Governments are not always the best at communicating. This is odd when you consider they have to be good at telling people who they are and what they will do if elected. If they were rubbish at this they’d never get elected.
But strangely once they get into power, the desire to communicate seems to dissipate. More likely they spend more time and money on communication when they campaign than they do when they are actually governing.
So it’s nice to see an example that bucks the trend.
The advice to wash your hands to reduce the risk of contracting corona virus is important and helpful. But explaining the science of disabling viruses is tricky. Most of us failed biology GCSE (is it even biology that matters here? Or chemistry?) so talk of “microscopic parasites that lack the capacity to thrive and reproduce outside of a host body” (thank you Live Science .com) or “small infectious agent that replicate only inside the living cells of an organism… (they) can infect all types of life forms, from animals and plants to microorganisms, including bacteria and archaea” (bless you Wikipedia) is probably not helpful.
But, when we are told to wash our hands for as long as it takes to sing happy birthday twice – we all get it. We instinctively know what this means without thinking about it. It makes the task obvious and easy. You don’t think of the means, the metaphor or the mechanics. You just do it. Good communication work best when you don’t realise you are being communicated with. It’s like a good PA system.
What can we learn from this about our communication? Three things:
Be basic – don’t be over clever. Don’t use words or concept that you don’t really need to. Ask if every word and phrase you are using actually take your argument or narrative forward.
Be naff – clichés works, as long as they are not overused. People like naff. They may mock you or take the mickey but they will remember and understand and that is what matters. Clichés became clichés because lots of people used them and repeated them.
Be consistent – one government minister this week tried to raise the tone by saying we should wash our hands while singing the national anthem. This just confuses things! It is true that lots of radio stations are now trying to find alternatives to Happy Birthday. But this is fine as they are all dancing around the basic theme of happy birthday. So even as they find alternatives they are re-emphasising the original. But for a government minister to suggest a different way doesn’t help. Source credibility and consistency matter.
So stay safe, wash your hands and rejoice in the rare experience of effective government comms.
Now, pass the alcohol gel.