Communicating With Relevance

Damage from Hurricane Ike in Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip / September 15, 2008)

Many companies have a hard time connecting their brand messages to consumers. It’s hard to get people to care about what a company wants to say. Often the problem is not that the information is not worthy of people’s attention. Often the problem is that companies communicate in ways that the audience cannot easily relate to.

I recently ran across an example that illustrates my point. Hurricane Ike hit Texas hard a few weeks ago.

Some of the new descriptions of the impact of Ike are:

• “Hurricane Ike battered Galveston with 110 mph winds and a 12-foot storm surge and has been blamed for 61 deaths, including 26 in Texas.” And, “Texas is looking at $11.4 billion in damages from Ike.” Dallas Morning News.

• “Thousands of homes and government buildings flooded, roads were washed out, 2.9 million people lost power and several fires burned unabated as crews could not reach them.” Associated Press.

• “Galveston Island and other coastal areas took the brunt of Hurricane Ike and many areas look like war zones, with collapsed houses and buildings, flooded neighborhoods, and downed trees and power lines.” Voice of America.

(AFP/Getty photo by Smiley N. Pool / September 14, 2008)

(AFP/Getty photo by Smiley N. Pool / September 14, 2008)

These are smart ways for news organizations to describe the storm; their goal is to accurately inform. However, these are amounts that nobody can visualize or understand. How much is $11 billion? What are 110-mph winds like? How big is 2.9 million people without power? It’s too far from people’s ability to comprehend. It’s abstract even though it is a real, valid, and accurate way to describe the devastation from Hurricane Ike. But how can the destruction be understood?

“Made To Stick” is an excellent book about effectively communicating ideas. My friend, Bill Chapman gave me a copy. The authors say to communicate effectively, an idea must be concrete (among other things). Ideas are not described well with abstractions. Look at the photo showing one house standing in what was a ocean-side community. That photo is concrete. $11 billion is accurate, but not concrete.

Unfortunately, too often companies’ messages are based on the facts ($11 billion, 110-mph winds, 61 deaths, 2.9 million without power). Companies are not news agencies. They should be trying to connect with people… not inform them.

A single home is left standing among debris from Hurricane Ike on September 14, 2008 in Gilchrist, Texas. The Boston Globe does a good job of communicating visually. (photo by David J. Phillip-Pool/Getty Images).

This image tells of the devastation from Hurricane Ike in a way that we can relate with. It's concrete. "A single home is left standing among debris from Hurricane Ike on September 14, 2008 in Gilchrist, Texas." The Boston Globe does a good job of communicating visually. (photo by David J. Phillip-Pool/Getty Images).

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