Six steps to craft communications that connect

Authors: Lewis Parker
  • Reading time: 4 min.
  • Posted on: October 4, 2022

We live in an age of information overload…


The list goes on, and on, and on…

The consequences of economic hardship and the constant bombardment of information means that reaching and engaging audiences is the hardest it’s ever been. Messages are constantly fighting for attention and trying to cut through the noise. 

The result is detachment. Stop and think: how many times have you sat in a meeting, a presentation, an event, and although someone is speaking, you’ve completely switched off?  Or how about the last time you were reading an article or a book, and realised you really just wanted to shut your screen or close the page? (Here’s hoping the answer’s not ‘right now’.)

The reason for this is that we’re not engaged. We can’t concentrate. We’re bored. 

As communication professionals, we need to inspire and gain our audiences’ trust, to feel relevant and valuable in their day-to-day lives. We need to connect. So, how do we as communicators wanting to kickstart change, create connections in a noisy world? Here are six simple tips from Shape History.

1. Step into their shoes

When did you last have a conversation that ended in confusion? Usually, the reason is because what you said wasn’t perceived in the way you intended. The same happens when we communicate about anything, whether it’s talking to a friend over coffee or promoting a nationwide campaign, a policy, or an organisational brand. 

Our lives are complicated. Some of us went on holidays around the world as children. Others couldn’t afford to. Some went to University. Others, straight into employment. Some have been victims of structural racism. Others, beneficiaries of white privilege.  Ultimately, every factor in our lives means we all understand the world in  different ways, thanks to a lifetime of different experiences. If I say ‘bird’,  some people might think of a sparrow, others a goose. 

So, just projecting what you want to say is only part of the equation — it takes two to tango. To be truly effective, we need to step into the receiver’s world. Consider not just what you want to say, but what the audience needs to hear to understand and connect with it. You can start by asking some questions: What do they care about? What are their motivations, fears, or concerns? What type of language will they understand and listen to? 

2. Create connections through emotion

“There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.” 

Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones 

As human beings, stories are what make us… well, us. 

Unfortunately, the gut instinct for most organisations is to jump straight to ‘lecturer mode’. They lead with technical and complex information and just cause confusion.  The logic is usually: “We’re communicating with leaders and experts. They want to know the facts.” 

But we’re all human beings — and humans are driven first and foremost by emotion. There’s no escaping it — it doesn’t matter if you’re CEO of a FTSE 100 company or an activist protesting for change on the streets.  Ask yourself: What’s stronger? Rage or joy? Does it matter, as long as it isn’t apathy? Apathy is the death of change.

For example, In 2019, Shape History supported the campaign for Marriage Equality in Northern Ireland. We led with an emotive, story-driven campaign portraying a son reading a letter from his mother — the emotional centre piece for the whole campaign.  We knew we couldn’t just say that marriage inequality was wrong, or an injustice. We had to make people feel it. 

Or more recently, in our work with WWF, we had to engage policy makers on the need to act on stopping migratory fish from going extinct due to dams and barriers in European rivers. Some would call it a dry topic…  So how did we make the issue of declining populations of migratory fish engaging? We told the story in a different way — through the eyes of a freshwater fish. Meet Otis, trying to swim to his girlfriend Sophie,  to… well… have sex (and reproduce). #LetsTalkAboutFishSex!

In a campaign or communications context, remember that emotion and connection shouldn’t start and end with one piece of content. It should be a constant, running thread throughout all verbal and written communications.  You can ask questions to make people stop and think. You can help people see by using visual language. You can ignite their imagination by injecting your message with metaphors. 

3. Keep it short and sweet 

Effective communication is ultimately the art of balance. It’s the Goldilocks Principle. If you don’t give enough detail (too cold), you fail to get your point across. Too much (too hot) and you overwhelm and cause confusion. You need to find a way to hit the sweet spot in the middle — just right. 

Simple language is easy to understand, by design. But so many in the social impact sector try to be all things to all people and tick every single box of nuance. This works if you’re writing an academic paper or proposal. Not so much when trying to communicate complex ideas to those who aren’t specialists. If the words are long and complex, it’s a pain to read, listen and engage. Use fewer words! 

All good writers have editors for a reason. Getting another perspective, a sense check, will always strengthen the end result. I’m quite an emotive person and I like describing. This can mean I often use too many words (Grammarly’s conciseness function loves me). Having  someone to look through and separate the crap from the critical is invaluable.

4. Follow the (neuro)science

  • The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle 
  • Finger lickin’ good 

What do the three statements above have in common? Well, science has shown us our brains process information using patterns, and three is the smallest number of elements required to create a pattern. Once is  chance. Twice is coincidence. But three? That’s a pattern.  

Effective communicators have been using this trick to forge connections with audiences for years.  It can be as simple as three words, e.g. Boris Johnson’s Take Back Control in the Brexit campaign (and Get Brexit Done in his landslide 2019 general election), or Trump’s Drain The Swamp, or it can be lengthier, grouping ideas into three. “We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America.” Barack Obama was/is excellent at this. When you feel like you have too much to communicate, look at how you can simplify and group the substance of the messages into three core points. 

Let’s take Shape History as an example. How do we create change in the world to create a fairer world, faster? Simple. Through strategic communications, creative storytelling, and powerful partnerships.

5. Speak from the heart

Being authentic means being true to yourself and your organisation.  Actions speak louder than words. If people don’t think you’re walking the walk as well as talking the talk, they won’t trust you. This principle is the same everywhere, whether that’s internal or external communications. 

For example, if you’re a brand talking about being environmentally and socially responsible, you should first look at what you are actually doing. You’re not a star pupil or leader if you still have lots to do, so don’t say you are. Equally, if you have a long way to go, that doesn’t mean you can’t talk about it. Ambitions and goals require a journey to get there. Some are long. Some short. So be honest. Talk about your journey, and own your weaknesses and failures as much as your successes. Your audiences will appreciate the honesty and transparency, and will believe you are being authentic — therefore building trust. 

If you want to learn more, you can watch this webinar of our co-Managing Director Ed Fletcher talking about this very topic in the context of brand greenwashing. 

6. Voice your words

In schools, teachers often verbalise their own thinking process, i.e their metacognitions. The reason for this is it helps students to gain insight into their teachers’ processes, and thus understand them better. 

This happens when you read aloud. It forces you to consider the words in more depth, with your intentions in mind. If you read your writing aloud, you’ll easily be able to hear (and then see)  the errors that were initially missed. You’ll be able to feel whether the pace is too fast or slow. Your tongue and breath will tell you if the sentences are too long.

Once you’ve done this, with the previous tips in mind, you’ll be able to improve the message to resonate, connect, and inspire. If there’s one thing you take away from this, it’s this: Tell your story. Don’t be dire. Inspire. 

Lewis Parker is Strategy Director at Shape History. Do the stories your organisation is telling need revitalising or even starting from scratch? Our team of storytellers are multi-skilled and bursting with ideas to bring your story to life, online or out in the physical world. Get in touch below.