The Science & Art of Communication

This is the second article in a series that aims to discuss core principles for the future of the Organisation — the first article is available here.

The Science & Art of Communication

You would think, in the 21st Century, opening a bank account would be straightforward. A visit to the bank, a few pages to sign, some identification to show, and then voilà, you have a new account. I have discovered, however, that setting up an account for an international non-profit NGO, with a complex structure and many stakeholders, is actually a balancing act. A combination of patience, perseverance and–above all–communication. 

The ordeal of setting up a bank account in Belgium for WONCA has been a learning curve for me, one which has caused more than a few sleepless nights and a whole lot of very complex logistics, including paperwork being flown around the world. But the real moment of insight came when, after months of exchanges, and we were inches from the finish line, they needed some clarity. “Who,” they asked, “are the beneficiaries of improving the quality of family medicine?”. 

To me, and probably to you dear readers, the answer is as clear as day. Everyone benefits! I was taken aback by the question, frustrated by it. And that was the ‘aha’ moment: just because it’s obvious to me, doesn’t mean it’s obvious to them.

We talk all the time about the need to ‘know your audience’ when communicating effectively, but in reality this means so much more than just using the right tone or style, or sharing it on the right platforms. It means going right back to questioning even the most basic assumptions we are making: what do I know which this audience may not know?  It means sharing those things in a clear, ‘user-friendly’ way to that audience. It means adapting, pivoting, responding to feedback when there is something we have missed, instead of digging our heels in and holding onto our pride.

This got me thinking. I am far from perfect at communication, but I have learnt some helpful insights over the years (sometimes the hard way!). There is no single recipe for good communication, but there are some core principles I have found to be profound and enduring. 

So I want to share them with you and open a discussion, so that we as an organisation can keep building on our communication, both internally and externally, so we can operate more effectively, and so our message is better shared with the wider community.

The Foundations of Great Communication

When I consider examples of great communication that I have seen, experienced and undertaken, I find a great approach is to think like a scientist, and create like an artist. This means, first and foremost, to set up the communications ‘experiment’ like a scientist; in a methodical way, setting out the objectives clearly according to a well-formulated plan, and applying the right foundational knowledge and principles to this plan. What follows are some of what I believe to be the core principles of this part of the process.

The Planning Phase – The Science

Great communication is consistent and strategic. It should not be a scatter gun approach, it should be aligned with a wider plan, both in terms of a communication-specific strategy and in terms of the core business strategy of the organisation. This is key. The objectives of communication should be set out in advance and always kept in mind throughout the entire process. This way, we can avoid sharing information for the sake of it or throwing ourselves into new and shiny communications channels even when they don’t meet our aims. 

An illustration of this, and one which resulted in the most part in a lot of ineffective consumer engagement, was during the big rush of brands to Twitter around 2010. Their ‘tweeting’ was awkward, inconsistent in message, and often caused more harm to the brand than help. They focused more on having a presence than considering their wider strategy, and it was – for most brands – a real comms failure.

Another crucial aspect of communication, especially that done on behalf of or within an organisation (WONCA included), is that it needs to adhere with organisational policy and wider legal frameworks. This includes policies around privacy and confidentiality requirements, community etiquette, branding guidelines and copyright laws. When communication fails to meet these laws and guidelines, not only can this undermine the integrity and brand perception of an organisation, but it can lead to actual legal sanctions, such as in cases of data-privacy violations. Just a reminder to always check in with the rulebook!

Additionally, at the strategy & planning stage it is crucial to decide on the feedback & evaluation process of the ‘experiment’. How will feedback be gathered? What assessment tools will be used? What criteria will be set to evaluate the effectiveness of what has been tried? Having this in mind from the start makes all the difference.

These are some of the core components on which to base a structurally sound plan for communication, which serves as a great container for future experimentation. Yet some of the real beauty and true impact of communication lies in the adaptability, responsiveness, and innovation in the approach to telling stories and sharing information. 

The Exploration & Innovation Phase – Where Science Meets Art

Once the groundwork has been laid, the experimenting can really begin. Over the years, I have learnt that being creative, adaptable and—above all—humble have been crucial when hitting the right notes with communication. Here is where the more ‘artistic’ side of the work comes in; space to explore, try new things, and observe new perspectives. To tell stories and get into the minds of the viewers; to be human. To let ideas percolate and become realised. To have some playfulness, fun even. 

Of course, it is important to combine the artistry and creativity with the more methodical, scientific approach. 

Fisher, Ury and Patton, in their seminal work ‘Getting to Yes’, touch upon this: “Premature judgment hinders creativity […] To invent creative options, then, you will need to separate the act of inventing options from the act of judging them.”

In reality, this looks like following the strategic principles discussed above, and aligning your efforts with the plan you have made. It means ensuring that some ground rules or parameters are in place throughout to ensure consistency. Knowing in advance when and how you will assess the effectiveness of your communication means that you can then freely explore new ideas, without losing track of what is working in conveying your message. 

To that end, there are some other principles I have found to be helpful in this ‘experiment & adapt’ part of the process.

Firstly, the best communication is coherent, focused and clear. It considers the audience receiving it, clarifying key points, unpacking and simplifying more complex concepts. It is professional, while also speaking to people in a language they can understand. An excellent example of this is the TED/TEDx talks. One of the core principles is to take a complicated topic, and explain it in a way that the general public can understand (two WONCA leaders have already done that: Anna Stavdal, WONCA President: “Hyper-specialized health services need super-generalists”; Rich Roberts, WONCA Past President: “Healing by Numbers”). In our work, this means really reflecting on who we are speaking to – health specialists vs non-specialists –  and changing our message to meet them. 

Secondly, an excellent starting point for developing an effective communication strategy is to draw from the ‘lean’ approach so popular with new businesses. This is about minimalism; starting small, trying, learning and pivoting. It is about – at least in the early days – keeping costs down in a “no frills” approach to really investigate what works before putting a lot of money into it. 

The key here is to keep it as simple as possible from the start, which ensures that you don’t put too much time, energy or financial resources into a strategy or communications output which doesn’t resonate with your audience or have the intended effect. It also makes it easier and lighter to adjust and adapt to new ideas because less has been invested into the original ones.

This ‘lean’ methodology is so important in communication in large part because of the need to be highly responsive to how it is being received or whether it is reaching the right people in the right way. Just as with a scientific experiment, where a hypothesis is set out, tested, and then the results are collected and assessed, leading to a new hypothesis and a new test, we need to keep reflecting on and learning from our attempts. 

As set out above, there should already be a plan for when and how this cycle will take place, and how feedback loops will work in reality. Then we require a good dose of humility; we need to be modest enough to accept when something hasn’t worked, and to explore the reasons why, and then bold enough to change and adapt the strategy to meet this. Ultimately, this is the core of great innovation in any area, and no less so in the communications world.

Finally, we should aim to always ensure we are open, transparent, full of integrity and ready to own any mistakes we make in the process of communication. Often our intentions do not translate into impact, and what we share is not received in the way we hoped it would be. We should be candid with ourselves and with others, being empathetic yet direct about what is and isn’t working. If we can’t tolerate criticism, or feel uncomfortable with making errors, we will be unable to innovate and ever create really exceptional content. 

It is true that a culture of allowing mistakes not only breeds creativity, it also allows true best practices to arise. A great example of an industry which holds this belief at its core is the aviation sector. Here, there is a culture of openly sharing mistakes with no threat of sanctions, so that lessons can be learnt and changes can be made. As a result, the quality and safety of airlines has improved year on year.

Concluding Thoughts: Why Is This Relevant to WONCA?

Ultimately, good communication is more than just a pretty story; it affects the entire operational integrity of an organisation or cause. It must be strategic, consistent, and focused, while also allowing room for exploration, reflection, and course-correction. Flexibility and adaptation are crucial parts of a creative process and also ensure that communication is as effective as it can be. As long as we hold our core objectives in mind, we have the space to be innovative and adventurous with what we produce.

Within WONCA, we have two separate sets of objectives in terms of communication – one for our internal strategy, and one for our external strategy. This is perhaps a discussion for another article, and certainly one I would be excited to have with members, so please do reach out to me with ideas. 

As it stands for now though, our core objectives for our internal communications are to strengthen the dissemination of useful information inside WONCA, support communication among internal stakeholders (e.g. working parties, special interest groups, statutory committees, academic members and so on), to foster a culture of common identity and organisational awareness, to assist stakeholders in identifying synergies and establishing mutual collaboration, and to optimise project management and operations.

In terms of our external objectives, these are to strengthen our brand identity, to reach out to unaddressed audiences (including patients and other civil society organisations), to make content from all internal stakeholders more visible to the outside world, to support advocacy, to drive membership growth, and to encourage more active engagement of the global community of family doctors.

It is crucial to note these differing objectives, while at the same time remembering that both require the same underlying principles as discussed in this article. If this is done well, and if, additionally, we can provide space to reflect on the objectives themselves and where they could benefit from innovation, we are likely to see some great breakthroughs and successes for WONCA. 

We will be able to build our brand, increase engagement with the wider world, share best practices so they can have more of an impact globally, and create a more connected and integrated community within our own membership. 

I, for one, am excited about what that means. 

Let’s all keep learning together.

Dr Harris Lygidakis,