Your Communications Need to Be In Synch With How People Think

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Guest Post: Doug Hattaway

This post is the second in a series on the science and art of strategic communications. The first offered a Road Map to Impact to help you set communications objectives. This article introduces an important insight from the field of cognitive psychology.

Psychology and neuroscience are quickly evolving fields, with huge potential for enhancing the impact of our work.  Among the findings we are learning from the scientific study of communications are new insights — such as those that follow — about how people make decisions. As communicators, we have the opportunity to put these powerful insights to work for good.  This post also suggests ways to do that. 

Insight 1: Two mental systems work together to drive decision-making and behavior.

The first is intuition. The intuitive system dominates the mental process. It kicks in automatically, in response to a new stimulus or situation—generating first impressions, gut reactions, snap judgments and emotional impulses.

Intuitive processing requires little effort; we’re not even aware it’s happening. Intuition activates before language and conscious thought, and has a tremendous influence over our thinking.

The second mental system is cognition. The cognitive system is, indeed, secondary—it kicks in after intuition, and we use it much less often.

It performs what we call reasoning: Thinking through alternatives, searching memory for data, processing information, weighing alternatives, contemplating outcomes, calculating costs and benefits.

Most people believe that we are guided entirely by reason, but intuition and emotion dominate most of our mental processes. Cognition only comes into play when we need to “think through” a situation.

Cognition requires attention and effort that drains people of mental energy.  Our brains are wired to conserve that energy and avoid investing the mental effort required for intentional decision-making and behavior.

In fact, mental tasks are de-motivating—people lose focus and stop paying attention when their cognitive system is taxed. So you must really care about an issue to “stop and think” about it.

What does that mean for strategic communications?

Because of the misperceptions about the way people think, many leaders and organizations tend to rely on information and reason to persuade—ignoring or misunderstanding the primary role of intuition. Purely cognitive approaches can waste time and resources on communication that just won’t work.

Effective communication will influence both intuition and cognition—encouraging instant intuitive judgments and enabling fluent cognitive reasoning.

Insight 2: People are more likely to trust information that they easily understand.

“Fluency” theory holds that if people readily comprehend an idea or information, they are more likely to believe it. Being easy-to-understand obviously doesn’t mean the information is more reliable, but people are more likely to perceive it as true.

Conversely, complexity can evoke suspicion. Anything that inhibits fluent mental processing raises a barrier to both understanding and trust.

Taxing people’s limited store of mental energy can also de-motivate them: Throwing unfamiliar words, complex data or convoluted sentences at people distracts the brain, as it searches “working memory” and attempts to process all the information. People literally stop listening—and miss the whole point. Most won’t invest the energy to figure it out.

To facilitate fluency, strictly avoid jargon, abstract language, complex sentences and complicated data. This poses a real challenge for communications professionals who work with experts in various fields. Experts tend to use unfamiliar vocabulary and often rely on data to persuade. Our job is to translate their language and data into simple, intuitive statements and visual aids that facilitate fluent processing of the information and ideas.

Elegant visual presentation of ideas aids fluency, while poor design inhibits it. In psychological studies, people were less trusting of information presented in hard-to-read typefaces.

Cluttered design or overly complex infographics hinder trust and understanding, rather than enhance it. Studies show that “maximizing legibility,” such as using bold fonts, actually makes the information more believable.

Fluency suggests that it’s “smart to dumb things down.” But making things easy to understand doesn’t mean avoiding substance—it takes hard work to communicate complex ideas in simple, elegant ways.

The next post in this series will examine tools you can use to do just that.

To learn more about these and other psychological theories that can power up your communications, check out the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. For a quick read on several key theories, with insights and ideas for strategic communications, click here for our Psychological Primer.


Doug Hattaway is president of Hattaway Communications, a strategic communications firm that adapts tools from business, politics, psychology, linguistics and other fields to help visionary leaders and organizations achieve ambitious goals. 

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