COMMUNICATION : Food For Thoughts – What makes management messages stick

With the aid of technology such as positron emission tomography (PET) scans, neuroscientists have been able to watch human brains as they take in information, and parcel it up for storage or dumping. The result is that we now have absolute scientific evidence that the information which is most likely to be retained will be novel, make sense alongside existing information and be relevant to the person’s life.
The findings have been readily adopted by the international teaching community, but are almost unknown in management.
The revolution offered by the discoveries is that managers can base their communications on absolute facts about how people absorb and retain information.
It started in earnest in 1989, when the US scientific community and Congress declared the 1990s the “decade of the brain”. Funding poured into brain research. The discovery of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters meant we could understand how information is converted into chemical signals to travel along brain pathways, where they are turned into behaviour.
Advances in medical technology en-abled scientists to use computerised tomo-graphy (CT) scans to look at brain structures. PET scans let them watch the brain react to stimuli. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans meant they could watch the brain and neurotransmitters working right down at the level of atoms.
We now have rich and accurate picture of the way communication from manager is converted by individual staff or customers into millions of pieces of data and travels around the brain, where it is dumped, stored or associated with existing data.
We have learned conclusively that half of the information people absorb is information delivered visually. Of this, non-written information has by far the strongest preference. One third of information is gathered by physical movement, and only one fifth is obtained by listening.
In your last verbal-only presentation, half of what people took in was visual (how you stood and looked). Only the tiniest amount was taken from what you actually said.

Memory banks
Your visual, movement or auditory information first goes into short-term memory.
The information is rated by the brain for importance to survival, emotional state, and new learning. If it fails these tests, it is dumped after about 30 seconds.
If it succeeds, it moves into working memory. Each bit of data is limited to no more than nine chunks (for example, nine-digit phone number). It will last here for about 10 to 20 minutes before being reassessed for importance and then dumped or moved into long-term memory.
The working memory is where new information is combined with existing emotions and knowledge, and is assessed for rejection, modification or long-term storage.
Survival and emotional data have the highest priority for making it to long-term memory. If your information is not related to these matters, it is automatically accorded much lower priority by the recipient.
The main factor that will lift your management information up from the low priority is the strength of emotional content or connection it makes with the person.
Considerably less significant, but still enough to move out of short term and into working memory is information the brain thinks is new, makes sense and is relevant to the person’s life.

The trick to persuading
Brain research has revealed what makes good management communications:
•Information is delivered in ways that maximise the amount which gets into the brain in the first place (visual).
•Information will make sense against the existing knowledge of the audience and will be of use to the audience.
•It is likely that the information forms great mental bridge between what is already known by the audience and what they do not know.
•To be that mental bridge, the manager provides real-life context for the information, will use metaphors to make the information more relevant, and will get the audience to immediately act on the new information.

The art of management remains
The research has uncovered patterns of brain operation that free us of wishful notions of people being driven by logic, higher ideals, or economic incentives. We now know that information about physical and emotional safety of primary importance, followed by information that is relevant to individual’s lives and makes sense within their experience.
The art of management will be to use this new knowledge to bring about behaviour change that is not match with what people’s brains may be prepared to accept easily.

Mark Blackham is partner in Senate Communications. [email protected]

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