Effective PR pros need to get a handle on emotions

Throughout time, there are two tremendous accidents that led to amazing discoveries about how the brain works. These accidents have much to teach us in public relations and communications about how we should craft our own work to be truly effective.

Throughout time, there are two tremendous accidents that led to amazing discoveries about how the brain works. These accidents have much to teach us in public relations and communications about how  we should craft our own work to be truly effective.

In September 1848 in Cavendish, VT, Phineas Gage suffered a horrific accident as he blew up boulders to make way for the railroad. The 13-pound steel rod he used to tamp down the black powder in the hole scraped the stone, sparking an explosion that sent the rod rocketing up under his left eye tearing through the top of his head.

While there is a plaque today in Cavendish that tells the tale of Gage, who miraculously survived the incident, perhaps it should also mark the spot where the modern era of communications should have begun. Gage's case triggered many neuroscientists to determine just what specific parts of the brain were damaged. Their obsession stemmed from reports of Gage suffering an inability to make sound decisions after the rod carved a doughnut hole in his brain.

In 1994, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio simulated the accident and hypothesized that human decision-making depends on emotion and without this emotional stamp, we cannot make sound decisions.

Damasio later used an fMRI brain- scanning tool to show the emotion governor in the brain must connect with the reason portion for humans to make decisions. In the past decade, dozens, if not hundreds of studies point to the crucial involvement of emotion in decision-making. This first accident should teach us that since all human decision-making depends on emotion, our efforts to persuade or explain also need to be rooted in emotional stories.

The second accident occurred in 1995. Scientists tracking the firing of specific neurons in monkeys by feeding them and listening to the crackling translations one day heard the neurons crackle from an observing monkey while the scientists themselves ate.

At first, mirror neurons revealed humans and some higher primates mirrored each other. Their brains would simulate what another person's brain was actually controlling in terms of motor skills.

For example, if I pick up a glass of water my brain activates the motor skills necessary to balance it without spilling. By merely watching me, your brain would mirror me, even though you're not picking up anything. Curiosity drove scientists to test whether humans also mirror another's emotions. They do. And now mirror neurons are credited as the evolutionary roots of human empathy. Since then, Uri Hasson, assistant professor at Princeton, revealed amazing findings. Hasson put a storyteller in one fMRI scanner and a listener in a separate scanner. They did not know each other or even see each other. Hasson tracked their brain patterns as the storyteller began.

He found the listener's brain mirrored the teller, but at a slight delay. As the story evolved, the listener mirrored the story- teller in sync with no delay. Finally, the listener's brain started accurately mirroring the teller's before the teller got to that part of the story. They were on the same wave length. Hasson calls this neural coupling.

Meanwhile, Raymond Mar, a psychologist at Canada's York University, studies the human brain while reading fiction. He's discovered as we read text, our brain simulates the real-world aspects triggered by the text. His studies found a correlation between those who are more avid readers of fiction with a greater capacity for empathy. He hypothesizes that reading fiction exercises the unique human ability to mirror what others think and feel and thus build empathy. This second accident and all its cascading revelations should teach PR pros that to engender empathy, we need to trigger mirror neurons. To do that, you need to tell stories that create movies in the listeners' minds. Plot summary, analysis, and bullet points cannot do that, nor can non-visual phrases such as "paradigm shift." PR needs to learn from these great accidents, and turn from the purely analytical approaches or methodical tools toward the way researchers are discovering the human brain really makes decisions. 

Chris Graves succeeded Marcia Silverman as the global CEO of Ogilvy Public Relations in 2010. He joined the agency as president of the firm's Asia-Pacific region in 2005.

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