Best Practices for Communicating Difficult Issues

Know Your Audience1, 2, 4, 5

The people you want to communicate your issue to are the first to consider when designing your message and about how you plan to communicate it.  Their educational backgrounds, religious beliefs, political beliefs, and willingness to accept information shape your message and method of delivery.  Know their needs and where they are coming from when communicating with them.

Being able to narrow down your audience will help you address their specific concerns and needs.  For example, by narrowing the audience you can address local issues that non-locals would not be able to relate to as easily.

Questions to Keep in Mind:  Who is the audience?  Who is asking for information?  Who else would want this information?  What is the educational background of your audience?  What is the average age of your audience?  What are your audience’s religious and political beliefs?  How does this issue impact their lives?  How accepting is your audience of new information?

Find Common Ground1, 5

When talking about difficult issues that everyone may not agree on, focus on aspects of the issue that everyone will agree on.  For example, with climate change, a focus could be on increasing renewable energy use in the United States.  Attempt to leave out partisan values in communicating issues to broader audiences, if you do not it could create a divide among the audience.  The primary goal should be education, leave out any partisan political agenda.

Question to Keep in Mind:  What are things everyone will agree on?

Be Kind to Your Audience1, 3, 5

DO NOT insult people who do not side with you, there is no need for name calling and this will not help your cause while you are trying to communicate difficult issues.  Also, moderate your tone and watch your volume.  DO NOT confuse your audience by using jargon, technical terms, or acronyms that are unfamiliar to them.  DO NOT just keep throwing out facts and overwhelm your audience, instead keep it to three important points.  DO NOT confuse the audience with numbers, use units and scales people can grasp and relate to.  DO NOT make your audience feel guilty by focusing on their individual contributions to the issue, instead focus on behavior change and provide them with resources.

Identify Your Message(s)1, 2, 3, 4

Set a goal of your communication efforts.  Create a message that identifies the problem and addresses why it matters.  Design your message so that it is simple and clear, and so that it may be repeated often by trusted sources.  Keep the message simple enough that people can repeat it to their friends.  Identify the “take home messages” for your audience.  The message of the material should be consistent with the goal and audience.  The emotional impact on the audience should be kept in mind, as well as whether the message is captivating the audience’s attention. These messages should be tested prior to release.

Questions to Keep in Mind:  What is the goal?  What is the scope and purpose?

Make Your Message Appealing2, 3, 5

Add a hook to your message to make your audience want to ask, “so what?’  Create a message with a story, everyone likes listening to a story and it will capture the audience’s attention much better.  When telling a story use tangibles and intangible to better connect your audience with your message.  Try to keep your audience thinking about positive outcomes that solving the problem would happen, instead of harping on the negatives that would happen without a solution.  Give hope with your message, don’t be all doom and gloom, this will turn off your audience.  Highlight innovative solutions and advancements to get rid of potential negative feelings.  Another way to make the message appealing is by speaking about local impacts or issues, this will make the issue more relatable.  Frame your message to provide perspective through which the audience can understand the issue.  The frame determines how persuasive the message comes across.

Questions to Keep in Mind:  What story could be used to inform the audience about the message?  What tangible and intangibles could be used to connect the audience to the message?  What are the positives to focus on about solving this issue?  How does this issue play a role in their lives?  What local issues can be tied to this message?  How can the message be framed to best engage with the audience?

Keep the Audience on Message3

State your values and message early and often.  To keep things simple, avoid hard science with audiences that will not understand it.

Communicating a Message about Behavior Change4

If your goal is behavior change, you will need a call to action.  You will need a solution to the problem you presented that your audience can implement and benefits they will see from their change in behavior.

Communicating a Message with Science4

When communicating hard science, translate it into everyday English for people without science background to understand the points you are trying to convey.  If you need to tell them about scientific uncertainty, use confidence intervals by talking about averages or medians and identifying them within a range.

Be a Trusted Source1

Become a trusted source for information.

Tier Approach of Communication4

Use a tier approach to convey your message to offer readers as much information as they’d like.  Begin your communication with your main message in bulleted points and infographics.  Then in your text, expand upon your message by telling a story and adding details.  The next part of the text include more information with technical facts.  Within this section include original research so people who are very interested in the information can access the primary resources.

Applied Communications Methods5

Metaphors and Explanatory Chains

The use of metaphors helps people understand difficult concepts more easily. Attempt to frame the issue with something relatable for the audience.  Explanatory chains make a complicated issue more understandable by setting up a sequence of cause and effect statements.

Visual Aids

Diagrams and images make the message more engaging and memorable.

Dispel Common Misconceptions

Know what your audience may know and believe about the issue before hand to address any wrong information they may have heard.

Reference Culture

Refer to the cultural importance of an ecosystem or species.  This allows for the people of that location to better connect with the issue.

Choose the Best Means of Communication2, 4

Start with methods you feel comfortable to communicate your message.  Choose methods of communication that are best for your skills, your message and the audience you are targeting.  When selecting the method of communication, think about how the success of the method would be measured.  Then as time go by, continue to develop different products, this will expand the reach of your message.


Presentations are great for large groups to deliver your message with or without discussion or written information.  This method of communication allows your audience to associate a face with your cause.  The audience can also ask you questions related to the issue directly.  However, there is a limited amount of information you can share during a presentation, due to time and possibly visual aid restrictions.

Printed Materials

The length, format, and style of produced printed materials should be aimed at your target audience and their needs.  When creating printed materials have them reviewed by an external source to verify information and check that others will understand your information and message.  With printed materials it is easier to measure the success of the communication by the requests that were received for those materials.  However, printed materials can become out-of-date quickly.

Web Content

Material on the internet can be very dynamic, updated continually, and has the ability to link to other information.  With this method of communication you can create an interactive learning experience for your audience to engage them in a new way.  You also have the ability to provide a variety of details.  Web content can include social networking sites, blogs, videos and maps to connect with audiences.  This method of communication is also cost-effective and has a better chance of reading non-target audiences than other means of mass communication.  It is also easy to measure the success of website through metadata.

Commercials, Movies, or Advertising

These methods may be the best way to reach your audience with your message.  However, this may not be the most cost effective way to communicate with the public.




1Burke, Katie L.  2015.  “Communicating Science Across the Divide: Lessons from the Climate Change & Vaccination Debates.”  The UnderStory Blog.  Available at  [Last accessed 10 March 2016]

2Moser, Susanne C.  2010.  “Communicating climate change: history, challenges, process and future directions.”  Volume 1, January/February 2010.  WIREs Climate Change.  John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

3Paris, Rhana.  2015.  “Telling the Climate Change Story.”  Legacy.  March/April 2015.  Volume 26, Number 2.  National Association for Interpretation.

4Groud-Covert, Kristen, Sarah E. Lester, Satie Airamé, Elizabeth Needley, and Steven D. Gaines.  2010.  “Communicating marine reserve science to diverse audiences.”  PNAS. October 26, 2010.  Vol 107, No. 43.

5Henson, Reilly.  2015.  “Best Practices for Communicating Ocean Acidification: A Synthesis of Current Available Knowledge.”  October 2015.