Tailoring communication to an audience: the what, the who and the how

An element of communication skills that often occurs in role requirements is the ability to tailor communication to an audience. This skill is likely to be relevant to communication and marketing professionals and people working with stakeholders and clients. But it’s also relevant to people who need to explain issues to people who have a different professional background, such as technology specialists explaining an issue or new tool to non-technology specialists; a finance person explaining a budget to a non-finance person; or a scientist explaining their specialist field to a non-scientist.

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised significant communication issues including understanding a virus and how it works, consistency in messaging, handling misinformation, and persuading people to be vaccinated.

The wealth of material published about vaccination communication provides some ideas on how to explain examples of tailoring communication. Job applicants can fall into the trap of simply claiming they tailor their communication without giving the details of how they do this. While the context is health communication, several of the points raised apply in other contexts.

A US report on vaccination communication neatly summarises three key points:

  • What is being communicated, the goals of communication efforts (which can evolve over time as circumstances change).
  • Who is the target of the message, what are the needs and perspectives of the intended audience. Once the target audience is defined, population-specific concerns, motivations, and information needs must be considered.
  • How the message is communicated. If there is a diversity of factors affecting an issue, as there is with vaccine hesitancy in different groups, then communication efforts cannot take a “one size fits all” approach. Knowing what ‘effective’ means is important. It’s not just accurate content, but content tailored to the target audience’s values and priorities that comes from trusted messengers. Messages must also be transparent and truthful, and must be carefully framed for different audiences, while remaining consistent.

Knowledge of subject matter is another factor affecting the ‘how’. In the case of vaccinations, people have a range of health literacy (e.g. the capacity to understand health information), digital literacy (e.g. the capacity to discern the credibility of online sources), and science literacy (e.g. understanding the evolving nature of science), as well as English literacy.

Equity also needs to be considered to cater for the needs of marginalised populations. Messages should avoid judgement, shaming, or excessive directiveness, (although there is some debate about making vaccinations mandatory). Responses also need to consider relevant misinformation – emerging themes, values, logic or concerns underlying false claims – to inform ongoing messaging.

The report identifies that: “Communication research also points to a few general actions to avoid when responding to misinformation:

  • “Do not repeat the falsehood, because such repetition can have a priming effect.
  • Do not assume that those who are generally well informed about health information are immune to being influenced by falsehoods.
  • Do not assume a one-time effort will be sufficient, because communication effects are often incremental and require persistence and consistency.”

A communication strategy needs to be informed by identification of the most trusted sources of information for the target population and collaboration with diverse stakeholders.

The World Economic Forum’s report How to Build Trust in Vaccines: Understanding the Drivers of Vaccine Confidence outlines five insights drawn from the current public discourse on vaccines:

  • “People talk about “protection” as the most compelling reason to vaccinate.
  • High-profile messages calling vaccination a “moral obligation” provoke strong negative responses.
  • Messages that are simple, focused on gratitude and coming from health professionals, social influencers and “people like me” elicit more positive responses than messages from celebrities/politicians.
  • Lack of trust in the system and concerns about side-effects and safety of vaccines are the two most common drivers of vaccine reluctance and low confidence.
  • There is little differentiation in the public discourse between different types of vaccines, except in relation to safety and, for some, efficacy.”

The report points out that how people talk about vaccines – the language they use and the responses generated by that language – can offer important insights into the most effective ways of communicating about vaccines. “Language that is both positive and widely used could tell us how to shape public health messages to be more effective. Similarly, language that elicits a strong negative response should be avoided because those responses can include messaging that justifies low vaccine confidence and thus can have a negative impact on others.”

Trying to understand the motives, concerns and fears that drive vaccine sentiments, and empathise with them, is far more effective than making judgments or moralising when engaging in conversations about vaccines. This is particularly relevant when engaging with people who are undecided about vaccines or who have genuine concerns

In an episode of The Naked Scientists, ‘COVID vaccine uptake: how to establish trust’, Stephen Reicher, University of St Andrews, suggested in responding to conspiracy theories, it was important to take them seriously and not treat people as the problem. To engage people, there are three factors to consider which influence vaccine uptake. The three Cs.

  • “Complacency: You’re not going to do things unless you think there is a risk and a need to do them.
  • Convenience: If getting a vaccine is inconvenient, involving travel, time off work, then people may not bother.
  • Confidence: Having people available who are qualified to talk to people, to listen to and answer their concerns, is really important in helping people believe that vaccines are safe.”

Complementing this interview is a second discussion, ‘Conspiracy theories and your mental immune system’, with Andy Norman, Carnegie Mellon University, author of Mental Immunity, about how to combat bogus facts and bad ideas. Andy offers three tips for improving out mental immune function, meaning building up some cognitive responsibility for what we believe and helping us distinguish truth and falsehood.

  • “Listen to your doubts.
  • Make sure you’re reasoning to find out not to win.
  • Avoid wilful belief. (believing things because you want them to be true).”

Behavioural economics research may also be relevant, using choice architecture to ‘nudge’ people towards preferred behaviours. Australia’s Behavioural Economics Team is located in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Behavioural economics challenges the view that people always make decisions in their best interests by providing a more realistic model of human behaviour. It recognises we are systematically biased (for example, we tend to satisfy our present self rather than planning for the future) and can make decisions that conflict with our own interests.

The website includes many useful resources. Two related to communicating are:

Improving Government Forms

This document points out that forms are the most common interaction between Australians and government, and can be a frustrating experience for the agencies and citizens involved. “Designing a government form might sound simple, but it is deceptively difficult… these forms must work for diverse individuals with complex needs and circumstances. For clients, a poorly-designed form can delay or prevent their access to essential services and payments.

This guide offers a systematic approach to improving government forms, drawing on behavioural science to make forms easier, simpler and more human. The guide explains the WISER framework to guide the design of good forms:

  • “WHO – Understand your clients and the process.
  • INTRODUCTION – Offer clear instructions. Highlight key info.
  • STRUCTURE – Structure the form simply and guide people through it.
  • EXPRESSION – Write for clients, not government. Use plain English.
  • REPEAT – Test and iterate.”

Richer Veins for Behavioural Insights

This paper identifies a set of three key policy areas which offer the ability to affect wider scale behavioural change.

  • “Consumer choice (including changing market regulation, disclosure and how information is presented).
  • Financial decision-making (including understanding how people make financial decisions, financial comprehension, how defaults can be used more effectively and how people use mental accounting).
  • Personal wellbeing (including greater use of price signals, better service delivery and preventative health measures).”

A health-related example of a behavioural nudge is provided on the website. It concerns the creeping health risk of antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

Behavioural insights were applied to the design of four different letters sent to high antibiotics-prescribing GPs. The letters aimed to prompt GPs to reflect on whether they could reduce prescribing when appropriate and safe. It was hypothesised that “sending letters to GPs’ workplaces, comparing their prescribing behaviour to their peers, from the Chief Medical Officer would make salient their professional identity as physicians. Once aware their prescribing behaviour was high relative to their peers, this professional identity could motivate them to adjust their behaviour to be closer to what is ‘normal’ for their peer group.” The letters were effective in reducing prescriptions.

So, what does this mean for an applicant seeking to demonstrate that they tailor information to the needs of an audience? Here are nine points to consider:

  • Did you craft a communication strategy that identified the what, the who and the how?
  • Did you use a one-size-fits-all or a tailored approach?
  • What did ‘effective’ mean in the context of your example?
  • How did you cater for marginalised populations?
  • What knowledge limitations did you consider?
  • What did you do to build trust in government messages?
  • Did you analyse relevant language use and apply resulting insights to your strategy?
  • How did you respond to misinformation?
  • In seeking to change behaviour, were behavioural economics insights applied?

A response could then be structured using the CAR (or STAR) structure. Here are some details to consider:

Context: what was the communication task, what were the challenges, what was the desired end result, how would you know you had been effective, why was this task a priority.

Actions: was a strategy developed or applied, what research was undertaken to understand the audience, how did you cater for the specific needs of the audience, how did you respond to misinformation, how did you build trust in the message, how was the message conveyed to the audience.

Results: did the audience understand the message, did they act on the message, did the message affect behaviour, how did you measure these responses, how were relationships affected, how did these changes help the broader issue.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.