Activating intuition through simplicity
The reason organisations communicate is to affect behavioural change in their target audiences. At its simplest level, the change is about ‘buy our stuff’. It becomes more complex when you’re selling an idea, for example, but the principle remains the same.
And it is quite simple, in concept at least. People don’t change very fast and Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion are as effective today as they were 2,500 years ago. He talked about the need for ethos, pathos and logos.
Ethos is your credibility. If you’re an FMCG company, that’s your brand. If you’re an NGO, it’s your record. And so on. Fundamentally, it’s about you.
Pathos is about the emotional connection you make with your audience, which in turn defines your ability to persuade them.
Pathos is about the emotional connection you make with your audience, which in turn defines your ability to persuade them. It is about the benefits to them of changing their behaviour. This body spray will make you more attractive; that software will help you make more profit; this aid programme will make people’s lives better.
And logos covers the features of what you’re selling. It’s made from the sap of a rare tree high up in the Indonesian mountains; we’ve combined the latest coding standards in a unique way; we’re building new water supplies.
Aristotle’s point was that you need all three to create a compelling case, though probably with different emphasis depending on each target audience. And who am I to argue with Aristotle?
Then I read ‘The Righteous Mind’, by Professor Jonathan Haidt. He studies and writes about the psychology of morality, and is based at the New York University Stern School of Business. A central point he makes in this book is that we make decisions intuitively and quickly. We then use reason to justify our position and to persuade others. That’s why there’s a cliché about first impressions. And it’s true for most decisions we make, not just the people we meet.
This is important for communicators because it calls into question the relationship between pathos and logos. Most of my work is targeting consumers; it’s more about advocacy and business-to-business communications. I’ve always focused on encouraging people to think about pathos and therefore to describe the benefits of what they’re selling, rather than just focus on the logos. The features are important, of course, but your audience is more interested in what they can get from it than how clever you are in creating it.
But, thanks to Prof. Haidt, it’s clear we need to go a step closer to the audience, to build an emotional case to help that initial intuitive and quick decision go the right way.
That takes simplicity. It is about creating a simple and compelling message that resonates with your audience from the very beginning. It makes them nod, perhaps not literally but internally. And it does that because it is about them, not about us.
Let’s take that software example. The key benefit is more profit, which carries the implication of streamlining. The key feature is clever use of technology. But Haidt’s theory suggests that’s not enough. We need to add a top layer, that the audience will see first: in this case, that is ‘we simplify your work’. It is a positive message that grabs the attention, demanding answers to how? and why? It is, of course, essential to have credible messages behind it, but by then people are already on our side because we’ve activated their intuitive decision-making.
Mark Twain once apologised for writing a long letter to a friend, saying he didn’t have time to write a short one.
I am a firm believer in the importance of simplicity. Mark Twain once apologised for writing a long letter to a friend, saying he didn’t have time to write a short one. It takes a lot of work to produce something simple-looking. And that’s our job: to help you refine your offering so it does indeed looks simple.
Senior Advisor, International Communications, based in London
Charlie is an experienced communications consultant who started Leidar UK in 2010. He is responsible for developing and implementing communications strategies for companies and organisations of all sizes and in many different sectors.