I recently read a fascinating article about a study that looked at ways of encouraging pilots to use less fuel. Virgin Atlantic took part in a study that used techniques from behavioural science to ‘nudge’ pilots to achieve fuel economies. You wouldn’t have thought that the pilot of a huge plane would have much of an opportunity to save fuel. But they can — by making careful decisions at various stages of the flight.
The pilots were put into one of four groups in a randomised trial. They got varying levels of information about the trial. One group heard only that they were part of a trial to save fuel. Even without any other information, the pilots in this group made fuel savings. Other groups received more information about their fuel use and a range of incentives.
…the groups that received targeted goals, or that received these goals and also saw charitable donations made if they met them, performed the best of all.
Overall, the study found that:
It was by providing this information about fuel use, combined with a variety of additional messages or incentives, that led pilots to change how they operated in a way that led to substantial fuel savings.
What role does behavioural science have in a plain language programme?
At Write we think a plain language programme offers plenty of scope for applying the principles of behavioural science. In fact, Lynda Harris was inspired by Switch: How to change things when change is hard when she started the research behind the Rewrite for Change™ Model.
So how possible is it to ‘nudge’ organisations, or their people, to change their communication behaviour for the better?
Here are three ways to apply the principles of behavioural science in a plain language programme.
1. Get your people thinking with a Discovery phase
We start a typical organisation-wide programme with a Discovery phase. During Discovery we ask people about their attitudes to writing and their communication behaviour. We talk to people throughout the organisation: from leadership teams, managers, and policy writers to communications departments, marketers, and contact centres.
When conducting these interviews and discussions, we’re sampling the existing environment. But we’re also introducing the seeds of change and nudging people towards clearer communication.
2. Boost your move to clear communication with measures and supports
This initial part of the change process continues with an audit. People know that the organisation’s writing is going to be audited to get a baseline measure, and again at regular intervals. They want to see improved results next time. So they work hard on their writing and take advantage of the opportunities offered by the programme to learn, and to get resources to help their work.
Later in the programme, the organisation appoints ‘plain language champions’ as extra support. The champions also help to nudge people’s writing closer to the agreed organisational standard. Many organisations publish a regular newsletter and run refresher activities to keep interest high.
Competitions and internal awards help to incentivise and celebrate plain language successes. Publicly committing to objective measuring of key documents is another way to nudge writers to improve.
3. Celebrate great feedback and enjoy the business benefits
Feedback from customers and stakeholders is the most effective nudge of all. The benefits of a plain language programme are clear when customers and stakeholders notice what you’ve done. And we know that they’ll notice! Happy customers and praise from boards, shareholders, or government ministers will inspire your people to keep up the good work.
All this nudging towards a plain language culture that converts people’s communication behaviour will result in a better bottom line. We’ve got case studies to prove it in Rewrite.
Saving fuel or writing economically — both are possible using behavioural science.
(This post first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse and has been updated.)