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National Communication Association Turns 100 - Notes on Message Design

communication research / conferences / featured

The National Communication Association (NCA), one of the primary associations in the field of communication, held its 100th annual conference on November 20th-23rd in Chicago—the site of the very first annual convention. Each year, thousands of researchers, teachers, and practitioners come together to discuss theoretical and applied research problems that communication scholars currently face.

Among a sea of interesting research presentations, the conference offered some key takeaways regarding how we present messages about health and risk:

National Communication Association 100 Years

Numerical presentation of risk—the type of presentation matters. In our day-to-day activities, we often come across messages that tell us about the likelihood of some negative outcome happening to us, and the same type of risk might be presented in more than one way. Consider the recent frenzy in the United States regarding Ebola, a deadly disease that is having a terrible impact in West Africa. During this time, some U.S. news reports cited a "50% to 90% mortality rate" for the disease, while others cited that the mortality rate "could be as high as 90%." What these news sources often failed to report, however, was that the overall incidence rate in the U.S. is very low (currently at 10 cases) and the mortality rate of these Americans is drastically lower than 50% to 90% (two Americans have died, yielding a mortality rate of 20% in the U.S.). Here, a presentation of the relative risk would have helped to calm the public; in other instances, it might work against public health practitioners. In either case, how we present risk matters.

Narratives are influential—and we're still figuring out why. Narrative persuasive messages (stories and examples about the experiences of one person or a few people) can result in healthy attitude and behavior change. However, when it comes to narratives and health, scholars are still searching for the reason(s) why narratives are influential in some instances but not others. One explanation offered was that effective narratives spark "transportation": They suck the audience into the story. The question still up for debate is how to go about igniting this transportation. One presentation I came across investigated people's online reactions to the CDC's "Tips from Former Smokers" campaign by looking at YouTube metrics such as the number of "likes" for each video and the sentiment of comments. This study found that among comments that communicated approval of the campaign message, a large number involved gratitude toward people in the video for publicly discussing the negative and often unsettling effects that smoking has had on them. These findings point to one fruitful avenue for sucking the audience into the narrative: Let the people who have engaged in risky behaviors and experienced negative outcomes speak for themselves.

Getting people to quit a behavior is hard—don't make it harder. A broad point for all of us to consider is that, whether we are trying to improve team effectiveness or elicit widespread behavior change, we shouldn't make things tougher by explicitly or implicitly attacking our target. Tobacco users, for example, may already feel stigmatized by society in general; messages that intentionally or unintentionally denigrate this group further are not likely to have a meaningful impact on the target audience. While some amount of guilt induction could be effective (e.g., "smoking can take a toll on the people around you"), shaming or defaming the target audience works against the overall goal of helping them to discontinue their unhealthy behavior. Changing behavior is a tall order, and any attack—real or imagined—is a hurdle that we shouldn't impose on ourselves as researchers.

Like so many conferences, there were a slew of panels and sessions at the same time and I had to pick and choose which ones to attend. Since I know I missed quite a few, I'd love to hear from other NCA conference attendees. What were your favorite sessions? Any great takeaways that you would like to share in the comments below?

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