One of the communicator’s most difficult dilemmas is how to reconcile the conflicting views of non-technical audiences with the views of genuine experts who interpret and present complex data on matters such as safety and security.
The issue is that risk is both intrinsically and perceptionally variable. Risk is usually expressed by experts in terms of numbers, statistics and probabilities but perceived in terms of emotion. Often companies get into needless trouble because public perceptions of a given risk are completely out of proportion to the actual statistical danger. Conversely, it’s also sometimes the case that some the larger risks are far bigger statistically than the public perceptions of that risk, for example in personal health issues (smoking, drinking etc).
The field of risk communication is interesting because it provides a study in politics and public affairs – a hybrid of statistical evidence, presentation skills and an estimation of the relative influence of emotional and non-logical behaviour.
Seven hints for risk communicators:
Establish your humanity. Acknowledge your audience’s emotions and empathise with victims whether they are real or imagined. Experts have to first establish their human credentials. Listen to the questions and make clear at the outset that you acknowledge the emotions that may be driving them.
Rehearse as much as you can. Media and presentation training must be done before any sensitive public meeting, even if you have already had such training. Each issue is different. People will listen to statistical messages but only when they feel they trust the communicator.
In your messages remember that most large numbers are meaningless to people. It’s better to find graphic or popular images such as “the amount of forest destroyed is equal to an area the size of London”.
Use larger collective numbers when expressing the smallness of an amount, for example, say “three parts per billion” instead of 0.003 parts per million.
Avoid negatives. Look at every sentence and bullet point and find ways of exchanging negatives for positives without losing the meaning.
Admit uncertainty where you have to. People understand that not all questions have a certain answer, especially when you admit it; this can often lead to a positive because you can then gain influence by saying “..but on balance..”
If interrupted, stop talking. You must, exceptionally, be ready to stop what you are saying and to listen politely to a revised or repeated question. There is little gained by talking determinedly through an interruption.