Reminder to self: information supply needs to be driven by demand

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23 February 2015

Being disciplined about focusing on what people need to know rather than what you want to tell them will lead to a more effective communications and engagement strategy that resonates with audiences.

The data for Chinchiná river basin water accounts will be collected in 2015. Making Colombian decision makers interested in using the data requires focused, relevant communication that responds to their priorities (Photo: Rosalind Goodrich/IIED)

Have you ever watched someone's eyes glaze over as you are talking to them? Or seen an audience start to fidget and look at their mobile phones? Equally, do you remember a situation where you were captivated by a speaker or a film from beginning to end and left feeling you wanted to go out and use what you had just learned?

Unfortunately, the former is more common than the latter in my experience. And that's because it is so tempting to tell a person everything you know about a subject, without thinking "What do they want to know about this?" We err on the side of information 'supply', rather than making sure our communication responds to 'demand'.

We know that tailoring communication and engagement to respond to a chosen audience's needs is more likely to get the message across. Yet a recent trip to Colombia made me realise how easy it is to think first of the 'tell all' option.

I was there with the World Bank WAVES team to develop a communication and engagement strategy around promoting the concept of natural capital accounting (NCA). Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES) is a global partnership working with country governments and institutions that aims to promote sustainable development by raising awareness of the value that NCA can bring to decision making on development policy and plans.

As part of this, it supports technical experts to prepare natural capital accounts, resulting in sets of complex data around resource stocks and flows, consumption levels and the economic consequences of losing particular natural resources.

As we met with a wide group of representatives from government ministries, research institutes and civil society, I realised that if we wanted the results from compiling national forest accounts and from water accounts for the Lake Tota watershed to be of interest to policymakers and even to influence their thinking and decisions, we would have to make what we said utterly relevant to their priorities and concerns.

This would mean putting aside the urge to tell them everything about the data that had been collected, and instead, having identified key individuals or types, working out how each of them might be able to use elements of the information in their everyday work.

What decisions were they having to make? Who was making demands on them for information that we could supply?

Doing this would be time consuming but undoubtedly worth it in order to make an initial connection that could pave the way for longer-term engagement.

It would mean not sharing all that was known (although that information would be available if people chose to look at it). Rather, it would mean understanding the concerns of our target audience, the pressures they faced and how the data we had could be useful to them.

The same is true for other projects I work on. In one project, for example, focusing on revising the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) in four project countries, while also making sure that the plan has incorporated development concerns and priorities, we have begun to talk to government ministries about including biodiversity issues in their planning.

In the course of those conversations, we have quickly seen that we need to put forward a case that appeals to people who are not environment specialists. Why should the Ministry of Finance be interested in thinking about biodiversity?

We have to make a business case to show the negative economic effects of losing a rare tree species because of a road building programme, or of drilling for oil in an area rich in plants, birds and animals. Equally, we should be able to show the economic benefits of conserving all these things in a way that makes sense to people who are responsible for achieving a healthy bottom line.

It seems obvious to give people the information they need in the language they understand. But when you know a lot, and all of it seems interesting and exciting to you, it is also natural to want to share everything, without filtering the information first.

Of course, tailoring messages to meet demand is only one element of putting together a powerful communications and engagement strategy. But if we can get that right, we're well on the way to getting our message across and increasing the potential for achieving the impact we are aiming for.

No more eyes glazing over, no more fidgeting, but instead, interest, enthusiasm and a desire to know more.

Rosalind Goodrich (rosalind.goodrich@iied.org) is IIED's research communications manager.

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