In a time when we need to understand science and facts, we are also seeing the impact of ineffective messaging around important ideas. Take for instance the discussion about the coronavirus vaccine. Scientists and journalists – in the hopes of covering every aspect of the information – at times have scared people away from getting the vaccine. What is the most important message? That the vaccine is safe? Or is it better to talk about some potential impacts that may affect a tiny portion of the population? It’s as if every time we discussed the car in your driveway, we also talked about the possibility you could get into an accident in that car. Some polls show as many as half of people asked would turn down the shot if offered immediately, according to the New York Times, and the military has had a difficult time getting some service members vaccinated.
Knowing the in-built skepticism associated with the question for some people, clarity of message is critical. It’s the difference between life and death for some. What does that look like, not only for this question, but for any complex or controversial issue? Here are some things to keep in mind:
You are not in court! Too often in public communication I hear experts and journalists spend so much time on exceptions it gives those sidelights undue weight. You are not testifying in court here, but just trying to help busy, concerned people with information so they can make decisions. Providing overall, general information will be accurate and true for most of the audience. What it should NOT sound like is the end of one of those commercials for a new pill.
Get comfortable with repeating yourself: Every leader needs to embrace this rule. Sure, you might want to say something new about the topic, but what’s more important? If the basic message of safety is the critical piece of information, then stick to it.
This is not about ‘dumbing it down”: Too often some of this will be referred to as “dumbing it down,” but it really isn’t. People are busy and distracted. Keep it straightforward for the audience because lots of “stuff” is on the internet designed to muddy the water. The straightforward message can’t be easily twisted into a scary item that serves someone’s conspiracy theory.
Social media “Comments” impact: Playing in the background for most everything we do are the endless line of naysayers inhabiting social media. Will someone disagree or try to score points? Yes, in every situation. Your only job is to deliver the clearest, most direct message possible.
It involves math: Many people, including me, can get easily lost in the numbers. When, in the case of the vaccine, there is discussion of the fact that it is not 100% effective it really misses the point. Almost no medical solution is 100% effective and using that as the yard stick only distracts from the more important message – it effectively eliminates the risk of death from the virus!
Smart people can feel they are adding perspective by mentioning all the different possible outcomes when asked. Too often, all that added information just ends up being noise – getting in the way of the more important message.