An important part of being an effective communicator, whether that’s as part of a negotiation, pitching an idea or presenting to your team, is understanding both yourself and your audience. We all have a wide range of cognitive biases and comprehending what is in play can make all the difference if you want the message to be received well.

Which one’s should you understand though? That can be difficult to know and to be frank, they can all play a role. Here are 5 that can have a huge impact on your ability to communicate a message effectively.

The Zeigarnik Effect

What is it?

People have a tendency to remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than those they have completed.

Why it occurs:

We like to finish what we have started! So while an open task remains pending, there is a certain amount of mental tension keeping it prominent in our minds. When that task is completed, the tensions is released and we can move on. The classic case is seen in waiters being able to remember exact table orders until the food is delivered, the bill is paid or until they are effectively “done” with the table, but it’s also put to good use by TV shows with end of episode cliffhangers keeping viewers hooked, wanting to watch more as the action is unresolved and looms large in the memory. Some novels also apply the same principle at the end of a chapter.

You will also have seen it in many TV series where end-of-episode cliffhangers keep viewers hooked and wanting to watch more episodes to find out what happened and get closure.

Effectively, in our day-to-day lives, uninterrupted subject matter looms large in our mind and remains there until we finish it and can let it go. The unfinished topic takes up part of our attentional space, meaning that a) it is more easily remembered; and b) it is more difficult to focus on other matters.

What is the impact when communicating a message?

If you are presenting an idea to someone and want to aid recall, remember that you can achieve this by leaving something unresolved. Ask a question but don’t answer it. Don’t feel the need to tidy up every loose end in your message – be it an team wide email or a pitch to a customer. Intentionally leave something open until a later point, when you can resolve it.

Incidentally, this is often used as a powerful tool to limit your own procrastination – leave certain tasks unfinished so that you have to come back to them.

The Curse of Knowledge

What is it?

The bias of someone assuming that the people they are speaking to have the background knowledge to understand fully what is being said.

Why it occurs:

We assume that people around us are similar to us, that they have the same information as we do and therefore should know the same things that we know. It’s hard to look at a situation from someone else’s perspective and forget the knowledge that you already possess – after all, we only have one mind.

Where might you see it occur in real life?

If you think about it for even half a second, it sounds straightforward: of course there will be people out there in the world who don’t have the same background knowledge that we do on a range of topics. It has to be that way. But it doesn’t stop us from making the mistake of assuming it.

We see it everywhere:

  • It leads to governments failing to explain their policies properly, implementing laws and presenting data that the general population cannot fully understand (hello “experts”).
  • It can lead to teachers at all levels structuring learning around a starting point they define, rather than what has been verified by the students themselves.
  • And it leads to the friction we see around a Christmas game of charades: “how can you not understand what I am doing?!”

Why is it important?

This state of mind, in which the person can’t empathise with others who don’t possess the knowledge he does, causes frustration and/or disengagement in a relationship or worse, in wider society, in which the informed cannot ‘reconstruct the perceptions of lesser informed’ individuals.

What is the impact when communicating a message?

Let’s look at two examples:

  • Senior management does not fully explain the reasoning behind a project, or the objectives and strategy, to those tasked with execution – not because they didn’t feel the need to, but because they assumed the rest of the team already knew. Do you think that might tie into lower performance and employee engagement scores?
  • Someone is trying to pitch a product, service or idea to a potential customer (or anyone else for that matter – partners, investors, friends, family), but the pitch is not going well because the audience “just doesn’t get it” – probably because the starting point of the pitch assumed some level of knowledge. I’ve delivered many pitches and held numerous conversations where my customer/colleague/supplier has been kind enough to say “can we take a step back please”, which is bad, but not terrible. The terrible ones are where they say nothing, smile and nod, switch off and then the deal goes nowhere.

Overcoming the Curse of Knowledge means being disciplined enough to tell the full story: set the scene, discuss why it’s important, look at objectives, think about the impact on your audience and their background and assumptions. Just because you know why you are saying the words that you are, it doesn’t mean anybody else does.

The Choice-Supportive Bias

What is it?

The tendency for people to remember the options they chose as having more positive attributes than was really the case (and conversely, to remember options not chosen more negatively than was really the case).

Why it occurs:

Think of it like a mental safety mechanism. As a rule of thumb, consider that humans often say to themselves: “I chose this option; therefore it must have been the better option.”

In doing so, it helps reduce regret and generally promotes well being. Imagine being constantly plagued by doubt over every single decision you ever made. Your ability to make future decisions would most likely be severely impaired, particularly under pressure.

Where might you see it occur in real life?

In any decision we make, whether it be a car we decide to buy or a candidate to hire, we see that decision through rose-tinted glasses and ‘remember’ choosing the best option available to us.

What is the impact when communicating a message?

The main point to consider here is that if you are asking your audience to reverse a decision they previously made (which might be something like “you should try this new method of doing X”), you should understand that they will believe they previously made the best decision possible and having this illusion shattered isn’t going to do you any favours.

Instead, try to position the original decision as a good one, but that a change in situation has occurred, with accompanying new data, so it is time to make a new decision. This way you aren’t asking them to fix an error strewn prior decision.

The Ben Franklin Effect

What is it?

The Ben Franklin Effect is so called because it was a strategy used by Ben Franklin himself to win over an individual who did not particularly like him, and yet was likely to become influential in government. His strategy to win him over? He asked for a favour.

In essence, the effect is a phenomenon in which a person who has performed a favour for someone is more likely to do another favour for that person than they would be if they had received a favour from that person. The opposite is also true in that we tend to ‘dislike’ a person who we’ve done wrong to, with the thinking that we must have done it for a reason.

Why it occurs:

It’s a classic case of the tail wagging the dog: “I did this person a favour, therefore I must like them.” Our mind recreates this belief for us.

Where might you see it occur in real life?

You are probably most familiar with this phenomenon in the negative sense: Jailers look down on inmates they mistreat, soldiers dehumanise enemies they have vanquished, and rivalries escalate for no discernible reason other than the rivalry exists in the participants’ minds.

Why is it important?

It can be a highly effective, not to mention cost-effective, way to reach out to people with whom you have a poor (or no real) relationship: ask for a favour.

What is the impact when communicating a message?

A well-timed and well-placed request for a favour can sometimes open more doors for you than performing favours yourself. Think about how you can apply this to help open some doors before you get into a situation where you are able to communicate a message: Can you ask for advice on what matters most to the person or organisation? What have they tried before? What are their objectives? What interests them most in their industry?

You can use this information to help refine your message or pitch, with no attempt to explicitly repay the favour other than ensuring your product, service or idea aligns with their needs. There is no need to hide your objective – it makes sense for all parties.

Likewise, this can be a powerful way to win over detractors or people who may not be well disposed to your message – seek them out and ask for help with something.

It may seem counterintuitive, but it can be effective.

The Peak-End Rule

What is it?

The tendency for people to judge an experience based on how they felt at its peak, or at the end, rather than base their judgment on an average of every moment of the experience. It’s possible that “net-unpleasantness” (or for that matter net-pleasantness) may be completely disregarded.

Why it occurs:

There are two reasons why this might be the case: Humans have a memory-bias for more emotional events and therefore remember more intensely-emotional events than non. In addition, we have a well established recency-bias, whereby we remember the last part of an experience more clearly than the start or middle.

Where might you see it occur in real life?

It’s often all about the ending. Companies work hard to ensure that your final experience with them in a given situation is a good one. If you have ever had a bad experience with a company only to have it fixed expertly by a customer-service representative at the end, you’ll know that this can leave a lasting good impression. Likewise, retail outlets try to ensure you leave happy by having friendly staff at the till, or a doorman to open the door for you, so you experience the peak-end effect and have an overall positive opinion of the shop going forward (despite what your experience in the middle of the shopping trip was like).

Why is it important?

In general, people will put aside negative feelings about an event or experience if it all ends well and they leave on a high note. In addition, peaks of experience stick out in our memory, rather than more average experiences of the same situations.

What is the impact when communicating a message?

When communicating a message, particularly when you are trying to change behaviour in some way (for example, pitching a new idea to your team or to a customer), remember that people remember high-points of experience, not the average.

This can be applied in numerous ways. By way of example, don’t waste time giving example after example after example throughout your pitch – pick the best and most relevant case and make it as powerful as you can – with the aim being to make that single positive experience as memorable as possible.

Then, remember that your audience is more likely to remember your ending, so make sure you take advantage of this fact if you want to motivate action in some way. Pay considerable attention to your ending and ensure you end on a high note that is beneficial to you as it will be remembered. What part of your message is likely to be the key to your audience changing their behaviour? Alternatively, what part of your message is going to leave your audience most impressed? If it is at all possible, consider closing with either of these points.

Overall, remember that your audience, be they customers, partners, employees, suppliers, investors, anybody really, are human beings. As a result, the way you interact should keep that single fact in mind. You can download a handy “quick” reference infographic about this and other cognitive biases here.