Friday, May 31, 2013

The science behind successful communications

My colleague Chris (who is a senior comms bod) challenged my previous assertion that communications is essentially a science.

He tweeted: “Good stuff. But science can be challenged especially when it relates to comms.” And then after we discussed it “But tested knowledge often doesn't apply if the personalities, time, timings and environment differ a bit.”

He has a point, of course. Depending who you have in the experiment, and where you do it, changes the experiment. And I would go further and say it’s not that the science can be challenged but it should be challenged. We always need to test it – does this rule or law still hold true? How can we refine it? Do we need to redefine it?

But I still think my basic point holds. If the comms activity has been researched then there will be one way of doing it that’s better than the other. We may want to continue testing it, but we can’t just ignore it. Unfortunately, in my experience, people have chosen to ignore the science, either because they prefer to go with their gut instinct, or they think their idea is brilliant, or whatever.

To take a field that I write about quite frequently: healthcare. There is a real battle in ensuring that the best practice in any given clinical discipline spreads everywhere. It takes 20 years or so for better, safer procedures to become standard. That’s a very slow adoption rate.

Why is the adoption rate so slow when the benefits have been researched and proven? I don’t have the science on that. It would be a fascinating project. The suggestions people have made to me is that people don’t see the need to change, or they don’t believe that the change will be an improvement, or they don’t think the science applies to them.

That final point crops up a lot. A very senior healthcare leader once told me that every doctor thinks they have a uniquely difficult case-mix and that what works for other people won’t work for them because their patients are different. As an argument for maintaining the (unsafe) status quo, it’s very hard to disprove.

I remember an argument with a different manager about including a P.S. on mailing letters. All the research shows this is one of the most likely things to be read in a letter, and so you should repeat your big offer there with an exhortation to take up the offer ASAP. You shouldn’t introduce new information in the P.S.

My manager said he didn’t see the point of repeating information and we should ditch the P.S. His comment was ‘It makes us look like we’ve forgotten something.’ He didn’t realise that was probably why people are more likely to read a P.S. than other parts of the letter.

I lost the argument (seniority again). We dropped the P.S. The mailing flopped. We reverted to the older version of the letter for the next mailing, with the P.S., and it performed better.

I’d take the credit for that, but it wasn’t my research. I didn’t do anything other than read what other, brainier, people said worked for them, and then applied it. But that moment is when I became a believer in the science of comms.

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