By Naftali Moser
Winston Churchill (Wikimedia Commons)
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
This small assembly of words, by Winston Churchill, had such an enormous impact in 1940. Why is it that some words—whether spoken or written—can move an entire country to action, while others—even relating to dire threats—fail to evoke the desired response?
This article attempts to shed some light on that crucial question. More specifically: how can information about threats be better communicated, to move people to action? While a significant body of knowledge already exists about this subject, I’d like to add some personal observations, triggered by this year of peril and disorder, 2020.
Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish between the impact of words and the impact of the underlying phenomena, which they seek to describe. Nevertheless, it is still important to examine the power of words. I will bring several examples to illustrate.
Winston Churchill’s use of the word “human” in his famous speech, quoted above, unintentionally points to the first clue in the solution of this enigma.
Human psychology and behavior are complex. People process information in different ways. The content, the context, the circumstances and the presentation affect people in different ways, and these will greatly influence how a person perceives and reacts to information. Furthermore, people differ in the degree of curiosity they exhibit about life and the world. And of course, there are major differences between cultures and countries.
A whole additional set of issues comes into play when the information pertains to the future, or is ambiguous, and especially in cases in which seemingly unrelated domains can in fact be interconnected, such as, say, climate change and politics.
In times of uncertainty, people seek black and white answers even though simple or one-dimensional solutions are seldom appropriate.
The human need for clear-cut “quick fixes” becomes even more intense in times of danger, and rightly so. In the presence of threats, survival may depend on reliable information. Information about the threat and the required action must be communicated, understood, and acted upon in a timely fashion.
The Presentation of Information
During World War II, the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.), the precursor to the CIA, recognized the crucial role of information in times of crisis. The exceptionally charismatic head of the O.S.S. at that time, Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan realized that the information produced by the war had to be painstakingly abstracted, graphically depicted, and efficiently presented to decision makers. Consequently, he expanded the O.S.S. mission to include not only information-gathering but also packaging and interpreting that information. Donovan was an enthusiast for the latest presentation techniques, like color pamphlets, which were visionary at the time. At the O.S.S., he and his colleagues were voracious for knowledge and driven to present it in a visually compelling manner. They hired anthropologists, filmmakers and professionals from diverse backgrounds to help with information campaigns and to create graphics, maps, slides, and short films about the war effort.
Many of the O. S. S. information innovations became staples of post-war American business and professional life. Examples include the use of visual displays in conferences and the use of instructional pamphlets and posters. The O.S.S. had a pioneering role in determining the way Americans—and later, others—communicated, interpreted, and consumed ideas. Techniques that would become mainstays of graphic design—how to represent numbers, how to use color for emotional and dramatic effect, how to represent change over time in a single image—were pioneered by the American intelligence community.
Moving forward a couple of decades, John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address delivered in 1961 is one of the most outstanding examples ever of the power of words to move people. Who among us cannot recite the words by heart, “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
On Whose Authority?
The coronavirus pandemic that the world is currently facing offers further opportunities to examine how people respond to information about threats. For example, an epidemiological model of the coronavirus had a profound—and immediate—impact on public policy, after its results were shared with British and American officials in mid-March 2020. Why did this complicated scientific report have such a profound effect on national leaders, who previously had often been disdainful of science, for example in the case of climate science?
One reason was ventured by the New York Times. “It wasn’t so much the numbers themselves, frightening though they were, as who reported them: Imperial College London (Landler and Castle, 2020).” The impeccable record of the scientists involved played a key part as well.
Another example from this coronavirus era comes from Sweden. In 2018, long before the world had any inkling of the coronavirus, the Swedish authorities distributed a pamphlet to all Swedish households telling them how to behave in case of war, cyber-attack, or natural disaster. The pamphlet took a non-alarmist approach, offering a list of suggestions for weathering out emergencies at home. Entitled, “If crisis or war comes,” it contains lists of what foods to store at home, such as potatoes, long-life bread, pre-cooked lentils and ‘blueberry and rosehip’ soup. It also advises on where to find trusted sources of news and how to spot disinformation.
At the time, the Swedish authorities were derided for their decision to distribute this information. And yet, I have a feeling that in 2020, Swedes are delighted that they have this pamphlet in their homes. I suspect that a key reason for the effectiveness of the pamphlet is that the Swedish population is disciplined and quite homogenous, and there is a high level of mutual trust and solidarity both among people and between the people and the authorities. In that environment, even “gently” expressed factual information can help secure the desired effect, namely, appropriate behavior in the face of the coronavirus.
I hope that this paper has provided some insight about how information about threats can be effectively communicated. The impact of words depends on many factors such as the skill, stature, charisma, passion, and reputation of the speaker; timing also plays a critical part in the communication of a message, as does the attitude of the listener or the reader. Even though purely visual messages can be extremely effective and immediately understood, an important component of many messages is the words themselves. Fortunately the world is blessed with a lingua franca—the English language—with which we can communicate with one another. And as we have painfully discovered in 2020, this is particularly important in times of emergency and crisis.
Roberts, Andrew. 2018. Churchill: Walking with Destiny. New York: Viking. P. 585.
Saval, Nikil. 2019. The Curious Case of the U. S. Government’s Influence on 20th-Century Design. New York Times. December 18, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/11/t-magazine/us-government-20th-century-design.html
Kennedy Inaugural Speech:
Kennedy, John, F. 1961. Inaugural Address. https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/historic-speeches/inaugural-address
Imperial College London Model:
Bruce-Lockhart, Chelsea, Burn-Murdoch, John and Barker, Alex. 2020. The shocking coronavirus study that rocked the UK and US. Financial Times London. March 19, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/16764a22-69ca-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75.
Landler, Mark and Castle, Stephen. 2020. Behind the Virus Report That Jarred the U.S. and the U.K. to Action. New York Times. April 2, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/world/europe/coronavirus-imperial-college-johnson.html
Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB). 2018. If crisis or war comes. Karlstad.
Warrell, Helen and Milne, Richard. 2020. Lentils and war games: Nordics prepare for virus lockdown. Financial Times London. March 20, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/72b07710-69f5-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75