Behavioural science,  Communication Strategy

5 Top Principles for Behaviour Change

Proof of my post-it note

I have a post-it note stuck to my monitor that’s been there for a few years now.  I scribbled it down when I saw an early version of it on someone’s linkedIn post and I’ve added a few words since then. I’ve also added a fifth principle that’s possibly my favourite. These are the five things I think of as the foundation of behaviour change. Its 99% common sense but also 99% easily overlooked when we are rushing for an easy solution.

As comms professionals we can easily get caught up in the messages or channels. We love words as they are the tools of our craft. So it’s easy to forget that words are often not enough to get the outcomes we are after. Afterall, what’s that <insert comms activity> for if not to get someone to do something differently – to actually change behaviour? Raising awareness helps but is ultimately pointless if nothing changes. So keeping these five principles in mind helps me think more strategically and creatively about how to move beyond the default assumptions and ask better questions.

  1. We are not a rational species (but we are contextual): Ever wonder why someone seems to be making bizarre decisions? They’re (probably) not idiots, they’re just acting in their own world. Our brains love shortcuts to conserve energy, so what seems baffling to you might be perfectly logical to them within their context as they draw on their own biases, shortcuts and experiences. Maybe they’re swamped, overloaded with info, or pulled in another direction. Instead of pulling your hair out, ask questions!
  1. We are rarely our target audience: this is particularly true when we are working in government communications and delivering communications across different parts of the community that are very different to our own. I’ve worked with policy teams who want to put out long surveys to their small business stakeholders – right tax time! Ive also worked with policy teams who drafted up a detailed five page letter for farmers, offering a detailed history of the legislation before they even get close to a call for action! Yep – those were made without any thought to what the target audience needs. It’s very likely its different to what we care about. Again, research is our friend if we want to find out!
  1. We must look beyond information provision to change behaviour: if providing information and facts changed behaviour, we’d all eat healthily and go to the gym. Spoiler alert – we don’t. Even though we’ve seen the articles, listened to the podcasts we still find it hard to budge. Why? Change is hard and facts and figures don’t cut through to the emotional motivation that we need to tap into. Information should connect to emotions and come with actionable strategies. Which brings us neatly to #4….
  1. Every intervention works on someone, no intervention works on everyone: I wish there was a magic bullet for everyone. Sadly, it doesn’t exist. For widespread change, we need a multi-pronged approach. Covid was a great example (and very concentrated) example of this. Research from Behaviourworks during the early days clearly shows that even during a global pandemic, governments needed to consider a mix of information and regulation that adapted as norms and contexts changed for different groups of people. When we are thinking about groups of people a one size fits all strategy just doesn’t cut it.  
  1. Subtraction can be more powerful than addition – this one is my favourite because it’s the most underestimated. Understanding what the barriers to change are – and then removing them – might be the most powerful thing you can do. For example, if we want people to be more collaborative across the organisation but don’t give them enough time or space to do it, it won’t matter how many gorgeous posters or CEO messages you produce, the barriers are always going to get in the way. So when you are doing your research make sure you ask ‘what’s stopping you from doing this now?’. It might not be a comms solution that’s needed. It might just be a sledgehammer instead.

So, TL:DR? Behaviour change is a complex multi-faceted beast. These five principles can help us dig deeper, challenge assumptions, and craft communication strategies that get real results. Now excuse me while I go eat some chocolate whilst listening to a healthy eating podcast….

You can get your own (slightly better looking) ‘5 Principles of Behaviour Change’ to stick up on your monitor as a useful reminder here.

Behaviour and Culture Change Consultant. Chief Glitter Officer.

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