Rational Choices, Willpower and Habits
Climate change will raise temperatures in the US by 3-4 degrees over the next 10 years. Hundred year-storms like Sandy will roll around every few years as weather patterns change. The impact to the planet will be catastrophic. I learned this listening to NPR the other day. I was driving home, and hungry. My mind didn’t dwell on earth-shattering events that will affect my children and your children. It pondered whether (no pun there) I should stop in for a McDonalds on the way home. This phenomenon, the drifting mind, is no stranger to experts in the communications business. If you’re an Adman, a corporate communications expert or you work in PR, you know it’s hard to get through. Why is that? Shortly after the Climate Change/ McDonald’s incident I read Charles Duhigg‘s The Power of Habit. It’s a fascinating dip into the unconscious mind and the routines that people establish to get them through their day. As communicators we struggle with breaking through. We appeal to the rational mind and people’s ability to make choices. Maybe that’s why we’re not so successful.
I noted a couple of key points that impact messaging and communication:
1. We don’t make as many decisions as we think we do.
According to Duhigg, habits rule much of our world. These unconscious routines can make up to 40% of the actions we take each day. This is akin to McDonalds vs. World Climate Change. One is urgent, the other far more important, but almost always the urgent wins out. This is a primitive urge that dates back to our days as hunter-gatherers. When we’re collecting berries for the harvest (which is important) we run when we see a bear (which after all is much more urgent). When a large bear arrives, there isn’t a lot of thinking going on, running away is a subconscious routine. This impacts your pitch or presentation in the same way. What you have to say — the new business case, a new product, financial results, (which is important) and the modern equivalent of a large scary animal — buzzing blackberries and beeps from iPhones.
2. Look for a cue to trigger a new routine.
Duhigg tells the story of Claude C. Hopkins, the Don Draper of Madison Avenue circa 1900. The story goes that “Hopkins’ greatest contribution would be helping to create a national toothbrushing habit. Before Pepsodent, almost no Americans brushed their teeth. A decade after Hopkins’ advertising campaigns, pollsters found toothbrushing had become a daily ritual for more than half the population. Everyone from Shirley Temple to Clark Gable eventually bragged about a ‘Pepsodent smile’.” Hopkins tapped into the neurology of habits and identified a cue — running your tongue over your teeth — that could trigger a routine — brushing your teeth. This cue/ routine/ reward system is the habit loop, and the same psychological quirks used so brilliantly by Hopkins can explain design choices today in everything from Gaming to Retail, Advertising to User Interfaces design. It’s a useful insight if whatever you’re pitching or presenting demands a change in routine.
3. Making choices, and using willpower, wears us out.
There is a sound physiological reason for building habits. Willpower, and the ability to make sustained mental effort that goes with it, is in limited supply. Habits are the brain’s answer to that limited supply. If we don’t have to actively think about it, we conserve that precious reservoir of mental effort. Think about* the receiving end of a typical presentation. How many buzzwords, acronyms or needlessly complex points are thrown at you? Too many, I’ll bet. You may spend as many cycles trying to understand the point as you do thinking about it, reacting to it, or taking action from it. Proof positive the presenter spent most of their time dumping what they know into the presentation, covering all bases, and very little editing and honing. This is the hidden downfall of many a presentation. The mental cycles soaked up understanding, bearing on the goodwill of the audience to engage take away from the goal of the presentation.
*I appreciate the irony of pointing out that you have a limited supply of mental cycles, then asking you to think about something. Thank you. And for all of you who read the footnote. I doubly appreciate your expenditure of mental effort. I only wish I could replenish it somehow.
Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.