Friday, 11 May 2012

The six principles of effective communication

Have you heard the one about the hungry businessman who was flying home and jokingly tweeted how great it would be if his favourite restaurant met him on arrival with a steak dinner – and when he landed he was greeted by a tuxedo-dressed waiter holding a 24oz steak and side orders of shrimp and potatoes?

What great customer service. And not just great customer service – great money-couldn’t-buy PR. The businessman in question happened to be Peter Shankman, a social media consultant with 100,000 Twitter followers. One of the many retweets was read by a journalist for Time who published the story 'Man Uses Twitter to Get Free Morton’s Steak Dinner Delivered to Airport' leading to more social media chatter and thousands of dollars of publicity value – all for the cost of a steak dinner.

Aside from the benefits to the brand of good customer service there are two lessons that can be learnt from this. Firstly, the story is a demonstration of what companies have to gain if they can harness the power of social media and use it to interact, to open up dialogues, to talk one-on-one with customers, and to use those interactions to generate positive stories about their brands. Was the free steak a stunt? It’s unlikely that it will become a regular occurrence for Morton’s to deliver a free dinner to every tweeter asking them to do so. But somebody was on the ball enough to see the tweet and recognise it as an opportunity to demonstrate Morton’s commitment to customer service. It may have just resulted in one happy customer but as it turned out it resulted in a story that was retweeted around the world and made the pages of Time.

The second lesson comes from looking at why this story caught the imagination. Recently re-reading ‘Made To Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck’, the story of The Business Traveller And The Steak Dinner came to mind. Written by Chip & Dan Heath, ‘Made To Stick’ outlines six principles of effective communication which help ensure a message and its meaning ‘sticks’ in the minds of an intended audience – and they use the ‘stickable’ acronym SUCCESs to do so (see the bottom of this post for a brief explanation of each of the principles). If you clicked through on the link to the Time story, you may have noted that it was published in August 2011 – yet I still remember it nine months on. The story had ‘stuck’. Using the SUCCESs principles it’s easy to see why: it’s a Simple story with an Unexpected ending; there are lots of Concrete images (a businessman on a plane / a waiter in a tuxedo / a steak dinner); it’s Credible, having appeared in Time magazine and including quotes from Peter Shankman himself; it’s Emotional as we can easily imagine the surprise on Peter’s face and we smile at the thought of a waiter in a tuxedo waiting for him at Arrivals; and it has all the essential elements of a Story including a beginning, middle and end and a character with a problem that is then resolved.

As well as being a great example of a company using social media to interact with its customers and to create a unique customer experience that led to a PR-able story, The Business Traveller And The Steak Dinner is a perfect demonstration of medium and message working in harmony. Granted, nobody at Morton’s sat down and planned it out that way but we can learn from the success of the end result. As we develop our strategies across social media channels we should remember that – as with all other channels – the message is just as important as the medium and the principles of SUCCESs can provide a useful framework to help us in crafting that message.

The Six Principles of Effective Communication

- Simple – strip the idea down to its core. Prioritise what is important – what is the one ‘takeway’ you want your audience to have.
- Unexpected – grab people’s attention by surprising them. But for this to last you must generate interest and curiosity
- Concreteness – make sure an idea can be grasped and remembered later. Use concrete images
- Credible – your audience must perceive you and your message to be credible
- Emotional – help people care about your idea but making them feel something. Humans are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions
- Stories – communicate your idea through a narrative. Humans think in narrative structures and remember facts in story form – thousands of years ago Aesop realised this and turned relatively complex ideas into easy to understand proverbs.

Charlie Taylor freelances in integrated communications.  To comment contact us or tweet @charliehjtaylor and @birchwoodknight.

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