Covid Comms: Connection, Empathy Crucial

If you’re looking to employ effective communication during a crisis and need some help and practical advice, Péter Szerémi is your man. He has been working as a communication trainer for the past 20 years. “My job is to help others get their messages across with impact and authenticity, especially when they’re giving a speech, but I also do preparation for performance reviews,” he explains.

With those sentiments in mind, I spoke with Péter about how corporate leaders and scientists can more effectively communicate to their audiences in crisis situations like the present COVID-19 global pandemic.

But first, I asked him what his thoughts were about what he does and how it’s changed in this bizarre year. He admitted that everything had changed.

Most of what I did of course was in-person trainings and workshops. But now it’s all online, which was pretty scary in the beginning I have to admit – to change to this new way of working – but by now I’ve begun to see that it actually has opened up a lot of opportunities.

For example, this morning I had a workshop with people from Malaysia. I’ve recently given a virtual talk on how to provide constructive feedback in California. So I think that the possibilities with this online work actually are greater and I’m just beginning to get a taste for it.

How much do you miss some of the face-to-face aspects of your work?

I miss them a lot! I don’t want to sound like the person who says, “yes, it’s much better now and I hope that it will stay the same forever.” No. I miss them a lot, and when I had the opportunity to do in-person workshops during the summer I loved them, and I’m looking forward to returning to them when the opportunity comes. I’m sure that I will keep some of the online offerings because I actually enjoy reaching out to more people than I can in person.

Right, it’s amazing, isn’t it? Because it gives us this ability to reach out to other parts of the world that maybe previously we haven’t ever worked with.

Yeah. That’s a fantastic opportunity.

We agreed that we’d speak about effective crisis communication during the pandemic for leaders and scientists. It’s a pretty broad topic, but could you talk about some of the prime considerations for such communication – maybe it’s a bit different for the two different roles, right?

Yes. What I see is that a lot of leaders have just realized that it’s especially important for them in these circumstances to communicate continuously to their employees. Because it’s a time of uncertainty and people are just starving for information – they want to know and see what’s going on, and I think leaders need to communicate more often.

One of the interesting things is that some of them have started communicating through video. They record video updates, and I think it’s a good idea, because when there’s a time of uncertainty, like today, employees  really need  to know how things are going. Even if things are not going well, they need to trust you if you’re the leader: that you’re there, you’re  telling the truth, you care about them – and video is a great platform for that.

I’ve been working with leaders and  leadership teams who had the idea that they want to communicate through video, and I was really happy to see the results: how they were able to express empathy, concern, and how they were able to inform their people about the situation.

There’s a great video which I highly recommend that everyone watch by the CEO of Marriott who addressed the employees of his firm in the beginning of this crisis in March. I think it’s a great example of authentic leadership during a crisis situation, because this CEO shows empathy – you can actually just feel that he really cares about the many employees of Marriott, and he gives an update about what’s going on. It was uplifting for me to see the comments under the video, with all ranks of employees from Marriott writing “we love you, we are behind you, we can do this together.”

So I would highly recommend leaders that they show their vulnerability, communicate often and connect to people. 

I’ve actually found it amazing, the communication that is still possible even through something like Zoom. Those are some excellent points for leaders; what are your thoughts for scientists, when it’s all about how to communicate effectively with the public? How much should they reach out and what do you think they should be thinking about to communicate their messages?

Number one: Connect with people and show more empathy. Number two: Tell your messages in a way which is easy to understand by people who are not scientists.

What we’ve seen is a very interesting phenomenon: a lot of scientists, who previously just communicated to their own communities, now talk to the greater public. Sometimes it creates problems, because when scientists were just communicating in their scientific publications and were talking with each other at conferences, they used a language that their community understood.

You  always need to take into consideration your audience: what do they know about a subject, how much do they know, how much do they want to know, how much detail do you need to go into? Sometimes I feel that when scientists communicate to the public, like in a media interview, they don’t take that into account; they talk as if they were talking at a conference. They use too much jargon.

There’s one interesting thing: when you look at all of these anti-vaccination, anti-virus, anti-mask people, they can be very convincing. Why? Because they can tell people something in a very simple manner, and they can connect to their feelings. They say: “Do you want your life back? Do you want to go back to normal?” And of course that’s how people feel: “I’m sick of this and I want my life back!”

Because of the strong emotional connection they make, their completely unscientific messages often go through very easily. 

Connect first and demonstrate that you understand your audience, then you can give your suggestion, but I think what’s often missing, even in politics and business, is that without this connection phase, people just tell their idea: “You should wear masks. You should do this, you shouldn’t do that. You should social distance.” And if you tell somebody a suggestion first without connecting to them, showing them that you care about them and understand what they want, then resistance will follow

Scientists have to form a stronger connection with their audience by emphasizing that they are human beings as well.

They can say something like,  “I’m a scientist, I know a lot about the subject, about viruses. I’m a human being just like you, and I want my life back, too. I have the same feelings: I want to hug my friends and my grandmother. But, unfortunately, at the moment it’s not possible.”

There is a very interesting phenomenon called the “curse of knowledge.” That’s when you are an expert in a subject and you forget what it was like not knowing stuff. So, you use too many technical terms, and go into detail. As I said before, it’s fine if you’re talking at a conference full of scientists; it’s fine if you’re publishing your article in a scientific newspaper, but it’s not a good idea if you’re talking to people without a background in science.

So I think they really need to focus on their audience and try to phrase their messages in a way which is easier to digest. And I’ve seen wonderful videos, wonderful graphics – they other day I saw a great visual in the New York Times about the wearing of masks, how it helps and why it’s important.

Or, probably a week ago, I saw a great visual representation of how the virus spreads in a French newspaper. So I think scientists and newspapers who convey the ideas of scientists should think about ways to easily transmit those messages and help people understand what it’s all about.

Scientists should make more of an effort to connect and show people that they understand their concerns, they are human beings as well and they should make an effort to  formulate their messages in a more digestible way.

What are your plans for making it through this year and do you have any thoughts you could share with us for the New Year?

I still have work for the remainder of the year and I’m trying to balance work and this home office stuff with some outdoor activity. 

I enjoy reaching out to people I haven’t talked to for a while, I really like catching up with them, and this is something I’d highly recommend to everyone. 

That’s an excellent suggestion. It’s actually something I’ve recently started doing. Thanks, Péter!

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