There is a well-known joke with about a conversation between a firefighter and a child that goes like this:
Firefighter: “What would you do if you got fire on your pants?”
Child: “I wouldn’t put them on!”
It’s funny — the child is right, comes off as very smart and most of us laugh when we hear the joke. In this column I want you to take the time to think about that joke as more than a joke; it is a great lesson in the importance of using plain language when talking to the public about fire safety.
Our goal in public education is to change behavior. We’ve been teaching fire safety for years, yet behaviours don’t seem to change. How is it that while we haven’t changed our messages very much, we expect people’s behaviours to change? I am hoping that after reading this article you walk away with a different way of delivering fire safety; a better understanding of audiences and how people learn. When we hear facts, it activates the data processing centres in our brains, but when we hear stories, it activates the sensory centres in our brains. Everyone loves a good story, and the fire station is full of stories. We just need to learn how to tell them.
There is a scientific explanation for our love of stories. When we hear a story that resonates with us, our levels of a hormone called oxytocin increase. Oxytocin is a feel-good hormone that boosts our feelings of trust, compassion and empathy. It motivates us to work with others and positively influences our social behavior. Because of this, stories have a unique ability to build connections between the fire service and the public.
Trouble is most of us tend to overthink things. We want our audience to respect us, to pay attention to our important message and to change their behaviours. We think the best way to do this is to wow them with our intelligence, to show them how smart we are so that they believe what we are saying.
People have different learning styles, experiences and comprehension levels. If we really want to change behaviour, we need to use plain, easy to understand language. This isn’t to say that simple is easy or means simplistic. It means that you should really hone in on the message and use clear, plain language at all times. You must give the information logically, in common terms and basic phrases so that your audience will understand you. What is crystal clear in your mind might not be logical to someone else.
Here are a few quick tips to keep in mind when talking fire safety:
- Speak at a grade 7 reading level. This means that it is easily understood by an average 12-year-old student.
- Know your audience. People relate better to information that talks directly to them.
- Speak slowly and clearly. You should not use unnecessary words just because they make you sound authoritative.
- Shorten your message. If you use long sentences packed with information, there is a good chance that some of your audience won’t grasp all of the information. Your audience will better appreciate and remember your message if you get it across quickly and effectively.
- Use simple sentences. Keep them short and use one idea/concept at a time. Whenever possible use common short words over unfamiliar longer ones.
- Repeat key messages. To ensure that your audience understands your message, it is important to repeat key sentences and phrases, and to paraphrase your comments.
- Use strong verbs. Tell the audience the actions you want them to take.
It is important to remember that you are not “dumbing down” your messages. If you use plain language you are having a conversation with your audience instead of lecturing them. You are telling a story through conversation and you will get your information across faster with less chance of misunderstanding or misinformation.
Remember you are trying to sell fire safety. People will not buy what they don’t understand. Poet William Butler Yeats said: “Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.”
Samantha Hoffmann has been in the fire safety field for more than 25 years. She is the public fire and life-safety officer for Barrie Fire & Emergency Service in Ontario. In 2014, Samantha was named Public Fire and Life Safety Educator of the Year by the National Fire Protection Association – the second Canadian and first Ontario educator to receive the award since its inception. Email Samantha at Samantha.email@example.com and follow her on Twitter
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