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May 18, 2011

Guest Blogger Jon Picoult: Capitalizing on Cognitive Fluency – Getting people to tune your business in – and everybody else out

Jon PicoultEver have trouble getting your prospects, customers or employees to tune in to your communications?  You may be falling victim to something psychologists call “cognitive fluency.”

In its simplest form, cognitive fluency means this:  people prefer to think about things that are easy, rather than those that are hard.

Granted, this principle isn’t rocket science, but what is fascinating is how cognitive fluency actually influences people’s behavior.

The Surprising Impact of Cognitive Fluency

Take, for example, a recent study that compared the stock returns of public companies with easy-to-pronounce names versus those with difficult-to-pronounce names.  Strangely enough, those with easy names significantly outperformed those with difficult names.

The study’s authors chalked this up to cognitive fluency, asserting that just the complexity of the company’s name would actually influence people’s appetite to invest in the firm.  Come across a cryptic name and one’s brain just sort of recoils, looking for something that’s easier to process.

A less esoteric example, and one that’s been very well documented over the years, involves the 401(k) industry.  At one time, companies were convinced that the more investment options they threw into their retirement plans, the more attractive the plans would be to consumers.

They were wrong.  Turns out that when consumers are faced with a seemingly endless array of investment options, they’re basically paralyzed by the sheer number of choices, and many end up not enrolling in their 401(k) at all.  That’s cognitive fluency at work.

The Curse of Complexity; The Opportunity of Simplicity

Complexity is a very dangerous thing when you’re trying to influence the behavior of others, be it consumers, employees, shareholders, or any other constituency.  When your products, services and communications are free of complexity, they become more cognitively fluent – making it far more likely that your target audience will take the time to listen to, process, and consider your offering.

Communications, unlike many products and services, are relatively malleable.  For this reason, they represent a great platform for enhancing cognitive fluency, helping your audience to better understand your message and better appreciate your value proposition.

So when you develop any type of communication artifact – from sales proposals to billing statements, from new hire packages to executive memos – think carefully about how to maximize cognitive fluency by simplifying both content and design.  Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Use signposts to facilitate navigation.  When faced with a “wall of text,” people have difficulty navigating and absorbing the content.  Use signposts – such as bold headings and summary call out boxes – to help your audience absorb information in smaller, more easily digestible morsels.
  • Create visual appeal to entice your audience.  Communications that look cluttered and complex will repel your audience.  Choose fonts, colors and layouts that are easy on the eyes, inviting people to actually read the content.
  • Highlight what’s in it for me.  If your hook – the reason why people should listen to your message in the first place – is buried deep in your communication, then you miss a key opportunity to engage your audience.  Up front, make it clear why your message is relevant.
  • Don’t just rely on the written (or spoken) word.  Some concepts are best explained with well-crafted visuals – graphs, diagrams, and even animations.  Use these other mediums to enliven your communications and help people grasp more complicated information.
  • Break things into clear cut steps.  Particularly for instructional communications, clearly identifying distinct procedural steps not only helps foster understanding, but it also gives people a sense of control (i.e., knowing what to expect) that will improve their comprehension.

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If your sales proposals are falling flat, if your employee communications are being ignored, if your customers are tuning you out – the culprit could be cognitive fluency.  No matter how compelling your message is, without the right packaging, it can easily fall on deaf ears – because that’s how the human mind works.

We crave simplicity.  And if you deliver it – in your products, your services, and your communications – then you’ll be harnessing the power of cognitive fluency to set yourself apart from the competition.

Jon Picoult is Founder of Watermark Consulting, a customer experience advisory firm that helps businesses impress their clients and inspire their employees.  Previously, Jon held senior executive roles in service, technology, sales and marketing at Fortune 100 companies.  Learn more, or read Jon’s blog, at

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