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How to Communicate Effectively for Behavioural Change

Usually, when we create communications in Western societies, we’re used to telling a story. When you get an email, for example, it usually follows a narrative format. Evidence from behavioural insights actually shows us that this format, while highly familiar, very rarely shifts behaviour.

Here’s a familiar email:

"Hi. I'm so-and-so from X Organisation. I'm contacting you because I'm doing this great project and I think it would be terrific for you to get involved. I'm now going to describe the background on the project: this is what we're trying to achieve. You should do this thing today. Looking forward to hearing from you. Regards, from Me."

Why does this have less impact than we might imagine?

People are busy. They find it difficult to take in new information amidst a barrage of other tasks. For example, if you’re trying to get people to act on your email, the average office worker receives over 100 emails every day. Your email is competing with all these other emails. If you’re asking people to consider a new action that takes a lot of mental effort to consider, people find it hard to change their preferred behaviour or consider new choices in a busy office environment.

So we use behavioural science evidence to condense all of the information to just the essentials. We start with a clear call to action that makes it very simple to understand what they’re being encouraged to do. We use plain English. We include only essential information and we use the evidence from the literature to actually tap into what motivates behavioural change. We make it easy for people to undertake the action that we’re asking them to consider.

Everything I’ve said probably sounds really straight forward, easy and common sense. But, in fact, most people do this very poorly and many organisations fail to communicate effectively, let alone shift behaviour. This is why, from academics, to government agencies, to not for profits—it’s actually really hard to engage the public.

I’ll give you a quick example from other work of mine that’s already published. There are many programs offering free and useful services for people who need rehabilitation. Yet very few people take these up for a range of reasons that are all equally valid. Some of these are personal. For example, people are worried about their health, they may be scared, they may be homeless, or experiencing violence. But a lot of disengagement has to do with systemic barriers. For example, the sign up forms are often too complicated. It’s too hard to work out whether or not you’re eligible for the program. There’s too much information to read over to see if the program is actually valuable to one’s individual needs. Plus people are overwhelmed when they trying to look after their own health and their families. So because the program is just too hard to work out, they end up not taking any action and hence they do not join such programs.

Governments and service providers make communications too hard to understand. Making it easier to read and act on messages, using personalisation, appealing to social influence, and other behavioural and social science methods are all proven effective.

You can use these principles in your work by following these tips:

  • Keep your communication short and to the point. If your email is seeking behavioural action, keep it to only a couple of brief paragraphs. If you’re making an information sheet, it should be no longer than one page, and it should have plenty of white space, and fewer words
  • Put your call to action at the beginning. Tell them whatever it is that you want people to do right away, in the first or second sentence (not at the end of your communication!)
  • Avoid overloading people with too much information. If they don’t need to know it right there and then, you can always just link to other information or provide further resources later
  • Make it easy to take action. Busy or overwhelmed people will never prioritise any action that looks too hard. If there’s a sign up process, reduce the number of questions you ask
  • Make the benefits or consequences explict and personally relevant. Whether we’re asking people to consider something that would improve their health and well being, or if it’s something would make the world a better place for minority or vulnerable groups, or if we’re asking people to donate to a great cause, or if it offering them something that’s free and advantageous to their livelihood—people are usually going to ignore it if you make it too hard to work out why it’s immedietely beneficial.

Try these tips the next time you write an email and see how you go!

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