The brain processes information differently under conditions of high stress.
According to neuroscience and behavioral science research, people typically do the following when they are fearful, stressed, or upset:
• They want to know that you care before they care what you know.
• They have difficulty hearing, understanding, and remembering information.
• They receive information best when delivered in small, digestible chunks and bytes.
• They are more likely to recall information they hear first and last.
• They process information at a grade level substantially below their formal educational attainment.
• They rely more on subjective judgments, culturally determined values, and risk perceptions than on scientific and engineering facts or data.
Guidance on These Behaviors.
People want to know that you care before they care what you know.
Caring, empathy, and listening can account for as much as 50 percent of trust determination. Trust is often determined in the first 9 to 30 seconds. Once lost, trust is difficult to regain.
People have difficulty hearing, understanding, and remembering information.
The mental noise caused by fear, stress, and anxiety can reduce the ability of a person to process information by up to 80 percent. Ninety-five percent of the questions and concerns that cause fear, stress, and anxiety can be anticipated and prepared for in advance.
People receive information best when delivered in small, digestible chunks and bytes.
Short messages should contain no more than 140 characters, 27 words, and three to five messages, with each message supported and expanded by three to five facts or additional information.
People are more likely to recall information they hear first and last.
You should provide the most important information first and the second-most-important information last. Be prepared for people to ignore or forget the messages that are not first or last. Repeat the first and last messages several times.
People process information at a grade level substantially below their formal educational attainment.
Keep initial messages short and simple, often four grade levels below formal educational attainment. Use a variety of tools to simplify risk information, and focus more on negative information than positive.
Negative information typically needs to be balanced by three to five pieces of positive or constructive information. Avoid negative absolute statements (statements that contain the words never, nothing, or none. Avoid words or phrases with high negative imagery (they typically go to the visual part of the brain for processing).
People rely more on subjective judgments, culturally determined values, and risk perceptions than on scientific and engineering facts or data.
As much as 95 percent of fear, anxiety, and stress caused by risks can be traced back to factors such as perceived trust, benefits, dread, familiarity, fairness, control, and voluntariness. Actively look for visual information to support verbal messages about risks.
People often give greater weight to nonverbal cues and visual information than verbal information. People in high-concern and high-stress situations often assign a negative interpretation to nonverbal cues, such as body language.
A significant amount of risk and high-concern information is processed in primitive parts of the brain (the lizard or reptilian brain) that focuses on nonverbal information and determines the response of fight, freeze, or flight.
Pathway Prompt: Can you think of an example of how you have processed information differently or reacted in an unusual way during a time of high stress?
Communicating Effectively When Feelings, Fears, and Facts Collide
More information about risk, high-concern, and crisis communication can be found in Dr. Covello’s video-based course Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication.
This master class introduces communicators to the tools and techniques for communicating effectively—while providing greater insight into why audiences react the way they do during times of stress.
The course comprises nine video lectures and accompanying text modules, plus supplemental materials for putting valuable lessons into practice. More information about the course, including group rates and partnering opportunities, can be found by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Vincent Covello
Dr. Vincent Covello, director of the Center for Risk Communication, is one of the world’s leading experts and practitioners on risk, high-concern, and crisis communication. He is the author of more than 150 articles in scientific journals and the author/editor of more than 20 books.
Dr. Covello is a consultant, writer, and teacher. He is a frequent keynote speaker and has conducted communication skills training for thousands.