I decided to kick off my first event series with a feature on neuroscience. For some it might seem like a topic not connected to communications at all. It’s also science, and not unlike how we view measurement, some might say ‘we don’t do science’. I was a little like that until I understood what it was and just how important it is to shape how we approach communicating with people, especially within organisations.
What is neuroscience?
According to the British Neuroscience Association, ‘neuroscience is the study of the brain and nervous system. The brain is responsible for our thoughts, mood, emotions and intelligence, as well as our physical movement, breathing, heart rate and sleep. In short, it makes us who we are and facilitates almost every aspect of what it means to be alive.’
When we consider this definition against some of the objectives of organisational communications it becomes clear.
By understanding how the brain works, we understand about ourselves, what motivates us, why we react and behave the way we do. And how we respond to events, actions and information that comes our way through our lives. Therefore, as communication practitioners it helps us to justify why people need information and how best to shape it so it is clear and engaging so it can be received. It also can confirm the reason to communicate, especially as it relates to change. And as the world of work evolves people are becoming more aware of the benefits of understanding people, behaviour and motives.
How we apply this to communications
Studying behaviour and people’s motivation to act isn’t new – in the study of PR and communications time is taken to understand our audience and we use a number of methods to find out what will resonate or engage people most. The goal is to provide the kind of information that will help the individual along. This could be how they manage through a change programme, how they connect with their line manager or whether or not they embrace the values, vision and strategy. Our communications often includes a call to action – when we are aware of what people will respond to then shaping the messages and method of communications becomes easier.
The other key element is how we interact with leadership – the decision makers who want to see improvements in communications or recognise the need to engage employees. We know that the right level of targeted communications enhances engagement, and we know that leadership want to see improvements in engagement across the organisation. So, this gives us a way forward. In all this we also need to convince them of the approach – it won’t always be as simple as creating a design email or developing a newsletter. The activities might involve a bit of investigation to gain insight along with using our knowledge of how people think and behave to create the kind of messages and stories that truly impact and influence. Because neuroscience explains what happens to people’s emotions, thoughts and behaviours when we communicate, it helps us to be more mindful of the biological differences in people and that everyone receives and processes information differently.
We work to a set of objectives and we are constantly having to demonstrate the value we add. I believe that understanding themes like neuroscience enables us to be better at doing this. It is the evidence that tells us that people need to be informed, inspired and engaged.
Possible places to start
To help us along I thought I’d highlight a few ways neuroscience helps us in communications. I am sure there’s much more than the ones here, but it’s a start.
- Message development
We all know how important it is to shape messages correctly to inform people and not alienate them or cause stress. This is especially true during a change programme. Often times we are just given the narrative to post out, but at times we have to challenge this. Having some evidence through science to confirm your direction is something I’m excited about.
“If there’s uncertainty, for example about jobs, make sure when and how
you communicate is something employees can be certain about.” Hilary Scarlett
- Making the case to communicate
We all know the frustration of trying to convince a leaders or managers to communicate, especially when they believe there’s nothing to say. It is sometimes important for us to say something to influence this. Understanding how the brain works enables us to explain the impact that not communicating will have on the individual’s behaviour and motivation, which can lead to disengagement. From her articles and book, Neuroscience for Organizational Change, Hillary Scarlett explains that the brain craves information to manage how it perceives and processes threat and reward. It is wired to survival and gives us the instinct to avoid threat and to be attracted to security.
“If leaders and managers understood the impact of the ‘threat state’ on the brain
and our ability to think, they’d understand why communication and having a
relationship with someone is so important.” Hilary Scarlett
- Buy-in for further insight
From the recent Listening Project and other research, we know how important it is to create ways for employees to share their views and be listened to. It can be difficult to get buy-in and budget to embark on insight within the organisation, the large investment in the employee engagement survey will always be an excuse, but we know that gaining more specific information about our people helps to shape effective communications and engagement. Being able to address this from the position of how people think and process information, can make the difference and support giving employees a voice.
Exploring themes beyond our communications theory and practice will help us to think on a wider level. We are in changing times and we know it is important to provide value and the kind of strategic thinking that leaders need to support through activities like change and to achieve engagement.