Part 2 in my series of blogs about coronavirus communications. This time, I’m looking at Chris Whitty’s public and online speaking.

There continues to be much analysis of Government communications about coronavirus (COVID-19). This is coming from PR and comms folk eager to learn lessons, but also from people simply trying to understand the guidance.

There have been ambiguities and inconsistent terminology, but we’ve also seen some excellent communicators rise to the challenge. For me, two people have stood out – and this is based entirely on their communication skills, rather than any political or medical reasoning:

  • The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, for his confidence despite little experience in quite so much limelight
  • The Chief Medical Officer for English, Professor Chris Whitty, for his ability to discuss nuanced public health situations with clarity and reassurance
Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP

Chris Whitty’s strength is his ability to verbally describe scenarios with multiple possible outcomes. This isn’t easy, because it goes against the usual linear direction of narrative. When we speak, we move from one point to the next; it’s easy to be thrown off course if we try to account for multiple possibilities.

To describe scenarios with multiple outcomes, Whitty deploys a remarkably visual logic. I’d characterise this as the spoken equivalent to the structure of many NHS and Government websites: the click-through format that gradually whittles down a visitor’s enquiry from a variety of options.

We can find a good example of this visual logic in Whitty’s Downing Street address of March 16th (from 13 mins 28 seconds):

Whitty is making a point about the mortality rate of COVID-19. Of those who catch the disease, few will experience significant symptoms, fewer still will be hospitalised, fewer still will go into intensive care, and fewer still will die. However, Whitty emphasises that most people will peel off that pathway, to recover from the coronavirus.

Visually, the process that Whitty is describing looks like this:

A diagram showing infection and mortality rates of coronavirus as described by Professor Chris Whitty.

Whitty’s verbal description of this process is successful because it has the control and poise of written language (even though it looks to me as though he’s reading from notes rather than a script). His sentences are exquisite: taut, precise, and well-paced.

The usual advice is that spoken English doesn’t need to follow the rules of written English. Whitty demonstrates that some situations can benefit from the accuracy of proper grammar.

Here’s a transcript from Whitty’s remarks:

“For any individual person, the chances of dying from coronavirus are actually very low. Some people will not get the infection [A], and many of the measures we’re doing at the moment will help with that. Some people will get it [B] and will have no symptoms at all [C]; they won’t even realise they’ve had it. Of those who do have symptoms [D], the majority will have either a mild disease or a moderate disease [E], meaning they can easily manage it at home, without having to go to the NHS, directly or indirectly in any other way. But obviously a small minority, but a significant one, will get a significant disease [F], requiring hospital care; a small proportion of those will go on to need intensive care [G], and sadly some people will go on to die [H].”

I’ve created the Sankey diagram below to illustrate the COVID-19 infection rate as described by Whitty, and I’ve added points A to H to correspond with the transcript above. You can see that the process is quite complex. To describe this process verbally, to non-experts, in a highly charged context is quite a feat. Full credit to Chris Whitty.

A Sankey diagram to demonstrate the flow of coronavirus infections as described by Chris Whitty
(The width of each band is entirely illustrative and does not correspond with the actual infection rates.)

Whitty is also strong on the fundamentals of science communication. He avoids technical language, he neither flattens nuances nor sensationalises findings, and he repeats points as necessary.

So what can we learn about coronavirus communications from Chris Whitty’s visual logic?

  • Sometimes it’s best to stick to the rules (of grammar as well as public health advice!)
  • It’s not all about personality, authenticity, and charm
  • If you need to make a complex point, try to create a visual image of the thought process

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