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Planning ahead in a noisy and uncertain world

Deborah Villiers

Regardless of your communications challenge right now – promoting government guidelines, showing how your brand or business has responded to the pandemic, or simply reassuring people in the current climate, a crucial question emerges: “How do I get heard?”

That was the subject of a breakfast event we hosted last week, a week that had that distinctly September feel.

The schools are (finally!) back. People have returned from their staycations. Many of us are being actively encouraged to return to the office. And while government is advising that it is now safe to return, it is clear the public’s initial reaction is more cautious. Divided even!

Yet despite these divisions, there is one thing we can probably all agree on over these last six months: good communication is key.

Whomever your audience – shoppers, diners, parents, travellers, clients, subscribers, suppliers or staff – everyone is understandably hungry for clear, concise and consistent messages that sound like they come from a human being and not a corporate machine.

As we head into the annual planning cycle, we convened a group of Communication, Media and Marketing leaders representing a broad range of brands and industries to discuss some of the current challenges we face, and it quickly became clear that one stood out:

“How on earth do you plan when there is so much uncertainty?”

Joining us at our event was Steve Martin, the Royal Society nominated author and behavioural scientist who heads MHP’s partner INFLUENCE AT WORK (UK). What struck us— as Steve cited studies he and his team have led across transport, hospitality, retail and climate change—was how all of our communication challenges, whether getting people to give blood; travel on trains; put their house on the market; or just getting a team back to the office a couple of days a week; were primarily persuasion challenges.  If we want to persuade people to believe or do something, we need to understand the fundamental drivers of human persuasion and how to get heard.  We need to plan a bit differently.

As Steve explained: “There are now several decades of robust behavioural science research that demonstrate the fundamental principles of influence and persuasion*. These principles are universal. They can be deployed across industries, countries and cultures, in entirely ethical and effective ways.”

Steve Martin went on to show how a choice of word, turn of phrase, or a simple gesture made at the right time can transform the efficacy of a campaign and completely change the way a customer behaves.

The INFLUENCE AT WORK (UK) team has used the principles of persuasion to reduce fare evasion, encourage recycling, sell more cups of coffee, increase consumer loyalty and more driving commercial impact, cost savings and, in the case of the environment, reducing waste.

And these principles can be applied by those of us in communications too.

Whether your challenge is getting people to think more favourably about your brand over that of a competitor’s; upgrading to a new product or service; or reverting to an old habit (like travelling on a train), at their core is an issue of influence and persuasion. The real skill is in being able to identify which principle will be most effective and to apply it in the most appropriate and efficient way at the very heart of your communications strategy. That’s how to get heard.

As for getting people back to the office? Steve’s colleague Owen Powell, a Behavioural Science Consultant at INFLUENCE AT WORK had the final word here, based on a the now decades-old ‘foot-in-the-door’ persuasion insight. “The misperception being made by many is to think the challenge is convincing people back into their offices for good. It’s not. It’s about getting them back just once. For that first time.

“This renewed familiarity, at some point, will then help to remove some of their mental obstacles and uncertainty. Starting small and building from initial voluntary commitments is key. How you build from there is, of course, up to you.”

So, there you go.  Sounds like lunch is on the boss for the foreseeable.

*You can learn more about them in this video that Steve recorded with his long-term colleague Bob Cialdini, one of Behavioural Science’s Founding Fathers