“It’s THREE, not f***ing 300 !”
If you’ve ever watched Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, you’ll be familiar with the expletive-fuelled celebrity chef’s modus operandi.
If you haven’t, the show’s premise is that he goes to a failing restaurant and bangs some pans around while browbeating the staff to the point of a collective nervous breakdown. Before miraculously reversing the restaurant’s fortunes and leaving viewers punch drunk with some new and unusual swear word combinations to try out at home.
All in less than an hour.
Effective communication comes in small portions
This culinary redemption usually involves Ramsay cutting the restaurant’s bland 300-option menu down to just three delicious dishes.
And yes, in many ways, effective communication requires a Ramsay-esque iron-fisted commitment to quality over quantity. Or discipline over excess. But with marginally less swearing.
If you are a comms person, you already know that your target audiences are time-poor, tech-stressed, and drowning in information.
And that they don’t have the appetite for 6000-word blogs, or position papers of more than two pages. Let alone room for a bloviating panel speaker. You know the type: the ones who insist on force-feeding the audience copious amounts of unnecessary and distracting technical details.
All busy audiences want a small high-quality menu of the good stuff. And they will be grateful if you serve your messages to them in digestible portions.
If every detail is important, none of them are
But while comms professionals know this, it’s not always easy for policy experts and technical colleagues to strip out the extra detail and keep the portions small and tasty.
This is not a facetious comment. How are experts meant to know what counts as unnecessary or distracting detail if every detail and nuance IS important to them?
This is not the same thing as the curse of knowledge. That’s when someone struggles to explain what they know to someone less knowledgeable than them. Usually, because they are so immersed in the technical details they can’t take a step back and see the big picture.
Rather, what I’m referring to is when a perfectly good message gets lost on an audience because it’s been padded with redundant or distracting facts, or obscure technical detail.
That is to say, we are not even at the point of talking about whether a message sticks or persuades.
We’re talking about whether it’s even clear for the audience to begin with.
What is relevant detail in a message?
In messaging (policy or otherwise), relevant information is factual or technical information that:
- Directly reinforces the planned message
- Supports or deepens the audience’s understanding of the topic or issue
- Doesn’t lengthen the talk/primary document (that’s what annexes are for).
What about irrelevant details?
And guess what? Bingo.
Irrelevant or distracting information is the opposite of the above.
It may be factually correct, but it can also be confusing or doesn’t add anything other than words, time, or slides. Crucially, distracting information dilutes the power of the important stuff and limits the chances of your audience missing the point you want them to take.
In his new book The Art of Explanation, BBC journalist Ros Atkins includes a couple of particularly useful questions that he uses to help prepare one of his explainer videos for the BBC’s news, web or social channels:
- What are the “obstacles to understanding” for my audience?
- What counts as unnecessary or distracting information?
How to streamline policy messages
I recently used these questions in a speaking-to-camera session with some EU climate activists. Most were policy specialists, who wanted to learn how to streamline their messages to help their audience to digest and absorb them.
The questions helped us to pinpoint a short, precise list of EU climate policy-specific “obstacles” that were blocking the message from landing.
Both with experts and non-experts.
Apart from the usual climate change jargon about ‘mitigation’ and a ‘just transition’ we identified the following:
1) Obstacles to understanding
- Closely clustered and/ or overused EU climate policy dates and targets. e.g. 55% by 2030, 60% by 2040, climate neutrality by 2050, etc.
- Repeated full naming of policies and acronyms e.g., NECPs or National Energy and Climate Plans.
2) Distracting detail
One activist wanted to communicate the message that steel is a vital but polluting industry.
In his first talk, he said: ‘Steel is a major emitter of CO2. After coal power generation it is the largest in the world’.
Remember, a distraction is information that may be correct but adds nothing to the message.
In this case, it was the coal power generation that was the irrelevant/distracting detail. Not because it wasn’t true, but because the message was about an important industry, not the creation of energy.
If this sounds pedantic, the first time I heard the message I was wondering why the activist was talking about coal. I then started thinking about it and lost tack of the rest of the talk. Plus, this was only one part of a short talk that contained other distracting information.
With a bit of streamlining, we produced: ‘Steel is a vital industry. But it’s also the most polluting in Europe’.
Next steps for policy communicators
These two examples illustrate how we quickly pulled together our list of obstacles and distractions based on Ros Atkins’ guidance (thank you, Ros).
So, why not give it a try and make your own lists?
Your audience will relish your message if you serve them something palatable.
Or, at the very least, they won’t be sick on you.
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