What are you trying to say?

(Image: Suzy Hazelwood)

In Communications it's crucial to listen well to your client or interviewee and listen more than talk. As the person in the comms chain responsible for disseminating information to your client’s audience, your job is to understand both the intended meaning and the inferred message.

In journalism, which was my pathway into communications management, we are taught how to write a lead that summarises the news story, ideally in less than 30 words, and which tells the essence of the story by answering as many of the 5Ws and H as possible: who, what, when, where, why and how. This assumes that if a reader only scans the first paragraphs, and they often do, they’ll still have a good idea of what the story was about.

Sometimes however we might go for impact of one or two main points with a ‘single-item lead’. Beware the pitfalls! We recently saw in a government Covid-19 Facebook post how a message can go awry if it’s too simple, with the single-item lead: “IMPORTANT MESSAGE: Please have a test.”

Although the second paragraph was more to the point – urging people to have a test if they had symptoms, or lived in south or west Auckland, or whose health outcomes after Covid would be poor – it was argued fairly robustly by some media that the single-item lead was a very big, somewhat unforgivable booboo indeed!

While some thought one result of the post – people having to wait in long lines for a test – was reprehensible and that the head of someone pretty high up the chain of command should roll as a result of the confusion, others felt that the greater number of people going to get a test was a good thing. Whichever way you slice it, the single-item lead wasn’t an example of great messaging.

This blog isn’t to re-litigate what happened or why – the social media team member who wrote and/or approved that six-word single-item lead surely doesn’t need any more grief. And besides, you don’t need to be a journalist or professional communicator to know that none of us is immune from making mistakes in our communication. Who hasn’t made the typo that got through five proofreads without being spotted but that becomes the first and only thing you see once an article is in print, or you’ve sent an email or media release out to everyone in your network?

When we learned to be journalists we were told to write for an audience that was only 12 years old. Nailing a message doesn’t just happen by writing some words that make sense to us. We all need to think about how our written messages will be received and perceived by readers, who often tend to have quite different world views. And we should remember that simpler doesn’t always mean better.