Fear is normal. In fact, feeling afraid is part of our natural survival. And in times like we’re in now, that fear can permeate everything.
So, when you need to communicate with people who are in a state of fear, being careful with these emotions is essential. On one side, you don’t want your message to deepen how afraid they feel. On the other side, recognizing this emotion is also important, so you connect with and support your audiences.
To understand how to balance messaging when people feel afraid, let’s first briefly explore what happens in our brains when fear hits.
How Our Brains React to Fear
Once we feel afraid, our brain’s amygdala activates and our emotional reactions set in. We start feeling “fight or flight” responses to protect ourselves. Our stress hormones elevate, and we release many other chemicals in order to react and protect ourselves from a fearful situation. Meanwhile, our pre-frontal cortex also kicks in to address the threats we feel, which is where we make high-level decisions. And these reactions create physical effects in our bodies, like quickened breathing and tight muscles.
In short, the body becomes stressed, physically and emotionally — and can affect our cognition, memory, and attention. And during a crisis, like COVID-19, these feelings can stick around and people’s fear remains heightened.
Reading Abilities Can Shift
Studies also show that our reading abilities aren’t finite. We can become better or worse readers depending on the situations we’re in, how difficult the content is, and how motivated we are to read. Remember, stress affects actions like how we process information, recall details, and pay attention. As a result, our ability to be strong readers can drop. And if reading is already a challenge for someone, these hurdles deepen.
Fortunately, you can help audiences out when they feel afraid. Here are some clarity tips to create content that encourages people rather than exasperates them.
1. Be human.
Now’s the time to toss the legalese, jargon, and sophisticated wording. Be direct, use simple phrasing, and sound like a human. People need emotional connections during worrisome times, not robots. If your content’s tone seems stilted or inauthentic, audiences will notice.
2. Create clear structure.
During stress, easy access to information is crucial. So, be sure that your content’s structure and navigation don’t force people to search for the details they want. Otherwise, you further stress them out and lose their interest. Use features like headers, subheads, and bulleted lists to guide readers through your content. Build white space, hyperlinks, and make sure visuals and language connect.
3. Validate their feelings.
When you validate someone’s emotions, you let them know that you recognize how they feel and understand where they come from. In messaging, this validation can help you develop personal relationships with your audiences. We understand that times are tough right now can go a long way for bridging connections with people feel versus not recognizing these emotions at all.
4. Be careful with trigger words.
Trigger words address language that can provoke people’s emotions. And when audiences are already afraid, you can aggravate their stress and fear if your word choice negatively deepens those emotions. While you may need to talk about something difficult, such as death, being frank and empathetic can ease people into the message. A sentence like, Death is possible in severe COVID-19 cases, is emotionally easier than wording like, You and your family can die if you don’t start wearing masks right now! This type of phrasing only reinforces their fears and paranoia.
Of course, context with messaging is always a crucial element in choosing which language to use. A specific tone or wording choice may work well in one type of message but not convey well with a different audience or content channel. And, while you can’t control how audiences react, you can always control your content’s emotional intent. Being mindful of how you communicate when people are afraid can help you drive positive action. Plus, you’ll become a voice of calm during a time when they need it the most.
What Happens in the Brain When We Feel Fear, Smithsonian Magazine
Evidence-Based Plain Language and Information Design, Dr. Karen Schriver