Communicating & engaging with people to help them make a difference

 In Blog

By Cat Harrison

Everyone loves a launch but how do you keep people interested in your safety work when initial excitement has died down and they’re being pulled in different directions? ‘Initiative-itis’ is also a distraction; when something new comes along all the time, the status quo may seem all the more appealing and people simply start to turn away from the “latest solution”.

From what our members have told us, maintaining interest and engagement in patient safety or improvement projects is something that challenges you (we’re with you there). So, we want to share with you some of the lessons we’ve learned over the years and some of the tactics we’ve used during Sign up to Safety.

We continue to draw on knowledge of social movements and social marketing, campaign activism, traditional communications and PR to maintain involvement, interest and momentum, and our approach is always strategic, measured and planned over the long term.

Here we summarise some considerations often forgotten when planning how to communicate plans for improvement, but which will help you maintain attention and involvement from others on your work. But if you’d like more detailed information on how to create a strategic approach to communications for safety and improvement we share key resources at the foot of the page;

  • Use a tone of voice that is meaningful and appealing

Mostly people just write or speak as they feel they should do, not how they would naturally. But if you think about the sort of wording or tone that you are drawn to emotionally, versus the often very official and impersonal style that can be the norm in the work place, you can start to see how important it is to pay attention to this.

Ultimately, your tone needs to support the aims of your work and draw people in. At Sign up to Safety we want to empower people to own change and feel motivated to make it happen – we aim to help people recognise the values and behaviours that will build a stronger patient safety culture, and we convey this in the words we choose.

In practice, this can be as simple as saying “we” rather than “you”. Being humble, respectful, kind; being curious, acknowledging that there is always more to learn

This helps us stand out in a crowded arena, influences the steps we take, helps us connect with people on a human level, and is inclusive. So it stays true to what we are here to help achieve

Whatever tone you use and words you choose, and we hope those are warm and kind, it works best if you are consistent and authentic.

  • Make things interesting, be prepared to win attention

Sometimes when we’re the more senior colleague, or we’re running a project that is ‘terribly important’ then we feel entitled to people’s attention. But that’s just too easy! 😉

Studies have shown that people don’t always do what’s logical; you, me, any of us.

Just because you know that the information you want to share or action to encourage is going to help people do what they ultimately want to do (care for their patients as safely as possible), they won’t necessarily comply, even with the best intentions.

Why? Because of time pressures, conflicting emotional or physical needs, stress, anxiety, distraction – many reasons, many of which aren’t even conscious.

So be prepared to work hard to gain people’s attention by making it relevant to them, appealing, fun, easy. By involving them, encouraging them, acknowledging the effort it takes and thanking them.

We create annual moments that all members can get involved in, and each breaks down the huge task of creating the conditions for making care safer into more manageable, bitesize chunks.

For example, our first birthday celebrations in June 2015 focused on ‘Sign up to Safety & me’ – what it meant to play a role in creating a stronger safety culture, whatever your job role, and helping our members communicate that to their entire staff. Another example is our annual National Kitchen Table Week – in 2018 we asked members to talk about creating joy in work, what a just culture means to them, and how we can embed conversations about patient safety more widely across the NHS. Your moments may look different to ours but by keeping things moving and novel it helps people pay attention.

  • Communicate regularly

We use regular email newsletters (weekly for the first three years, then fortnightly as our resource reduced) to keep our members informed of what we are doing, what we would like them to do, and what our community can achieve together, at every step of the way.

We haven’t disappeared for any length of time without explanation. What we’ve said has evolved but where and when we say it has changed little.

It’s low cost, and with software we can keep track of how many people open each email and what content is of most interest. This helps us build on what we know, to improve and help our members as best we can. We’ve also been able to edit the format over time to keep it fresh and have integrated it with other aspects of our communications, e.g. by embedding images and comments from twitter, videos and podcasts and other resources we’ve created.

  • Find out how you can help

Each of us at Sign up to Safety has worked on projects or campaigns where we have puzzled over why people don’t seem to really be listening (we admit). And eventually you twig; it is because you are talking about what you want and need, which doesn’t feel all that relevant to someone else who, remember, is too busy, distracted, stressed etc to make the connections on your behalf.

Now we make a point to consider the context people are working in, and we ask questions and listen, which has helped us think about things from the perspective of our members.

We think to ourselves; do they feel overwhelmed, what else is already out there asking for their attention, how can we complement it and not be in competition? How can we help our members make sense of what matters most in a hectic patient safety world, how can we make it easier for them to get the info they need to know, and what will make it easiest for them to make the most of their available time?

This can be as simple as grouping key information based on how long it takes to read or listen to – 1 min, 2 mins, 10 mins etc. We have also themed issues of our newsletter so that should they want to look back, they don’t have to look in lots of places for a group of useful resources on a theme. And we share links to resources and other projects of interest, we don’t reinvent the wheel but rather seek to fill the gaps. This listening mode has also helped us with our formative evaluation along the way.

  • To connect with people, go to where they talk to each other already

We use twitter as much as we can. It is cheap and popular with our target audiences, and so it is effective at amplifying what we’re saying elsewhere – e.g. in resources we create or our email newsletter. We use it as a tool to promote and connect.

We can interact with others directly, measure how far our messages are travelling and gain a sense of the sentiment in response to what we say and do. We also create activity just for twitter – to enable us to gain feedback and encourage action.

#kind2018 across January is an example of how we use daily tweets to share easy and free actions everyone can take to show kindness to colleagues. We used free publisher software already on our computers to create some visuals, saved those as jpeg images, and then uploaded to Twitter each day for a month.

This daily build up created a surge of interest, more followers, more visitors to our materials and resources, actions amongst our members – and helped us give them a metaphorical arm around the shoulder at a difficult time. Many let us know directly that they loved it.

We prioritise twitter because we know many of the people we want to speak to already use it. Based on your target audiences, you may want to use WhatsApp, Facebook, text messages, emails, the media – there are lots of options and you may need more than one (we also use newsletters, vimeo, Facebook and Flickr, and all in an integrated way). You can ask them how they’d like to hear from you, which helps them to see that you want to meet them half way.

  • Use different formats to share what you have to say, to suit different people

We repeat our messages in a variety of ways to keep things new and in consideration that people like to receive information differently. We have used videos, murals, images, PowerPoints, games, posters, scribble sheets, wall planners, podcasts, webinars, leaflets, post it notes, blogs…the usual and the unusual in order to draw people’s interest.

When design has been needed, one of our team of four has given it a go, which helps to keep costs low and the limits to what we can do high. Thankfully we have a talented designer in Dane Wiig, but anyone with enthusiasm and access to some software can try it. You don’t have to be super slick, we just make things look as attractive as we can which pays off in being appealing and helping it stand out.

Mostly people don’t hear things the first time you say it; not because they’re trying to be elusive but because they are busy and have many pulls on their attention. I personally have often felt simply saturated with information. Help them out and acknowledge that you understand their needs by repeating key information so that when they’re ready to take it on board, it’s there.

And at the heart of all of this advice? The need to really listen to people, not just talk at them. It is staggering the difference it makes when engaging others if you hear what they have to say.

Resources to help you:


1000 Lives Improvement – Six Steps to Communications with Impact – 5 mins

Sign up to Safety – Tools to talk – 14 mins

Sign up to Safety – Communication tips, tools & essentials for your local Sign up to Safety campaign – 44 mins

Information on social media use;

The Social Media Toolkit for Healthcare

Using Social Media to Engage, Listen and Learn

How NHS Organisations should use Social Media

Supporting blogs on communications;

How you say it matters as much as what you say

Putting people centre stage

Looking in the mirror

Charting the future of communications

Resources you can use for your local patient safety campaigns;

Sign up to Safety & Me (to come)

Sharing joy, pride, thanks & love (to come)

Try a Kitchen Table

Themes for National Kitchen Table Week 2018

#QIComms Charter – which invites all Quality Improvement leaders to recognise the strategic place that communications plays in improvement and integrate it into their work

Further information on the importance of how we talk to each other for patient safety;


Talking to each other

Conversations in action

About the author;

Cat Harrison is the communications and engagement lead for the Sign up to Safety team, and has advised numerous FTSE100 companies as well as national charities and health-related organisations. Her expertise lies in the development of impactful campaigns, the importance of language and tone in connecting with people, and engagement approaches that motivate and excite people to take action to make care safer. She tweets @catharrison4

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