Gini Dietrich

How Our Biases Affect Our Communications Plans

By: Gini Dietrich | April 23, 2019 | 
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communications plansYou know what you know and, if you’re lucky, you know what you don’t know. But do you know what affects what you know without you knowing it?

Now I challenge you to read that out loud.

Five times fast.

Not so easy, is it? Try doing it for a podcast recording. In my defense, I only had to try twice…I nailed it on the third time.

This might be easier: do you ever sit back and think about where your knowledge, decisions, and understanding are coming from—and if all of that information is accurate?

We all have internal biases and are prone to errors in decision making. So do the people we work with.

And that means we often don’t know everything we really NEED to know about a situation we’re developing a plan for.

This is how the things going on inside our heads, and the things we have nothing to do with, can influence the quality and success of our communications plans. Plus, we have to know how to mitigate the damage it can cause.

Our Internal Biases and Our Communications Plans

There are a whole lot of categories of things we don’t know.

My personal list includes astrophysics, why it’s not legal to hunt squirrels for sport, and the economics of high-end children’s clothes.

But that has nothing to do with communication.

As it turns out, the things we don’t know can affect our communications plans. 

That means our internal biases, and the external factors that can throw us for a loop, definitely affect how we plan for communications success.

This, of course, happens a lot in politics today. We find things that support the way we think and poo-poo facts that support a different opinion.

It also happens in parenting. For those of you who are parents, you know what I mean.

I remember, before I was a parent, thinking awful and really judgy things about parents I’d see out and about. “Oh, I’d never let my kid throw a tantrum in a restaurant.” “Oh, technology is so bad for them. They won’t have phones or tablets.” “I don’t want them to be gender-focused and will prevent it.”

Yeah…good luck with that, Gin.

Of course, I am attracted to articles and research that shows technology is bad for kids and avoid the ones that say it’s actually OK (and there was an article early last week that spoke to that).

At the same time, there is absolutely no way to prevent them from using technology. They use it at school. They can’t avoid it at home—unless you don’t use it.

And suddenly, all those judgy thoughts you had when you were childless no longer have merit.

Talking About Cognitive Biases

So let’s talk about cognitive biases. They’re awful and they’re great.

They’re awful when you’re not paying attention to them, but they’re also incredibly interesting.

A cognitive bias is a systematic deviation from the norm of rationality in judgment.

That is to say, cognitive biases are our minds playing tricks on us and convincing us we’re right without any good reason.

My colleague and friend, crazy Laura Petrolino, wrote about 14 of these suckers a couple of weeks ago, so I’m just going to share two of my favorites with you now.

Confirmation bias is the first one on my list, and it’s when you approach an idea with an idea of the way things are or should be, and look for clues and signals that we’re right.

We want to be right so badly that we overlook contradictory information.

Let’s say I was planning a social media campaign about squirrels and their crimes against humanity.

I’ll research different articles, conduct interviews, and prepare the campaign.

But because I expect all of the information out there about squirrels to agree with me in that they are miserable vermin, I’ll be likely to completely overlook any facts, evidence, or stories that demonstrate they can be useful or helpful, and only pay attention to the data that agrees with me.

When it comes to squirrels, I am right of course, but if you experience confirmation bias about any other topic, you might find yourself missing valuable, relevant information.

This is a hard bias to overcome, but try to clear your mind of expectations in terms of how people will respond to a topic or idea, and rely on data that is, as much as possible, collected objectively.

And the Curse of Knowledge

Next on my list is the curse of knowledge.

Anyone who’s been in their industry for a long time suffers, to some degree, from the curse of knowledge. You spend so long learning and growing and developing opinions and understandings of the concepts you deal with every day, that you forget just how specialized that knowledge is.

And that means you tend to assume that other people have the same or a similar basic understanding.

They don’t.

And if you talk to them like they do, things go badly.

The curse of knowledge can wreak havoc on your communications plans when you talk over people’s heads—and that goes for your clients, executives, and colleagues as much as for the broader audience you’re communicating with.

If you don’t know what level of knowledge or understanding the target of your campaign is at, ask them directly, or ask people who work with them.

You want to meet people where they are, not shoehorn them up to where you are.

Understanding these biases is going to make you a much, much better communicator.

What About Context?

But even when you have the best possible control over your own internal biases, you still have to be wary of the next element that can blindside you when it comes to your communications plans: the context you’re working in.

Wait, Gini, you might be thinking, I know what the plan is for. I know who’s involved and who it’s for and what the goals are. How would I be surprised by the context?

I hear you. But it’s the fact that you think you know so much that’s going to trip you up!

Often, our examination of the context for a given plan or campaign only includes the information we have easy access to—not everything that actually exists.

We make assumptions about what is possible, what is available and what people are going to think of it.

The problem is, we’re often wrong, and sometimes there’s less budget than planned, no one knows how a certain tool or technology works or a big competitor did almost exactly the same thing last quarter, and actually, the spokesperson we want to use is climbing Kilimanjaro that month.

This reminds me of the time, early in the days of my agency, we planned a Fire Ant Funeral at the Fire Ant Festival in Georgia.

Our client was the creator of a once a year fire ant killer which, if you live in the South, you know is a very necessary thing.

I hate those little buggers!

Our plan was to host a funeral for a fire ant, complete with mourners, a preacher, and a casket.

We had every media outlet on the hook, with even Good Morning America set to do a piece.

And that morning, Bush took us to war.

So. Yeah.

Talk about not examining the context appropriately.

Had we done that, we would have seen the signs and, while we couldn’t have predicted it would happen that very morning, we could have had a plan B.

Create a Bias Checklist and Include Context

Always do a context audit with your clients, or key team members before starting any big plan or campaign.

Use a checklist and make sure you include external implications.

Could last week’s news that North Korea is sending a message to the White House affect your plans? What about a global depression?

Our brains are not reliable, so make sure you have everything you can think of on a checklist.

Make sure you have a good understanding of the goals, the people involved, the tools and technology that are relevant, the budget you’re working with, and the environment your plan is going to be working in—including all of the external things you can’t control.

You’ll probably never know absolutely everything about a situation going in, but making a point, and having a system for getting as much critical information as possible about the timelines, budgets, resources, and audiences you’re dealing with means you’ll make far fewer mistakes, and you can go back to stressing out about confirmation bias.

And now it’s your turn…

Have you ever been betrayed by a cognitive bias, or been absolutely blindsided by information you really should have had at the outset?

The comments are yours.

Photo by José Alejandro Cuffia on Unsplash

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.