Kim Newcomer, Slate Communications, provides substance to the trendy, but often hollow, suggestion that local government needs to tell a better story.
Friends, I have some bad news. Ninety-eight percent* of the world thinks our work is boring. Snooze-worthy. The equivalent of a warm glass of milk before bedtime.
I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this; the truth hurts. Don’t get me wrong; I’m one of you. I could listen for hours when my planning friends tell me about Aggregate Resources Policies and Universal Design, or better yet, when colleagues from Streets dive deep into the details of PCI or erosion control. And don’t even get me started on my fondness of the use of “Whereas” and “Heretofores” used in Resolutions and Ordinances throughout the country. It’s all good stuff!
You might sense the sarcasm. Let’s be honest, most people simply cannot be bothered.
It’s easy to blame “the public.” The public doesn’t understand. They’re not vested in their local government. They simply don’t get it. But I’m here to tell you this could be our fault.
Because our work is important, and because it is literally the foundation on which communities are built, it’s easy to assume that everyone should, and wants to, know more about what we do. The reality is, we need to communicate with the same purpose and intention as any other organization providing any other service. That is, we need to try.
In our work at Slate Communications, I see three common mistakes surface more than any others. If you can avoid these pitfalls, you have a great chance of keeping people engaged long enough to listen, understand, and remember what you say.
Be A Human Being
Sounds easy, right? But there is something about government communication that inspires us to strip out all personality and humanity.
I know your work is important. I know that sometimes it’s downright critical. It’s not always lighthearted and frankly, it’s not always fun. It’s for those exact reasons that your tone should always be human.
Communicating like a human doesn’t require humor. It doesn’t require informality. (Although I believe both have been inappropriately villainized in government communication). Striking the right tone requires empathy, honesty, and respect. Regardless of the circumstances, you need to approach your communication from the perspective of your audience. Try to understand their point of view, be honest with your message, and respect their response.
Avoid Information Overload
There is a part of me that rues the day performance measures took hold in local government. While the trend has brought needed transparency and accountability to government, it has also encouraged governments to share every single data point they have ever collected in the last 30 years. Please, I beg you, don’t do this.
To be effective, you must prioritize. What is the key takeaway you’d like your audience to remember? The data, the backstory, the context are intended to support your key message, not the other way around.
When sharing data, remember that many of us are lazy. We don’t feel like combing through the Excel chart you created to determine trends and outcomes. Consider using less traditional graphics that can quickly demonstrate the key message that your data is trying to communicate.
Sharing more information doesn’t make you look smarter or better prepared. It makes people confused. It lessens the likelihood that your audience will remember the key takeaways that you worked so hard to create. I hate to use a cliché, but less is more.
Except when it comes to ice cream. Then more is more, and it’s fantastic.
Lay Off the Jargon
You’ve heard this a million times, and I’m hesitant to include it on this list. Yet, as an industry, this tip has not sunk in. Local government has it’s own special language. Many of us have been speaking it for so long, we don’t even realize we’re doing it anymore.
In the book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Stick and Others Die“, authors Chip and Dan Heath discuss “the curse of knowledge.” At its core, the curse of knowledge simply points out “that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators.”
Jargon, and even some concepts, have become so ingrained in our daily lives, that it’s difficult to realize that others may find our speech or ideas confusing.
It’s helpful to have outside perspective. When possible, test your communication on a colleague in another department, or a professional acquaintance outside the organization – make sure to find someone who will tell you the truth!
I also think everyone should have a jargon jar. Think of it as the equivalent of a swear jar. Every time you drop a jargon word in a public setting you have to pay in. Just think of the vacation you could take after just a few weeks!
Remember, at the end of the day, the goal of communication is to share a message in a manner that is understandable and memorable.
Let me give you a couple of examples of organizations that I think are doing a good job. Forgive the Colorado focus, but these are in my own backyard and I can’t resist giving kudos to my neighbors:
- Poudre Fire Authority, CO: Poudre Fire Authority recently converted their 150 page annual report into this simplified, targeted, interactive online report.
- Larimer County, CO: Taking a more traditional approach, Larimer County consolidated their performance measures and annual highlights into a six page printed brochure using infographics and appealing visuals to communicate the value they bring to the community.
*This statistic has absolutely no validity. Just thought you should know.