Ten tips for communicating information to customers in an emergency
- What we did: We researched ten simple, evidence-based tips about how to communicate with customers in an emergency or in times of elevated stress.
- Why we did this: When facing a stressful situation like an emergency evacuation, customers absorb information differently. Government must provide clear, actionable communication to our customers during emergencies.
- Our key questions: How do people absorb information in stressful situations? How best can we communicate information to prompt calm action without panic?
- Result: The Department of Customer Service implemented these tips in the design of a nsw.gov.au webpage, which provides critical emergency evacuation information.
When facing a stressful event such as preparing for an evacuation, customers absorb information differently. Government must take this into consideration so that in an emergency our customers can get the information they need. We want to share with you some advice about how best to communicate with customers in these situations.
What we did
We identified ten simple, evidence-based tips that NSW public servants can implement that respond directly to barriers customers face in times of stress.
Barrier: People are confronted with more information than they can process.
Tip 1: Avoid information overload
- Provide clear and simple actionable steps.
- Use short sentences and avoid long paragraphs, opt for bullet points instead.
- Information that is most important should be presented first - we’re more likely to remember what we see first.
- Create checklists to simplify actions e.g. an evacuation preparation checklist.
Tip 2: Simplify complex information
- Use simple visuals and layouts to communicate risk into understandable information e.g. use colour to highlight key information and remove unnecessary text.
- Present information in a way that people can visualise and compare quickly.
Tip 3: Foster an adaptive mindset
- Remind users that it’s normal to feel stress when facing a potential emergency, and that we can harness the stress response for positive gain.
Barrier: People seek to minimise effort and are disproportionately affected by small frictions.
Tip 4: Build resilience
- Help customers formulate a plan of steps to take in the event of an emergency. Present users with sets of "if... then..." statements to prompt planning e.g. “If I receive a warning to evacuate, then I will….”
Tip 5: Manage customers who may be too optimistic
- Share stories of others who have been impacted by an emergency, emphasising the need to be prepared early.
- Avoid ambiguous calls to action. Provide a specific explanation for why and how people should prepare as we are more likely to take action when there is clear information.
Barrier: People resist changing behaviour in times of uncertainty.
Tip 6: Remember that people tend to focus on immediate rather than future outcomes
- Frame information to highlight potential financial losses of not taking action.
- Frame information to highlight the immediate benefits of planning.
Tip 7: Explain assumptions about the role of government
- It is important to communicate that government measures are not total security against emergencies, and that individual responsibility is important.
- Highlight what the individual is losing by being unprepared (property damage, livelihood etc.).
Tip 8: Focus on using collective terms
- Address the public in collective terms like urging ‘us’ to act for the common good.
- Avoid communicating about panic. News stories that employ the language of panic can foster individualism, turning sensible preparations into dysfunctional stockpiling.
Barrier: People interpret information using rules of thumb that confirm existing beliefs and experiences.
Tip 9: Boost self-efficacy
- Increase perceived control by providing positive stories of people benefiting from preparation or adding a short paragraph about how people can achieve positive outcomes with minimal effort.
- Make it clear that it is ‘not too late’ to successfully prepare for an emergency and that a huge difference can be made even within a matter of hours.
Tip 10: Target customers who have not experienced an emergency before
- Use social norms to prompt behavioural change. A message might say, ‘the overwhelming majority of people in your community have made evacuation preparations to protect their family’.
How can you use this in your work?
These tips can be adapted and utilised by anyone communicating to customers (both individual & businesses) facing a stressful situation such as seasonal weather or COVID-19 related events.
If you would like to discuss how you can implement these tips into your work, the Behavioural Insights Unit offers 30-minute clinics for NSW public servants. Clinics are delivered online every Wednesday. If you work in the NSW Government, book a clinic with the Behavioural Insights Unit today.
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- Van Bavel, J. J., Baicker, K., Boggio, P.S. et al (2020). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nature human behaviour, 4(5), 460-471.