Whether you’re pro mask or anti mask, pro vaccine or anti vaccine, can we agree government guidance throughout the pandemic has been a disaster? Questions such as, How many days to quarantine? Who gets vaccinated when? Do employers need to mandate vaccination or not? seem as accurately answered by a Magic Eight Ball as a government spokesperson. Even the medical community appears to be confused. For example, I recently asked my doctor if he thought masks on airplanes were a good or bad idea and he responded by throwing up his hands, shrugging his shoulders, and saying, “Who’s to say? It’s a personal choice, I guess.” Not exactly the clear, confidence-instilling response I was seeking.
How did our nation’s leadership botch this crisis? Now before we start pointing our blue or red fingers at who’s to blame, let’s consider a refreshingly honest, non partisan mea culpa from Rochelle Walensky, the director of The Center for Disease Control (CDC), during a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal. Her comments on why our nation screwed up its Covid strategy were so insightful, in fact, I find it terrific insight for any organization (perhaps yours?) trying to guide, sell, persuade, or bulldoze an audience into making good decisions.
Paraphrasing Rochelle’s comments, her takeaways sounded like this:
“The CDC’s staff is comprised of smart researchers and scientists who spend most of their time communicating with other smart researchers and scientists who are working together to solve complicated problems. As a result, our communication style is steeped in vocabulary, acronyms, and phrasing that makes sense to industry professionals but looks like Greek to the public.
“Suddenly, the pandemic hit and our staff, accustomed to that technical style, had to begin communicating directly with the public and, even worse, politicians*.”
(*OK, she didn’t say that last part about politicians but wouldn’t that have been great? Ha ha 😊)
Rochelle went on to describe how CDC advisories, press releases, website postings, etc. continued to follow the same complicated format they’d been using for years, which meant the information made perfect sense to the .001% of us who are infectious disease insiders but left the rest of us in the dark. She even confessed that the CDC’s Communications Director role, the one role that might have been able to streamline and simplify all the technical jargon, had been vacant for the last four years! Shocking.
What happens when our organizations, like the CDC, don’t have a talented Communications Director to align our message with our audience? Unfortunately, the outcome is not what our high ego minds like to believe. Our egos tell us, “I have an important message to share. My audience, dazzled with my expertise, will appreciate what I have to say and pay close attention. If they don’t understand what I’m talking about they will double down listening to me, consider carefully my words, and reach the same logical conclusion that I have.”
Ah, if only! Reality is quite different. When we do not communicate with extreme clarity, here’s what our audience actually thinks: “You have nine seconds to capture my attention. Since you failed, I’m tuning you out, reaching for my phone, and tuning into a different channel to get someone else’s [often biased, ill informed] simple, one hundred forty characters or less social media conclusion on your topic.”
As the pandemic proved, this, “You have nine seconds to nail it or I’m tuning you out” approach is true even when the information is of life or death importance. Imagine, then, how less focused your audience is likely to be when you’re delivering information that, while important, is not life or death. Whether you’re an auto mechanic describing what’s wrong with your customer’s car or a salesperson pitching your latest offering or an employee speaking up at a staff meeting, you have mere seconds to earn attention and you’re constantly at risk of drifting out of focus.
“But Ben,” you may argue, “I can’t deliver my message that quickly or that simply. The subject is too complex and the details too critical to understand.”
I appreciate your concern. You’re not alone. In fact, I’ve heard this objection countless times over my career, usually from longtime, respected subject matter experts who’ve A) spent years mastering their craft, and B) despite having the biggest brains in their space have the tiniest revenue in their industry.
Friends, I assure you there’s a path to clarifying your message and one’s inability to do so sacrifices followers, revenue, and in pandemic scenarios, lives.
The formula I’ve found works best is to share information with your audience the same way a newspaper designs its front page: We begin with a big, bold headline. Then we offer a slightly longer subtitle. And finally we share the information with a brief narrative (in story form whenever possible, not textbook form!). And we repeat that formula again and again throughout your entire presentation.
Think of it this way: You’re breaking up your information into several USA Today stories, not one longform New York Times article. You gotta bread crumb it, one easily digestible morsel at a time.
1) Attention grabbing headlines. 2) Slightly longer yet equally compelling subtitles. 3) Brief, story-packed narratives that bring the headlines to life.
If you’ve ever worked with me on a presentation or communications plan, you’ve probably heard me ask, “Explain it to me again as if I’m ten years old.” Now the first reason I ask my colleagues to do that is because I’m privileged to work with people far smarter than I! But the other reason is I know your audience is more distracted than we appreciate, and if we don’t keep thing simple we’ll lose them. A helpful formula to consider when crafting your message: If you suspect your message requires your audience to apply more than 25% of their focus, your audience will remember 0% of your message.
I’m also shocked at how convoluted a message becomes when we fear we’re going to exclude or offend a tiny portion of the audience. For example, an engineer I know was writing a new SOP on optimal pressure settings for a pump system and the right answer 99% of the time was, “Never run your pump below 80 PSI.” We knew this updated SOP would save their company over $5 Million/year, so it was critical to get the message out quickly and clearly. But when authoring this SOP, our friendly, uber-smart engineer (we’ll call him Josh) wrote a multi-page, tiny font manual on all the reasons it might be OK to set the pressure differently during the other 1% of the time.
“Josh, Why did you write all this other crap to cover 1% of the scenarios?” I asked.
Josh responded, “Well, we have some people on staff who will be upset if I don’t reference the other 1%.”
“Josh, if you send out this wordy, complicated SOP no one’s gonna read it, which means your $5 Million problem doesn’t go away. Forget the 1%.”
Bottom line: Upsetting a few people is OK. Spurring debate among the always-present “yeah but..” crowd is OK. But confusion? Confusion = chaos, and chaos reigns when confusion wins.
Listen, I know this is hard. Boiling all that knowledge of yours into simpleton soundbites can feel trite, and I know it’s hard to speak in black and white terms in a grey world. But it’s only through direct, clear, attention-grabbing soundbites that we earn the right to share deeper messages with your deserving audience.
If you’re convinced this is only a modern day problem, consider what Cicero wrote over two thousand years ago: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” The challenge of condensing and simplifying complex messages is as old as the hills, and those who master the art will always rise to the top.
Oh, and as for those questions about Covid protocols, I still have no idea what’s best so please, if you know any powerful headline writers or storytellers please refer them to the CDC for immediate hire!