Small Changes in Wording Can Mean Big Changes in Behavior

This article in the NY Times is about workplace discrimination, but skip to the eighth paragraph or so, and you’ll find reference to a fascinating bit of research, in which a message to keep people from stealing petrified wood in a national forest backfired at first (theft went up 60%), then dropped to less than half of the original rate – all by changing a few sentences.

Marketing people understand the impact of small changes in message delivery very well.  I once worked at a company that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars testing the impact of using red, green or blue postcards (the blue worked best).

Why should public safety folks care about these things?  Because these examples – and many others in social science literature – demonstrate that how a message is delivered can make a dramatic difference in what people do in response to that message.

As a communicator, you want your messages to be effective, both in getting the public to prepare (for example, by signing up for emergency alerts), and in responding to emergency situations (e.g. shelter-in-place.)

Public safety folks don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on sophisticated market research, but you can use this insight to your advantage in at least three ways:

  1. Be aware that wording matters.  Pay attention to how you word your messaging, and always make a best effort;
  2. Pay attention to your results.  Did the public “get it” when you sent out your message?
  3. Find out what others are doing.  See what others think works or fails to work.

There are basic principles you can follow, and we’ll write about these in future posts.  For example, messages that suggest that other people are complying are usually more effective than messages that complain about people not doing what you want them to do.

But the first step is just to be aware.  You’ll be surprised how much more effective you can be.


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