Sunny Side Up: Why Optimistic Communications Break Through


By Christine Heenan

We live in a world that is overflowing with negative news, toxicity on social media, clickbait headlines that play to our worst instincts, and decreasing community connection – and that was before COVID-19 and mandated social distancing. 


So can you really blame someone for just wanting to change the channel?  

Effective communications cut through the noise of negativity and speak instead to possibilities, which was the topic of my recent Achieve Great Things podcast appearance with a consulting colleague who himself has achieved great things: Doug Hattaway of Hattaway Communications. Yes, the problems we face are significant – homelessness, poverty, climate change...and now a global pandemic. But to solve problems – even big, scary problems – you need to be able to envision solutions. You have to start somewhere. There’s a quote I love from Helen Keller that I think is an important guidepost for modern communications: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement...nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” 

Here are three tips that Doug and I discussed – and examples - for bringing optimism, hope, and confidence to your communications strategy: 

1. Anchor in Solutions 

As Doug explains in the podcast, cognitive science is clear that overwhelming people with the complexity of problems can demotivate them from seeking solutions. When I was working in the White House, Gene Sperling, then the Director of the National Economic Council in the Clinton administration, described these complex problems as “mow my lawn” problems. If you make a problem seem intractable or insurmountable, people will throw up their hands and decide to focus on their own little corner of the world, choosing to mow their lawn since the overgrown grass is a problem they can see through to the other side.  The metaphor always stuck with me.

Example: José Andrés, the founder of World Central Kitchen, presents a significant challenge in developing countries: the use of in-home fireplaces for heating and cooking leads to illness and death from smoke inhalation, and prevents young girls from attending school, as they spend their days collecting firewood. But by leading with an affordable, relatively easy to implement and scalable solution – the proliferation of inexpensive clean cookstoves – he gets his audience excited about the prospect and more readily engaged in helping that solution come to pass.  

2. Keep it Simple 

A lot of people in communications talk about the rule of threes. No one can readily remember more than three points, so if your message goes beyond the scope of three top points, you’ve already lost the battle. Make your message succinct, easy to understand, and ready to recount and deploy for all your various messengers and validators.  

Example: Rosanne Haggerty, the President and CEO of Community Solutions, didn’t even reach the three-point limit. In fact, she gets it done with just two words: Housing First. In public policy, we have historically tried to address various challenges – employment, addiction, mental health – first and then deal with housing. But Rosanne persuasively and effectively makes the argument that, absent the stability that housing provides, none of those efforts are likely to be successful. 

3. Inspire Action 

In addition to leading with solutions, you need to help people see the role they play in implementing those solutions. It isn’t someone else’s problem – it's everyone’s problem, and we have a shared responsibility to do our part to fix it.  

Example: This is an area where several government-led campaigns have been effective. Problem: Too many people are dying in car accidents. Solution: Buckle your seatbelt. Campaign: Click it or Ticket. Problem: Nicotine kills. Solution: Quit smoking. Campaign: Know the Real Cost. These campaigns empower people to make a personal change in their behavior, inspired by both the personal and collective good it can do. Starting with the idea that something is solvable and giving people a clear understanding of what they can do to help is critical to successful communications. 

Lead with solutions, lead with simplicity, lead with action and, most importantly, lead with optimism. That will help you to cut through the noise, beat back the negativity, and effectively communicate your message.