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The Art and Science of Effective Communication

October 27, 2017

In a world with information overload, “telling a good story” seems to be a fancy label that can distinguish the good communication from the rest. Different people would give different answers to define a good story: emotional resonance, conflicts of values, inherent drama…But is a good story enough to make communication effective? During my time in college, I witnessed the marked transition of communication from print media to data journalism. While content is still the priority, one thing is for certain: evaluation of communication is a strong tool to tell a story with a greater impact, either in the context of journalism or public sector.

I discovered the impact of finding the right story to tell while working in a Chinese public hospital. There, I assisted the administrative office to promote traditional Chinese medical programs like therapeutic massage, acupuncture, and cupping therapy. We used a variety of media, including websites, infographics, and social media posts. To tell better stories, I engaged with different departments to record therapy sessions, observe physician-patient interaction, and interview patients. I was fascinated by the effect and philosophy of health promotion and disease prevention of Chinese medicine services

However, when I measured the effectiveness of the hospital’s communication, I found it disappointing. The URL click rate and social media engagement were far below my expectations, and 8 out of 10 patients I spoke to had never heard of the communication channels I managed. Word-of-mouth and newspapers were still the two major ways most of the patients acquired information, as over half of them were over 60 years old. They were missing important tips that were repeatedly emphasized in the social media articles. It was inefficient for doctors to answer the same questions multiple times with a long line outside the consulting room.

I realized that the effectiveness of communication relied not just on story but also on reaching the right audience, through the right media, at the right time. Despite the multiple channels, rich output and “good stories”, the communication still failed to reach the right audience and the expected outcome. The hospital administration was producing communication for communication’s sake, neglecting the need to evaluate and critically assess its impact. To improve effectiveness, we must collect critical feedback from the audience, make strategic adjustments, and wisely allocate resources.

Whether a communication program is designed with a policy goal to raise awareness and foster public will, or with a behavioral goal to change attitudes, self-efficacy, and social norms, we need to answer two core questions at the initial planning stage:

  • What are we hoping to achieve for our program from this communication?
  • How can we tell whether we are making progress?

To answer these questions, we need to build systems to analyze communication. These must address the key elements of evaluation including time-specific and measurable objectives, targeted audiences, measurements and benchmarks, and evaluation techniques.

So—what is effective communication? Telling an engaging story like a professional journalist? Transferring information from the sender to the receiver as stated by the communication theories? Effective communication is art plus science. It is an expression of sentiment and creation in the form of telling stories, but it also involves a systematic and rigorous evaluation of the stories that have been told. If the art helps you find the message, then the science helps it to land by telling you when, where, and to whom you should spread that message—and that is the magic of communication.

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Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829

felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu