Chapter IV. Headlong down the rabbit hole. |or| The 9 pillars of human communication — in detail.
Let’s not save the best for last. I always felt that dessert, like exercise, and unlike grocery shopping, is best on an empty stomach. So, with no-one here to demand we chew through broccoli first, here it is:
You’ve got to have a decent reason for communicating.
Yep, there’ll always be boxes that need ticking for ticking boxes sake: compliance or legality — but let’s aim bigger than that. Why are we making the decision to communicate? What difference do we want to make? Do we want to improve something, or inspire someone? Are we sharing knowledge, building culture, making people safer? What do we want to happen when someone receives our message?
Why. Always — why.
Knowing why makes navigating the inevitable snarl of choices, a dance toward a clear objective, instead of a blind slog through detail. When we know the destination, getting there is so much simpler — not only for us, but as a means of keeping everyone moving towards a clear and common vision.
And if there’s no good answer to why? Well, with leadership comes weighty responsibility: make communication that matters — always. If it doesn’t matter, if there isn’t a reason, if there’s no purpose to instigating an interaction — why do it at all? That’s just making pointless noise in an already deafening world. Beating a drum without a rhythm. Banging away without a band.
Ain’t no one enjoys the sound of that.
If purpose is our destination, empathy is how we choose the best route there.
The expression to walk a mile in their shoes always gave me pause. I have unusually small feet, which would make it quite hard to find footwear that fits well enough to allow me to walk far enough to form proper judgement. Is a mile really enough? What if that person’s shoes were Crocs? I loathe Crocs. Maybe all this is exactly the point? Whatever —
Empathy provides us a filter for every decision.
To steer you on your voyage towards using empathy in communication — let the advertising and marketing industries be your beacon. Terms like target market may sound impersonal, and frankly, vaguely hostile, however they demonstrate a focus on creating messaging that's tailored to the wants of the recipient, not the fancies of the sender. It’s a system that’s reliant on empathy (albeit not from an altruistic standpoint). Most importantly though — it’s a system that works. One hundred years of convincing us to buy things we don’t really need, is proof of that. So, what tools or processes can we borrow from the Mad Men to create influential communication?
Well, we’re quite partial personas: an exercise that involves creating detailed characters with the typical traits, behaviours, characteristics, and potential quirks of our intended recipient. Begin by asking and answering your own series of hypothetical questions in order to better understand them. What do they care about? What are their concerns, worries, and interests? What language do they use, what mediums do they consume content in? What sports team would they support? Above all though, always seek to pre-empt the answer to your recipient’s first and most fundamental question — “what does this mean to me?”
Empathy also gives us confidence in determining what’s appropriate: to the company and brand, the corporate culture, the social culture, the industry, the recipient’s role and position, the situation, and the message.
But enough of the theory, let’s immerse in the practical. Let’s consider empathy when applied to something as seemingly simple as choosing a communication medium. The way this usually happens is fairly straightforward: whoever is instigating communication chooses a familiar or favourite medium. When the recipient(s) are at a similar level, there’s no issue at all with this approach. However, a potential problem emerges when the same communication is distributed through every level.
Recent surveys conducted by DOMO and Forrester demonstrate the differences between how CEOs and frontline prefer their information served. Because CEOs often deal with complex issues, many prefer communication that's comprehensive, detailed, and connects all the dots — qualities best achieved through writing. In figures: a 57% preference to text, 18% interest in infographics, and only 8% enthusiasm for video (though this is changing fast). Flipping our focus to the employees, and a majority (75%) would rather watch video than read. Senior managers were the most ambivalent, sitting somewhere in the middle, with a slight (60%) preference towards video.
While there’s no doubt these figures are already showing wrinkles with the changing of the guard, it demonstrates the disconnect that exists inside all organisations. This is the nature of a hierarchical system, where there’s always inherent disparity between levels, and each level depends on the level below to better relate. Simply — the further you are along a continuum, the harder it is to make choices that consider the perspective of those at the opposite end. This is demonstrated in the survey results, where around half (60%) of the CEOs indicated they viewed video as effective, a far larger number of senior managers (90%) championed the use of video, despite their personal preferences.
This is where exercises like personas, that help in switching perspectives, are incredibly powerful. To be successful at engaging their people, leaders need to shed their own preferences and prejudices, and communicate for the preferences of their employees. Be simple. Be straightforward. Eliminate the corporate tone. Kill the acronyms and jargon. And when in doubt — use empathy to predict the most effective methods.
Onwards (and backwards) to our Millennials, and here’s another fun fact for corporate comms: 43% of this generation have never read the employee handbook. Yup! And while I’m sure they’re missing a riveting read, this means that almost half of that age group have no idea of the expectations, ethics, or regulations for their workplace. If millennials will comprise over half our workforce in the next 5 years, the solution isn’t to rewrite the manual — it’s to tear it up and re-imagine it in a whole new way.
We were born to communicate — made with a mouth, ears, eyes, and a big ol’ brain to control them. Communication is so intrinsic to our species, that we’ve developed a very accurate radar for messages that don’t ring true. Lies and insincerity — we’re fine-tuned to pick-up on fake. We’re acutely aware of any corporate communication that forgets that at its core: it’s simply a message from people, to other people.
You just can’t hide being human.
Frankly, why would you want to? Human embodies all the things that make people wonderful. These are the qualities that make us likeable, approachable, and relatable. Human splashes colour into all our interactions — a palette mixed from the unique nuances of our personalities. This is the colour that only we can bring. Yet many organisations want to strip that vibrancy — dip everything beige.
Of course, there’s the consideration of appropriate — some particularly pungent quirks are probably best left buried. But in general, as long as we’re applying empathy as a filter — go ahead — fly that freak flag proud. The greater risk is always to hide behind professional. The real injustice to others, is to not be true to yourself.
Part of being true to ourselves — part of being human — is having an opinion. I’ve no idea in which dusty corporate manual past it decreed a complete subjugation of personal opinions or beliefs in favour of the company standpoint. It’s ok to have an opinion. It’s ok for it to be wrong. I’m not offering permission, and I’m not suggesting you ask for it either — it was never mine nor others to give.
The leaders we see truly connecting with their people are the ones with courage in their convictions. That’s where real respect is earned, and trust is built.
Speaking of trust, consider this tidbit from Towers Watson: 33% of employees said a lack of open and honest communication has the biggest negative impact on employee morale1. That’s a third of a workplace that’s demotivated simply by an absence of truth and transparency. It should come as no great revelation that people respond much more positively when they know someone believes in what they’re saying, is being genuine, honest, respectful, and forthcoming with the full story.
Seems like a pretty simple solution for such substantial gains in engagement.
Cast your mind back a few section, if the trauma of slogging through all these words isn’t too much — recall the sheer quantity of communication options available to us. Why then, do many perversely persevere at work with less than a handful?
Free the senses!
Let's titillate the visual: posters, illustrations, infographics, graphs, charts, diagrams and maps. Let's beat the drum for the aural: discussions, presentations and team huddles. Let's not forget the readers and writers, the folk with a bent for words: lists, notes and text (in any format). Finally, let's consider the kineasthetic: practical exercises, movement, and trial and error. For important messaging, consider wrapping a mix of collateral into a campaign to tantalise a cross-section of senses. Or, use video to hit auditory and visual in a single piece of communication.
So, there’s sound sense in stimulating all the senses, but there’s also several weighty buts for prioritising visual (try not to imagine that cheeky visual).
Of all our senses, visual is the one we use the most to understand our world. Over 90% of the information we process is visual, and 20% of our grey matter is dedicated exclusively to dealing with it. No great surprise then, that over 90% of communication between people, is also of the visual variety.
With this in mind, let’s skip back a moment in our minds to Empathy, when we noted that while text is a grand choice for detail, the average employee lacks enthusiasm for girthy tomes of learning. Visualising content is a way to trim the fat — distilling complex content into a single unambiguous image. Someone once said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that sure is a lot of words to be saved from slogging through. However it’s less about the number of words, but about the differences in the way our visual system processes images compared to text.
We’re capable of processing images in parallel, at shocking speeds. It takes us a mere 150 milliseconds to process an image, and only an additional 100 milliseconds to assign meaning to it. In the blink of an eye, we’ve not only captured information, but understood it too. In comparison, our eyes crawl text at a pitiful rate — tediously scuttling over individual characters, before laboriously picking them up and grouping them together in comprehensible sentences and paragraphs. The result of these differences is that we can process images around 60,000 times faster than text.
This is all a matter of evolution — while text only appeared a few thousand years ago, visual’s been keeping us alive since back when the survival of our species depended on immediately identifying a Tyrannosaurus as belligerent, and a Brontosaurus as far less ornery. We recognise these things visually long before we learn the language to describe them. It’s probably just as well, as Tyrannosaurus seems like a unnecessarily long name to give something you might need to scream at someone to save their lives. Best they’ve seen it and already running by the time you spit that one out.
Visual also helps us remember. Simply hearing a piece of information gives us roughly a 10% chance of remembering it, but add an image and recall jumps up to a far more respectable 65%. This is largely to do with how and where we process these memories. Visuals are processed in long term memory, whereas words are processed in short term memory. It’s not just shapes and objects either — colour aids recall as well. Research shows that simply adding colour to safety documents improves recall by up to 82%, which makes it a pretty safe decision to spray paint any and all safety messaging fluoro yellow, with a splash of neon orange for good measure.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for global organisations — visual transcends geographic and literacy barriers. Where words can be misinterpreted when communication is in a second language, the right visual conveys a very clear and unambiguous message.
We live in a constantly connected world — battered by a relentless barrage of communication from every angle. It’s no wonder we occasionally miss a message. It’s also no shock that our species just clocked an average attention span of 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds at the start of the decade, and now a whole second shorter than the much-maligned goldfish. What were we talking about? Oho! Cute, but seriously… will you look at that bird. You get the point, or maybe I’ve rambled too long and you’ve drifted onto Facebook, or email… or whatever else blows wind into your spinnaker. But enough with the verbosity.
Attention has never been more precious — it must be painstakingly earned, generously rewarded, and never, ever squandered. We’ve become skilled at sifting out irrelevant information. So, the greater the noise, the higher the filter — the more we need to amplify our signal to cut through the static.
It’s also no longer enough to rely on expectation: expecting people to read a manual, expecting people to learn a process, expecting people to know a policy. That’s the parent/child model: do it because I say you should. We’ve moved well past expectation — we’re into the age of earned attention. And, the most effective way we can earn attention, is inspiring curiosity.
Back in the early nineties, a clever fellow named George Lowenstein had a hunch that became a widely accepted theory. He identified that we’re most curious when we have a gap between what we know and what we want to know. Our almost obsessive need to close this gap actually triggers an emotional response — much like a cognitive itch that we desperately want to scratch. We only alleviate that itch by learning. Marketing copywriters have been thoroughly abusing Lowenstein’s theory ever since.
What happens next will amaze you…
What happened next actually was amazing. A Caltech experiment on curiosity took forty students, an fMRI, and a quiz… and what happens next isn’t the punchline to a nerdy scientist joke. The results revealed an interesting correlation between the degree of curiosity, and amount of knowledge. Specifically — we’re most curious when we know only a little about a subject, up until a point where we have a moderate amount of knowledge, then our curiosity steadily decreases. The fMRI showed that inside the subjects’ skulls there was a notable increase in activity in three areas of their brains: the left caudate, prefrontal cortex, and parahippocampal gyri. Of particular interest was the caudate (perhaps because no-one could remember or properly pronounce the gyrating hippopotamus region). Linked to learning, the caudate’s a real giver too — a pleasure centre that’s part of the dopamine reward pathway, it shoots off all sorts of wonderful feelings when it’s stimulated with new knowledge. Yes, our need for new information actually begins as a dopamine craving, in the exact same primal pathway that responds to sex, drugs and rock and roll. 🤘🏼
So forget the frustration of unrequited expectation — through curiosity, we can inspire people to seek to learn, and enjoy doing it. To summarise on previous paragraphs, and add to them with our own experience, we’ve found these tactics to be effective igniters of curiosity:
- Novelty: We’re attracted to shiny and new.
- Unpredictability: We’re lulled by routine and repetition — something that falls outside the usual jolts our attention.
- Inclusion/exclusion: We’re driven by a fear of missing out — the possibility someone knows something we don’t.
- Intrigue: We’re intrigued by communication that starts with a question, not the answer; puzzles, and mysteries.
- Incompleteness: We’re lured when the whole game isn’t revealed right away. This primes us to want to learn more.
The possibilities for inspiring curiosity in the workplace are thrilling.
We’ve found campaigns provide the best structure for bringing together all the necessary components for curiosity. It give us a brandable entity that can be differentiated from typical corporate communication — something unexpected and new, engineered to delight and surprise. Campaigns also give us a timeline to drip feed content. This can be particularly effective when used as a lead-in campaign to build excitement and buy-in for an upcoming program, frame context for a new policy, or set the right mindset for change. Be wary however, that timing plays an important factor. Questions let hang too long, or information shared too slowly or sporadically will throw a big wet blanket on curiosity — exactly the opposite of what we want to achieve.
Incidentally, it occurred to me while writing this section that my up-until-now inexplicable enthusiasm for researching and writing this quarterly demonstrates all the hallmarks of curiosity. I’ve basically been high for the past 3 months guys, and I’m ready for a nap.
Perhaps the biggest instigator of The Serious Conversation About Professionalism, is suggesting humour. Yes, quite ironically, nothing gets some people more po-faced than the thought of other people laughing.
We understand the fear. Humour can feel like a mighty risk, especially paired with a serious or sensitive topic. There’s the concern of trivialising, making light, or making fun of a topic. The spectre of political correctness looms ever-present in the background. Even worse — fear of a joke fallen flat. There’s certainly no shortage of case studies where humour’s taken a big ol’ bellyflop from the high board. When that happens, it’s seldom pretty.
Lets allay those fears.
There’s a subtle but definite distinction between seeing humour around a situation, and making light of the message. Comedians walk this fine line every day. Let’s trust that empathy will aid us in determining what’s funny, and what’s appropriate.
Why even risk it?
Humour is one of the most powerfully positive human qualities. Laughter stimulates the production of serotonin (the happy hormone), and encourages the production of endorphins (our body’s natural high). We want to be amused. We like to laugh.
For evidence of the effectiveness of humour in communication, you needn’t look any further than advertising (again). It’s no coincidence that humour is used extensively to sell. The first objective of advertisers is to seize our attention, and funny gets that done. Humour is also fundamental to developing positive relationships. We buy from people we like, and laughter is key to building rapport. Attention, likability, shareability — these are the cornerstones of advertising and marketing, but their objectives are no different to the leader looking to influence their people to learn and improve, or instigate change.
There’s increasing evidence to show a whole bunch of benefits to humour in the workplace. Research by Wharton, MIT, and London Business School, all found that laughter relieves stress and boredom, defuses tension and negativity, increases engagement, promotes well-being and positivity, fosters creativity and collaboration, improves motivation and morale, aids learning, hones analytic precision, and raises productivity. It’s also been proven that leaders who use humour in a way that’s authentic to them, are thought of more highly. It’s an easy way to disarm tense situations, and remove any elephants from the room (I can’t imagine anything funnier than an elephant in a boardroom). There’s three sentence crammed with a lot of very good reasons to chase a chuckle.
Unfortunately, the benefits of humour at work are all just a dreamy prospect at present. A recent study of Gallup data found that we laugh significantly less on weekdays than we do on weekends. Research by MBA candidate Eric Tsytsylin describes working adults as in the midst of a laughter drought. Babies laugh on average around 400 times a day. Over 35, and we’re lucky to crack 15. Apparently work has become serious business.
It’s another example of human being sucked out of corporate, under the guise of professionalism. With so many obvious benefits to humour, why is it still in such short supply in many organisations?
Well, we’re back to risk, and the challenges.
The hurdle to using humour effectively in corporate communications is that it can be subjective, contextual, and culturally specific. This makes it important to consider the type of humour used in a global roll-out. Some humour is universal: in-jokes; slapstick; and any joke relating to life, and the fundamental similarities between all people (read: toilet humour). In contrast: highbrow, deadpan, puns, wordplay and subtle linguistics can translate badly; and ridicule, sarcasm, discrimination, political, religious, racial and negative cultural stereotypes are always a really, really terrible idea.
The closest theory to cracking the global humour conundrum — a universal formula to funny — is marketing and psychology professor Peter McGraw’s Benign Violation theory. His view is that humour only occurs when something seems wrong, unsettling, or threatening, but simultaneously seems okay, acceptable or safe. It’s the precarious balance of these two contradictory elements that creates the risk. Slip too far one way and the joke turns offensive. Tilt the other way — it loses the edge. This theory works perfectly to validate the types of humour mentioned above. In-jokes and common human experiences have a sense of safety through inclusion and belonging. Slapstick involves such exaggeration and ridiculousness that it becomes completely non-threatening.
There are no guarantees with humour, but the potential rewards are well worth the risks.
Early in the 2000’s, someone had the realisation that although our species loves a good story, somewhere along the way we’d stopped telling them at work. We’ve all been bludgeoned by blogs expounding the Benefits of Storytelling in Business ever since. Yes, of all the topics covered in this quarterly, storytelling is probably the one that needs the leanest sales pitch. So, why include it?
Simply, there’s no more inherently human form of communication than storytelling.
This is nothing new. Our species has been telling stories since first we burst indecent, hairy, and grunting onto icy tundras and waving rocks at things much bigger and more ill-tempered than us. The lucky ones who made it home told stories of their survival to their tribe, and their tribe learnt valuable lessons about bigger stones and better cardiovascular endurance.
From way back then, to now, and probably as far into the future as is foreseeable — storytelling is the way we most naturally share and interpret experiences, pass on knowledge, record history, and entertain each other. Yes, long before Powerpoint and policy manuals, stories were the ways we learnt things: skills, history, ethics, morals, cultural norms, and aforementioned wildlife evasion.
This was never something we had to learn. Neuroscience recently revealed that our brains are hard-wired to tell, understand, and remember stories. We even process stories in a different way to other types of information.
I’ll confess (if it isn’t evident by now) — I’m not much of a fan of Powerpoint. I will admit, that like toilet paper, Powerpoint has it’s purpose. Oh, but the ongoing abuse! Not the aesthetic so much as the mind-numbingness of it’s application. The endless bullet points! The detailed diagrams! The paragraphs of technical text! People speak of death by Powerpoint, but that would be sweet mercy compared to the torturous presentations dealt out in some organisations on a daily basis. Yes, I’d like to see it bloodied a little!
So, let’s compare the cognitive difference in our response to a typically information-weighty Powerpoint presentation, and a story. Let’s start with the Powerpoint, where the bullet points are processed in the Broca and Wernicke regions of the brain. These are that areas dedicated to processing language: where we decode words and give them meaning. This sounds reasonable enough, but it’s our reaction to the story that excites! In response to the narrative, not only are those same language processing parts of our brain activated, but so are other areas — areas that would activate if we were the ones actually experiencing the events of the story! The sights, the smells, the feelings, the emotions — fireworks exploding in our visual, olfactory, motor, and insula cortexes.
A compelling narrative evokes visceral reactions. When a story truly captivates us, we experience the narrative as if it were us. Research by neurologist Uri Hasson revealed that good storytelling can even trigger exactly the same brain activity in the listener, as the storyteller is experiencing while telling it. He refers to this phenomenon as brain coupling — where a group becomes unified by the story on a cognitive level.
It’s this subconscious need to relate a story to our own experiences, to empathise and insert ourselves into it, that makes storytelling so engaging. It’s why metaphors work so well. It’s why we can hear a great story, and two weeks later tell that exact same story to someone else, as if it were our own. This is completely normal. It’s also completely awkward if the person you tell the story to, is the same person who told it to you in the first place. Potential embarrassment aside though, it demonstrates the power of storytelling for empathy, persuasion, and influence. It’s why leaders with strong tale-telling skills tend to be better at building rapport and gaining buy-in.
The implications are incredible. Surely there’s no better way to get people on board with your ideas than to tell them a story that they can then make their own. While this sounds vaguely sinister (hello, mind-control), like splitting the atom, we hope you’ll use the information for good.
The real question is — if narrative has been proven to be so much more effective than logic, why is the majority of corporate messaging still so short on story, and fat with fact? There’s certainly no shortage of tales that can be told in our work: testimonials, past successes, and visions for the future. These stories are there already, all they need is a narrative structure.
Of all the possible options, one of the most common story archetypes is the hero’s journey. This is a saga we’ve heard a million times. The exact same structure, with only the details changed — applied over and over, to a seemingly inexhaustible array of executions. It’s a compelling template: a likeable hero (preferably a humble underdog) answers the call to adventure, embarks on the quest, overcomes obstacles that test his resolve, battles a villain, and eventually wins the object of his desire in triumph (or fails, in even more glorious tragedy). It’s an archetype that’s been used effectively for centuries, in myth and legend, entertainment, politics, branding, and business.
Regardless of the chosen narrative structure, a story gives us a filter to run communication through. Much like Purpose, a story gives us a framework to build a campaign, culture, or brand on. It makes deciding on the details (tone, aesthetic, collateral, etc) — a snap.
In terms of delivery, stories can be told in almost any medium. The choice is best determined by using empathy for a specific situation — the preferences of the recipient, and to appeal to the various learning types (visual, auditory, written or kinaesthetic). It may take in the form of videos, books, posters, flyers, conversations, speeches, dance, songs, or even Powerpoint (loathe as I am to admit it) — if used in place of the usual assault by bullet point.
We’re advocates for using comics to tell stories. These visual narratives allow us to create hyperreal scenarios and characters — exaggerating points in order to prove them, and creating perfect personas without using real people or stock photography. We’ve also found them to be less confronting and antagonistic in sensitive circumstances, and allow people to more easily insert themselves into the story.
Most importantly for global companies — stories are universal. They bridge cultural, gender, age, linguistic, and geographic divides. You could search far and wide for the most cynical individual in your organisation, and we’ll bet they’d still thrill to a well told tale.
It’s a funny thing — few things in business make us more uncomfortable than other folk’s emotions. Given that the world is full of businesses, businesses are full of people, and people are full of emotions — it’s probably something we should be far less frightened by. Admittedly, people are perverse and peculiar creatures, filled with all sorts of unreasonable and inexplicable feelings that can make them downright difficult to deal with. But we don’t stop being human when we go to work, and we can’t stop going to work, so these things will never change. So, instead of dreading emotions, let’s learn to embrace them.
There’s many ways to manage emotions — emotional intelligence and so forth, but let’s concern ourselves with communication. Let’s concentrate on connecting with emotions to drive behaviour, and in particular, the effect of positive versus negative emotions in our messaging.
To begin, let’s slip into something a little less comfortable — your skull — for a brief physiological poke.
Emotions are born in the amygdala, and passed through the limbic system via a network of neural pathways to the neocortex, where perception, reasoning, thinking and learning occurs. Each emotion sparks a unique physiological reaction — a cue for how we should react. Anger physically primes us for a fight. Sadness releases tears. However, the process also allows us to reflect on our feelings — an opportunity to think before we act. This is, without doubt, the only reason our species still exists today, given the general stupidity that ensues whenever we act first, and think second. In most situations this process works wonderfully to save us from ourselves. Then there are those times — the moments of stress, fear, and perceived threat (actual or otherwise), where things don’t follow the usual protocol. In these times, the usual pathways are bypassed, and impulse overrides reason. This is our fight-or-flight response, a primitive function of evolution to ensure a quick response to danger. Psychologist Daniel Goleman refers to this as an emotional hijacking, where thinking and reason are held hostage. Yes, like a belligerent dictator, our amygdala starts calling the shots solo — sans rational committee. Good things rarely come of this response in a civilised setting.
So, emotions are intrinsically linked to attention, decision-making, learning and memory — but what about the types of emotion we feel?
There’s no way to make this painless, so let’s peel the band-aid quick. The truth: we’re fearful creatures with a physiological predisposition to negativity. It’s not our fault. It’s part of our evolutionary hangover, from back when a focus on fear was an excellent quality for survival.
Psychology calls this the negativity bias (or negative effect). Take two stimuli of equal strength, and the one with the more negative nature (thoughts, emotions or experiences) will have a stronger influence on us than the neutral or positive things. This bias exists in almost all facets of cognition, including attention, learning, memory, and decision-making.
A negative bias towards what seizes our attention makes perfect sense. We’re instinctively drawn towards anything that previous experience indicates might be potentially threatening — loud noises, violence, unpleasant images, and creatures with unfriendly intentions. Research backs this up. A group given photographs of both positive and negative photos will spend longer studying the negative images. Similarly, participants studying negative and positive words blink more often when looking at the negative ones — a sign of increased cognitive activity. It seems we just can’t help ourselves.
When it comes to learning, memory, and recall — it’s doom and gloom as well. The more attention we direct toward something, the more likely it is that we learn and remember it — and we give a lot of attention to negative things. We’re more likely to recall negative behaviours, remember recent negative emotional experiences, and underestimate how often we have positive experiences. Big thanks to our brains for this. Not only does it have two different systems to process positive and negative stimuli uniquely, but our amygdala, that negative little nuclei, allocates two thirds of it’s neurons to detecting unpleasant events. This means that it’s faster at spotting bad experiences, and when it does, it quickly stashes that negative emotion away in long-term memory for years of future agonising over. In contrast, we need to be aware of a positive emotion for at least twelve seconds before it transfers from short-term to long-term memory. Psychologist Rick Hanson summed it up best: the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones. Yes, our brain is a cruel and torturous master.
Speaking of torture, it seems that we’re not afraid of a little punishment. In fact, we seem to quite enjoy it. Experiments conducted on learning show that we respond more to punishment for incorrect responses than rewards for correct answers.
Going from bad to worse — it’s no surprise, based on any news show ever, that we love to be the bearers (and recipients) of bad news. This is unfortunate, because our attitudes are more influenced by bad news than good, and a negative perspective is more contagious than the positive one. It’s a vicious, vicious spiral! Throw into this mix that it typically takes us 5 good interactions to make up for only 1 bad one, and none of this is excellent news for maintaining a positive culture and morale in the workplace.
Things don’t turn any more positive when we look at how our emotions affect our decision-making either. Research on negative potency and prospect theory shows that in a situation where we stand to either lose or gain, we’ll weigh the cost of losing more heavily. Similarly, when we’re in a situation with known risk, we’re more likely to make a choice based on avoiding the negative experience, than desire for a positive one.
Even our language is evidence of our self-flagellistic lust for feeling bad. Of the ridiculous number of words smothered within the covers of the English dictionary, 62% of emotional words are negative, compared to only 32% positive. Depressing… 😞
Yes, sadly, undeniably — negativity is often our brain’s default position. If this were an epic battle between good and evil — evil would win. The outcome of all this for us, is obvious. With our bias towards negative emotions, it’s a pretty simple conclusion that they’d be most effective in our messaging too — right?
While negative emotions may dominate our default attention, recall, and decision-making — when branding, influence, and motivation are introduced, the bias flips to positive.
If you want an excellent example of how to win at emotions — the advertising industry has been dominating that game since the start. Those clever devils quickly found that far from being something to fear, evoking an emotional response was actually a very effective way of making people part with their money. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio confirms: when it comes to decision-making, feelings and emotions always dominate cognition. Research has proven time and time again that the emotional content of an ad is more powerful than any amount of rational information. The use of fMRI imagery shows this phenomenon clearly. When evaluating brands, consumers respond emotionally first (drawing on feelings and experiences), before assessing information (attributes, features, benefits, or facts). Given some of my appalling purchase decisions — I’m looking at you, unnecessarily neon short shorts that I’ve never felt bold enough to swaddle my quads in — it was of some relief to discover that there’s usually little that’s logical in our decisions. We buy emotionally, then scratch for logic to justify our purchase — especially the foolish, frivolous, and fluoro ones.
So, based on our negativity bias in attention and decision-making, it would makes sense for advertising to employ negative emotions to scare us into buying? Strangely, no. In a situation with no consequence beyond a lighter wallet, it turns out that negativity isn’t necessarily trumps. The most successful brands tend to use a balanced set of emotions, but with a definite bias towards positive. While advertising may occasionally employ negative emotions to help create drama or attract initial attention, they ultimately lead to a positive emotional outcome. This is essential, because any emotions we feel towards an ad, transfer directly to the brand. According to the Advertising Research Foundation, likeability is the key measure to predict whether an ad will increase a brand’s sales. Quite obviously, the fastest path to likeability is not through negativity.
There’s also another factor at play here — another cognitive bent that actually cancels out our negativity bias in certain situations. While it’s true that we weigh bad experiences heavily, the optimism bias leads us to believe that we’re personally less at risk of experiencing a negative event compared to others. This is one of the main reasons we’ve seen a recent shift in direction from the fear and shock based approaches traditionally used in public service announcements (anti-smoking, drink driving, etc.). This is particularly relevant for safety and health, where messaging has typically focused on the risk associated with certain behaviours — don't do that, or something bad will happen. However, the very instance where you’d assume the negativity bias would cause us to avoid risk, is actually rendered impotent by our optimism bias. A negative message certainly grabs our attention, but no-one does anything about it because nobody thinks it will actually happen to them.
Turns out that attention is only one half of the story when using emotion to influence people to make the right choices. In this case, the better alternative to focusing on fear of potential side-effects, is finding the behavioural triggers and using positive emotions in the messaging to encourage behavioural change.
Beyond decision-making, perhaps the most interesting influence of positive emotions is on learning and motivation. After all the paragraphs above, there’s no denying negative emotions have a strong influence on what we remember. However, while you can punish someone into doing/not doing something, the fear that motivates them doesn’t exactly open them up to further learning. We rarely make great choices or think clearly when we’re scared, angry or anxious — our amygdala is busy throwing logic around and generally home-wrecking. The most effective learning, the most progressive thinking, the smartest decisions — these all take place when when we’re curious, motivated, and feeling positive towards the task.
So, while it pays to be aware of the insidious impact of negative emotions, we should keep in mind that using them in communication can be damaging to morale, motivation, learning, thinking, innovation, and ultimately — perception of the brand (be it the company’s, a department’s, or a leader’s own personal brand). When in doubt about what emotion to use, ask yourself: what would the advertising industry do. What Would Don Draper Do (WWDDD)?*
* In relation to communication, not life choices. Scotch at 11am, and abusing interns are both almost always terrible ideas.
There’s a certain type of person you’ll meet, in every sort of social scenario, at every pub, club or conference venue, in every city or town, everywhere in the world. She’s the girl you’ll find in the centre of the room, surrounded by long-suffering folk too polite to make a break. He’s the guy monopolising the conversation, blustering through a series of self-centred stories, giving no-one the chance to slip a word in response.
No-one likes that guy (or girl) — yet this is exactly the traditional model for corporate communication. Memo comes from top, memo passes down, memo reaches recipients. End of communication… until the next memo.
Don’t be that guy (or girl).
Let’s use communication to open a conversation. Let’s make correspondence a two-way affair. It’s amazing what we learn when we listen, how we improve when we seek feedback, and how people respond when we’re open.
The word communication evolved from the Latin, communis — to share, which is quite a delightful way of thinking about it. Sharing evokes an image of people who care about the things being said. It makes for an interesting frame — is this a piece of communication worth sharing? Taking a less feelsy, more technical tone — all communication requires a sender, a message, and a recipient (or recipients). The process is only completed successfully once the receiver understands the sender's message. This makes you wonder how many almost-communications might be floating around. How many senders might be assuming their intended recipients chose not to act or respond, while those receivers never understand the message, or weren’t even aware that attempts at communication were being made.
By seeking a response, we remove all ambiguity around whether our message was received, and understood. We can also learn from the successes of previous communication — to repeat the things that worked, and stop doing the things that didn’t.
This feedback should flow both ways. To give the briefest of summaries according to behavioural scientist Darren Hill — feedback is best given frequently and immediately. This contrasts the traditional model of saving it up, hauling it around, and dumping it all out on the desk at the annual performance review. There’s certainly incentive — regular feedback, especially recognition from managers, has been shown to have a greater influence on motivation than financial incentives.
This feedback culture is built on a foundation of regular communication. Instead of the sporadic and scatter-gun messaging that comes from only communicating when we’re being reactive, or when we want something — a conversation is establishing a series of more regular, proactive, and culture-driven touchpoints. This rhythm of communication builds a relationship. That’s not campfires and Kumbaya, it’s making sure that everyone’s on the same page, all the time — engaged, and giving their best.
One team, one dream!