Many confusing details and emotions are in the air right now over the coronavirus. And that uncertainty can feel overwhelming, causing fear of what the future holds and how people should act.
But when we communicate with uncertainties, those messages may do more than simply confuse people. They may contribute to increasing the pandemic’s risks by not communicating personal responsibility. When we don’t understand what to take seriously, our risks can increase — and undermine our cooperative action. As a result, how we communicate to people who depend on us will guide how they can understand what’s real, why it matters, and how to act.
To overcome uncertainty, we can craft clear concepts that foster understanding and calm. Here are three language tips to guide you even when uncertainty abounds:
1. Remove panic.
Humans make decisions first with their emotions and then their logic. When you communicate in a way that breeds panic, you further people’s worrying and anxiety. And that anxiety can make people feel more cognitively impaired and
directly affect their ability to make good decisions, like choosing whether to socially distance or not.
To remove panic:
- Use a helpful tone that fosters empathy, rather than creates emotional distance. For example: “Your safety matters to us” is more supportive than the vague tone of, “It is important to be safe.”
- Demonstrate how you understand what they’re feeling, rather than downplay their concerns. For example: “I understand your worry” can show that you relate to them whereas language like, “Don’t overreact” feels bossy and unsympathetic.
- Share clear actions that lead to solutions and answers, rather than exacerbate worry of the unknown. For example: “We will meet at 5 pm to decide on whether to close shop next week,” shares more concrete steps than, “We are figuring out what to do.”
2. Address short-term actions while recognizing long-term goals.
Our brains experience “present bias,” which prioritizes short-term payoffs over any rewards that we gain in the long term. As such, people will miss how today’s actions connect to tomorrow’s needs. So, helping people to overcome this bias is important, especially when emotions are running rampant.
To keep a short- and long-term balance:
- Recognize how short-term details connect to long-term goals, rather than ignore the future. For example: “Social isolation today will help save hundreds of thousands of lives months later,” is more tangible than, “We must socially isolate to control this virus.”
- Share concrete steps you’re taking now and how these actions benefit audiences later, rather than focus only on the present. For example: “Working remotely means you won’t have any service disruptions for the rest of the year” shows concrete benefits better than, “Our employees work remotely.”
- Be honest about what you don’t know today that could affect people later, rather than dodge reality. For example: “We don’t know, but we’re meeting later this week and will share what we find out” is more transparent than, “We’ll follow up on that detail.”
3. Focus on your audiences’ needs, not yours.
Business communications often focus too much on themselves, rather than what audiences want from them. This ego-centric perspective leaves readers out of the conversation, because you don’t include them and their needs. And, audiences really don’t care about you (sorry!) — everything is here for them. So, you need to directly show that you prioritize them.
You can speak to audiences by doing the following:
- Reframe “we” statements into “you” language and allow the audience benefits to emerge, rather than speak about yourself. For example: “We are here for you” becomes, “You can count on us.”
- Write from what your audiences need to hear from you, rather than what you want to tell them. For example: “You can use our no-touch delivery service to stay safe,” speaks to their concerns better than, “We now provide no-touch delivery service.”
- Use question headers that address their needs, rather than topic headers, when appropriate. For example: “Where can you get tested for COVID-19?” frames language around the audience’s perspective better than “COVID-19 Testing.”
When emotions are high, you can never fully control how people react. That’s reality. But by crafting clear messages during times of uncertainty, you can help people ground themselves, embrace facts, and make good decisions. And those outcomes are always helpful, no matter the environment you’re communicating in.
Here’s an example!
This public message does a good job of meeting the above points to support certainty during uncertain environments. Kudos to Dr. Emily Landon, chief infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Chicago Medicine!