08/09/2013 08:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Brain Magic From a Communications Lens

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Keith Barry's TEDTalk on Brain Magic is an entertaining display of the loopholes of logic. If you haven't seen it, he demonstrates how the brain uses millions of pieces of information to make a decision, while we only consciously acknowledge a tiny fraction of what is happening around us. Put simply, it's an excellent validation that when we have a "gut feeling" or an instinctual sense, it's really a mass calculation of our brains dissecting and analyzing a number of sensations, past experiences, personal beliefs and physical prompts to come to a decision.

As a communications professional, I find it fascinating to watch the connection of neuroscience, marketing and even Barry's 'voodoo' explain that every action and reaction delivers a message that sticks.

In watching Barry's talk, there's two underlying lessons for both the corporate world and individuals alike:

First, communication is much more than what is said or done. The time, place and delivery all play an important role in the 'cues' that brain will pick up, decipher and catalogue. This easily explains why branding or advertising may test poorly in a focus group, but delivers brilliantly when the audience isn't prepared to provide an opinion. As an example, the Old Spice Guy commercial (with Isaiah Mustafa), would have tested poorly in a traditional research setting, but when allowed to surprise and delight the audience, it outperformed and re-established the brand as vibrant, modern and relevant.

In another example, we've seen how some stories may have a local impact, but become international discussions, because of the reaction of many. Take the IKEA monkey. There was only a few hundred people at the store when Darwin wandered the parking lot in his shearling coat, but the story travelled the globe because the reaction of those few that were present. I would suggest the story would've been much less popular if he wasn't wearing a stylish jacket.

Secondly, Barry illustrates that words are merely a fraction of what we consume. Essentially, just using words limits the amount of information a brain uses to make a decision, and causes a much different and less desirable effect every single time. Barry showed us that visual, emotional, and other sensory information is used without consciously aggregating it to have a much greater impact. The use of visuals/graphics, body language, tone, inflection and the like provides more context and frankly, more opportunity for our brains to have a deeper understanding and ultimately make a better decision than a sentence on a page. But more so, how others react and respond, plays an important role in marketing, a magic show, a family dinner or corporate presentation. Going back to our friend Darwin, I can almost guarantee he would not have achieved international fame, if he wasn't captured on video.

There's a common lesson when dealing with employees in this speech as well. As I referenced above, every human interaction delivers a message, so when a company acts positively or not so positively, the employees will assess and bank those actions and their colleagues' reactions as factors on how they view the company that employs them. A CEO's speech, a manager's town hall, an email from Human Resources, and rumours being discussed at on a coffee break all add context and consideration to the company's reputation and values.

Barry's talk also makes me think about the need to craft communications with this instinct and 'gut feeling' in mind. Fact is, I'm often bothered by the suggestion that PR is all about 'spin doctoring,' but when you think about the act of carefully planning a communication approach or developing a marketing or advertising campaign, there has to be some level of 'doctoring' which really means deciding how to 'treat' the campaign to be effective. Barry delivers a great magic act throughout his TEDTalk, but it too was 'doctored' -- and if it wasn't, it wouldn't have been nearly as interesting, entertaining or thought provoking. Much like his magical 19-minute speech, companies need address employees, partners, customers and clients in much the same way.

Fact is, our brains are so much more complicated than we consciously conceive in the moment. As Barry says, the sixth sense can be manipulated, if you know how. I would suggest that it's even more powerful if we remain cognisant of the fact that the sixth sense is built by a million pieces of information while we can't impact them all, genuine thoughtful and well doctored communication can ensure the message is well understood.

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