to the public this way: “Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away,” he said. “If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire.”

3. Personalise the crisis. Our brains are also wired for storytelling. Our ability to connect with one another through narrative allows us to cooperate where other species cannot. Gallo cites the example of Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s Coronavirus Response Coordinator, who told a story of how her grandmother Leah accidentally infected her own mother by bringing the flu home during the 1918 flu pandemic. Leah’s mother eventually succumbed to the disease. Dr. Birx used the story to drive home the impact of Covid-19, and how stay-home measures were driving down the numbers and curtailing the impact.

4. Observe the rule of three. Studies show that the average person tends to retain about three points in their short-term memory. As such, if the effectiveness of your message relies on audience retention, it is useful to drill it down to three key points.

Reflections

Though the pointers in this piece were made with crisis communication in mind, I believe they can help enhance the effectiveness of one’s communication in many contexts. This is especially so for audience engagement. A tightly packaged message, paired with clean and sharp visual aids, can help make a deeper impact on the audience as opposed to a long and unwieldy message.

An area where this can be misunderstood is in the writing of papers or reports. I think it is important to be comprehensive when writing such pieces, especially if the purpose is for documentation. However, comprehensiveness should not be confused with clutter. In my opinion, it is also much harder work to ensure the words used in a paper are sharp and well-chosen, and to frame the points so they are easier to digest. This is even more crucial when attempting to present the paper, or you might risk losing or confusing your audience.

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