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Communicate Kindly with Busy People

Posted on January 13, 2022

Todd Rogers, who is professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is a leading scholar in applying lab-style scientific analysis to voter behavior in elections. When the pandemic struck, Rogers recognized the increased strains and burdens on the most vulnerable families in school districts. As the stress on working parents became evermore taxing, many parents found reading to be a challenge. For this reason, the flood of critical information from schools became less effective at reaching parents. I’m very focused on the consequences of poorly written messages,” Rogers says. “Often, they are not read; and if they are read, they just impose an unkind time tax on the reader. In addition to being ineffective, poorly written messages are just unkind to those who do read them.”

In addition to being ineffective, poorly written messages are just unkind to those who do read them.

Rogers has conducted numerous randomized studies to identify the principles of how to write messages, so that busy people will read them. Last August, he asked 7,000 school board members to fill out a survey on the pandemic. Half of them received the full request. The other half received a request with 60 percent of the words omitted. The shorter message generated nearly twice as many survey responses.

As a result of his two decades of work in voter outreach and school attendance, Rogers has established five principles for writing effective messages. Each principle derives from the data and evidence of behavioral science experiments:

  1. Make it shorter.
  2. Simplify the language.
  3. Use formatting to direct attention.
  4. Make key information obvious to skimmers.
  5. Make the response as easy as possible.

Susan Labandibar and Wendy Postlethwaite, Swing Blue Alliance’s hard-working newsletter writer, have taken Todd Roger’s advice to heart. In every communication, they focus on delivering value to the reader. The Swing Blue Alliance weekly newsletter, now in its 178th edition, reaches 18,000 subscribers.

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