Should we change the way we communicate?

Nicky Hawkins, 17 November 2017

The political earthquakes of the last 18 months have brought much discussion of the bubble. Countless politicians, journalists, pollsters and issue experts say they were caught out by their own bubble. Many say they didn’t realise how out of touch with wider society they were – and are.

It’s easy to observe other people being willfully blind to facts and to call out post-truth folly when we see it. But in reality we all seek out and interpret information in ways that confirm our existing views. Psychologists argue that this motivated reasoning is an evolutionary trait. In survival terms, belonging to a group is more valuable than being factually accurate.

Communicating effectively could not be more central to our collective mission.

Organisations attempting to create real and lasting change need to understand and work in relation to human beings’ tribal instincts. Whether we’re working directly with individuals or influencing policy – or both – we need public support for our existence and our mission. Without it our vital work is vulnerable and any progress is shallow and shaky. Communicating effectively – cutting through, changing hearts and minds, improving public understanding – could not be more central to our collective mission.

The good news is that we don’t have to guess how to do this. There is a science to communicating productively and the right tools and strategies are there for the taking. In the same way that we choose policy and practice recommendations based on evidence, we can choose communications based on rigorous investigations.

The bad news is that we routinely ignore this in favour of untested or poorly tested approaches. We forget that human brains aren’t blank slates onto which we insert our statistics, messages and appeals. When our facts don’t work we shout louder or double down and reach for more facts. We fail to recognise that we are not our audience.

And this impedes our progress, whatever we’re trying to achieve.

Charity communicators (and isn’t everyone a communicator?) need to arm themselves with a better grasp of how human brains work.

In turn, charity leaders need to view communications very differently in terms of strategy, structure and delivery. Communications are not discrete activities – a press release, a series of tweets or, if we’re lucky, a coordinated campaign. Communications should mean everything people hear about an issue.

Communications should mean everything people hear about an issue.

In Blackpool, work is underway to promote a better understanding of how children’s brains develop. Professionals working with local families are being trained to tell the story of child development – facts brought to life through messages that are scientifically proven to work. By changing everyday conversations we can change the deeply held patterns of thinking that drive decisions and actions.

The ways that we think influence our behaviour and shape the structures of our society. Driving lasting change, improving people’s lives and tackling challenging issues requires us to change our culture. Culture is deep, durable and strong but it can and does change. It changes, at least in part, based on the stories we tell and the ideas we communicate. To do this well we need to re-think what we mean by communications and to invest in better evidence and better practice.

Nicky Hawkins is a communications strategist at FrameWorks Institute and a strategist at Catsnake. She has previously worked for Friends of the Earth and Save the Children.