Gagen MacDonald has supported research commissioned by the Institute for Public Relations to investigate how PR and corporate communications executives can apply the findings of neuroscience to their work. By understanding key ideas in neuroscience, cognitive behavior and psychology, we can become better storytellers and therefore foster engagement, align culture and drive behavior change. This post is one in an occasional series exploring that research. Learn more at our upcoming Storytelling for Business Seminar with the Conference Board.
Why do we resist communications aimed at changing our behaviors? Because change can be difficult, scary and laden with power dynamics. Nobody wants to change, or to feel forced into change. But great storytelling can melt our resistance, leaving us open to growth.
Welcome to part two of our series on how corporate communications executives can recognize – and counter – the 6 most common types of resistance listeners bring to messages. Part one revealed how you can counter back-talk and tuning-out. Now for #3 on our list:
- Superhero complex.
Cognitive behaviorists refer to this resistance as “perceived invulnerability”: when listeners believe they’re less susceptible to harm. Health- and crisis-based communications run into this resistance frequently. Cigarette smoking, disaster preparedness, climate change: all of these messages hold consequences so dire, it’s easier to believe those hazards can’t possibly apply to us.
Even superheroes have vulnerabilities – and your story must address those credibly. In one study, teenagers were admonished not to smoke with a variety of arguments. Which narrative actually worked? Showing teens how smoking negatively impacts their looks, from tooth damage to sallower skin. If you know what your audience really values, you can deliver your message in terms that resonate.
The technical term for this resistance is “message minimization,” or the perception that a message must be exaggerated. We belittle messages that make us feel uncomfortable or guilty, or remove a pleasure from our lives.
Two narrative elements are crucial to keep your message from getting demeaned. Your whole story must be plausible, or likely to happen in real life. Within the story, each scene needs to feel typical, or representative of a real-world situation. Screen your story carefully to make sure each scene passes the belittling test. One unbelievable scenario is all it takes to lose your audience.
- After effects.
Does your story focus on the positive outcomes that change brings, or the negative outcomes that failing to change will incur? Psychologists refer to this concept as “outcome expectancies”.
Putting a positive spin on your corporate story might make the difference in convincing your audience, particularly if they’ve identified with characters who receive those positive outcomes. In plainer terms, most of us respond to the carrot more enthusiastically than the stick.
- Gumption (or lack of it).
A huge factor in whether listeners change after hearing a story is their sense of “self-efficacy,” or whether they believe they’re personally capable of change. “Gumption” combines many concepts into one word: resourcefulness, guts, shrewdness, initiative. Those with gumption feel capable of change; those lacking in gumption don’t have that self-confidence. Everyone has innate gumption; the difficulty is activating it.
For instance, we helped employees at a global hotel company redefine their roles in light of a new strategic vision called “Guest Preference”. We began by engaging all 400 general managers from around the world in a three-day leadership experience where they learned how to confidently communicate the strategy shift story to all 80,000 employees. Our work helped activate the GMs’ sense of self-efficacy and light that spark via storytelling that would help drive the change throughout the organization.
If you identify with a story’s characters, you adopt their sense of self-efficacy or gumption. That’s a tricky balance: characters need to reveal enough vulnerabilities for us to empathize with them, but they also need to stretch beyond those vulnerabilities and enact the change we’re aiming for. Following a character’s arc to the other side of change is powerful. It engages our imaginations to think differently about a situation or behavior.
It also prompts what psychologists call “self-referencing” – relating the experiences of a character to your own situation. Self-referencing is more clear-eyed than narrative identification: you’re no longer imagining; you are the character. Instead you’re evaluating real-world change in light of the story you’ve just experienced: connecting the dots between story and behavior.
While we may resist change in ordinary life, we crave stories that motivate us to grow. To change behaviors within your company, start by acknowledging that change starts only when your audience allows it. Your aim as a storyteller is not to cram your listeners’ minds with facts, or strong-arm them into dropping objections. Instead focus on telling an amazing, emotionally infused story – period.
Engage the imagination, and you may find your audience sees the world differently afterward – and change isn’t far behind.