We analyze how [the message] changes or breaks down from person- to-person.
Joseph Grady, who was named senior fellow for public policy at The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University earlier this year, has spent years researching the ways that people interpret communications.
For the past 15 years, Grady has applied his expertise to create more informed and constructive public dialog regarding policy choices. As co-founder and principal of Cultural Logic, LLC and the Topos Partnership, LLC, Grady has developed message strategies for many of the country’s most influential nonprofits and foundations.
Grady, who holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of California at Berkeley, recently discussed some of the strategies he’s developed, along with some advice for companies looking to better communicate with their audience.
PBN: Explain some of the innovations you’ve developed, along with how you assess public thinking on policy-related topics.
GRADY: We synthesize ideas and techniques from anthropology, linguistics, cognitive psychology and various public opinion methods to get at the deep, default pictures in people’s minds that shape their reasoning. The Topos Partnership is constantly exploring people’s thinking and assessing the effectiveness of messaging approaches. Our “talkback” technique, for instance, draws on the anthropological technique of “transmission chains,” like the children’s game of Gossip or Telephone. We analyze how [the message] changes or breaks down from person-to-person. We use TalkBack as one of our main tools to judge the clarity and “stickiness” of a message, as well as how it affects thinking and attitudes.
PBN: How does the work you’ve done with your company relate to your work at the Pell Center?
GRADY: I’m working on a Pell initiative we’re currently calling the “Informed Democracy” project, which will use events, publications, social media and so forth to promote broader understanding of core concepts people need to grasp to weigh in meaningfully on important decisions we make as a state or a society. We’ll use what I’ve learned to develop user-friendly ways of talking about these core ideas, like how global warming works or how our policy choices end up shaping the economy.
PBN: In your opinion, what do most businesses do wrong when trying to communicate their mission/brand to consumers?
GRADY: Probably the most common problem I notice in the nonprofit world is that even the very smartest communicators can have trouble getting a handle on how different their own thinking is from the people they are trying to reach. Just because an advocate understands how global warming works doesn’t mean anyone in their audience does – or just because they see a certain tax policy as clearly “fair” or “unfair” doesn’t mean audiences see it that same way. While our work hasn’t focused on for-profit communications, I believe businesses can have the same problem. Communicators can sometimes get focused on details, particular words or images [that do not give] enough attention to how people are perceiving the real core ideas. •