The Language of Risk -

The Language of Risk

How to properly explain risk in words? Social scientists will tell you that we communicate in a system of symbols and codes, not just words. If you connect someone to a machine that measures brain waves, their brain activity will spike when they hear words like home and mother. In our brains, these are more than just words, they are connected to memories and strong emotions. I suspect the same thing would happen if you watched the brain waves of a resident of New Orleans’ lower ninth ward if you said the word hurricane. Say it to someone who lives in the Midwest, however, and it’s just another word.

German researcher Ulrich Beck says that the problem is that our vocabularies don’t have the right words to properly explain risk—the words we’re using don’t have the right connections in our minds. So, how do we connect the words we use to talk about risk to the action buttons in the minds of our audience?

Beck believes that the heart of the communication problem is that we talk about risk with statistics, not stories. Our brains process statistics and stories differently. We analyze statistics, but we experience stories. We see ourselves in stories, but not in statistics.

Think about it: if you’re told that something negative is going to happen to one out of ten people, you usually see yourself in the nine, not the one. On the other hand, if you hear about that negative thing happening to someone that you can relate to, see how it affected them, and see that they overcame it by taking specific actions, you are more likely to take those actions yourself. Stories give people good reasons to act.

Beck says that talking about impacts is another way that we can add meaning to our risk vocabulary. The National Weather Service is beginning to do this with their impact-based warnings. They don’t just tell you that a storm is coming, they tell you what kind of damage that storm is expected to do. By describing the impact that an EF-3 tornado can do, they add meaning to the term EF-3 tornado in the minds of their audience.

Do the words you’re using to talk about risk have symbolism attached to them, or can your audience shrug them off without a blip in their brainwaves? Talking about the impacts can help people create meaning out of words, while stories can give them reasons to act. Symbols combined with good reasons lead to action.

For more information on what actions to take before a disaster, check out

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