It’s not what you say but what they hear that counts

listeningThis was one of the many profound insights shared with a global audience of PR and communication leaders from around the world that gathered a stone’s throw from the National Assembly and Saint-Germain-des-Prés in central Paris last week.

The subject of leadership dominated the two-day ICCO Summit and what was fascinating to observe was a growing consensus view of the recognition that clients need to be supported in understanding not just how their messages are being delivered but more importantly how they’re being received.

I was particularly impressed with Diana El-Azar, senior director responsible for media, entertainment and information industries at the World Economic Forum.

Diana’s job is to oversee partnerships with global media companies and she’s personally involved in setting the media and communications industry agenda, so she’s in a fantastic place to observe the changes that are taking place right now.

What audiences hear is becoming absolutely critical to the communication process as it’s getting increasingly more difficult to transmit messages in today’s hyper-connected world.

The phenomenon isn’t as new as you may think.

Back in the ‘60s, psychologists discovered a condition they called ‘confirmation bias’ that described the tendency of people to favour information that confirms their attitudes, values, beliefs, perceptions and behaviours.

Customers, clients and supporters display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. They also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position.

Biased search, interpretation and memory have been invoked to explain a number of states of mind:

  • attitude polarization – when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence;
  • belief perseverance – when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false;
  • the irrational primacy effect – a greater reliance on information encountered early in a series; and
  • illusory correlation – when people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations.

A series of experiments in the ‘60s suggested that people are biased toward confirming their existing beliefs. Later research re-interpreted these results as a tendency to test ideas in a one-sided way, focusing on one possibility and ignoring alternatives. In certain situations, this tendency can bias people’s conclusions on your products or services or indeed your message.

Explanations for the observed biases include wishful thinking and the limited human capacity to process information.

Another explanation is that people show confirmation bias because they are weighing up the costs of being wrong, rather than investigating in a neutral, scientific way that actually they should consider another argument or set of facts that could displace their bias.

From the perspective of a psychologist ‘confirmation biases’ contribute to over-confidence in personal beliefs and can maintain or strengthen beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. And this is what’s known as the ‘back fire effect’!

American psychiatrist Dr Charles Lord looked at how people changed their minds when given more information. What he observed was the ‘back-fire effect’ in which individuals challenged with evidence contradictory to their beliefs tend to reject this evidence and instead hardened their views!

Fast forward to 2004 when Facebook came on the scene and increased the speed at which the exchange of information can happen. All of a sudden everyone had a voice but as good marketing and PR folk all quickly discovered, not everyone had the ability to harness this for PR and social marketing impact.

As a result, the imbalance between those who laboured to get their messages ‘pitch perfect’ and those who were able to have a voice and weren’t afraid to use it radically changed the nature of the communication process.

In fact, it made it much more stressful for marketers and PR practitioners.

So how do organisations and individuals deal with the complexity, velocity and volatility of on-line and off-line media today?

The message coming out loud and clear from the ICCO Summit was for the necessity for all of us to embrace rather than react against change.

Howard Kosky who runs a highly successful multi-million GBP broadcast communication business in London spoke about the rise of so-called ‘citizen journalism’.

In a sense that’s precisely what some social media sites such as Twitter have come to represent.

But instead of decrying this or thinking of it as sub-standard, marketers and PR practitioners must try and embrace this growing aspect of social interaction.

As Howard confessed, ‘citizen journalism’ is new, immediate and rapidly becoming the most trusted information source on the planet.

So it’s worth remembering, it’s not what you say but what they hear that counts.





One comment to It’s not what you say but what they hear that counts

  • Pamela  says:

    So that’s why best beloved sometimes doesn’t hear what I say!

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