Persuasive Communication – PR, Psychology and the Brain

PR Updates

Persuasive Communication – PR, Psychology and the Brain

Mar 10, 2015 | PR Updates

Persuasive Communication – PR, Psychology and the Brain

Mar 10, 2015 | PR Updates

The ThinkerThe best PR pros know that persuasive communication benefits from a healthy dose of psychology. How do people think and process information, and how can we use that understanding to improve our communications?

Nobel prize-winning economist, Daniel Kahneman, has provided us with a fascinating science-based handbook – with real-world how-to's – in the bestselling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Every day, people make judgments based on limited information as we navigate the world. In an example from the book, look at this image:

Angry woman - Thinking Fast and Slow

We don’t need any additional background to know this woman is about to say something, and it’s not going to be pleasant. Humans have yet to evolve to handle the amount of information we’re exposed to each day. It’s overwhelming, and as a result, our brains take shortcuts.

Understanding how this works can help PR pros avoid the pitfalls of misunderstandings and errors, and we can use it to our advantage to become more persuasive. In fact, Kahneman offers very specific advice for communicators sprinkled throughout the book – and unlike many books on the topic, he offers real science to back it up.

Cognitive Ease (Keep It Simple)

I smile to hide how completely overwhelmed I amThe often used phrase ‘pay attention’ is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail. It is the mark of effortful activities that they interfere with each other, which is why it is difficult or impossible to conduct several at once. You could not compute the product of 17×24 while making a left turn into dense traffic, and you certainly should not try.

– Kahneman

Communicators frequently talk about the importance of simplicity as we compete for attention and recollection – science not only confirms this is the case, but demonstrates the subconscious lengths to which people will go to avoid having to think too hard.


Because it’s easier to understand, our brains crave familiarity. It wasn’t long ago that to survive in a frequently dangerous world, humans needed to react cautiously to anything new with withdrawal and fear. “Survival prospects are poor for an animal that is not suspicious of novelty,” says Kahneman.

chickenToday, this preference for familiarity manifests in strange ways. For example, Kahneman cites a study where “people who were repeatedly exposed to the phrase ‘the body temperature of a chicken’ were more likely to accept as true the statement that ‘the body temperature of a chicken is 104°’ (or any other arbitrary number). The familiarity of one phrase in the statement sufficed to make the whole statement feel familiar and therefore true.”


Cognitive ease is associated with good feelings, and “good feelings make you receptive to ideas.” Experimenters found that putting participants in a good mood before a test by having them think happy thoughts more than doubled accuracy.

For communicators, keeping cognitive ease in mind can be a powerful tool. In the book, Kahneman tells us that “anything you can do to reduce cognitive strain will help” with attention and retention, so on pages 62-64 he says you should:Keep it simple

  • Maximize legibility
  • If you use color, you're more likely to be believed if your text is printed in bright blue or red than in middling shades of green, yellow, or pale blue.
  • If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do. … Couching familiar ideas in pretentious language is taken as a sign of poor intelligence and low credibility.
  • In addition to making your message simple, try to make it memorable. Put your ideas in verse if you can; they will be more likely to be taken as truth.

Here’s one I found mind-blowing:

  • If you quote a source, choose one with a name that is easy to pronounce. …Recipients of your message want to stay away from anything that reminds them of effort, including a source with a complicated name.

Priming and Persuasive Communication

Did you know that exposure to one thing subconsciously influences your response to another thing? Psychologists call this effect priming. “You must accept the alien idea that your actions and emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware,” says Kahneman.

As examples, Kahneman shares:andy warhol campbells soup can 1965 pink and red

If you have recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are temporarily more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP than as SOAP (the opposite would happen if you had just seen WASH). …you are primed not only for the idea of soup but also for a multitude of food related ideas, including fork, hungry, fat, diet, and cookie.

– Kahneman

Kahneman cites other proven examples of priming, such as the following experiments:

  • Voting patterns in precincts of Arizona were studied in 2000, and showed that the support for propositions to increase the funding of schools was significantly greater when the polling station was in a school.
  • In a study, people who were shown subtle images of money (for example, on a screen saver before the test began) became more independent than they would have been without this associative trigger. They persevered almost twice as long in trying to solve a very difficult problem before they asked the experimenter for help – a crisp the demonstration of increased self-reliance. Money-primed undergraduates also showed a greater preference for being alone.

For communicators, priming can be a powerful tool of persuasion. Exposure to an altruistic quote (e.g., “A good turn never goes amiss,” by George Sand) makes people more generous. Images of money have been shown to make people more price conscious (beneficial if this is part of your key value proposition). Reminding people of their national identity can create unity.

Often, we instinctively use images and words that invoke the priming effect. By consciously considering the power of priming, we can become even more effective in influencing behavior.

These are just a few examples of the lessons in Thinking, Fast and Slow, which challenges our notion that we are in control of our cognition and thought processes. As PR pros, our job is often to educate, influence and inform – the more we understand about how our audience thinks and processes information, the more skilled we can be at communicating.

Written By Kellye Crane
Kellye Crane is the founder of Solo PR Pro, which provides the tools, education, advocacy and community resources needed for indies to succeed and grow. She's a veteran and award-winning communicator with more than 20 years of experience - 19 of them solo.


  1. Great review. Likely will invest in the book. PR has always been about applied psychology and understanding behavioral science.
    Its no accident the father of modern public relations, Edward Bernays uncle was of Sigmund Freud.

  2. I had forgotten about those family ties – thanks for the reminder! I’m actually the product of two psychologist parents, so there wasn’t much business talk around our dinner table, but I’ve come to appreciate that my environment growing up had its own benefits.

  3. Good tips…I haven’t read this book but it sounds like something I would have a look at. Psychology underpinning PR is a new area for me in my studies so I have read a bit of research/seen the theories. My current area of focus is PR and digital media and I like how the tips given here are easily translatable into the digital world in terms of influencing behaviour. I suppose you can already see priming being used in websites through subtle (and not so subtle) advertising. I can also see a little push towards the use of info graphics to make messages more easily digestible in a world where we are becoming so busy…this is an emerging trend in social media in particular through platforms such as Instragram and Pinterest.

  4. As a PR student, I am realizing how much success in PR requires me to be a well-rounded individual. If I want to be able to “educate, persuade and inform” as you said, I have to be educated and informed myself. Not only do I need to be educated in current news and public relations trends that surround my future clients, but I also need to be constantly continuing my overall education.

    Psychology is an area that I’m glad you chose to mention because it is such a useful tool for persuasion. PR is a continuously growing and fast-changing field and knowledge about psychology can give you that edge over your competition. Even learning about how our brain craves familiarity and positivity has taught me something useful for a current project.

    I think PR professionals should continue to become more persuasive writers. Also, PR students should find a particular minor that prepares them for a future in persuasion.

    Thanks for the great article.

  5. This post raised many great points. I think that by mentioning tips that someone can follow in order to remember how to communicate effectively was helpful. I also liked how it reinforced that the main goal of PR is to communicate with an audience. It seems as if it is common knowledge, but sometimes I feel like the goal can get confused and/or misty.

  6. Nice great adn helpfull article, thx for sharing btw can u visit my blog ? i would appreciate it thx

  7. I totally agree with what he explains about psychology and persuasive communication. Da un enfoque profesional que aplica en cualquier área del conocimiento. href=””