6 Tips for Behavior-Influencing Communications

By Diane Streleckis

Creating communications that spur action is a common goal for communication professionals. Kieran Flanagan and Dan Gregory, co-founders of The Behaviour Report™ with more than 30 years of success in behavioral science and communication, shared tips on how to achieve that goal—by making smart people people-smart.


Start with understanding, then move to communication

Kieran distinguished between attention in and communication out. She explained, “Understanding people allows you to get really honest about what drives, motivates, and impacts them, whereas communication is what we need to say to people [once we have that understanding].”

Dan noted that behavior in itself can be a form of communication. “If you storm into a room, you know that’s a form of communication that just happened,” he said.

People often skip the understanding and jump right to conveying information, Dan said. “We think transmitting information is communication. As [Kieran and I] think, that’s a huge misunderstanding for how communication actually works. There’s no point in having communication that doesn’t result in behavior that’s tangible.”

“Communication and behavior are not singular; it’s multiple pieces. And the problem is people want to make it singular,” Kieran said.

Focus on who you’re looking to reach, not yourself

As Dan pointed out, “Oftentimes our communication is incredibly ego-centric. Like ‘until I came along with my magnificent point, your life had no meaning.’”

Starting with who rather than what is crucial, Dan and Kieran agreed.

Be aware of the behavior gap

There’s a gap between what we say and what we do, Kieran observed. For example, people often say they don’t feed their children Chicken McNuggets, but you see them doing just that when you’re going through the McDonald’s drive-thru yourself.

“The most fascinating part of human beings is ‘who I’m projecting out to be versus who I AM.’ The more you’re conscious of the discrepancy, the bigger the impact you can have,” she said.

Have a behavioral strategy as well as a communication strategy

Kieran and Dan stressed the need to think through and plan for the behavior you want to happen. “Discipline and motivation are great things to have, but they’re short-term strategies,” Dan said. “You need to have a behavioral response if you want to drive longer-term change.”

Use anchors to help people make the leap to changing behavior

“The more you can anchor what’s changing—or needs changing—to what’s unchanging, the greater your success because it gives people something to hold on to,” Kieran said. “That makes change less fear-based.”

As Kieran observed, “Most change projects fail because of a lack of anchoring to something familiar.”

Anchoring is especially important when your goal is to reach multiple, diverse audiences. Dan recommended looking for the universal values an audience shares. “If you hit the universals right, the differences in language and media formats becomes tactical rather than strategic,” he said.

Match messages to actions

Dan stressed that talk doesn’t get you anywhere if your behavior doesn’t align. It’s when “I can’t hear what you’re saying because your actions speak so loudly,” he said.

Telling stories is a great way to show you mean what you say. Dan called out Nordstrom as a good example. “They don’t make people memorize what their core values are. They teach people through stories—here’s an example of what above-and-beyond customer service looks like.”

Even more important than storytelling is story-doing. Kieran described it as “behaving in ways that people will share by telling their own stories.” She shared a story of a New Zealand airline CEO who got up on a packed flight and helped the crew serve food and drinks to passengers. The message that “we all do what it takes to serve the customers” came through loud and clear.