Why it's time to trim the fat when it comes to communicating about COVID-19

Updated: Apr 15



I know you’re getting tired of being bombarded with news articles about COVID-19. I'm finding it tough, too. But in the past few days, I’ve seen some really insightful articles come out on the topic and it got me thinking…


Could the way we communicate be improved to help us fight COVID-19?


You remember all those dad jokes your old man used to send you about the importance of grammar and punctuation? You know the ones…


  • “'Your dinner' vs. 'you’re dinner': one leaves you nourished, the other leaves you dead.”

  • “'Let’s eat, grandma' vs. 'let’s eat grandma': punctuation saves lives.”

  • “If you don’t think punctuation is important, try forgetting the comma when you tell someone, ‘I’m sorry, I love you.’”

That might seem like a dumb disconnect to the global pandemic we’re all dealing with right now. But hear me out.


My point is that maybe the way we say things has a bigger impact than we might think.


Consider the power of the way we communicate things


Once upon a time, I wrote a blog post explaining why you need to apply some finesse to your communications when trying to sell to the modern savvy consumer.


I discussed how, in order to sell stuff to people, you need to turn your product or service into "literary genius."


I used the examples…


Which of these would entice you to buy a digital camera?


  • 4:3 ratio at 12 megapixels

  • Make lasting memories

Which of these would make you want to purchase a collaborative software for a remote team?


  • Multi-site networking and collaboration solution

  • Work together even when you’re apart

And don’t get me wrong. This method of persuasive communication is extremely impactful in the right context.

But as I watch the current state of the world, it struck me that there’s a time and a place for finessed wording and slick talk.

And it dawned on me that right now, in the midst of an unprecedented moment in our modern history, it’s probably just not the time for that.

Maybe it’s time to forego the finesse and just cut to the chase


As I continue to see people in Canada congregating outside and getting together for dinners (I'm no poster child for staying in the house 24/7. I still go outside for runs, walk the dog, and get groceries. I just avoid busy areas. So, don’t shoot the messenger), it strikes me that there’s a disconnect at work here somewhere.


On Trevor Noah’s “from the couch” Instagram Daily Show last night, he showed clips of mayors throughout Italy, one of the world’s hardest hit countries, lambasting people for going outside. They were literally walking the streets and chewing out people they saw outdoors.


Seems drastic, no?


I would argue that maybe it isn’t.


See, here in North America – and in many places around the globe – officials (and citizens) are using a lot of indirect, ambiguous, and unclear (read: FINESSED) wording to communicate what people need to be doing to fight this virus.


They are often opting for making recommendations in soft, ambiguous, and less-scary terms rather than getting direct and calling it what it is (don’t get me wrong, this is starting to change – though maybe not as fast as it needs to).


So, as I look back at my past blog post, a new idea comes to mind: the “forego the finesse and just cut to the chase” method.


In contrast to my past examples, the new version goes like this.


Which of these would compel you to stay home?


  • Practice social distancing

or

  • Stay in the house unless you're getting groceries or walking the dog


Which of these would entice you to not congregate outside or go to your friend’s house for dinner?


  • Flatten the curve

or

  • Eliminate contact with others to avoid spreading this disease and in turn overwhelming our hospitals to the point of overcapacity which would put at risk the healthcare workers we rely on to save our lives and cause even more unnecessary deaths


Which of these would make you feel the importance of hanging out at home for a few weeks?


  • Although you may be asymptomatic, you could still be carrying the virus and could be unknowingly transmitting it to the most at-risk citizens in our community

or

  • You can have the virus even if you don’t feel sick and could literally kill somebody else, like your grandma or your parents, just by getting close to them


Here’s the reality.


What we’re saying right now is:


  • Self-quarantine

  • Self-isolate

  • Social distance

  • Asymptomatic vs. symptomatic


What we’re doing is:


  • Using new and unfamiliar terms

  • Using unclear language

  • Speaking in non-specific words

  • Using conceptual jargon


But maybe what we should be doing is:


  • Using clear, familiar words

  • Trimming the fat and just giving people the scary facts

  • Speaking specifically

  • Using concrete verbiage that leaves no room for misinterpretation


It’s time to rethink our approach to communications about COVID-19


With the United States on track to match the impact felt by Italy, and with Canada at a crucial point, it may be time to reevaluate the approach we’re taking to the way we communicate about this virus. We need to trim the fat and address the issue in direct, no-BS terminology.


But we can't leave it to public officials and the media to communicate these messages in a way people can understand. We as citizens all need to do our part. And if we do that, then maybe – just maybe – we can get through to people who have been missing the point and help save some more lives.

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