Neuroscience points the way to communicating effectively in post-truth times

For professional communicators,  the Oxford dictionary 2016 word of the year – post-truth – is a game changer.

Post-truth: an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’

The US election campaign clearly demonstrated this new reality when feelings proved to be more powerful than facts in influencing the thoughts and behaviour of the public.

Neuroscience tells us that when receiving communications our brains use filters, paying attention and acting according to these filters.

To help communicators successfully engage and connect with others, the Maritz Institute developed a communications model based on these filters.

First, there’s interest vs. effort. When receiving a communication, the first reaction of our brains is to determine whether it’s worth the effort, favouring messages that present the most interest and the least effort.

Other filters relate to emotion (such as our feelings and values), history (including our past experiences and memories), the future  (our expectations, goals, hopes), and our social situation (such as economic status, family, traditions).

Truth, facts, accuracy –  none of these are top filters as far as our brains are concerned. Moreover, social media blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction.

So if we want to capture attention, engage people and build relationships in a post-truth era, neuroscience suggests we should communicate with messages that are simple, emotionally appealing and relevant to recipients’ experiences and expectations.

Of course, if we also want to establish a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness, our communications must also be consistently truthful and factual.

If the truth be told.

Straight Talk: start a dialogue to understand differences


It’s not a word we often hear these days.

Yet it’s one of the most effective communication tools to gain understanding and to build relationships.

Want to understand the reason for a client’s decision?

Want to know why your boss is handling a situation a certain way?

Want to figure out why a colleague has a different opinion than you about strategy for a project?

Then sit down together and have a dialogue. When you view an issue differently than someone else or you don’t understand the individual’s perspective, having an open-minded dialogue can help both of you achieve a common understanding. Moreover, it’s enjoyable, it’s easy and it’s rewarding.

If you don’t know how to dialogue effectively or have forgotten how, here are a few tips.

The goal of a dialogue is simply to understand the other person’s viewpoint –  not to persuade them to your way of thinking.

One individual talks, presenting his or her point of view.

The other person listens, without interrupting or asking questions, with the aim of learning and understanding.

Then it’s the listener’s turn to talk. Again, the aim is simply to explain your own standpoint –  not to defend it or to argue against the other person’s opinion.

By the end of the dialogue you should share a deeper understanding of each other’s opinions, ideas or issues.

A nonjudgmental dialogue promotes mutual understanding, reducing misunderstanding and conflict and strengthening relationships.

So what do you say? Isn’t it time for a meaningful dialogue?

Dear Customer: You’re Wrong, We’re Right

Time for companies to get right on customer-retention communication training

Have you complained to a product or service provider lately only to receive a lecture rather than an apology?

Seems there’s an unfortunate trend where more companies are lecturing customers as to why we’re being unreasonable in expecting basic service standards – rather than apologizing for not meeting them. Here are a couple of examples.

After researching carpet cleaners online, I hired a company called (ironically) Reliable, which had great reviews. Unfortunately, after the carpets dried there were brown water stains on the carpeted stairs. I called the company and was told the technicians would return the following week to fix the problem. When they didn’t return, I left a low rating for the company on the online review site. The owner subsequently called but rather than asking how he could resolve the issue to my satisfaction, instead lectured me as to how a low rating negatively impacts his business. Obviously I won’t hire the company again, nor recommend it to anyone – a lost customer development opportunity.

Not long after, I was returning home from Cancun on a WestJet flight. Turbulence started soon after takeoff. The seatbelt signs came on and there was an announcement to “refrain from using the washrooms.” The turbulence continued for the next 2 1/2 hours while seniors clutched seatbacks enroute to desperately needed washroom visits and wide-eyed parents rushed little ones down the aisle.

I stopped one of the flight attendants and asked her why the flight crew couldn’t make an announcement informing us how long the turbulence might last and how passengers could safely make their way to the washrooms.  While I expected a “good idea!” in response, instead I received an irate lecture on how there was “NO WAY the flight crew can know how long turbulence might last” and “we’ve already told passengers to refrain from using the washrooms.” She walked away, irritated that I would be so demanding.

Way to keep passengers informed and safe! The turbulence, and the seatbelt signs, continued for another hour. As we landed, an attendant made an announcement thanking us for choosing WestJet.

Since we’ve since relayed this story to numerous people and next time will fly with another airline, WestJet not only lost customers but also numerous recommendation and referral opportunities.

And it’s not just me. In 2015, PR Week reported that in a survey of UK consumers carried out by call answering service alldayPA, 76% of respondents who had complained to a business did not receive an apology. In fact, close to half of them (47%) were personally blamed for their complaints.

At the same time, most survey respondents (68%) also said that impolite or unhelpful compliant handlers would cause them to take their business elsewhere.

Time for some customer-retention communication training. Here are a few tips for effectively handling inquiries and complaints.

  • Communicate with customers in a positive, helpful manner
  • Listen attentively to what the individual has to say.
  • Acknowledge a customer’s bad experience. You can soothe many angry customers with a simple “I’m sorry you had this experience.” This doesn’t admit fault, it’s merely empathizing with the person.
  • Do your best to help. Rather than making excuses, consider what you can do. Offer potential solutions or ask the customer for suggestions.
  • Thank the individual for bringing this problem to your attention.

The benefits of this kind of considerate communication?

A major competitive advantage, along with more satisfied customers, more recommendations and referrals, higher profits.

All good reasons to get right on it!

Show me a Sign!

Sometimes the simplest communication works best.

Take, for example, a recent business meeting. Because of poor communication I missed the meeting entirely. Instead of moving an important project forward, all of us involved lost precious time and productivity. And it was completely preventable.

Here’s why. I was driving to downtown Toronto for this meeting. While I usually take transit, I was going to drop off and pick up several boxes and needed a vehicle. Given it was a Sunday morning, the trip would typically take  a maximum of 30 minutes. Except, without warning the traffic on the highway came to a standstill. I crawled along, then exited to another road, and then another, trying various routes to reach my destination.

Police barricaded streets for miles but weren’t close enough to ask them questions. Hundreds of streetcars, buses and cars were entangled in gridlock. Nowhere was a sign indicating what was happening or where we should go to avoid the road closures.

The trip took 1 1/2 hours. I missed the meeting. In fact, several people did.

Turns out there was a charity run event. Apparently this had been mentioned in the local news but  none of us who were attending the meeting saw this. A news announcement however, should not be the primary means for informing the public about this type of situation. Effective communication requires considering numerous factors such as audience, occasion, location, time, cost and impact.

Seems to me weighing these factors points to a simple communication solution: signage along major routes into an event area, situated well in advance of the event location to allow drivers and transit passengers to choose alternate routes. So much wasted time and misery could have been avoided with one of the most basic communication tools – signage.

This is a good communication lesson for all of us. Let’s not get so caught up in our social media strategy, online presence or mobile apps that we overlook the most fundamental communications to reach our target audiences. Sometimes all it takes is a simple sign.

City of Toronto, are you listening? Show me a sign.

It’s not about Me, it’s about You

When it comes to business writing, it’s always helpful to keep this in mind: it shouldn’t be about me, it should be about you.

In fact this is the single most important rule for effective writing. Too many of us have read to the end of too many documents and still haven’t a clue as to what the writer expects from us.

Don’t be that writer. Instead, be the writer whose documents people like to read because they’re clear and to the point. When you’re writing an email,  letter, article or other business document to inform, request or persuade, this requires thinking about:

1- the goal of this communication, and

2- what you need to communicate to the reader in order to achieve this.

Start by picturing in your mind the recipient and briefly explaining the purpose of your document. Then answer questions the reader might ask, such as:

What – should I do/understand?

Who – is involved with this?

When – should I do it?

Where – should I do it?

How – do I do this?

Why – should I do this?

Wrap up by summarizing why knowing or doing this will benefit the reader.

Before sending it, read the document from the reader’s perspective. Does it seem clear, positive, respectful?

Good. When it’s about you rather than me, you’ll get the results you want.

First rule of effective communication: spell my name write – oops – right

Okay, admittedly neither my first or last name is easy to pronounce or spell. Therefore I’m generally not offended if someone gets my name wrong once or twice. And let’s face it, we all occasionally forget names. However, it’s becoming increasingly common these days for people to misspell and mispronounce names over and over again.

When you communicate with someone in order to persuade them or to request something, getting the  person’s name wrong will not help you achieve your objective.

Correctly remembering someone’s  name is the most important rule of effective communication. If I read “Corinne” on an email, you immediately have my attention. On the other hand, if I see Connie, Coreen, Coryn, Corrine or hear “kor-een” or “corn” instead of “kor-in,” here are my reactions. First I’m miffed the sender couldn’t be bothered to look up the spelling of my name or ask me how to pronounce it. Second, in my mind this person’s competence falls a notch. And third, I’m less likely to want to do what this individual wants me to do.

Using someone’s name correctly shows respect for the individual. This helps to create a positive connection and increases your chances of getting the other person onside with the goal of your communication.

So take just a few seconds before writing an email or calling someone whose name you aren’t familiar with and check the spelling or pronunciation. And please don’t use the shortcut of omitting the name entirely. Few people like being greeted with a generic “hi.” Most will interpret this as “hi-I-can’t-be-bothered-to-remember-your-name.”

Always  try to spell and pronounce names correctly. It’s not only courteous, it’s effective communication.

Use It or Lose It

Writing is different than reading.

Once we learn to read, we don’t forget how to read. This is an enduring skill because most days, we read at least a little something. We’re not even aware of reading when we’re reading.

But, when  it comes to writing skills, if we don’t use ’em, we can lose ’em.

As many of us increasingly rely on short-form communications like texts and tweets, we can lose the ability to write clear sentences and logical paragraphs – essential skills in many positions and fields of work.

So be sure to use it if you don’t want to lose it.

Practise writing at work and away from work. At work, request opportunities to write documents such as letters, reports, presentations or articles. Ask for feedback on your writing to help you improve.

Away from work, write what inspires you to want to write: notes, poems, plays, songs,  blogs, books, biographies, recipes. Any kind of writing that you do will improve your skills.

So don’t lose it, use it, and you’ll find that your writing skills will add value to your work and to your life.