Simplicity More Effective than Truth – Communication Lessons from the Pandemic

June 2021

Behavioural science has played a key role during the pandemic as governments throughout Canada and worldwide sought support and compliance in their respective countries.

In Canada this compliance was first in the form of adherence and acceptance of personal protections that include physical distancing, mask wearing, isolation and widespread closure of the economy.  It evolved to the acceptance of a vaccine strategy where everyone wants to be first in line.

Nobody could have predicted that Canadians could be persuaded to willingly accept restrictions, isolate themselves and accept a vaccine strategy more akin to a science experiment or testing ground for new vaccines.  The last time so much was asked of us was during the Second World War about 80 years ago.

How has this been achieved?

The theory is called a behaviour nudge.  It is a combination of positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions intended to influence the behaviour and decision making of groups or individuals.  This practice has been refined over decades by governments with a primary goal of being re-elected.  They understand that opinions are shaped by “sound bites” on television, and “brief interactions” online, that influence other forms of media.  These “sound bites” and “brief interactions” are not conducive to details, fact or even truth.  The behavioural nudge has been an effective approach to modern communication during the pandemic.

Messages conveyed by political and health leaders are crafted based on behavioural data collected by government throughout the pandemic incorporating personal fears, willingness to be vaccinated and perceptions of various measures.  Messages crafted using this data are intended to nudge individuals in a specific direction.  They are revised over time based on their success or failure in achieving a desired outcome.

Messages crafted based on behavioural data present a perspective that, while not entirely based on science, incorporates elements of science.  They ignore opposing views or conflicting information that detract from the selected storyline.  We know that individuals who rely on traditional information sources – newspapers, magazines and television – generally have more trust in information provided by government than those who rely on social media for their information.  Reaching this second group requires a different form of messaging.

At times this messaging may be intended to hide certain information.  The effectiveness of masks, physical distancing and isolation remains unclear while “washing hands”, “wearing masks” and “remaining six feet apart” are easily conveyed measures that have become widely accepted.  The ability of our government to get vaccines to individuals is restricted by factors outside the country, and beyond government control, thus not part of any messaging strategy.  The intent is to keep messaging simple, easy to understand and adhere to, and to nudge behaviours in a desired direction.  This direction may be adherence to current measures or acceptance of vaccines.  Adhering to this messaging has often required silence regarding conflicting or contradictory information.

Government success with this strategy virtually ensures the approach is to be repeated.  Governments managing during COVID anticipate re-election despite initial failure at recognizing its risk, inability to prevent spread and not providing timely access to available vaccines.

Adopting a Similar Communication Strategy

Condominium communities can better communicate with residents and reduce conflict by adopting a behavioural nudge approach to communication.


Record all contacts with the management office inclusive of service requests, questions and suggestions.  Make use of this information when making decisions rather than relying on instinct or opinion which are based on short-term and more personal considerations.

Record all contacts with the management office inclusive of service requests, questions and suggestions.  An annual review of this information, properly categorized and summarized, provides awareness of minor issues or concerns before they become major problems.  It allows for proper planning and budgeting to ensure growing problems are addressed in a timely manner.  Make use of this information when making decisions rather than relying on instinct or opinion which are based on short-term and more personal considerations.  While there are many ways to record, analyze and report this information, condo management software and applications make the process easy and economical.  It improves record keeping at all levels and increases responsiveness to resident concerns.

Understand what is important to residents.  Periodically survey them on opinions and issues of importance.  Comparing this information over time provides insight to changing circumstances, beliefs and concerns.  Refer to this information when developing any communication.

The Message

Most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated.

 Communications should be simple and easily understood.  Avoid technical or difficult to understand terminology and concepts.

K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple Stupid.  This acronym, a design principle of the U.S. Navy from 1960, states that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated.

In communications this refers to a simple and easily understood message.  Avoid technical or difficult to understand terminology and concepts.  For governments communicating about COVID this meant focusing on “wash hands”, “wear masks”, “six feet apart” and “isolation”.  Messages were primarily positive and sought to convey benefits.  In the case of vaccines, for example, here are two messaging approaches:

1. Vaccines are entirely safe, effective and necessary to combatting COVID.

2. Available vaccines have not been fully tested. We are unclear on their effectiveness or how long they will last.  We believe that having a vaccine is less risky than refusing it and encourage everyone to be vaccinated as quickly as possible.

The first message is more effective.  It is easily communicated and intended to nudge readers to support and accept vaccines.  The second message is more truthful, less compelling and less encouraging.  It presents less certainty and offers more questions than answers.

In condominium communities, too little time is spent crafting the message resulting in confusion, lack of clarity and insufficient or too much detail.  Attempts to provide all details at once is less effective at eliciting support than nudging individuals in a desired direction over time.


Invest in your message.  Governments spend money communicating their message through traditional and online media.  They communicate simple messages each intended to nudge people in a specific direction in accordance with their beliefs.

The science behind COVID, difficult to understand and constantly changing, is irrelevant to the messages being communicated.  Likewise, high-rise communities should avoid legal or engineering jargon and tone that detract from communicating a simple and easy-to-understand message.

High-rise communities have an ongoing list of issues to communicate which include rule adherence, major infrastructure upgrades, renovations, waste management to address recycling and organics, pet issues, noise and odour.  Each can be tackled individually with simple messaging using communication vehicles available internally such as elevator notices, newsletter, meetings and various electronic communication vehicles.