What lessons have we learnt from how we communicated on the COVID health crisis that we can apply to the climate crisis?
That has been a recurrent question in some of the panel discussions I have moderated at conferences over the past year.
Two years ago, this month WHO announced a global pandemic. Since then politicians may not have admitted that they got things wrong, but scientists certainly have as this article reveals.
What became increasingly clear is that scientists are comfortable with not having a definitive answer. Being proved wrong lies at the heart of scientific progress.
But the media failed to understand this at first. Editors want certainty and journalists like to give answers. News tends to be black and white, while science is shades of grey.
Julien Pain, producer of the French TV programme, True or False, told me during a panel that “journalists learnt that as science evolves scientists change their mind on issues such as lockdowns, masks, and vaccinating children.”
He said that journalists should have focused on “what we know for sure, what we don’t know and what we need to know”. This he thought would at least have dampened the anti vaxxer arguments about not trusting governments due to their constantly changing policies.
Interestingly, he felt that scientists tended to fall into the trap of playing the media’s game and were not cautious enough with their answers. Perhaps, he opined because they wanted to be on TV or radio.
One of the best public health communicators in history
One man who became an instant celebrity on British TV and radio was the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam. He managed to translate scientific concepts in ways that the public understood.
His skill lay in his masterful use of the metaphor. He told the BBC that “I like metaphors as they bring complex stories to life for people.”
He uses a whole range of metaphors from sporting – football in his case, to journey (planes and trains) to those about weather (storms) and food (yoghurt).
In the UK, he managed skilfully to persuade people to get vaccinated, protecting others and themselves.
As he leaves his post this month to take up a job in academia, he will be sorely missed as a scientist who managed to communicate clearly, confidently and with as much certainty as possible during the COVID crisis.
Journalists like to probe during an interview and often ask you a question about what you would personally do or what you think. Depending on how you answer, you can find yourself caught in a spider’s web that is difficult to escape.
In this blog, I will share an experience and give you some tips on how to answer this type of question.
As head of media at WWF International, I attended a press conference in London organised by WWF UK to launch a report on an oil spill off the coast of Spain. A journalist from the Guardian asked the speaker from WWF UK – would you eat the fish? He replied; I would not eat the fish. The speaker from WWF Spain and the report’s author replied that the fish was safe to eat.
This scenario is a public relations nightmare – two people from the same organisation contradicting each other during a press conference. I was not moderating but sitting in the audience observing, so powerless to act. Afterwards, I went up to the journalists to attempt some damage limitation. How will you spin your way out of that one? The BBC environment correspondent asked. I am not, I replied, but I suggest you talk further with the author of the report.
The problem was that the Spanish speaker had been great as a spokesperson when the oil spill hit the coast but struggled to convey the main points of the report in English. The journalist from the Guardian had become frustrated and asked the classic tricky question. The problem was the speaker from the UK had not thoroughly read the report and thought that if he added the word “personally”, his answer would be satisfactory.
Unfortunately, that is not the case.
The headline in the Guardian the next day was that the fish were not safe to eat, making the work of WWF Spain with the fishers even more challenging. It is safe to say that we all learnt lessons from that press conference!
If you speak as a representative of an organisation, your opinion has to be the same. Journalists often ask this question when they sense that your personal opinion may differ from the “party line”.
It is, in my view, fair game to ask policymakers, decision-makers and regulators, for example, during the pandemic, if they are vaccinated or would vaccinate their children.
Strangely, it can be more difficult to answer on behalf of a close relative. A few weeks ago, an investigation from the police watchdog criticised the London Metropolitan force for misogyny, racism, bullying and sexual harassment. Have a listen to this
on BBC radio.
The presenter asks the spokesperson for the police watchdog if he would feel comfortable if any of his female relatives relied on the Met if they were vulnerable in any way. It is often a question that comes near the end of an interview, in this case it is at 05.52
You will note that he doesn’t answer directly but uses the question to drive home his message about the need to call out such behaviour when it occurs.
The personal question is a trap only if you let yourself fall into it. It can work in your favour and that of the journalist, providing them with good quotes and soundbites. And, if you proactively include a personal example or story in your answer, it can build credibility help to understand and bring your point to life. Just make sure, though, that the personal is always on your terms!
I have waited two years to tell you this story. In January 2020, I went on a guided walking tour of Vienna with an Austrian friend. It was memorable because it was bitterly cold, and we wondered if we would last the two and a half hours. Forty of us were huddled together at the meeting point stamping our feet and rubbing our hands as snow threatened.
We should not have worried as our guide, Wolfgang Rigon, from Good Vienna Tours was a master storyteller, who kept us all captivated as he showed us the sights.
We stopped at least a dozen times as he told us a story, bringing alive the glorious and not so glorious history of the city. I recorded a couple of those stories on my phone. Have a watch of a powerful storyteller in action.
He must have told this first story about Marie Theresa, who gave birth to 16 children, hundreds of times. For us, the audience, his passionate delivery made us feel as if he was telling it for the first time. See how he connects with the audience by making it relevant to the modern-day experience.
He also knew how to make us laugh.
And he expertly used the rhetorical devices of the rule of three – repetition, hyperbole and metaphor – comparing the bed to a tennis court!
He also managed to hold our attention with longer stories. Here he told the tragic story of Sisi, who married Emperor Franz Joseph 1 at sixteen and became Empress Elisabeth of Austria and Queen of Hungary.
Note the transition at the beginning from the previous story about a beautiful horse to beautiful Sisi.
He tells the story using a structure that would be familiar to viewers of Pixar movies – the makers of the Toy Story series. First you give some context, building up the character of the protagonist by describing their world. Then one day something happens to disturb that world and the protagonist faces a challenge. In the case of Sisi, she gives birth to a child who falls sick and dies. As a result of her death, Sisi loses her mind and goes on the run across Europe. Until finally, she gives birth to a boy who is later killed and she is shot by an assassin in Geneva. Wolfgang then wraps up the story in one sentence saying from her youth to death she led a life of tragedy and that is why it became a Hollywood movie.
During our break for Viennese coffee and strudel, I asked him whether storytelling had been part of his three-year course to become a guide. He said unfortunately not. They had only been taught historical facts. But he had learnt over the years how to hold an audience’s attention come rain or shine. Or in our case, come snow in deep mid-winter!
Everyone loves a good story. Our parents read us stories, and we tell them naturally to friends and family. So why is it that in a professional context, we are so reluctant to tell stories?
I ask this question at the start of my storytelling workshops. Participants come up with a number of answers ranging from it is culturally inappropriate, too personal or a lack of ability.
Often people tell me storytelling is too Anglo-Saxon and not appropriate in Mediterranean or other cultures. In fact, I would argue that Africans are fantastic storytellers due to their oral traditions. But I think this reluctance is because people associate storytelling with the high drama of Hollywood with its rollercoaster of emotions.
In fact, storytelling is much simpler; it is about adding colour to the facts.
Ethos, pathos, logos
The Greeks got it right 2,500 years ago. Aristotle said if you want to persuade someone of something, you need to appeal to ethos (credibility), logos (logic) and pathos (stirring emotion in the audience). In the workplace we often have ethos and logos, but shy away from pathos.
Pathos though comes in many different forms. It can come from a personal story, sharing an anecdote or case study, dramatisation, a quotation or using a rhetorical device such as a metaphor or analogy.
We are all storytellers
We have all experienced significant moments in our lives – a first job, a lasting love affair, a major professional or personal challenge. Each of these moments has the potential to be turned into a story that we can tell in a professional context. The only difference from telling it to a friend, is that there must be a point to it. If you are telling a story in a presentation/speech, in a job interview or while mentoring or evaluating a team member, you need to ensure that it illustrates your idea or message.
The personal story is the most powerful and easiest to relate as we have lived through it, but telling other people’s stories (anecdotes) can also be memorable.
Show the challenges you seek to overcome
Often organisations and companies I work with underplay the challenges they face. I once made a film for a client about reuniting children separated from their families in Democratic Republice of Congo.
Many had been abducted by armed groups and fled to South Sudan. The spokesperson made it sound like a pure logistics operation – organising flights back home for the children. Until, at the last moment a girl, accompanied by the woman she was working for, refused to get into the car to the airport. The spokesperson negotiated a highly fraught situation, and then explained to me that often children don’t want to return to their families due to fear of the armed groups still in the bush or because they had found jobs or friends in the towns they had fled to.
He said often there was no conventional happy ending as sometimes the children would leave their families again and make their way back to the town. For me, it was the complexity of the situation that made the story so much more compelling and the work of this client so much more impressive!!
Yes, you can!
To paraphrase a well-known President Obama election speech slogan, everyone can learn how to structure and tell a memorable story.
In my virtual and face-to-face workshops, we go through the various techniques by telling each other stories that can be used in different professional contexts. By the end, everyone has experienced that rush of hormones that comes when we listen to a good story and has the confidence to add storytelling to their communication’s toolbox.
Have a look at a short extract from a virtual workshop:
The pandemic is not over, but at least in Europe there is a return to something resembling normality (for the moment at least). At the virtual and hybrid conferences that I moderate, many speakers are talking about the small window of opportunity that exists to reset the world for the better of humanity.
But in my small world of moderating at events nothing much has changed – unfortunately!
I had hoped that some of the best practices from the virtual world – shorter event times, shorter presentations/speeches, greater variety of format and creativity – would become the new normal.
We know that we have to work harder to break through the screen of indifference when an event or meeting is virtual. The hybrid format – focusing on a virtual and in-person audience is challenging technically and editorially. I know some clients who have decided to abandon hybrid in favour of virtual or in-person.
However, editorially I am still seeing the same errors at some, not all, the events that I moderate. Here are some of them:
• Events are too top down. They are based on the organisers’ needs and not those of the audience. Many of the panels I moderate don’t address the issues or answer the questions that are top of mind for the audience.
• Agendas organised in silos. Breaking the silos – for example, ensuring scientists, diplomats and policymakers talk and listen to each other is a common aspiration among audiences. However, organizers fail to apply this logic to their event programme. Too often, they put people from the same sector, for example civil society, on the same panel so naturally they frequently all say the same thing. There is no genuine debate or discussion – just different perspectives on the same topic, but based on the work or the country where the panelist works.
• Panels are segregated. Mainstreaming is another big buzz word at these events yet all the speakers from one region are put together. Recently two great panelists from Nigeria and Cameroon complained to me that they, along with two other speakers from West Africa, had all found themselves on the same panel on inclusive growth. Can we not be mainstreamed into other panels with other sectors, they asked?
• Sectors are pigeonholed. Young people at one event that I moderated said, while they were grateful to be part of the opening ceremony, they felt as if this was a token gesture – a box ticking exercise from the organizers to show that they were taking young people seriously. Myself and the other moderator invited them back to the closing ceremony where we introduced them as a doctor and lawyer!
• Jargon is rife. I struggled for days at one event to understand some of the panel briefs given to me. I showed one of them to various attendees at the conference beforehand and no one understood it. My speakers all had different interpretations about what the focus of the discussion was – and it was written in the programme. My fellow moderator had the same problem with his briefs but assumed it was because English was not his mother tongue. They were he said a “Wortsalat” or “Scrabble” (the board game) as it translates into German!
• Manels are still with us. I had one panel with 9 men – enough to make the UN Gender Champions and EU Gender Watch, who monitor panels to ensure gender diversity, scream in their remote offices.
• Too many speakers are invited. One conference I worked at took the prize for most ambitious event; they had three keynote speakers followed by three presentations followed by four different panelists to be completed in 75 minutes. Bottom line on number of speakers is that if you have more than 4, you get a presentation of points rather than an exchange of ideas.
• Events are too long. 7 hours! I have a one day mostly virtual event with the moderator and a couple of speakers in the studio. It is supposed to last 7 hours. I wonder who will be left watching virtually by the end of that day?
I am an optimist by nature. I still hope that the window of opportunity is there for an event reset, but I fear that it is closing fast as people fail to learn the lessons of the pandemic and apply some of the good practice learned over the past 18 months.
Claire helps clients design their virtual, hybrid and in-person events and runs workshops on organising and moderating at events.