How to Shift Your Communication Strategy to Build Trust and Inclusion

ebner_how_to_shift_your_communication_strategy_to_build_trust_and_inclusion November 30, 2020 By: Tim Ebner

In times of unprecedented uncertainty and division, association leaders must choose their words carefully to build inclusion, empathy, and trust.

While 2020 has been defined by the COVID-19 global pandemic, it’s also proven to be a year of distrust—you see it illustrated in surveys and polls, whether related to declining trust in government, institutions [PDF], or between fellow citizens.

Recognizing this, many association leaders are focused on rebuilding trust among their members and within their organizations.

How? In an October 2020 Marketing General Incorporated survey, 541 association executives provided insights into what’s changed in the day-to-day operations of their associations, and 93 percent said they’re working on their messaging tone. In addition, 90 percent of association executives said they share crucial information to help people through this crisis, and 73 percent said they focus on building empathy with members.

To build a stronger and more personal connection, you need to incorporate elements and styles that can help foster inclusion, empathy, and trust.

One way we’ve done this at the American Forest & Paper Association is by using YouTube to provide relevant and timely updates to members that feel personal, even when we’re all safely apart and social distancing.

These times require a shift in communication technique and writing tone. To build a stronger and more personal connection, you need to incorporate elements and styles that can help foster inclusion, empathy, and trust. Here are four steps to take:

Conduct a writing audit. An audit will help you identify writing that’s confusing, unclear, or lacks an emotional connection. This audit, which should be conducted at least once a year, will help your team update or create a writing and style guide. This review will also help your team improve sentence structure and language flow.

To avoid any groupthink or bias, you might also consider bringing in an external partner to help analyze your content. For instance, do you talk too much about your organization and not enough about members? Apply a simple assessment to see if you’re using “I” or “we” statements, instead of member-centric “you” statements to frame benefits and services. Rather than writing, “For a limited time, we are offering a membership renewal discount,” change the sentence to, “For a limited time, you can take advantage of a membership renewal discount.”

Write shorter sentences. While analyzing sentence structure, look for ways to make your writing concise and clear. A poorly written sentence can confuse readers and weaken the trust you’re trying to build. Focus on sentences with active verbs and a short declarative statement to help reduce cognitive load. Other common issues that cloud writing include too many adjectives, adverbs, and run-on sentences.

Avoid overusing abbreviations and acronyms. This might be a tough challenge, as association professionals often rely on acronyms. But these abbreviations create an insider versus outsider mentality. Conscientious writers will use acronyms sparingly and always provide the full name on the first reference followed by the acronym or abbreviation in parenthesis. Never assume an audience will be familiar with an abbreviation: Many first-time members will not understand acronyms, and they can easily get lost in translation with your global audience.

Look for unconscious bias and harmful words. As you write, it’s important to recognize unconscious bias. This may include the use of gender-specific nouns (e.g., chairman or congressman), as well as gender-specific questions you might ask on a membership application, such as the prefix you put before a name.

Other problematic examples include business phrases and industry terms with racist connotations. This summer, The Houston Association of Realtors stopped using “master bedroom”. Instead, it started referring to the largest room in a house as the “primary room” after members expressed concerns that the word could be perceived as racist or sexist. It’s also why the tech industry is reevaluating terminology it’s used for decades.

Because of this, association execs should never lose sight of the power of their words, and look for opportunities to finetune their writing style. Striking the right tone will not only help broker credibility and trust, but it will also build a deeper sense of community and connection with others, which is what associations are all about.

Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is communications director and press secretary at the American Forest & Paper Association in Washington, DC. He is a member of ASAE’s Communication Professionals Advisory Council and a former Associations Now senior editor.