Say zombies, think disaster: how to communicate effectively
It seems obvious to say that information alone doesn’t have much impact on the way people act. For example, I know the health benefits of a balanced diet and exercise, but I’m still eating a Snickers for lunch at my desk while writing this blog. In disaster preparation and response, disseminating the right information is only part of the problem; understanding why people make certain decisions about risk (many times in spite of the information) is equally, if not more, important.
So when I started seeing news reports about the British Columbia Zombie preparedness week campaign, I felt a surge of delight. Instead of talking about how to prepare for floods, avalanches or other natural disasters that endanger the lives of British Columbians, Emergency Info BC took up the rallying cry: ‘if you’re ready for zombies, you’re ready for anything’.
To me, this is what innovative communications looks like: concrete yet unexpected, memorable and humorous, with a sharp focus on the audience they are trying to reach. I can imagine whoever pitched this idea met with hesitation from their colleagues. Would people take it seriously? Would the media call it a waste of public funds? Was it dumbing things down?
Of course, there’s no evidence that this ongoing campaign will impact British Columbians’ preparedness for disasters. Media coverage does not, by any means, equal behaviour change – especially in an age where we can ‘like’ and ‘tweet’ to our heart’s content without actually having to do anything. But in my own role as ALNAP communications and network officer, and on the back of years trying to ‘translate’ brilliant research into something that can be applied and understood by the rest of the world, I think the campaign has utilised three simple ideas that help change your messaging from ‘information download’ to ‘communicating’.
- ‘Unlearn’ your organisation-speak – how often do we use our organisation’s internal way of talking or organising information to communicate with external audiences?
- Write books, not reports – In all my years commuting, I’ve very rarely seen anyone engrossed in a report. But people stay glued to novels, self-help tomes and other books for hours on end. Why? Perhaps because they are full of analogies and stories and imaginative language. We have to move away from trying to create ‘fast food’ reports that are meant to be consumed as quickly as possible, and cook up powerful narratives that are an enjoyable read. (I’m not saying write more, just more skilfully)
- Don’t think pomelo, think super-sized grapefruit – As the Heath brothers point out wonderfully in their book, Made to stick, a pomelo could be described as a large citrus fruit with a hard rind and a dark orange flesh, but it’s much more effective when you’re trying to get someone to understand your concept to use an existing schema to introduce a new idea. So, pomelo becomes supersized grapefruit. Much easier to use as a starting point to discuss pomelo-related things. In the same way, talking about a zombie attack (which brings to mind countless vivid images of panic and chaos from films and comics) is paradoxically more tangible that an avalanche might seem to someone who has never experienced one (and who hasn't seen this movie).
Hope this is useful to anyone thinking about communicating about humanitarian research and projects. Now, where did I put my Snickers?
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