Communicating During Chaos: Talking To The Public

Like economics, financial planning, or psychology, there is a science to communication. Research-backed methods exist for sharing information with others, particularly in times of chaos or a crisis. As many of you probably have experienced during preceding days, there are excellent examples of letters, email messages, and social media posts that are both informative and comforting. See great examples from Radix Financial or this local business message to customers, Tap & Six. Likewise, there have been several missteps in communication from leaders and others who have disappointed us when it comes to sharing information and conveying leadership.

As the public (including your target market, clients, and followers) search for meaning and information on what this all means for our families, finances, and the future, communication science can be your ally. If you are sharing your perspective on our current collective experience with your email list, on your blog, or via social media, here are a few things to keep to ensure your message is well-received.

1. Acknowledge the feelings of anxiousness and uncertainty. By sharing information in a public manner, you are placing yourself in a role of authority. Consider the sage advice from communication expert Dr. Peter Sandman, who consults primarily with those in the public health arena: “Public health officials need to speak to our pandemic fears – the knots in our stomachs – and also to our self-doubt and embarrassment. We need their help to bear the fear and self-doubt and embarrassment, just as we need their help to bear the pandemic itself. What would their help look like? In a nutshell: validation and empathy for all that we are feeling. That’s easy for us to say, but not so easy for officials to do. But it is doable.”

Of course, the advice here is coming from a healthcare perspective. But consider this advice in light of how you can share financial outlook information in a way that acknowledges the uncertainty that surrounds the markets today.

2. Understand the unique nature of your audience. If your target market includes accountants and tax professionals, they will have a very different take on the current situation than, let’s say, physicians and nurses. Our personality often aligns with demographics like career choices and job titles. However, there are more nuanced ways to understand your target market, including the average scores on components that align with the personality characteristic of Neuroticism – the part of our psychology that dictates how we will experience negative emotions. Those who are high on Neuroticism may experience emotions like anxiety, depression, and fear much more so than those who score low on this scale, who are often the calm, cool, and calculated-types. Our clients do this via the aggregate data on their prospects and clients on components like Volatility Composure and Risk Personality from the Investor Profile, our assessment of psychological risk tolerance. Using aggregate information, they can write email communications that are more closely aligned with the overall financial psychology of their prospect and client base.

3. Add practical advice and a clear evaluation of what’s going on. All of us can pull up the market charts or read the finance headlines. In your authority role, your audience will look to you to provide your interpretation of what may be happening or what will happen in the future. As Ben Carlson shares in this blog, “That’s why an investment advisor’s job when communicating to the client is to provide context, perspective, and advice in terms of how to think about market, economic or life events as it pertains to the client.”  

4. Keep your message simple. The CDC has an excellent overview of our psychology during a crisis situation, and why messages that seem well-intended may be ignored or misunderstood. One particularly helpful takeaway is to make your message simple, especially in direct email communications with your prospects or clients: explain your points succinctly and leave the technical details to a separate blog or another communication avenue. Bulleted lists can help here, along with links to relevant, detailed information in other posts.

5. Simplify technical information. Non-financial folks may not understand specific technical terms about what is happening in the market. If you are working to reassure people in any written communication, define terms, and give simple explanations for what they mean. This resource from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has excellent suggestions on how to make sure your descriptions of technical issues related to the markets doesn’t overwhelm or unduly alarm readers (see page 10). Explain complex topics simply and clearly to avoid confusion. Define terms that may be specific to your industry.

6. Watch for over-communicating with your audience. Dan Egan, who heads up behavioral research at Betterment, had a great conversation about this with Michael Kitces, where he shared the negative implications of emailing and alerting clients who may otherwise not have been worried. In his research at Betterment, he found that clients who weren’t worried before may become worried. I know with the flurry of emails over the past 48 hours about cancellations, my level of nervousness increased.

By commenting on the current state of affairs, you are placing yourself in the role of an authority on the topic. The non-financial folks who read your blogs, emails, or social media posts can benefit from your clear, straightforward interpretation. Learn from those who communicate effectively, and let the science of communication guide your messages.

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