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Last night I had an epiphany.
They say that all good epiphanies strike in unlikely locales. Mine occurred in a car, in the garage, as I realised I’d just successfully piloted a potentially deadly missile of iron and glass for fifteen minutes home from the gym, without remembering a single thing about the journey.
So, there I sat: sweating, suckling at the teat of a protein shake, Googling “why don’t I remember driving home”. And, amongst the usual gems on Reddit, discovered this diamond:
Your mind is made up of two minds. You have the big daddy who is you and your conscious thoughts. He's slow, but very smart. Then you have your lizard brain. He's not so smart, but he's fast. He's the guy that catches a ball thrown at your face. Your big daddy brain likes to think about new things and big things. Once he starts to get bored he likes to pass tasks off to the lizard brain. This is called forming a habit, or learning a skill. When you first started to learn to drive a car, or travel a new road your big daddy brain had to pay attention to make decisions and control your muscles. But now you've driven so much your lizard brain knows how to do it. If your big daddy brain wants to monitor what your lizard brain does that's okay, and probably good from a safety point of view, but it's not necessary any more. — kc7wbq
Evidently, on this drive, big daddy was not at the wheel.
I delved deeper…
Turns out, I wasn’t alone. Unremembered drives, living below flight paths and no longer hearing the planes, tuning out ads while watching TV — it seems that somewhere early in our evolution, our brains wired themselves to filter out the familiar.
The more I dug, the more I wondered: if it’s possible for our brains to operate on autopilot — pulling puppet strings to navigate our meaty mannequins through potentially life-threatening situations with very little conscious awareness — how much of an average work day might be spent in a similar state?
I spend most of my day, with my team, helping leaders influence people. We use the word ‘influence’ because, frankly, it sounds much more civilised than ‘manipulate’, or ‘make people do what we want them to’. We use ‘influence’ to describe the process of informing people, teaching people, helping people, changing people’s opinions, and changing people’s behaviours.
We see the ways that big organisations attempt to influence their people. Corporate memos; hundred page manuals on policy; emails by the million. And when design is involved: reach for the style guide, copy and paste.
I get it, I do. When we’re busy, we lean on the defaults. The quick and easies. Policy, and the status quo. But might it be, by delivering things in the same ways, attempting to influence people with the same methods and mediums, using exactly the same visual style, day in and day out, leads those things to become much like the backgrounds of our daily commute — blurring by, blotted out?
A somber thought: those big ideas, the life-changing messages, the work we bleed for, could be quietly sabotaged simply in the way we communicate. But the flip side — possibilities! An opportunity to learn: to craft communication that seizes attention, engages, excites, and influences, might be intrinsically linked to understanding, and conquering, a phenomenon known as habituation.
If that sounds like a tune worth dancing to, let’s get at it then.
We’re no brain boffins. No rocket scientists either, but we know a thing or three about communication, so allow me to distill our discoveries.
Our key findings were as follows:
If you’re the type that pulls things apart just to see how they work — let’s take scalpel to skull and show you the innards. Come, satisfy your curious kink by poking around in an average head, without a splash of claret!
Inside our brains, two minds: implicit and explicit. Both work together, but don’t really understand each other. Like a sweet old couple, a horse and rider, or, in the delightfully everyman lingo of old mate on Reddit: “lizard and big daddy”. However we picture them, these two minds are the reason we can drive a usual route to work, without concentrating on every turn, and every light. The implicit mind takes care of the routine tasks — the things that can be done automatically — freeing the explicit mind to think intentional thoughts. These are the big thoughts, or daydreams even — explicit mind freewheeling until unexpected occurs. Roadworks, a reckless driver, a sudden downpour: any of these things snap explicit mind back to attention, to take control of the task at hand.
The curious relationship between these two minds is key to understanding habituation.
Yes, it’s a painful truth: no matter the couture we hide our hairy hides in, the poetry we read, or the number of degrees dangled from our walls — we’re all just beasts. And, every beast that roams this world shares some basic similarities:
▪ a will to survive; and
▪ the ability to learn, in order to survive.
This way of learning, is habituation.
Habituation is a form of learning in which an organism decreases or ceases to respond to a stimulus after repeated presentations. Essentially, the organism learns to stop responding to a stimulus which is no longer biologically relevant. — Wikipedia
It’s the behavioural version of sensory adaptation, a type of non-associative learning that doesn’t require conscious motivation or awareness. Over time, we learn not to respond to something that happens repeatedly without change, reward, or punishment. This allows us to tune out the non-essentials, to focus fully on the things that matter — the things that really demand our attention.
Behind all those big and serious words, a very simple example: Picture a young deer out in the woods. A sudden noise — a pine cone falling perhaps — and the deer is startled! Ahh… but over time and many pine cones later, provided there’s no consequence — no pain from pine cones dropped on its pelt — the same noise no longer startles the deer.
This animal fantasy, not so different at all to what a person might experience on moving close to an airport. The sound of metal groaning overhead, so invasive at first, soon fades to a barely acknowledged hum.
The speed Habituation occurs at, depends on four main factors:
01. Frequency: The more often we’re exposed to something, the faster habituation occurs. Habituation can also generalise to similar stimuli, which simply means that similar things can further hasten habituation.
02. Interval (inter-stimulus interval): The less time between being exposed to something, the faster habituation occurs. If there’s long enough between exposure, our original response (before habituation) will reappear at full-strength. This is known as spontaneous recovery.
03. Duration (stimulus duration): The longer we’re exposed to something, the faster habituation occurs.
04. Strength: The stronger something is, the faster habituation occurs. But, here’s the catch; exposure to very strong stimuli actually tends to result in slower habituation. In some cases, such as very loud noises, habituation may never occur.
In short: the same thing, repeated over and over, with little time between, paves a sure path to habituation. However, this is a road built on unstable foundations: a change to any one of the four factors can break habituation, and revert to a reccurrence of our original response.
And so we arrive, inevitably, at communication. If all this is already setting synapses crackling uneasy, this last finding will really crisp your cortex…
I’m fairly confident in assuming that the most critical injury every inflicted by corporate comms was probably a paper cut, and the only fatality — death by Powerpoint. Boredom: silent killer of engagement and the human spirit, but not the human body. This places typical corporate communications low in our hierarchy of needs and worthiness of our attention. Big daddy just left the building; the lizard’s in charge.
Worse, consider the foundations typical workplace messaging is built on: frequency, repetition, strength, and constant exposure. The Mighty Pillars of Corporate Communications — built unwittingly on the ideal framework for habituation.
Yes, turns out that the ways we’ve been taught to communicate in a corporate space, passed down by comms and marketing departments, are exactly the opposite things we should be doing to rally a hearty response in our troops.
The secret of success is consistency of purpose. — Benjamin Disraeli
Neither you, nor I, weathered these ramblings to simply understand habituation — we set out to break it. There’s no top ten tips here, though. No thousand-times-tweeted take-aways. We’re off the edge of the map here, mates. All we have is the things we’ve just learnt: the science, and some pretty big hunches, based on a decade of experience helping leaders communicate.
I believe habituation can be beaten, and better communication accomplished, by championing the following philosophies:
Change the stimulus, change the frequency, change the interval, change the duration, tone down the strength — these things break the cycle.
We need to mix it up.
So — change the medium; change the channel; change the style. If you always use posters: share a video. If you use video for everything: plaster the toilet doors with a poster or two. If safety posters have been hanging since mutton chops were fashionable: tear them down; change them up. Never default to templates for the really important stuff.
Above all — foster curiosity, and seek to delight.
Like roadworks on the daily commute, engineer surprise to get big daddy back to the helm. It’s good to build rituals; establish routine — but never let them fade predictable. Make communications that matter — always. If it doesn’t matter, why are we sharing it? Attention is precious: it must be earned, rewarded, and never squandered. The greater the noise, the higher the filter — the more we must amplify our signal to cut through the static.
This leads us to…
Words quite simply fail me when it comes to expressing the absurdity of an external brand guide used for internal comms — so let me borrow the words of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society instead:
Excrement. That's what I think of [style guides]. We're not laying pipe. We're talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? "Oh, I like [style guides]. I give [them] a 42, but I can't dance to it." Now, I want you to rip out that page. Go on. Rip out the entire page. You heard me. Rip it out. Rip it out! Go on. Rip it out!… Tell you what. Don't just tear out that page, tear out the entire introduction. I want it gone. History. Leave nothing of it. Rip it out! Rip! Be gone. Rip. Shred. Tear. Rip it out! I want to hear nothing but ripping of [style guides]. We'll perforate it, put it on a roll. It's not the Bible. You're not gonna go to Hell for this. Go on. Make a clean tear. I want nothing left of it.
Somewhere in dark rooms, comms teams tremble. Someone said a bad, bad thing. And, I do feel the tiniest bit terrible. Design and branding is an integral part of what I do every day — it’s in my organisation’s DNA. So I wage war on style guides with a heavy heart — one half admiring the perfection of their consistency, the sublime of their thoroughness. The other half: increasingly aware that for communicating internally — they are fundamentally flawed.
The problem, is in their purpose. Most brand guides are made to foster highly consistent communication in a unified aesthetic — to strip variation. This helps customers quickly identify and connect with the brand. Frequency; interval; duration; strength. The exact qualities that work so well in gaining attention from customers, when applied to communicating with the people we work with, people exposed to the same branding and messaging every day — a fast track habituation.
Yet the common process in many organisations: finish the job, send it to comms. Here, folk who’ve trained in the arts of marketing and branding do what they’ve been trained to do: standardise and conform. It’s not their fault, it’s what they’ve been taught to do — hired to do. Make sure that every bit of material is consistent; run the style guide; sweat the detail. Unintentionally — dip it invisible.
An effective internal brand should consider more than the detail, more than the visual — it should focus on vision. The why. The culture. The values. The message. The stories. Everything but the bloody usage of capitals, or the correct font weight for titles. It should hoist communication high and blow the trumpet to rally. It should foster creativity; allow for variation. Let’s push past typical; let’s create something unique. Let’s stop externally branding for the internally converted — I’m sure they all know where they work.
So — dare to create communications that matter. Dare to defy the style guide, and the people that blindly parrot them. Rip! Rip! Rip it out! It’s not the Bible. They’re not God.
You’re not gonna go to Hell for this.
So, who’s doing it right? Only a few. A sober truth, but also an opportunity: for brave leaders and forward-thinking organisations to blaze new paths.
Here’s a peek at a selection of work being done in this space. And, if you’ll excuse a small vanity, we’ve snuck in one of our own.
Mailchimp built their reputation on clever, offbeat copywriting. It’s no great surprise then, that their internal guide for their copywriters is presented not as a prescriptive manual, but a beautifully presented interactive set of suggestions. It’s an elegant and highly effective way of establishing a consistent tone, while encouraging the creativity of their contributors. Treat yourself to a lesson in style guides done right with a hit on voiceandtone.com
Mattel is a company that knows what it stands for — their vision, values and principles are evident throughout the organisation. We worked with Mattel’s EHS leadership to communicate their ‘Play with Care’ strategy through a safety journal for managers — an engaging tool designed to embed both safety, and play (a core brand value and principle), into daily routine. The journal is a functional resource for championing safety, incorporating playful elements like comic stories, and a spin on spot the difference. Who doesn’t like spot the difference? No-one, that’s who!
I’m fairly certain that if Nike made tuxedos (for rare showings at fancy soirées), I’d never need to wear another brand. I love them. But, I love their approach to communication within the brand even more.
The Nike brand maxims are 11 rules that go a Jordanian bound beyond governing employees — they infiltrate almost every internal brand interaction. They’re exactly the opposite of a typical employee handbook, discarded after the first week. They’re so embedded in culture, they’re used on a daily basis. If things turn complicated, someone might say: “simplify and go” (Maxim #4). Adecision is made and the group moves on.
Flip the early pages of Nike’s brand books and the first thing that strikes is they’re not just a document for designers and marketeers — they’re a resource for everyone. No logo proportions; no technical dos and don’ts. In place: bold statements, values, and vision — a rally to all who evangelise Nike.
This approach permeates through collateral. No homogenised templates in corporate branding. Employee induction kits, handbooks, manuals, internal event invitations — all beautifully themed, and completely unique. A swift slap to the face of habituation.
There’s a Nordstrom Employee Handbook that’s rightly achieved infamy. It has just one page, and on that page is just one rule: “Use best judgment in all situations.” My heart soars, my soul delights.
Dougal Jackson, Director
Dougal draws on a background in design and branding, to bring a unique approach to communication in a corporate landscape typically starved for creativity. He holds an unwavering belief in the power of ideas, and human-centred design as a tool to connect them with people at all levels of an organisation.