There’s no shortage of lessons communicators can extract from the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, but one really stands out.
Simple communication wins the days. It’s a painful lesson when it plays out on the national stage. As we’ve seen, public health communications that lack simplicity can carry life-or-death consequences.
But the underlying principles that guide effective communications in times of great urgency apply in more ordinary times as well. In fact, they should always apply. When communicators follow a few simple tenets, they can deliver information better, and make more immediate—and memorable—connections with their audiences. Leading with simplicity is to lead with humanity.
What defines simplicity in communication? Let’s look at three key factors:
Clarity is about erasing ambiguity. It means asking: “Can my target audience immediately grasp what I’m saying?” “Would anything in here cause them confusion?”
Writing with clarity doesn’t mean being blunt or simplistic or tamping down personality. Some of the simplest communications deliver powerful messages. And they do so in plain language, with a distinct tone of voice.
Take New Balance for example. When the COVID-19 crisis first erupted and PPE was in short supply, the athleticwear company put out a simple statement: “Made shoes yesterday. Making masks today.”
A clear call-to-action then took readers to information about how the company was pivoting its efforts to support those on the frontlines battling the pandemic.
Honesty begets credibility. Honest communications take transparency a step further by making the communicator’s intention clear. It’s not just the content that’s easily grasped—its underlying purpose is, too.
At the height of the pandemic, United Airlines announced that it would reduce status qualifications by 50% for 2021, allowing travelers to achieve status with its MileagePlus program more easily. United’s intention is unmistakable: We want you to travel with us once the world is back up and running.
Honest communications also bind writer and reader together with something essential to any relationship: trust. Trust that what’s being said is direct and true, and that the organization will follow through with any promises it makes. New Balance rival Nike launched its “Play inside, play for the world” campaign as COVID-19 infections rapidly rose. It’s a public service message that’s both authentic and personal: “We see you as an athlete, and now is your time to make an impact.”
The company backed up the sentiment with a number of COVID-19-related commitments, including donating 30,000 shoes to frontline workers.
Recently, as the U.S. has confronted racial injustice on an unprecedented scale, Nike released another campaign: “Don’t Do It.” The campaign video’s message is powerfully engaging because it’s simple: “Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism.”
Behind the message stands a $40 million pledge to support Black community organizations.
“Meaning” is about more than making objective sense. It’s about striking a chord. A message with real meaning resonates with readers because it speaks to their concerns, priorities and aspirations. It takes the larger context in which they’re living and working into account. Simply put, meaningful communications show empathy.
In March, LinkedIn began offering dozens of its learning courses for free, to help people transition to working from home during the pandemic. Many of the courses target small-business owners, who’ve been particularly hard hit. LinkedIn has pledged to keep the course free through August. LinkedIn’s message is simple:
We recognize that not every small business leader has even a minute to pause. But for those that do, we’re offering the following free LinkedIn Learning courses through the end of August to help you navigate these challenging times.
The sign-off is even simpler: “Take care of yourself.”
Simple communications are human-first communications. Communicators who express themselves with simplicity do something logical but often radical: They recognize the person at the other end of the communication. The result? Finding the sweet spot between a client or customer’s needs and the company’s goals.
Billy Kingsland is Group Director of Brand Communication at Siegel+Gale.