Whenever humans communicate there is always a reason, or point. Often the point is unconscious. (Part 3)

By Tom Beakbane

Educators, in order to make different subjects easier to teach, demarcate ideas in various ways. There are demarcations between disciplines, and ideas placed in the textbooks of different disciplines are further split between chapters and subject areas; for example, biology and the study of human communication are presented separately, with little crossover. Marketing research is not regarded as having similarities to scientific research — for example, selling beer has nothing to do with explanations of Boyle’s law. While distinctions are needed so that we can communicate and understand one another, they do not accurately reflect the complexities and commonalities we experience in our daily lives.

Ideas have their own structure and dynamics. Just because an idea is true does not mean it will be easy to communicate or that it will stick in someone’s mind. For an idea to stick, it must largely conform to what people already understand, and it needs to be useful in some way — that is, it must have a point. The fact that all communications need to have a point is itself not sticky. It does not stick for two reasons. First, this fact applies universally and therefore does not fit neatly into any subject categorization. Second, it infers that we humans are not fully in control of the data in our heads and therefore is not self-affirming.

However, the fact that all communications need to have a point is important because it helps explain how the brain handles complexity and how ideas evolve over time. It also explains how ideas graduate from being a personal insight to becoming something other people understand and, from there, passing into general acceptance and becoming so-called common sense.

After three years of attempting to write Total Quality Communications, I felt that I had uncovered a number of insights that business leaders would find useful, including how to manage company communications and make ideas stick. At the time I was a member of an organization called The Executive Committee, where each month groups of about 12 CEOs would gather for a full day to discuss their business and offer each other advice. As members of each group got to know each other, they would speak about matters that were stressing them. The list of issues was never-ending. Most of these were related to interpersonal matters such as friction from business partners or pressures in their private lives of every sort, from children behaving inappropriately to marital breakdown. Before discussing business issues, we would spend half the day learning about a new management technique presented by an expert in a particular field.

I began delivering workshops on how to evaluate marketing communications. The purpose of my seminar was to “understand the human brain and make better decisions about marketing communications.” I started the sessions by showing the CEOs eight different concepts for a homepage for an organic fruit smoothie company, then I asked them to pick the ones they judged would be the most successful in the market. All the designs were well executed, but very different from each other. One was clean and elegant. Another made the fruit the hero. Another was steampunk and so on. When each executive rank-ordered the designs, there was no consensus on which design would be the most successful or the best criteria by which to judge them. So I established there was a need for the seminar.

To create a framework that would improve their ability to make decisions, I described a universal characteristic of effective communication: the use of a narrative chain to make a well-defined point. I used books as a metaphor to explain the importance of choosing a point with a single sharp focus, as well as several techniques writers use to communicate, such as avoiding words that are nonspecific, including the words “quality” and “value,” and using concrete visual metaphors, rather than adjectives. I also described that, when we see an image, our eyes jump around the interesting parts in steps called saccades. I explained how to pick images that attract attention. I spelled out the cardinal rule for good decision-making, which is to look at communications through the eyes of the target audience and recognize that they’ll register meanings that are different from their own. I also explained the principle of coherence, and the need to maintain a consistent style and tonality.

I spent two hours going step by step through practical tools for making better decisions. If I had left it at that, the session would have been satisfying and worthwhile. But I could not resist expounding scientific findings about how the human brain works, and how it does not operate using reason independently of emotions. I presented certain facts about feelings and why these are so important. As soon as I said, “The way you think you think is not the way you think,” the narrative chain was immediately broken. The point of the session switched from being about helpful tools for improved decision-making to “he says the way I think is unreliable.”

These CEOs were under constant stress dealing with the pressures of running a business. They did not wish to hear that their ability to reason logically is not how the brain really works. Daily, they need to make decisions, and need approaches and management tools that strengthen their position and build their confidence. Being told that they should become more aware of feelings did not provide the self-assurance they craved.

The statement, “The way you think you think is not the way you think,” is problematic for at least three reasons. First, our mind is linked with our self-identity, which is deeply personal and something each of us cares about. We don’t need someone acting like they have figured us out. Second, most of us have an idea of what our mind does. Every waking moment we are, at least to some degree, thinking. So it is reasonable to believe that most of what we do is the result of conscious deliberation. And third, human reason and free will are concepts that underpin much of the academic enterprise and the merits of higher education.

By questioning the solidity of generally accepted presumptions about how the mind works, I had deviated from what is common sense, without explaining, step by step, why they should believe what I was saying. I should have anticipated the impasse, because for my entire career I have been coming up with new ideas, including new brands, as well as marketing messages, and guiding audiences through the steps that lead to a mutually beneficial mental destination.

End of Part 3.

Tom Beakbane is president of Beakbane: Brand Strategies and Communications, a company that has delivered over 20,000 projects to Fortune 500 clients since 1986. He resurrected the concept of consilience after attempting to account for the gap between textbook theories of human behaviour and his experiences creating marketing communications. He closed the gap by tapping into his passion for understanding developments at the frontiers of science. Beakbane earned an honours degree in biochemistry and neurophysiology from Durham University in England. He lives near Toronto, Canada with his wife. They have two daughters.

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