16. June 2021 - Tracy Evans

Ten Ways to Build Better Communications with Trust

Every piece of communication you produce might be your next customer’s first impression of you and your organization. In this post, I’d like to share ten practical tips to build trust into your communications. If we put actions like these at the core of how we communicate, we can build better connections, better businesses, and better communities.

OSP’s Authentic Communication Framework is based on three elements that underpin everything we do: Empathy, Clarity, and Trust. So naturally, I gravitate towards any material written on these topics. 

A wonderful example is the book “Trust: 20 ways to build a better country,” by Canada’s former Governor-General, David Johnston. In it, he implores us to see that “Trust is gained through our actions and decisions, on our doing and not merely saying, on the basis that can be observed and measured rationally.” He wants us to explore “the attitudes, habits, and approaches that make people, businesses, organizations and countries trustworthy.” 

As the philosopher and ethicist Sissela Bok puts it, “Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives.” 

Let’s explore building and maintaining that atmosphere in our communications.

What is Trust?

Trust is more complex than the Oxford Dictionary definition, “the firm belief in the reliability, truth or ability of someone or something.”

… It’s simply not that simple :-) 

I defer to and expand on business and leadership author Stephen Covey’s Trust Model from his bestselling book “The Speed of Trust.”

He breaks down the elements of trust into two main categories: Competence and Character. Both of these are relevant to people and organizations.  

Competence addresses the questions:

  • Can you solve my problem?
  • Can you solve it better than alternatives?
  • Do you have expert knowledge and experience to put into your product or services?

Character addresses the questions: Do your values align with mine? When looking at a business or product, three sets of values count: human, technical, and business values. Here are some examples of how they inform value alignment:

  • Human values: Do you source your materials sustainably? Do you have a diverse recruiting culture?
  • Technical values: Do you use open standards? Do you treat user’s data with respect?
  • Business values: Is your business model transparent and fair? Do you communicate openly and authentically?

This structured catalog of questions is something you can apply at the strategic level as well as the content production level.

Why Trust Matters

Today, people are making more of their decisions based on values rather than economics. This includes decisions about where they work, what they contribute to, where they purchase from, and what tools and services they use. Trust plays an important role in values-based decision-making

I would argue that trust is one of the most important underlying values that influence people’s choices. For people to engage with your company, your project, or your product they need to connect with you. And to take that step, it takes trust.

Trust and Vibrancy Signals

Open Strategy Partners conducts Trust & Vibrancy Signal audits, based on an outline of elements that signal trustworthiness in a project, product, company, or community. The signals are especially important in and around open source software, but most sales are based on trust, too. 

For a product, these elements might be: 

  • Release frequency
  • Type of license
  • Documentation assets like README, release notes and tutorials
  • Stats like number of downloads or GitHub activity and stars

For the community surrounding a product, these elements might be:

  • Channels for support and communication
  • Contribution in any form: event participation, sponsorship, code, and so on
  • Documentation assets like Code of Conduct, community guidelines, and contributor’s guide
  • Testimonials

Having a strong and vibrant set of signals means a prospective customer or contributor is far more likely to engage with your product or join your community.

Where Trust Matters Most

There are some areas in the tech industry where trust is especially important. 

  • Support and interaction (Slack, email, ticketing system)
  • Training (tutorials)
  • Technical documentation (release notes, specifications)
  • Product communication (product pages, data sheets, demo presentations)
  • Editorial communication (blog, social, PR)

OSP’s Trust Question Model

When encountering a new person, place, organization, or tool, we ask ourselves some questions, consciously or unconsciously. Though we also constantly reassess our opinions based on new experiences and changing conditions, first impressions are hard to change. Every piece of communication you produce might be your next customer’s first impression of you and your organization. 

Connecting back to Covey’s trust components — character and competence — you can use the Trust Question Model to help make a good first impression every time.   

Whatever kind of communications asset you’re working on (article, email, tutorial, tweet), ask yourself the questions your target audience will be asking themselves about you. Having answered these questions, you can mindfully build trust into your communication:

  1. Can you solve my problem?
  2. Can you solve it better than the alternatives? If so, how?
  3. Is your business model competitive, transparent, and fair?
  4. Do your moral, business, and technical values align with mine?

The Ten Ways of Trust

Here are ten guidelines and some examples you can use to strengthen the trust elements in your communication:

  1. Be technically accurate. Always. Interview an expert or ask them to review your work.
  2. Be precise in your language. Avoid hyperbole and jargon.
  3. Tight writing: crisp, sharp, focused. Remove clutter, extraneous words and concepts.
  4. Clear narrative structures. There are many: introduction, information, recap; challenge, solution, benefit; the Hero’s Journey, etc.
  5. Easy-to-navigate informational structure. Use headers, lists, sections, etc.
  6. Logical rigor. Logical fallacies could lose you your readers’ trust. 
  7. Avoid binary and absolute claims like good/bad, or best/worst. Be mindful, respect and express nuance.
  8. Back up claims with high-quality quantitative, and qualitative evidence.  
  9. Speak from authority, or reference one. Quoting a more knowledgeable source (perhaps whom you’ve interviewed) lends credibility. 
  10. Recognize and acknowledge others: knowledge, expertise, contributions, and competitive offerings. Be clear and honest about situations where your product or offering may not be the best.

Let’s Make the World a Better Place

In our personal lives, we make values-based decisions — we consume based on trust signals. In the business and tech world, I think trust is an often overlooked phenomenon that’s nonetheless becoming more and more important. I believe that businesses acting in a more trustful way makes the world a better place. 

"If we can learn to trust one another more, we can have unprecedented human progress." — Frances Frei

By using the tools laid out in this article (the Trust Question Model, Trust and Vibrancy Signals, Trust Guidelines) with intention, you can inspire more trust. More trust equals more connection. More connection equals happier people, stronger communities, and better businesses.

So it makes sense that in our business lives we should mindfully build trust into the communication assets we produce. If we are intentional in our trust signals, we’ll help our companies, customers, and communities grow.

"If we can learn to trust one another more, we can have unprecedented human progress." — Frances Frei

Get in touch if you want to talk more about trust signals in communication. Or learn how to actively build more trust signals into the core of your communication, by joining us for a writer’s enablement workshop and sprint.

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