Since the days of cave paintings, communicators have been trying to keep up with the flow of information and the evolving needs of their audience. In light of an increasingly global society and our sudden transition to even more supportive technology during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, our communications capabilities have been increasingly challenged.
Even more so, we have a new generation — Gen Z — joining the workforce. Born between 1997 and 2012, Gen Z are digital natives, meaning that they have grown up with technology at their collective fingertips. This, of course, brings its own unique challenges and opportunities.
So how do communicators — specifically those of us responsible for government communications — keep up with the flow and bring value to our communities?
Although Gen Z is the first generation to grow up with on-demand, portable, connected social technology, they crave face-to-face interactions. One study reveals that a face-to-face request is 34 times more likely to be successful than an email. Most people aren’t just looking for information — they are looking for an experience. Ultimately, they are looking for connection. So, how do you provide that?
As we slowly shift to an increasingly hybrid world, that in-person feel drives a sense of connection and creates the ability for dialogue. Communications are not about a one-way information stream; those lecture-style events just don’t cut it anymore (if they ever really did). It’s all about dialogue, about trust, and about telling a story.
Know your audience and your story.
The first step is to know and understand to whom you are communicating. What are their hopes and fears? How does what you have to tell them impact their lives, and what questions might they have? How much do they already know? How often do they want to hear from you, and in what venues? What has worked in the past, and what has not? How can your agency support them?
In all likelihood, you have a varied audience, each with different needs, experience levels, and questions. User personas can help you target your communications to your audience’s different needs and goals. Some other tools that can help you hone your messaging include:
Take the time and effort to get to know your audience, where they are coming from, and what they are bringing to the dialogue.
Next, remember that communications are not just about giving information. How often do you truly remember a chart full of numbers or a list of statistics? Stories, on the other hand, have lasting power. There is a reason we, as humans, gravitate towards stories. We see ourselves in them and we respond on an emotional level. A giant influx of insensible data is just never going to do that. I’m of course talking about storytelling, that buzzword that has been haunting our virtual and private business spaces for almost a decade now. But what does storytelling really mean?
What does storytelling really mean?
Well, to answer the question, let me tell you my own story. When I was a child, I hated geography (or thought that I did). My geography class was all about how many tons of raw exports a certain country had. Needless to say, I immediately forgot everything I read. I would, however, spend hours glued to nature shows and I could tell you, even as a very young child, anything you wanted to know about the African savannah, the heart of the South American rainforest, and the frozen tundra of the Arctic — and all the animals and people in those locations. The difference? The nature shows told the story of the place. They personalized it and they created a connection with the animals and people. Thirty odd years later, I can still tell you anything you want to know about those 1990s nature shows (I was even inspired to go to some of those places!) . . . and absolutely nothing about “formal” geography.
The moral of my story? Telling a story, instead of relying on the raw export of endless data, answers the “who, what, where, when, how,” and, most importantly, “how does this affect me?”
Storytelling will get your audience engaged; it will help them see where they fit into the mission of your agency, and it will give them an emotional connection to what you are communicating. That’s how you have a conversation and, consequently, that’s how you also build trust in your agency.
Check out these examples and articles to see storytelling in action at the government level and awaken your own inner storyteller:
- Government of New Zealand, Foreign Affairs & Trade - Our Story
- Digital.gov: Multimedia storytelling in government - Ghazni Towers Documentation Project
- U.S. Department of Interior – Instagram
- National Park Service - Instagram
- Government of Canada – Agriculture and Agri-Food – Good News Grows
Most of us think of “face-to-face” communication as meeting at the water cooler and gossiping about the latest meeting. We’re not being creative enough. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the way it is reshaping our global world, has taught us that we can’t stop talking to one another because of geography.
If anything, communication became even more vital and important during that time. For example, during the pandemic:
- The Library of Congress started a crowdsourcing program that continues to leverage the dedication of citizens to remotely transcribe important historical documents.
- The government of Singapore set-up a website where people across the nation could get together and start inclusive, honest conversations about the pandemic and moving forward.
- California led a digital media campaign to spread awareness of the “Stay Home. Save Lives.” initiative.
- King County, Washington, used a chatbot to route people with Covid-19 systems straight to a nurse.
- The National Library of Medicine’s National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) adopted communication and collaboration platforms to enable enhanced, real-time, off-site communications among radiologists and oncologists, stating, “The ‘silo’ based model of radiologists only reporting for an individual hospital or trust is needlessly restrictive when the technology exists to connect subspecialty experience with areas of need.”
Some examples of COVID-19-driven communications creativity and transformation include:
- government-supported telehealth programs
- social media messaging tools and templates
- government chatbots
- creative grass-roots communities, and
- restaurants adopting a plethora of delivery options.
In the same vein (although not pandemic-related), the Department of Defense has partnered with a platform to crowdsource security defense through volunteer hackers. Some cities have created something called Community Data Dialogues. The city of Cleveland, Ohio launched their own series, Data Days Cleveland, to share “accessible data and civic technology for community impact . . . . local uses of data across a variety of sectors, all with a focus on how data is used for action in social justice, research, and policy.” CitizenScience.gov is a dedicated federal web space to help agencies accelerate innovation by engaging the public. The list goes on and on, and I didn’t even address the influx of telework and hybrid working modules ushered in by COVID-19.
The point (you knew I had one, right)? You can still bring that face-to-face charm in this virtual, hybrid world. In-person events still happen, of course, but even then technology is key. Many events now, government or otherwise, ask people to log into their smartphones to vote and provide feedback. Some speakers may fly in from across the world and others may, literally, dial-in.
Storytelling helps you (the narrator) create an emotional connection to the audience, bring the personal touch of those craved “face-to-face” connections, and provides that one-on-one feel. You still have to be savvy with your tech, though. One of the easiest ways is to turn on your video, instead of just being a disembodied voice, but there is a lot more to it. Think back to those user personas.
For example, if a heavy amount of your audience is Gen Z, they will love your personal touch, but still want to leverage the ease and accessibility of technology. After all, the best storytellers have always used props to spread the message, from the days of cave paintings all the way to our soundbite-driven world. Delve into the dynamics of your audience to find out how technology can bring your message home and keep the dialogue flowing.
Be safe, and accessible
The technology you choose to use needs to be secure. A lot of this hinges on your agency’s own internal guidance, and it’s critical that you are familiar with that guidance and your agency’s rules of the road. You need to be aware of the privacy rules (such as what you can share, what platforms are approved, and what information is gathered about your participants).
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has some video conferencing privacy tips that can help you start thinking about areas of concern, and what you need to do to address them, and the Internet Society provides information on protecting yourself with encryption. The National Library of Medicine (NCBI) has a helpful guide about maximizing virtual meetings and conferences that compiles a lot of best practice research.
Remember accessibility! Do you have captioning enabled? Can everyone access your supporting technology or do they need special software, an Internet connection, etc. Check out the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) website for some ideas, learn about Section 508 compliance, and remember that you are responsible for keeping participants’ personally identifiable information (PII) secure. And, as always, use plain language.
The bottom line? You cannot always be “in person” physically, but you can still channel the dynamics of face-to-face, one-on-one interactions. The key is to make sure you create an experience — a conversation — instead of a data dump. Learn who your audience is and what they need, craft your story, use the right mix of mediums to reach your audience, and make sure to be accessible and inclusive. Yes, there are challenges in this increasingly global, online world, but there are so many opportunities to connect to more people, more often, and dare I say, more effectively.