Whilst juggling a rather unstable internet connection this week, I have been reminded of the importance of making connections when communicating through writing. In an environment where we are often surrounded by statistics and numbers, it is useful to remember that in the right circumstances establishing a personal connection can be more impactful than just facts alone.
In two recent talks organised by Dr Katie Orchel (postdoctoral researcher based in Penryn, following a Researcher Led Initiative Award) and presented by Mindfully Wired Communications, we explored engaging writing for research, and how to tailor this for specific audiences. I have created a potted version below with key details for us to bear in mind.
Firstly, we need to think about our audiences. It is likely that we will need to frame our writing in different ways for different audiences, so let’s try and break this down:
- Who is the audience?
- What do they already know? (Level of understanding, background information)
- What do we want them to take away from this?
- How do we want them to act as a result?
The above points lead us nicely onto stakeholder mapping. Apart from the intended audience, what other stakeholders should we take into consideration?:
- Who are they?
- How are they connected?
- Why might they be interested in our findings?
Knowing our audiences and stakeholders means we can plan not only the scale and timings of our communications, but our angles too. There is often much debate around statistics versus stories, and there has been proof demonstrating that presenting a personal story over statistical evidence results in a stronger impact. A narrative can help to foster one-to-one connections e.g. a charity could cite ’20,000 people are in need’ in a bid for donations, however, ‘David, a carpenter, and his young family are in desperate need’ instantly creates an image for us, which ties in with the framing of the story.
Framing a story:
- Influences how we think, feel and act
- Gives us associations triggered by words or images
- Taps into our underlying values
Our values can be split into two groups – intrinsic and extrinsic. When writing for an audience we need to consider people’s motivations, and work out which ones we want to fire up from our writing.
Intrinsic values include: Meaning; curiosity; belonging; self-direction; concern for others; civic identity; benefiting the environment and society.
Extrinsic values include: Money; status; achievements; rewards; self-interest; consumer identity; benefiting the self.
When aiming to engage the civic we should try to:
- Focus on amazing, yet tangible details
- Talk about people, society, communities and compassion
- Explore, enjoy, create – be imaginative and inspiring
- Be positive – positive messaging leads to longer-term impact and followers
We should typically avoid:
- Themes of threat, fear, loss
- Appealing to people’s wallets or framing certain things in monetary values
- Using conflicting values for motivation e.g. stats and stories – just use a compelling story and don’t muddy the water
Now, the ‘narrative not numbers’ approach isn’t always appropriate, and it should be fairly clear from our audience and stakeholder mapping who will respond best to certain communications. The use of language can help across both methods and again, should be tailored to our interested parties.
When writing for the general public, it is worth bearing in mind that the average reading age is 12, so this reading ability should be reflected in the language level used. We can do this by:
- Keeping it simple and digestible
- Unpacking technical language
- Using descriptive and sensory words that appeal to our intrinsic values (emotive, visual, textual)
If we embody the storyteller, we can aim to build a personal connection by using a narrative arc to create context, interest and purpose. Using patterns to convey information intuitively is also a useful technique. Finally, we should remember that we can still be creative with scientific data, even if wondrous storytelling might be a step too far for some audiences visual media is key!