- Effective crisis communicators exemplify skills we can apply all the time to improve our communication skills.
- Be clear and concise with messaging.
- Choose your words and tone with intention.
- Use the power of analogies, and don’t be afraid to make it personal.
- Give your audience something to remember to make your message stick.
Communication is a powerful and essential life skill, and this is never more evident that during times of crisis. From a communications standpoint, the pandemic has created a need for clear, honest, and empathetic communication that balances the need for hard facts with a human touch. It’s a masterclass in effective communication for those paying attention.
The Harvard Business Review recently published a thoughtful piece about communication in a crisis which highlights New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as an example of highly effective communication in a difficult time. North of the border, BC’s Chief Medical Officer Bonnie Henry has been praised for her ability to balance high levels of intellect and competence with genuine emotion.
What can we learn from these master communicators?
Be clear and concise. Use less words when possible, and shorter ones. With the pandemic, this means simplifying scientific and medical terminology so that the average citizen can understand it while staying fact-based; in business, it might mean avoiding consultant-speak and vague references or requests, in favour of everyday terminology and clear action items.
In either case, the idea is to keep your message clear and understandable. Often leaders think they have been clear and thorough, only to later discover that employees did not understand – or remember – the message. Of course, it’s important to provide as much detail as is necessary, but by being clear about the key message you are trying to convey, and framing it with simple, understandable language, your message has more of a chance to stick.
It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. When a reporter used the term “shelter at home” to describe the social distancing measures introduced by Cuomo, he was quick to correct the wording choice. He knew that the term is commonly used during acute threats such as active shooters and understood that using the term might trigger a similar sense of fear or panic.
In business, a similar lesson applies. A simple shift in language – “what went wrong during this project” vs. “what did you do wrong” for example – can spark a collaborative conversation rather than a combative one.
Find analogies. HBR notes that Cuomo effectively used this strategy to convey to another state the importance of helping New York in the pandemic. He could have presented data about how viruses spread from one geography to another; instead, he opted to use the analogy of ‘stopping a fire before it reaches your house’. Pandemics are unfamiliar and, in some ways, unfathomable. Fires are something we have all seen and experienced in some way. By opting for a familiar analogy, he got his message across with great impact.
Fortunately, more business scenarios are not as dire as stopping a pandemic in its tracks. But the communication principle can be used in common business scenarios. Reminding your sales team to remember to ‘skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been’ can be far more effective than data-heavy lectures on future trends forecasts. At the very least, it reminds employees in a tangible way why those forecasts ultimately matter.
Get Personal. Early in the pandemic, Dr. Bonnie Henry made headlines for welling up with tears while asking the public to do what they could to protect the vulnerable among us. This display of emotion personalized the situation, reminding us that real people, real families, real life-and-death situations were relying on us to do the right thing. It was a powerful moment.
Professionalism and appropriateness are always important, but showing your human side conveys authenticity and empathy – qualities that inspire trust and connection among teams. When a project goes awry, sharing a time when you dealt with a similar situation (even the mistakes you made) can build the team’s resilience and re-focus them on doing the best job they can under the circumstances.
Give Them Something to Remember. If you have a strategic goal and want to spark action among the team, give them two or three (HBR refers to the ‘rule of three’) key points to focus on, and repeat them often. Cuomo used this tactic in a tweet: “Stay Home. Stop the Spread. Save Lives.” Health Canada used an even more concise version in their public awareness campaign: “Stay Home. Save Lives” If a member of the public listened to nothing but these two slogans, they would know precisely what to do to social distance and minimize the spread of covid-19.
If this can be effective with lives at stake, it can certainly help you keep your team focused on a strategic goal. Perhaps a sales team needs to remember to “Reach out, solve problems, stay in touch” so that they focus on proactively contacting customers, finding out their needs, proposing solutions and following up until the sale is closed. Or a team of database analysts needs to “maintain, validate, update” to improve the quality of the data they are responsible for. It does not need to be poetry – just simple, concise, and action-oriented.
Thankfully, few business managers or leaders will ever be tasked with leading a crisis as profound as that faced by Governor Cuomo or Dr. Henry. But all of us can look to them as masters of communication and learn from their expertise and service.