The Golden Rule: do not bore people


How to talk about Europe without boring the pants off people

Free Article

There’s going to be a lot of talk about the EU in the next few months as campaigning gets underway for the European Parliament elections in June and jockeying for the Union’s plum posts intensifies over the summer. But how do we make sure this connects with people, encourages them to vote and sparks a real debate about Europe’s future rather than sending them to sleep?

Drawing on my 30 years’ experience reporting on and communicating about the EU, here are my top tips:

Make me care

“This is a historic day for Europe,” I proudly told my office cleaner on 1 May 2004 as 10 mainly ex-communist countries joined the EU overnight. “It would be a historic day if I didn’t have to wake up at 5am to clean your bloody office,” she replied - proving once again that most people are not as obsessed about the EU as those who are paid to be. Outside the Brussels bubble, only a handful of wonks spend their days reading policy papers and fretting about the spitzenkandidaten process. They have more pressing concerns – like how to pay the gas bill. So instead of assuming that people should be interested in the EU because it’s important, make them interested in the EU by showing its relevance.

Beware the curse of knowledge

Just because you know a lot about the EU, don’t assume others do. Most people can’t tell the difference between the Council of the EU, the European Council and the Council of Europe. So either don’t use those terms or clearly explain what they mean. One way of doing this is to talk about people not institutions – refer to EU leaders rather than the European Council. When speaking to the wider public, another technique is to ask: ‘would my gran/hairdresser/best mate back home understand what I’m saying?’ If the answer is ‘no’ make it simpler, clearer and shorter.

Be concrete

A lot of communication about the EU is like snowfall in summer – it melts on impact. The reason why is because it’s stuffed with vague, fluffy language – like ‘towards a values-based research ecosystem’. Instead of talking in generalities, make it specific. This was the European Central Bank’s tactic when launching the euro. Rather than boasting about the benefits of the new currency in lofty macroeconomic terms, it took out ads in the media asking ‘Imagine what you could buy for €10. Three pints of Guinness in a Dublin pub. Two shots of vodka in a Helsinki bar’ etc. Now that’s comms I’ll raise a glass to!

Focus on what matters

In a 2017 Kantar poll, under 35 percent of the EU public said they had personally benefitted from being a member of the EU – as opposed to over 70 percent of the elites. So rather than rabbiting on about roaming or the new European Bauhaus, zero in on the issues most people care about – better healthcare, security and jobs - preferably with local examples. More importantly, highlight the areas where the EU can actually make a difference, for example fighting air pollution, rather than bringing peace to the Middle East.

Be passionate

“A credible idea makes people believe. An emotional idea makes people care” wrote Chip and Dan Heath in their storytelling bible ‘Made to Stick’. So speak about Europe from the heart, drawing on personal stories that connect with audiences on an emotional level rather than an intellectual one. If you want to learn from the best, watch the speeches of former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, former Green leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit or current EU Commissioner Vera Jourová. Or read some of Donald Tusk’s tweets as European Council president. When he wrote that a "special place in hell" would be reserved for hardline Brexiteers few accused him of being a ‘bloodless bureaucrat’.

Easy on the data

94 percent of people don’t remember data. I just made that figure up – which is why you should always be suspicious of statistics. If you are going to use numbers, paint a picture with them. Rather than claim that EU energy saving measures will save €150bn, say it will slice €200 of the annual electricity bill of every European.

Axe the jargon

Use short, clear, simple words, not long, vague, technocratic ones like synergies, stakeholders and subsidiarity. And axe all EU jargon like comitology, the Copenhagen criteria and acquis communitaire. Using these words is the communication equivalent of driving your car into a brick wall.


Communicating isn’t the same as broadcasting. And it’s certainly not the same as preaching, proselytising or pouring out propaganda. It’s about listening to your audience, understanding their concerns and occasional admitting you’re wrong – all things EU cheerleaders are not very good at. At the very least, be honest about challenges, like former European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans when he said meeting the EU’s climate change goals was “going to be bloody hard to do.”

Effects, not process

Germany’s first chancellor Otto von Bismarck supposedly said that “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.” Most people really don’t care if it’s an EU directive or regulation or if Belgium of Bulgaria holds the rotating presidency of the Union. What matters are the effects of EU decisions on their daily lives. So instead of talking about the Green Deal or Fit for 55 – which sounds like a gym ad for middle-aged people – talk about how the EU is cutting greenhouse gases, boosting renewables and protecting natural habitats.

Keep it short

Nobody ever complained about a speech being too short – or an article for that matter. If Abraham Lincoln could deliver the Gettysburg Address in 272 words, you can make a sharp, succinct and sticky speech about Europe without testing people’s patience. The key is not to have a shopping list of main messages – like the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals – but to have a few main points you want to make. Maybe, just maybe, your audience will remember one.

Be bold

The best communication is bold, not beige. If you don’t believe me, check out this EU video about the European Health Insurance Card featuring a jellyfish and a naked male model on a beach. You may not like it, but at least it grabs your attention – and gets its message across in a provocative, mischievous and humorous way.

Don’t be dull

In the end, there are no hard communication commandments, except this: Thou shalt not bore people. They have limited time and attention and will zap, swipe or junk you if you are tedious. So grab your reader, viewer or listener from the start and don’t let them go.

Author Bio

Gareth Harding is founder and owner of Clear Europe and the director of Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels programme, and an occasional writer and media trainer.

The Golden Rule: do not bore people


Author Bio

Gareth Harding is founder and owner of Clear Europe and the director of Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels programme, and an occasional writer and media trainer.


Related articles