Communication Innovation: Merging the Verbal/Visual for Unique Audience Outreach

by Sheldon Reiffenstein

Communication Innovation: Merging the Verbal/Visual for Unique Audience OutreachA famous song lyric goes, “walk a mile in my shoes”. As any wise person in business knows, being able to see the world from the point of view of your customer is going to make winning their hearts and minds much easier. And when people are in high stress, high concern situations, it becomes even more vital for an organization to stand in the customer’s shoes. The science-based program, developed by Dr. Vincent Covello helps an organization do just that. It reframes High Concern Communication — when people are stressed and communication really matters.

For over three decades, Dr. Vincent Covello, Director of the Center for Risk Communication, and the acknowledged expert in communicating in high concern, high stress situations, has provided organizations with the knowledge of how to reach out to audiences in these circumstances. His science-based methodology has helped both government and commercial clients navigate through the potential minefield of communicating with people facing stressful situations.

The science of High Concern Communication arises from tested research on how people listen, understand and behave in situations of high stress. Stress creates radical changes in the brain, and “mental noise” reduces by up to 80 percent the ability to hear, understand and remember information. People will focus more on negative than positive information, with the gap between perception and reality often widening. Public fears and concerns are driven largely (95 percent or more) by risk perception factors such as trust, benefits, and control. Less than 5 percent of public fears and concerns are driven by facts. A vital insight that drives the principles of High Concern Communication is when people are stressed they want to know that you care before they care what you know.

The question that drove the development of High Concern Communication is “How do you speak to people under these circumstances?” Through tested methodologies Dr. Covello developed a proven process that has resonated in situations such as an influenza outbreak, the SARS epidemic, the Gulf oil spill, even the trauma of 9/11. Employing principles of communication, Dr. Covello has armored officials and executives with the tools to address people’s concerns. People in high stress situations typically understand information at four grade levels below their educational level. As a result, Dr. Covello discovered that people respond best to information provided in buckets of threes: three key messages, with three supporting facts, repeated three times. The optimum length of key messages offered in a high stress situation is 27 words and delivered in nine seconds. When stressed, people tend to remember most what they hear first and last. As a result, the emphasis in delivering messages should be on primacy (first) and recency (last). People must trust the messenger. That is established by demonstrating care for the audience’s situation. Caring, which is 50 percent of the basis for determining trust, is also judged in the first 30 seconds and, once assessed, it is highly resistant to change.

Loss aversion theory, an essential element of the science behind High Concern Communication, provides a number of insights: balance each negative perception with three to four positive messages; avoid absolutes (never say “never” or “always”); avoid repeating words with high negative imagery, such as “crook,” “criminal,” or “baby killer.” Words typically create images processed by the visual part of the brain that tend to stick.

This visual element of people’s reaction to high stress is the foundation of the new innovative collaboration between Dr. Covello and Maga Design Group, a DC-based visual information design company. The research into high stress situations has identified that the visual part of the brain becomes an active player in processing high stress information. People actively look for visuals/graphics to support verbal messages. Coupled with the conclusion that 75 percent of information about trust is communicated nonverbally, this visualization requirement is an integral aspect to High Concern Communication.

Maga employs the science of visualization in bringing clarity to complex business problems. As the visual cortex processes images, triggering reactions in different areas of the brain – emotions, understanding, objective/subjective – visuals have the power to clarify how people perceive a high stress situation. Using visual information in their communication, Maga’s customers have been able to bring greater clarity and definition to complex business strategies. Recognizing the potential of marrying verbal and visual presentation, Dr. Covello approached Maga to add proven visualization strategies and techniques and substantially improve High Concern Communication messaging.

The two companies are creating this innovative partnership that will augment Dr. Covello’s proven methodology, merging the science of risk communication with the science of visualization. This collaboration will provide useful, intelligent and actionable messaging that helps people better manage high stress issues.

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Sheldon Reiffenstein is Client Services Director at Maga Design Group, with a federal government focus for visual information mapping and branding. As an idea architect and change management specialist, Sheldon directs the communication strategy for the Navy Enterprise Resource Planning program and IT systems at Naval Supply System Command. Maga has employed High Concern Communication as part of the Visual Strategy Office to ensure the success of vital change management at these programs.

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