By the time Shakespeare sat down to write King Lear, he was sick and tired of plague. As a child of the 1500s, he’d already lived through several outbreaks. In 1564, baby William survived a particularly nasty strain that claimed two-thirds of newborns in his home town. Three short years before this latest epidemic, bubonic plague had decimated London’s population.
Now, with London’s Globe, like its other theatres, again closed due to social distancing, it was left to the self-isolating playwright to take out his frustrations on a fresh scroll. It was during this time, around 1605-1606, that Shakespeare scripted one of the most successful works of his career.
Conspicuously absent in King Lear is the word “plague”, which appears just twice. There is no sense of the recent epidemic with its heavy death tolls and government restrictions. Instead, we zoom in on personal triumphs, tragedies and interactions. Shakespeare’s finely crafted characterisation, after all, is what makes his stories so relatable and memorable. There is a deeper meaning to his work, of course. To view King Lear is to understand the value of family, community and solidarity in times of crisis. These are the learnings we come away with, only we don’t know we are learning them at the time.
Think small, not big
There is a lesson for us as communicators: be relatable. The tragedy is that, weeks into the coronavirus pandemic, numbers and figures have gradually lost their meaning. It is not fatigue; we simply cannot comprehend infections rising into the hundreds of thousands. What we can all relate to, however, are the stories. The small acts of human kindness and solidarity – the office worker who gives away his travel card to the paramedic living next door. And, of course, the very real personal tragedies.
This is just how our brains are wired. We humans are not big-picture people; we struggle to grasp statistical trends and their wider impact. This extends beyond the current pandemic. Studies show that the average person is struggling to process climate change – a very real threat, but still mostly removed (for now) from our daily lives. The more we hear about degrees of temperature increase, about 2050 and 2100, about the X millions of tonnes of rubbish now floating in our oceans, the more we tune out.
Narrowing the lens
If you want to connect with your audience and make your message resonate, think like a human. For organisations trying to communicate and engage with their far-scattered stakeholders, this needn’t be a struggle. Companies are just people, after all. Their actions impact real-life situations, leading to personal tragedies or – hopefully – improvements. The coronavirus is no time to forget this; let colleagues and customers know how your people are coping, how you are helping local communities. Amid all the media static, these small, human details will help you cut through and reach the people you want to reach.
Take it from Shakespeare: words can – and should – carry personal meaning. But it’s up to us to pick the right ones.
Looking for communications support during the coronavirus? Reach out to a member of the Narrative Labs team today.