7 Science-Based Rules for Communicating in High-Stress Environments


The communication profession is now up to bat.

These days, every message shared or withheld, every action taken or tear shed, is all being scrutinized by stakeholders. Just as quickly, they are deciding whether they like or trust our brand or government—or if they don’t.

Professional communicators have a critical role to play during this global emergency. And it is a high-stakes game. According to the newly released “Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Brand Trust and the Coronavirus Pandemic Survey,” employees are worried about fake COVID-19 news, and they want us to solve the problem: 63% of people polled want at least daily updates from their employer about the pandemic.

People are, quite simply, stressed.

We will not all get COVID-19, but we’ve all been hit by at least a mild case of coronavirus concern and life disruption. World leaders have. Business leaders have. Your customers and stakeholders have. And, admit it or not, you and I have.

Science tell us our brains behave differently under stress, making it harder to hear, understand and recall information. In high-stress situations, people typically don’t retain as much as 80% of the information being shared with them. The amygdala (the part of your brain that governs your survival instincts) may take over, leaving the parts of our brain that help to store memories and perform higher-order tasks with less energy and ability to get their own jobs done.

Follow these science-based rules to help you communicate effectively whenever the stakes are high.

Know your audience

This is always key, but especially now. The mental noise theory says the higher the stress, the greater the need to know your audience’s unique needs and demonstrate you are actively listening to them. People are more willing to listen if they believe you have been listening to them first. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes, and consider their unique needs, experiences, values and goals.

Be concise (27/9/3)

In normal circumstances, people can typically hear, understand and remember seven bits of information at a time. Under stress, people rarely process more than three points, more than 27 words, or more than nine seconds of content. Anything more and they can experience cognitive overload, preventing them from hearing, understanding and recalling what you’ve shared.

Be clear and consistent

Stress or high concern makes information sound harder than it is, dropping reading level by about four grades on average. Target grade six readability for all the information you share, about the same as the average newspaper, to make sure your audience can follow easily. Aim to be consistent with your messages over time to avoid confusing your audience.

Demonstrate CCO (caring, conviction, optimism)

Stress can make people more suspicious of those in authority, including the messengers. Plus, audiences will often focus much more on negative than the positive content (according to negative dominance theory). If you have three messages, the first should be one of caring, the second should share conviction, and the last should convey optimism. Theodore Roosevelt said it best: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Structure your messages mindfully

Organize information so it is easy for your listeners to process. One useful structure is the three-part model that was first identified by Aristotle: Tell people what you are going to tell them (brief summary), tell them more (go into detail), then tell them again (summarize). When you have three points, the primacy/recency theory tells us to put the most important point first, the least important message second, the second most important message last.

Watch your body language

Under stress, we rely more on our non-verbal and visual cues. Pay special attention to your eye contact, posture and your hands (keep them wide to demonstrate warmth).

Don’t wing it

As much as 95% of questions can be predicted in advance. Prepare key messages and proof points for each of them! Make sure your spokespeople go through rigorous media training too. This will help them practice all the rules, plus teach them how to avoid the trap of sticky questions from any audience.

These rules are adapted from the extensive research and teaching of Vincent Covello, Ph.D., director of the Centre for Risk Communications and senior advisor for the Centre for Crisis and Risk Communications.

Celine Richter

Celine Richter, CMP, is a senior associate with the Centre for Crisis & Risk Communications (CCRC), based in Calgary, Alberta. Celine has over two decades of experience as communication lead at several of Canada’s most trusted brands, including Covenant Health Canada and the Alberta Motor Association. She is a Communication Management Professional (CMP), a member of the IABC Gold Quill Awards Blue Ribbon Panel, and has previously served on the board of directors for the IABC Edmonton chapter and IABC Canada West region. The CCRC team is guided by the science and research of Vincent Covello, Ph.D., on how the brain responds to high stress crisis and change environments. The CCRC conducts vulnerability audits, writing and executing crisis communication plans, providing training (crisis and media) and strategic communication counsel. Download a sample crisis communication plan here.

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