5 reasons why clarity in communication is more important than ever
You can’t watch television or read anything online at the moment without being bombarded with information on COVID-19, or its impact on the world.
That’s fair. It’s a massive understatement to call it an important issue. COVID-19 is scary.
The changes it’s forcing on our ways of living and working are significant too. It has required urgent action and thankfully we are seeing it, in some places more than others.
But as a communicator, I see crucial messages and instructions getting lost.
Well-intentioned people are providing advice, employing platforms they haven’t before, and dealing with people in emotionally delicate states.
These all need to be done properly.
1. People are throwing new around phrases
Everyone has heard the phrase social distancing by now. Great. But without jumping on to Google, tell me what social distancing means.
If asked ten people what it means you would potentially end up with about five different definitions. That is too many in a situation like the one we are facing now.
Buzzwords or phrases get used for a few reasons. They can obfuscate detail, soften the blow the harsh situations, and make people feel connected as a group. They can also, very occasionally, convey added meaning quickly through recognised associated meaning.
The expedience they offer only becomes useful when we have had time to define this collective meaning.
“Lazy language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts…” — George Orwell
Crisis situations require immediate responses and unambiguous messaging, so do we really have time for everyone to ‘agree’ on a definition of social distancing?
Is there a better option?
You bet there is. Keep it simple and make it clear.
Check out this gem of an example from Kohen Grogan:
2. Video calls have their limits
A lot of people are working from home for the foreseeable future. Dialling in to a large video conference for a team catch up is a great way to stay connected, right?
On the surface, absolutely. But only if you do it right.
Non-verbal communication contributes a large portion of the meaning we convey when we’re talking one-on-one or presenting to a group.
Good non-verbal practices can go out the window during these online conversations.
Consider this. What would your staff or peers think if they saw you looking around the room while you tell them how much you care about their well-being?
If you want to connect to your audience in a video conference, talk to your camera as if you’re talking to a single person.
Once you have that connection, be clear. Don’t default to using the buzzwords everyone else is.
Tell them specifically what you’re doing or what you expect them to do.
In other words, keep it simple and make it clear.
3. Written communication has limits too
Online written communication, like email and internet/intranet pages, can be great too. You can send it to everyone with one click and you have a copy of exactly what you said.
Unfortunately, emotional tone and idiosyncrasies like jokes or sarcasm can be easily misunderstood or misinterpreted.
Have you ever sent a text message to a friend or partner that they reacted in a very unexpected, emotional way?
Imagine that happening within your already stressed workforce.
People read and interpret written messages from their own perspective; not the author’s. The circumstances your audience is experiencing are going to colour how they react to what you write.
Choose your words carefully and take advantage of skilled writers and communicators you may have around you. And if all else fails, keep it simple and make it clear.
4. People are anxious
You don’t have to look hard to find commentary or blog posts about how stressful dealing with the impact of this pandemic is. That stress can quickly lead to anxiety, catastrophisation and mass hysteria if it’s managed poorly.
You can see evidence of the collective panic in the way people began stripping supermarkets of household items. It rippled out through communities all around the world like Henny Penny’s cry of “the sky is falling”.
Uncertainty around jobs, misunderstanding the disease, and feeling unprepared for what may come can lead some people into vicious cycles of thought which can result in depression, or worse.
Of course, you can’t change the nature of the pandemic or the need to stay home with clear communication. But clear and simple messages can help break the vicious cycles before people spiral too far.
5. There are lives at stake
The last thing I want to do is add to the hysteria and anxiety I just mentioned. Unfortunately, we can’t ignore the fact that COVID-19 has already caused fatalities. It may be a low percentage of cases but it’s already in the tens of thousands globally.
Vague preventative instructions, like “practice social distancing”, won’t be enough to contain or restrict the spread of something this infectious. If you’re an expert on infectious diseases trying to advise people on what they should do, please keep it simple and make it clear.
And that goes for you too, World Health Organisation. Your Advice for public page needs some work.