Information technology has vastly improved the absolute welfare of market societies. But there’s a human toll in shifting our conversations online, undermining more meaningful connections. In important yet sometimes subtle ways, how we communicate today is out of sync with how we naturally communicate best. If we want to improve digital communication, we need to first understand human communication.
Have you ever made a joke on Twitter that came back to bite you because your recipients could not discern your sarcasm even with your charming emoji? The web has opened the floodgates to a headlong shift in how we connect, displacing in person meetings and phone calls with a deluge of emails, texts, and posts that now predominate. These text-based messaging apps put monumental importance on words.
But pioneering research by psychology professor Albert Mehrabian found that only 7% of the meaning derived from face-to-face conversations about attitudes and feelings comes from the words. The remaining 93% comes from the voice tone and body language. This doesn’t mean all messages are nonverbal. But if you want to connect emotionally, pay attention to tone and gesture. These non-conscious "trust signals" gauge honesty by observing if the speaker’s words align with their feelings.
The absence of these cues in text seems to have given rise to a new standard for trustworthiness online. Judy Olson, professor of information and computer sciences, discovered that devoid of intonation and gestures, research participants default to speed of response as a key indicator of trustworthiness. Quick replies are now proxies for Duchenne smiles.
But instead of just communicating faster how can we communicate better? How can we improve digital messaging by modeling how we’re supposed to talk in real life rather than changing it?
The meteoric rise of emojis speaks volumes of the need to add affective clarity and color to our sterile digital statements. To qualify the missing tone users can display their smiley face in lieu of their smiling face. But emoji has evolved beyond being a modifier of words to become its own language with a standardized alphabet. The Library of Congress has even accepted the first emoji-only book—Emoji Dick, a translation of Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick. And the most popular word of 2014 wasn’t even a word, but rather the emoji heart, according to research by Global Language Monitor—proof that it’s the emotion that’s missing.
Similarly Snapchat has become the fastest growing social media app by responding to another troubling inconsistency. Our everyday sentiments were never intended to linger ad nauseam forever linked to our identities online. The rapidly discarded ephemeral snaps force focus on the shared feeling not the shared photo. Snapchat is prompting a shift to sync up the artificial divide we’ve created between our online personae and our real life experiences. As Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel says, "We no longer have to capture the ‘real world’ and recreate it online—we simply live and communicate at the same time."
But the heart of the matter still remains. Face-to-face and phone conversations are called synchronous communication. They happen in real time. Most messaging apps work via asynchronous communication. There’s a lag between sending and replying that takes place outside of real time.
The brain is a prediction machine designed to figure out what will happen in the very next moment by recognizing patterns. Waiting for unanswered messages gnaws at our psyches, especially when the default for "no news/bad news" is no reply at all. When social norm conflicts with natural law we have a recipe for pandemic stress. Unanswered messages can loom large like the missing Malaysia Airlines jumbo jet. The mind needs closure even if the news is bad. This is how we learn to survive.
We often speak of wanting our messages to resonate. There’s now neurological evidence that effective communication actually physically resounds in the brain of the receiver, echoing the thoughts and sentiments of the communicator. By using fMRI brain scans Princeton University’s Greg Stephens led a remarkable study that determined that in both the listener and the communicator, similar regions of the brain fired when participants were engaged in unrehearsed, real-life story telling. The research team concluded that our brain cells synchronize during successful communication. The deeper the rapport, the more our minds meld. Sometimes the listeners’ brain patterns would even anticipate where the story was going, kind of like finishing another’s sentences when you’re both on the same page.
Another study at the City College of New York, also found that videos, TV shows and Super Bowl commercials actually synchronize the brains across audience members, but only if the videos are engaging. These in sync moments predicted the number of tweets generated by the video as well as the ratings from USA Today’s Super Bowl Ad Meter with varying degrees of accuracy.
We’re all connected just not by Facebook. Humans are wired to share feelings (not content) in the unrehearsed moments of real life. And when we experience them together live en masse, our sentiments can echo exponentially as retweets and shares. That’s why an impromptu selfie by Ellen Degeneres at the Oscars with A-list celebrities and a Samsung smartphone became the most retweeted ever by a landslide. The tweet, reportedly valued at about $1 billion, is worth far in excess of the $20 million Samsung paid to sponsor the show. Similarly, when the Superdome went dark during the Super Bowl due to a power outage, Oreo’s tweet: 'You Can Still Dunk In The Dark' lit up the Internet creating a bigger buzz than commercials costing millions more to create.
Chevrolet also reaped a windfall in earned media when a jittery spokesman presented the World Series MVP Award on live national television. He kept mostly to the script of his notecard before ad-libbing the now-famous words, "Technology and Stuff." GM spun the gaffe into an online campaign and "Chevy Guy" was a big hit. But it wasn’t those words driving its effectiveness. It was his trembling voice and awkward body language that moved us—making the message resound online far greater than any pitch-perfect presentation.
If you want improve digital messaging, think humans before apps and feelings before words. And remember, we were never meant to live online. Connection happens best when sharing in the precious moment of real life. The sacred gift aptly named: the present.
Douglas Van Praet is a brand strategy consultant and the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. He is also a keynote speaker and founder of Unconscious Branding, a leading-edge brand strategy consultancy whose approach to marketing draws from uconscious behaviorism and applies neurobiology, evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics to business problems. He has positioned some of the world’s most iconic brands through highly effective award winning campaigns at leading agencies and marketers in New York and Los Angeles.
Read some of Van Praet's past columns on neuroscience and marketing: