How to Communicate Important COVID-19 Data

May 13, 2020

Contributor: Kasey Panetta

To communicate effectively, data and analytics leaders must focus more on the emotions and intent of the coronavirus data story than complex data.

Up until a few months ago, the words “flatten the curve” didn’t mean anything to people outside of the medical field. Now, it’s an oft-repeated social media rallying cry to encourage people to practice social distancing and stay home. 

The question is, how do you communicate a complex idea like an epidemic curve to people with little to no understanding of data? The same way you communicate any message — tell a story

For example, a podiatrist in the U.K. used a bucket with a hole in the side to explain how a small amount of water escaping the side of the bucket was manageable, but when there was too much water in the bucket it was unable to hold the water and was overwhelmed. This illustrates what could happen if the National Health System was suddenly overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases.  

It’s a visual way of explaining a complicated topic, and people connected with a new understanding. 

“Data and analytics teams working on responses to the COVID-19 pandemic must communicate complex and often challenging analytical ideas to key stakeholders and to the public, who tend to respond emotionally rather than rationally,” says Alan D. Duncan, VP Analyst, Gartner. “Use data storytelling techniques to identify, frame and communicate the COVID-19 narrative in a manner that is appropriate for each stakeholder group.”

Communicate the critical data, but in a way that inspires trust, confidence and action

Humans are naturally inclined to make decisions based on emotions. In fact, subconscious pathways and emotional stimuli are many times faster to trigger decision making than conscious cognitive processes.

The key is to appeal to both the heart and the mind of the audience. Communicate the critical data, but in a way that inspires trust, confidence and action. 

Use the facts to guide emotions

The reality is that facts don’t sway people, emotion does. Storytelling is a much more effective way to communicate a message than a presentation of just numbers and insights. By telling the story, data and analytics leaders can drive an action from the audience. 

With that in mind, don’t skimp on the data, but rather use it to form the underlying viewpoint of the messaging. From there, the goal is to elicit the desired emotion from the audience to drive the data point home. 

Stick to the key data points, and don’t get lost in super-detailed complexities. Successful storytellers are very clear about the purpose of the communication and the audience they designed it for: 

  • Capture attention: Stories engage people emotionally and stimulate the heart and engage the mind. Use personal experiences to create a trusting, warm message. For example, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, made a plea for social distancing and staying home based to reduce infections. 

  • Facilitate understanding: It is easier to learn via a story than simply from data points.  Stories break down complex ideas into concepts that are easier to understand and frequently appeal to emotions. People are also more likely to share a story with someone else, sharing the lesson as well. This is the technique the podiatrist used to explain flattening the curve. 

  • Enable listeners to remember the message longer: Increase retention of your main message by using a story that has information, emotions and sounds. People tend to remember stories more easily than pure facts. The Wash Your Lyrics meme generator is helpful for this.

  • Fill an emotional need: Simply telling employees to do something is not enough. Achieving organizational change is about emotions, relationships and gaining the commitment of people. Storytelling provides the missing link to emotions. For example, a Northern Irish respiratory consultant made an emotional appeal for people to stay at home.

  • Help people connect ideas with past experiences: Storytelling helps employees personalize their own messages. A story may remind them of a similar experience or a challenge, enabling them to apply their previous experiences to the current event. In turn, this enables the audience to hear the rational and emotional aspects of the story plot points, which improves communication. For example, the stories of Italians coping with social isolation by singing from their balconies are inspiring others around the world.

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