By Carmen Simon, PhD, Chief Science Officer, Corporate Visions
Why do human beings have brains?
To communicate, create, express emotions? To help us solve complex problems? Both answers are correct, but they’re tied to one fundamental reason: We have a brain so we can move—to physically move from point A to point B.
A brain that doesn’t move is a brain that can’t create. It won’t communicate with or coordinate all other functions of the body. Although the human brain hasn’t changed much over the past 40,000 years, what has changed is our almost unlimited options for movement. People can go anywhere they want—even, with enough money, into space.
Movement can happen toward a stimulus or away from it. The same goes for your customers. They can move toward you or away from you. They have options—lots of them. And in this article, I’ll share a neuroscience perspective on how you can convince your customers’ brains to move in your direction.
How people make decisions
There are three primary ways in which the brain decides where to move next.
- The brain makes decisions based on reflexes—instincts through which we subconsciously alter behavior to ensure biological fitness. It takes only one experience with a hot surface (stimulus) to remember what to do next time to prolong survival (reward).
- The brain makes decisions based on habits, which implies repeating actions that prove rewarding. If you always take the same route to the office, after a while, you don’t have to put much thought into how you get to work each day.
- The brain makes decisions based on goals. If you take your usual route to work and your goal is to get there on time, but you encounter a construction sign, you’ll have to put some thought into deciding on an alternative route to reach your goal.
One difference between reflexes, habits and goal-oriented behavior is the amount of cognitive effort involved.
Reflexes are automatic and don’t involve cognitive effort. Habits are conscious when you first form them. When you had to navigate that route to work the first time, you had to think about it. But with enough repetition and reward (you reached the office reliably), it became habitual. Goal-oriented behavior, on the other hand, requires a lot more cognitive energy—you need to process new information and potentially change behavior to reach a specific goal.
What does this mean for you as a strategic account manager trying to influence your customer to take a certain action? It means you need to ask yourself at any given moment how much thinking power their brains can bear, because giving the brain the choice whether to work hard or not, it might choose the path of least resistance.
Let’s now consider how you can appeal in your communication techniques to reflexes and habits—to help the brain conserve cognitive energy—and how to make it worthwhile for the brain to think.
Eliciting reflexive responses
Scientists have compiled a list of stimuli that are biologically rewarding (whether by seeking them or avoiding them) and elicit reflexive responses.
For example, think of the automatic responses you have to sweet taste, putrefying odor, proper body temperature, pain, physical touch, snakes, flowers, an aggressive tone, play, courtship, sex, crying infants, sleep, novelty, altruism or control over your environment. These stimuli are considered primary reinforcers, meaning that they’re pre-wired (not learned) and generate an automatic response. Contrast them with secondary reinforcers, such as money or promotions, which are learned and require cognitive effort to generate action.
While you may not be able to allude to pain, sex or snakes in your customer conversations, there are some hardwired stimuli that you can use in your communications. Let’s look at controlling the environment, altruism, and aesthetics.
The brain reacts reflexively to the ability to control the environment. Note how 3M tells its customers that they can be in better control of their environment.
You can do the same: if you show your prospects or customers how using your products, services or ideas gives them the ability to control their environment. When you do this well, you will elicit a reflexive decision from your buyer’s brain.
The brain also reacts reflexively to altruism. Imagine I made this statement: “It’s raining outside and I bought myself an umbrella.” Your reaction to this statement would be neutral. But if I said, “It’s raining outside and I bought an umbrella for a stranger,” your appreciation of altruism would generate a much stronger reaction.
You can appeal to altruism in your business communications. The moment you remind someone that when they use your products, services or ideas, they can be in service of somebody else, you get an instant reaction from the brain. In your business interactions, you always speak with audiences that have audiences. Remind the primary one how they can be in service of the secondary one once they use your offerings, and you will ignite an altruism appeal.
Aesthetic stimuli can elicit a reflexive response, too. You might be thinking, “Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder?” You would be right to think that way because there’s a subjective dimension to beauty. Something that’s ordinary to others may be beautiful to you. A freshly mowed lawn, a skyscraper or a clean countertop may be spectacular to some, while leaving others unmoved.
Everyday things have a subjective dimension, but in business content, there are some aesthetic principles that work universally. Let’s look at those next.
Messaging aesthetics: Or, how to make your business communications more “beautiful”
When you construct a message with words, or create a layout with words and pictures, there are universal patterns in how the human brain responds to certain compositions. For example, when you include any of the six elements shown in the list below, you will hold people’s attention longer, and they’ll be more likely to want to return to your communication.
- Proximity, which represents the distance between visual units. Elements that touch and overlap look more related, so grouping ideas and elements will make them look more similar.
- Contrast, which you can create perceptually, by opposing colors, shapes, textures, size, orientation, or conceptually, by opposing ideas.
- Hierarchy. Arranging things or ideas in such a way that their relationships are clear.
- Dominance. This is the quality that draws your attention to a certain part of a design or message first. Every design needs an accent—a point of interest.
- Balance. This represents the distribution of weight among visual units, the way elements are arranged in a composition to create a feeling of stability.
- Unity. The feeling of harmony between all parts of a composition, which creates a sense of completeness. Unity shows what things have in common.
By using any or a combination of these principles, you appeal to our reflexive responses to aesthetics, making your messages easier and faster to understand and process. The busy business brain will appreciate this reduction in cognitive workload.
One of the reasons behind the lighter cognitive load is because the use of these principles helps the brain detect patterns and detect what is essential about a person or a situation. Essentials are important because they can be extrapolated to process other similar situations.
Thinking of your own content, do you make it easy for your audiences to detect what is essential in your content, which can be transferred to other situations?
People also make decisions based on habits, which are developed as people explore their external environments and inner states. Habits are conscious at first, become automatic in time and tend to stick when they are rewarding and not costly in cognitive energy.
Everyone has habits, good and bad: running can help or hinder, and so can coffee, alcohol or gossip. Thanks to neuroscience research, scientists now understand a great deal about how habits are formed and how they work. This has immediate implications for business, sales and how you communicate. One way to convince people to move in your direction is to link your product, service or solution to something they already find familiar.
When you use familiar cues, you make it easy on your audience because their brains don’t have to do a lot of work to understand what you’re showing them. From a neuroscience perspective, this is rewarding for them.
A while back, I was consulting with a company operating in the quote-to-cash field. This company’s software platform helped their customers automate their end-to-end order fulfillment process, from getting the quote to getting paid.
Whenever the company pitched their business, the first question they asked prospects was, “Do you integrate with Salesforce?” So they decided to introduce their software through something their customers already found familiar and enjoyed using. The moment they tapped into their prospects’ habits, it became easier to move someone in their direction.
But there’s a danger here as well. If you insist on something that’s familiar for too long, the brain becomes habituated, and it stops paying attention. For example, think about when you first started working from home and all the distractions that would interrupt your focus. Now, after almost two years, when your neighbor starts mowing the lawn, or a dog starts to bark, you barely get bothered. That’s because you’ve become habituated and your brain has naturally stopped paying a lot of attention to these distractions.
In your own business communication processes, it’s important to stay humble about how quickly the brain habituates, because, at some point, you must jolt your audience’s brains out of it by providing something unexpected—a twist on the familiar.
From a neuroscience perspective, consider transforming the adage “know your audience” to “know your audience’s habits.” Know what they’re familiar with and then develop the courage to give the familiar a twist. That way, you give them the best of both worlds: something they know and something they did not expect.
Novelty and Surprise
Sometimes people treat novelty and surprise the same way, but they are, in fact, two different concepts. Novelty is something that you have not seen or experienced before. Surprise is something that you have experienced before, but you didn’t expect. From an evolutionary perspective, surprises are bad for the brain. The human brain has evolved to be a prediction engine, which is at the root of how we (individually and collectively) survive. A brain that can’t predict its next move is a brain that won’t survive for long.
So, on one hand, the brain doesn’t like surprises, because what is a surprise but a failure to predict? On the other hand, the brain appreciates surprises because it’s how the brain learns. The difference between what the brain expects will happen and what actually happens is how the brain fine tunes its predictive power.
How can you use this to your advantage when communicating with your buyers or internal stakeholders?
Consider mixing novelty with elements of surprise—something familiar with an unexpected twist. In business communication, I notice that people try to impress others with too much novelty. Consider sacrificing some of it in favor of the familiar and the unexpected. I’m not advocating to give up novelty entirely (novelty, after all, elicits a reflexive response). Just temper it a bit.
Despite all the subconscious ways the brain moves, at some point it will have to work hard and think about what to do next. Take a look at the ad below.
It takes a moment to process, but once you expend the cognitive effort, you’re rewarded with something in return. It’s satisfying to feel the light bulb go off. You can do the same for your audiences. However, if you do ask them to think, make sure the reward for exerting effort is obvious.
What does the brain find rewarding or valuable? Consider associating your products, services or ideas with the concepts in below.
For example, any time you offer your audience something that works (fully functional), the reward matches the effort. Epistemology, which means the origin or nature of our knowledge, is rewarding, too. Any time you teach your audience something, they will find it valuable.
Sometimes, adjusting your products or content to the proper situation is considered valuable. And often, you will have the opportunity to combine some of these rewards in a holistic way. For example, a trip to Paris might involve strong emotions, learning new things and indulging some hedonistic pleasures.
Do the experiences you create for your customers offer rewards that match their efforts?
Tying it together: It’s all about balance
A frequent mistake I see in business communication is trying to appeal to goal-oriented decisions at the expense of reflexes and habits. Marketers and salespeople often give their audiences one thought-provoking thing after another, and if it’s at the end of a busy day or sandwiched in between other cognitively draining activities, the audience becomes overloaded and tunes out.
To avoid this, consider balancing automatic reactions to your messages with strategic (thought-provoking) ones. How? Think of a well-worn phrase everyone knows like “Knowledge is power.” If I say this, you know exactly what it means—its meaning is so second-nature that you don’t have to think about it.
Now imagine a slight twist to the known phrase. Something like, “It’s not knowledge that’s power. It’s the application of knowledge that’s power.” This is what I mean by balancing strategic and automatic processes: Give your audiences something they expect, something they don’t expect, and reward them for detecting the difference.
Overall, when you think about how the brain decides, consider the impact of reflexes, habits and goals. When you balance all three in building and delivering your messages, you will increase your chances of convincing people to move in your favor. ■
Carmen Simon, PhD, is a cognitive neuroscientist and Chief Science Officer at Corporate Visions. She is the author of Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence. Results from her brain science studies are available at B2B DecisionLabs, the research division of Corporate Visions.
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