How can we communicate effectively in a post-truth environment?

1 December

We have never been as persuaded by facts as we are by stories. Stories and their embellishments have been the way we’ve shared lessons, events and ideas for millennia. Parables, fables and tales, not facts, inform our ethical and moral lives. We have a propensity to absorb and reproduce a good yarn well beyond our ability to recount facts and detail. In other words, we all have an innate ability to communicate more effectively without the restriction of truth.

That being said, what we have seen this year is the triumph of absolute fabrication over truth-based rhetoric, and we need to address how and why this has happened. There are lessons to be learnt.

The poster-boy of our post-truth environment is Donald Trump. His style seems to be born more from astute recognition of sentiment than any planned strategy. His success is in the sheer quantity of ideas, suggestions, theories and accusations that sprays out from him at a remarkable rate. Fact tracking tells us that a very slim number of the statements he makes have any truth in them at all, and yet he has drawn in millions and millions of people. Why?

The first place to look is at our own behaviour. None of us invests in seeking information that contradicts our own beliefs; we are drawn to reports, articles and people who reflect and support our existing stance. We choose our news sources and follow people and groups that supports, rather than challenges our views. In effect, we create echo chambers of our own attitudes. This makes us highly susceptible to persuasion. The closer an idea is to our own, the faster and easier it is assimilated into our own. The further away an idea is, the easier it is to reject. If an idea doesn’t resonate, then it’s filtered. Social media has made super-fast filters of us all.

“The Trump statements that resonate are assimilated and repeated until adopted, and in the repetition they become a sort of truth of their own.”

Donald Trump espouses thoughts at internet speed. Those that don’t resonate are meaningless and are immediately filtered and the listener moves on. Those that do resonate are assimilated, repeated until adopted and in the repetition they become a sort of truth of their own.

Challenging these fast-form thoughts is incredibly difficult. The volume and speed of them makes it impossible to challenge them all in any coherent way. How many people really believed that Ted Cruz's father was friends with Lee Harvey Oswald? How many people cared whether it’s true or not? We’ve seen headlines like that every single day in click bait and we have our mechanisms for filtering them out. Challenging this was a pointless task and Trump simply brushed them aside.

Trump threw out his claim about Ted Cruz and Oswald with the same level of vehemence as his claim about Muslim 9/11 celebrants in New Jersey. But this time the idea landed on fertile ground. Many Americans are scared of terrorist attacks by followers of Islam. Many Americans saw footage of people celebrating around 9/11. It doesn’t have to be true to be reacted to as if it were, it just has to be feasible. It was assimilated, repeated, adopted and took on a truth of its own.

Trump had no idea which of his constant claims would gain traction and which wouldn’t, but he was very good at reading sentiment. Once an idea began to be repeated, he knew it had value. So did his challengers, but countering a claim at this point was too late. The challengers aren’t viewed as having superior knowledge. In fact, for some it was proof of a national cover up - the challenge is rejected and the challenge itself only adds to the narrative of a man standing against authority.

So how should we communicate now? Obviously most of us don’t have the privilege of being able to blast out endless ideas to see what sticks, but we can take a lesson from Trump in reading sentiment. It’s not about parroting facts, it’s about how people feel about something. It’s not about presenting our message as contrasting, but looking for opportunities for assimilation.

There are lessons to be learnt. We need to monitor our target audience - we can use social listening tools to listen in to real conversations. Big data, not surveys. If you tap into the real sentiment, you see which ideas are getting traction and which ideas can be capitalised on.

Communicating effectively in this post-truth environment is not very different to how we’ve always communicated successfully. We need to understand the audience and create stories that resonate with it. Of course, how honest you want to be with your message is down to your own moral framework, and existing legislation.

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