In these difficult times, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, during this unprecedented crisis and in the age of COVID-19; not only are we fed up with the state of affairs, but the language we use to talk about is getting pretty tiresome as well.
Granted, there are only so many ways we can say the same thing over and over again, which is all the more reason to reach higher and dig deeper in developing fresh messaging for a mentally fatigued audience.
If you find yourself in the position of communicating pandemic updates on behalf of a business or organization, consider a Great Vocabulary Reset of sorts (too soon?) to prevent the kind of tune-out that must be avoided at all costs. Here, we identify three key strategies for revitalized and high-impact crisis communications.
Be in the now, always
It may seem like the days are just bleeding into one another, the passage of time a meaningless blur… but nothing could be further from the truth. Industries are evolving fast day by day, and the only certainty is that no one is certain what will happen next or if we’ll soon be getting back to normal. When drafting, take a giant step back – don’t miss the forest for the trees.
There is certainly no shortage of fresh details to share with your audience: currently, Canada is in line to get the vaccine… there is confusion over holiday gatherings… anti-mask protests are flaring up… certain provinces are far worse off than others… schools are a constant concern… mental health is an issue of increasing urgency… see what we’re getting at here? With daily, detailed updates from all levels of government, there is (sadly) no shortage of new information one can use to create timely, helpful communications.
The goal isn’t to scare people out of their minds or overload them with information, but to provide information and, crucially, context that feels timely, real and adapted to your organization’s unique circumstances. If someone feels like they’re reading only boilerplate, then none of it is going to sink in – and that can be dangerous at a time like this.
EXAMPLE: “Finally, some hope: it appears as if a vaccine is on its way, and Canada is at the front of the queue. As workers in a private health organization, we may not be at the top of the priority list but we’re told we’ll be close to the top. Expect to get jabbed sometime next year. In the meantime, we must remain cautious and vigilant – especially this winter – as a vaccine is just the first step to overcoming a global health crisis. Please see Karen in HR if you’re interested in our new health and wellness plan.”
Simple, authentic language, delivered directly. We use current facts that don’t scare so much as contextualize the urgency that needs to be communicated here.
Active language and measured sincerity
At TNKR HQ, there is nothing that gets our hackles up quite like passive writing. Try to avoid the infinitive form when and where possible, instead opting for verbs and actions rooted in the NOW. For example:
PASSIVE: “The pandemic is dragging on, but our hopes have been remaining high throughout.”
(Sorry if that hurt to read.)
ACTIVE: “As the pandemic drags on, our hopes remain high.”
This style of active writing is essential at a time when people’s attention spans are already strained from anxiety and information overload. Eliminate unnecessary words but do not compromise essential information in the process; it’s a delicate balance. You have a duty to communicate with total clarity and precision. Part of that is simple grammar and the basics of style, part is intuitive and being media literate.
Stephen King wrote a great memoir called On Writing, and he does a fantastic job of explaining the principles of active, concise messaging. Highly recommended.
Feeling, without emotion
This one is a little trickier, but remember that writing is like working out: the more you do it, the stronger and more confident you get.
In a pandemic, you want to convey urgency and empathy, but without causing panic or coming across as insincere. Part of this skill is an awareness of vocabulary, while the other part is, shall we say, a little more instinctive. Before writing, ask yourself: “would I say this out loud, to other human beings, and would it sound weird?” Let’s use hyperbole to get the point across:
WEIRD / DISCONCERTING: “COVID-19 is a dangerous virus that could kill us all and if we don’t practise social distancing there could be terrifying consequences.”
GENUINE / MEASURED: “COVID-19 is a serious threat to our health and safety, but we can mitigate the risks by working together and practising safe social distancing.”
Your job is not to underplay the threat, but to communicate serious information without scaring the pants off of everyone. Think of your favorite TV news anchor, and how they would deliver a devastating or breaking story – they would certainly be calm, speaking in measured tones, and their words would convey important facts without bias or distress, while still reflecting the collective experience of that moment.
There’s a great scene in Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon where he scolds a pupil while pointing to the sky.
“Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory!”
For our purposes, the finger is your words, and it’s showing your team a way forward and beyond the pandemic. Do what you have to do so that people aren’t getting distracted by your finger. Elegant in its simplicity, don’t you think?
Christopher Paré is a senior consultant with TNKR Media.