The art and science of communications: From strategic to personal

Tag Archives: psychology

Heuristics – we’re all doing it every day – basing our responses to information or stimuli on experience as opposed to cold, hard logic.  It’s the brain’s way of taking a short cut to save processing time.  Cognitive heuristics rely on several aspects, not least, representativeness and availability, and can play a huge part in our, or an audience’s, processing of information.  And that can be pretty important in a media interview.

Representativeness is the mechanism by which the brain makes inferences about the probability of statements being true based upon how it fits with the receiver’s existing data, often responsible for stereotyping.  As an expert in their field, a spokesperson will have much more available data and may assume that a message or statement is rationally understandable.  But the audience may not have such access.  As such, in message construction it is crucial that the audience’s available data, and thereby possible opinion, be accounted for. Equally important is considering how that data is informing that opinion.

It's actually cheap and nasty but strangely tastes like an '82 Claret

The simplest example of this is the wine test.  Even the most experienced oenologists (that’s wine experts to you and me) can be fooled by transferring good, expensive wine into the bottles of cheap, average wine and vice versa (even easier over a large group, but that’s another story).  That’s because the all the available data, not just the taste, is influencing the outcome.

Availability can also change rapidly.  For example, after a major aircraft accident, general public perception of the safety or risks of flying changes significantly, despite cool logic and probability calculations indicating otherwise.   That’s because the availability of date ‘suggesting’ heightened risk is increased and the heuristic process short cuts logic, contributing to the cerebral outcome.

So, two lessons here.  One: don’t assume that just because you’ve got all the correct data, the audience has access to that data – this is one of the cardinal sins of ego-centric communication.  They may have access to different, even incorrect, data.  Your message has to account for that (and remember, whereas good old-fashioned facts and figures are great for print interviews, they probably won’t survive the broadcast editing process unless you can sell them as vital and interesting).  Two: try to access this data, understand what data networks are operating (not just what’s in the papers or on TV – the audience is getting much more sophisticated than that), so that your message can fit, support or subtly rebut this data.

All media interview preparation must focus on the audience.  But it’s not just knowing about who they are, but also how they think (i.e. heuristically*) and where they get their information from.

*  But even then, segments of the audience will be more rational than others, more emotions- or morality-based than others – men from Mars, women from Venus and all that.


Strategic communication in the foreign policy, development and security arena – what’s that all about?

It’s about contributing to policy and guidance, providing strategic counsel, nurturing linkages and relationships between policy mechanisms, coordinating between national, international and non-governmental entities.

It’s about communicating in a highly charged, ethically challenging, fast moving, traditional and digital, multi-spectral, politically sensitive, conflict-ridden and culturally diverse environment.

It’s about employing media relations, advocacy, lobbying, grassroots activism, de-radicalisation, crisis management, new technologies and old.

It’s about the utility of forums, blogs, twitter, facebook, TV, radio, print, street chatter, posters, networks, crowdsourcing, mobile technology and academic discourse.

It’s about taking part in conversation, dialogue, consultation, education, monitoring, analysis, research, polling, cooperation and collective action.

It’s about understanding narrative, strategy, tactics, messages, identity, objectives, framing, behaviour, attitude, opinion and delivery.

It’s about appreciating sociology, anthropology, history, culture, group dynamics, behavioural ecomonics, organisational theory and psychology.

It’s about engaging with people, publics, stakeholders, governments, activists, opinion leaders, think tanks, NGOs and the military.

It’s about developing media industry, legal infrastructure, free press, media literacy, social activism, technology for development, institutional communications and public affairs.

It’s about managing media liaison, press releases, events, synchronisation, internal communications, spokespeople and social media.

But, simply put, what it’s really all about is bringing all of the above together.

That’s what it’s all about.

Get one’s message across … keep on message … get our message through …

When it comes to media training, marketing, corporate communication, PR and the like, there remains an annoying and unhealthy preoccupation with the idea of  ‘the message’.  The very idea of crafting a message and then ‘getting it across’ is, in the information age, a little out of date.

Standard media training - only scratching the surface of achieving one's objective

One can have the finest message, distribute it widely, have it heard by millions, even understood by many of them but this merely scratches the surface of the human psychological condition.  It may, at best, stimulate the cognitive process – as in the audience may well become aware of the message.  However, mental activity is a little more nuanced than that.

The great philosophers of ancient times, including Plato and Aristotle, recognised various levels of mental processing, mostly founded around three levels.   These levels became philosophically clearer in the 18th Century – to be known as the three-faculty concept.  As Immanuel Kant observed “There are three absolutely irreducible faculties of the mind, namely, knowledge, feeling, and desire”.    Put another way, three levels of mental faculty can be explained as:

Cognitive – in which we possess thought, intellect or cognition

Affective – in which we feel pleasures, emotions, passion, affection, sentiment

Conative – in which we have the will to act as directed by our feelings

All clever stuff, which many, many clever men and women have researched, ruminated over and written about.  However, for the simple communicator there is also much food for thought.  The cognitive level allows for awareness of and thought about a message.  This is good as far as it goes.  But the mere message does not guarantee a specific affective condition, i.e. an attitude.  Nor does it necessarily encourage a conative response, i.e. an action.

There are a multitude of defintions of what communication is but, at heart, communication is defined by the response one gets from it.  By concentrating on the message,  you are aiming at a cognitive response.  But if you want the audience to do something – by a product, stop drink-driving, support a charity, lay down their weapons – then the communicator has to go way beyond thinking in terms of a message, and focusing much more on desired action.

Now, most good communicators are well aware of this – although they may use other terms, couch it differently, present an alternative framework.  But even in its simplest (but important) manifestation of media training, most are concerned heavily with the message and not the level of response.  Going on camera or on radio or in print, one can indeed be trained to get one’s message across loud and clear.  But 99.9% of the time it is a response, not just the knowledge or awareness, that an interviewee is after.  That is the objective.

Fred the Great - partial to potato pies with chips, followed by crisps

An example, cited by Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland, is of Frederick the Great’s attempts to get the Prussian people to grow potatoes, in order to create a comprehensive economy less susceptible to famine – the response required being the extensive growth of potatoes by the population.  The practice was made compulsory via edicts, orders and legal procedures – the message being ‘grow potatoes’.  However, the average 18th century Prussian much preferred bread as a staple dietary requirement, growing wheat instead, and took little notice of the King’s demands.  A change of tack resulted in the King then proclaiming the potato to be a Royal vegetable, planted only for Royal consumption – the message being ‘potatoes are for Royalty only’.  Needless to say, within months there was a huge underground potato market which eventually became part of the mainstream economy – the response initially desired.  Now, this is fairly marketing-centric but the notion that the response is more important than the message is adequately highlighted.

CB3 is keen on taking this approach, especially in media training.  Speaking clearly, looking at the camera, not picking your nose, bridging to your message etc – the usual components of media training – is all very well but focusing on the objective (the response), via the three-faculty concept, and less on the message goes a long way to achieving one’s actual aims.

But if you merely want to get your ‘message’ across … well, that’s your business.

So now it’s in paperback.  But what is it all about?

Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge – where economics meets behavioural psychology – has become a prime reader for political communicators, having been linked to Obama’s presidential campaign and the UK’s conservatives.  However, the ‘nudge’ is nothing new, as its authors admit.


As the Guardian handily explained back in mid-2008, rather than leave people to their own devices, or give them dos and don’ts, Thaler and other behavioural economists want to highlight the best option, while still leaving all the bad ones open. They argue it’s better for everyone to be automatically enrolled in a pension scheme (or more controversially for organ donation), but give them an opt-out. Or they may want a shop to put real oranges by the checkout rather than chocolate versions.


Now, if communication is defined as the response you get, then using the liberal paternalist methods of nudge to ‘persuade’ people to do the right thing, is the way ahead.  The pragmatics amongst us will see much in the nudge.  And the age-old methods of ‘nudge’, now comprehensively explained, are appearing across the communications spectrum.  The applications in public diplomacy, foreign policy communications, information operations and media operations have yet to be fully explored.  However, CB3 will be shaking up the cerebral matter to venture into nation-building nudging.

It’s not for everyone – Gordon Brown’s not too keen – but it’s definately got some traction.  After all, it’s now in paperback, and being advertised like a common-or-garden Ian Rankin thriller (see the posters on the London Underground).  Someone’s giving Nudge a ‘nudge’.