Effective COVID communications need clarity and a human touch

Claire Hewitt | February 26, 2021

What’s behind successful COVID-19 communications? To find out, researchers measured ‘readability’ of public information on COVID-19. The results show we need more plain language, especially when the stakes are so high. To persuade people to act, we also need the magic of a human touch.

Many COVID-related communications are too hard to read

Researchers calculated the readability of language in public messages from Australia, the UK, the US, and the World Health Organization. Measuring readability helps assess how easy your writing will be to read. The researchers found that most of the population would find most documents difficult to read.

Read Communications in the time of a pandemic: the readability of documents for public consumption at Wiley Online

Measuring readability makes sense

Important messages such as COVID communications need to be simple enough to meet the literacy level of the general public.

The International Adult Literacy Survey says about two-fifths of New Zealanders have low literacy. Another two-fifths have moderate to good literacy, and about one-fifth have a high level of literacy. The statistics are almost the same in Australia, the UK, and Canada.

Read the Adult Literacy Report (PDF, 216KB)

Vulnerable audiences need extra care

Studies suggest that people understand less when they’re worried or stressed. So we need to take extra care during the pandemic, because it brings risk to health, jobs, and families. And that’s stressful!

Communicators need to keep checking readability — and then improving it. Better readability shows kindness to your readers. Importantly, effective communication makes it easy for people to understand how they can stay safe, and keep others safe too.

Image, 3 women arm with their arms around each other in a park

A human touch adds magic to writing and life. Image by Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash licence

A human touch can add magic that persuades

Understanding what we need to do is not enough when we’re facing a pandemic. COVID communications must also compel people to take action.

Fortunately, plain language can help us persuade readers by building an emotional connection. A valuable principle is to ‘be human’ when you write. Lots of writing techniques help with this — for example, choose words that people can easily recognise and picture in their minds.

Bubbles beat pandemic pods

Consider ‘Stay in your bubble’ versus ‘Pandemic pods please’. In 2020, the first message helped a country eliminate COVID. ‘Stay in your bubble’ has a clear action that’s easy to follow. Verbs are powerful! We can imagine doing something more easily than we can imagine an abstract concept.

The ‘bubble’ metaphor is another example of a writing technique that helps readers visualise what you mean. Most people know what a bubble is. Lots of us even have fond associations with bubbles! ‘Pandemic pods’ may be more difficult to conjure up in your mind’s eye.

If you’d like to read more tips on setting the right tone or writing to persuade, you’ve come to the right place!

Image, person blowing bubbles on a boat

Most of us can picture bubbles easily, and with fond memories. Image by Dan Gold / Unsplash licence

Read our blogs about using a human tone and persuasive writing

The tone of your writing will decide whether people do what your message asks them — or not
Tone tips: A collection to bookmark
Stories bring abstract concepts to life

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.