Trust in public institutions has declined over the past few decades. For example, only 20% of Americans trust the federal government today, down from 75% fifty years ago. This erosion of trust applies to local governments as well. People have become more skeptical of city councils, mayor’s offices, and other municipal bodies. Many factors contribute to this, but let’s zero in on one that’s both pivotal and fixable: poor communication.
Lost in Translation
Communication is a two-way street involving a sender and a receiver. Many municipalities treat public diplomacy as an afterthought, relying on outdated, one-way communication methods that fail to engage modern, digitally connected citizens. The use of bureaucratic jargon further alienates the audience.
On the receiving end, people suffer from information overload. The average office worker gets 121 emails per day. We’re bombarded with 4,000-10,000 marketing messages daily. This constant flood of information leads to “information fatigue.” Mentally exhausted people tune out new information.
Additionally, the current climate of perpetual crisis makes matters worse. Nearly half of American adults say stress negatively affects their behavior. One in six Americans is on antidepressants, with more than a quarter of those being long-term users (a decade or more of use). This matters, because stress significantly impairs cognitive skills like attention, memory, and decision-making.
When outdated, jargon-filled communication meets an overwhelmed and stressed citizen, the result is a vicious cycle of eroding trust and ineffective communication.
Fortunately, there’s an antidote, and it’s simpler than you’d think. We called it: ”Show, Don’t Tell.” This two-part approach relies on tangible visuals and simplicity.
The right picture is worth a thousand words
Take Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city, as an example. The city aims to make its polluted gulf swimmable again through an ambitious program called “The Living Gulf.” One aspect involves removing mud that obstructs water flow. The municipality announced, “30,000 truckloads of mud removed annually,” a figure too abstract for most people to grasp.
Instead, they could have said, “Stacking all the removed dirt would create a tower five times taller than Mount Everest.” This provides a relatable visual cue, making the message more impactful. Visuals based on familiar landmarks or sports fields work, too.
A time-lapse animation can make abstract data feel tangible. For example, the municipality could have created an animated video showing trucks loading, hauling, and dumping dirt. As the video plays, a counter ticks up, reaching 30,000 by year’s end. Watching the process unfold on screen gives scale to the massive number.
An even more immersive—but costlier—option would be a virtual reality (VR) experience. Residents could virtually navigate through the 30,000 truckloads of dirt, interacting with markers that reveal additional information like dirt type, origin, and destination. To bring this experience closer to the community, a mobile VR station could tour various city neighbourhoods, offering a tangible sense of the project’s scale.
Speaking Your Audience’s Language
Beyond visuals, word choice matters. Municipalities must use vivid, descriptive language to spark an emotional response. The AGL-4 (Average Grade Level Minus 4) framework provides guidance here.
AGL-4 means writing at a level 4 grades lower than the average education of your audience. For example, if communicating with high school graduates (10th-12th grade), you must aim for a 6th-8th grade reading level.
This doesn’t mean dumbing it down. The goal is maximum comprehension, especially in high-stress situations. Given today’s climate of perpetual crisis, AGL-4 should be standard practice. Municipalities can apply it to any complicated topic to boost understanding.
Let’s return to Izmir, where the average education level is 8.6 years of schooling. That makes the target comprehension level 11-year-olds per AGL-4. Here’s what the City of Izmir’s messages could look like.
|Don’t say this||Instead, say this|
|The daily 800 tons of sludge from the Çiğli Biological Wastewater Treatment Plant will be repurposed for use in concrete and fuel raw materials.||We’re drying the mud we take out from our cleaning plant and using it to make stuff like concrete for rebuilding our city.|
|330,000 tons of waste collected from streams flowing into the Gulf annually||This year, we pulled out enough mud to fill a line of dump trucks from Istanbul to Ankara.|
|An average of 420,000 tons of sludge (mud) is removed from the Gulf annually.||Every year we scoop out enough mud to fill up all the bathtub’s in the city with mud.|
|The ultimate goal is to create a swimmable bay in İzmir, and this goal is nearing completion.||Soon, everyone will be able to swim in the Gulf again, just like the old times!|
By combining the “Show, Don’t Tell” principle with the AGL-4 framework, municipalities can pierce through public disinterest and cognitive overload. The result? Messages that not only resonate but also rebuild eroded public trust. In today’s world, where information is both an asset and a burden, effective communication serves as a lifeline.
So, the next time you’re crafting a public announcement or campaign, remember: Show, don’t just tell.