Reaching brains in crisis

What a rewarding, and exhausting, week it has been! How about yours?

I presented a virtual crisis communications workshop to four different CEO groups and learned as much from how they are managing their communications as I likely taught them.

The overarching advice is that you must be strategic in a time of crisis: know what you want to achieve in the next month, three or six, then figure out who you must communicate withReaching brains in crisis/persuade, to get there. Most likely your employees will be a crucial audience but there are also customers, suppliers, partners, governments, etc.

Once you know your audience and have taken their pulse, you must curate your content with that specific group in mind. Leave lots of room for dialogue if it is a meeting style environment but even if it is email or blog posts, reduce the info-dump and increase the FAQs or chat options. People in isolation need to be heard, and people back at work but fearful of contagion, also need to be heard. Even people you have had to lay off or furlough, want to hear from you and will appreciate a check in and offer of support to the extent you can provide it.

When assessing your audience and its needs, there is a fundamental aspect that you can rely upon and must take into consideration when crafting your message and the way in which you are going to send it. It has to do with our brains.

Have you noticed recently that everyone is exhausted? Some people are multi tasking every day, home-schooling kids, trying to work from home, and running the grocery gauntlet. But even those who are admittedly laying on the couch watching Netflix report feeling wiped out.

I have a theory on this. As you all know, our brains evolved in layers, starting with the reptilian brain, then the limbic brain and finally our analytical brain, the neo cortex. For some time now most of us primarily go to the limbic or emotional brain, for absorbing and interpreting information AND for decision making. We have all been way too busy to spend much time thinking deeply about things. Occasionally, sure, we need that neo cortex to do some financial work, or design work but mostly it hangs around, staring out the window. And the reptilian brain, while usually underutilized, occasionally springs into action when we feel threatened or very afraid.

So, think about it: we are all afraid in this time of COVID-19. Afraid of contagion, afraid of uncertainty, and afraid of economic devastation. In other words, the reptilian brain is constantly on alert – a state that is extremely unusual for most of us. No wonder soldiers and emergency service workers, as well as health care front liners often suffer from PTSD as they live in a state of almost constant threat. And now so do we all.

As you sit down to craft your next message to one of your important audiences, spend some time thinking about how fear and anxiety informs the way your message will be heard and interpreted.

Joanna Piros