The bigger the crisis, the smaller the words you need

If you want your words to have impact, keep them simple. A great article in the Harvard Business Review brings this home wonderfully, by looking at some of the messaging around Covid-19.

When New York governor Andrew Cuomo issued the order that disrupted life for millions of New Yorkers and shut down the city’s financial centre, he tweeted out these words:

“Stay home. Stop the spread. Save lives.”

Seven words. All single syllables. Just 39 characters.

The HBR article ‘imagines’ how that message might have looked in the hands of someone seeking to impress with their authority through the use of what may be thought of as ‘professional’ language:

“For the preservation of public health and safety, I hereby order all residents not engaged in essential activities that impact critical infrastructure to remain in their residences in order to mitigate the propagation of the coronavirus and to minimize morbidity and mortality.”

A heady collection of polysyllabic words. A mass of jargon. A sentence that by its complexity defies ease of understanding.

It’s a delight to have a wide vocabulary. But when you need a message to hit home fast, you need simple, familiar words.

When you are struggling to stay afloat, you’re better off shouting ‘Help’ than you are crying out ‘Your immediate assistance would be appreciated in view of my parlous condition.’

Tip #1 – Use small words

The smaller the better. Winston Churchill was a great fan of short, simple words when he needed a big impact. He wrote: “The shorter words of a language are usually the more ancient. Their meaning is more ingrained in the national character and they appeal to greater force.”

As war raged in Europe, Churchill wrote a memo to his staff appealing for brevity. It began: “To do our work, we all have to read a mass of papers. Nearly all of them are far too long. This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for the essential points.”

The memo set out four steps towards achieving brevity. And it ended: “The discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer thinking.”

The HBR says brevity is especially important during a crisis, when attention spans are flagging and noise levels are high. People are being bombarded by information, some of which is misleading or false. The clearer and more concise you are, the better your chances of getting your message across and persuading people to act on it.

Tip #2 – Keep the sentences short

One thought per sentence is a great target. You want your thoughts to be taken on board quickly and acted on promptly. Complex sentences full of clauses linked with conjunctions are much harder to process and carry a higher risk of being misunderstood.

Here’s another example from the words of Andrew Cuomo, as he urged New Yorkers to face up to the changes Covid-19 would bring, for everyone.

“Society, life – you will get knocked on your rear end. You will deal with pain. You will deal with death. You will deal with setback. You will deal with suffering. The question is, how do you get up? First, do you get up? And second, if you get up, how do you get up? Do you get up smarter? Do you get up wiser? Or do you get up bitter, and do you get up angry? And do you get up fearful? We are in control of that.”

Tip #3 – Tell stories

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s Coronavirus Response Coordinator, wanted to make a point about the importance of social distancing in helping Americans protect one another. So she recalled the story of her grandmother Leah during the 1918 flu pandemic that killed 50 million people.

Leah, who was 11 at the time, caught the flu and infected her mother, who had a compromised immune system and died. “[Leah] never forgot that she was the child who was in school who innocently brought that flu home. My grandmother lived with that for 88 years. This is not a theoretical. This is a reality.”

We’re all hard-wired to respond to stories. Stories act like duct tape for information, making information stick in the brain far longer than raw data might.

A welter of words often drowns under its own weight. A simple, pithy, thought has life, vitality. The Premier of Nova Scotia had a simple message for people during the Covid-19 lockdown: “Stay the blazes home.”

That phrase lives on in song, on tee shirts, and emblazoned on mugs. It’s even the name of a beer. Those words were infectious – in a good way.