Strategies & Tactics

Brain Storm: Using Neuroscience to Maximize Your Internal Communications

March 4, 2019


Like many of my fellow professional communicators, I am a writer by trade and by inclination. I love the arts, language, images and storytelling. Yet, for many years, I have found myself increasingly drawn to the scientific underpinnings of what makes good communication work.

The field of neuroscience provides insights that translate into some solid guidance for communicators aiming to reach employees. When we know why a tactic works, we can harness it to connect even better with our audiences.

Consider the following:

  • We’ve learned to make our arguments rational; yet, as writers, we know that emotion is what captures our audience, and neuroscience confirms that we need to address emotion first. Even babies begin to hear emotions in human voices as early as seven months.
  • Storytelling is having a business moment, but it’s been a human differential for millennia. Science is starting to unravel why we tell stories and how to structure them for maximum impact. The placement of the hero — the rescue — it all makes a difference.
  • Trusting in the messenger matters. An audience will not even believe messages that are neutral if they don’t trust the messenger in the first place.

Science is providing powerful “whys” behind many long-standing communication “whats.” Certain communication strategies and techniques work better than others in moving minds and changing behaviors at work.

At ROC Group, we’ve shaped our approach to employee communications in order to maximize these learnings. Here are five ways you can, too:

1. Harness emotion to speed up understanding.

Brain science has confirmed that our brains process emotions significantly faster than we process facts — much faster. That’s partly because the emotional part of our brains acts first to help us decide if something will help us or hurt us. In fact, under stress or fear, the part of our brain that regulates emotion hijacks our rational thinking. Emotion also helps improve memory and recall.

Here’s a quick example of the power of emotion at work. One of our clients was struggling to rally seasoned employees around an influx of new, young hires, while getting those new employees to care about important productivity measures. The company’s prior focus on the business rationale for change and related contract requirements was falling short. We listened to both veterans and newbies to discover their personal drivers at work, then reshaped the narrative, tapping into pride and a powerful legacy.

By casting the employees as heroes in a shared mission, veteran employees and new ones were able to find a common purpose. And, by shaping the various stories to match the differing motivations of both the veteran and new employees, the full workforce was then able to digest the business issues and together achieved the contract goals.

2. Realize that humans are wired for stories. So use them.

We now know storytelling is no longer just a communication tool; it is the way our brains understand and remember everything. As a result, our teams don’t “roll out” critical change efforts for our clients without unearthing the illuminating story. While the best leaders use storytelling in their personal communication naturally, it’s important to remember to use personal-impact stories in tales of internal change. And, it’s especially important for the storyteller to admit change was personally difficult at first.

How to drive that differently? Ask your colleagues for before-and-after examples. Ask them how this is personally important to them. Press them to help you see what’s in it for employees. Don’t stop until you have a story that works.

Fundamentally, our job as communicators today is to surface the stories that stick and put them to work on behalf of our company’s issues and mission.

3. Communicate certainty, especially in the midst of change.

Years ago, I worked with a well-regarded business leader who counseled that our firm should focus our communication energies on what was new — no need to talk about the old. As a result, employees experienced plenty of communication moments that said, essentially, “Effective on this date, here’s what’s changing.”

But our brains don’t work like that. They are wired to favor the known over the unknown. Humans crave certainty. So now, when we craft change communication touch points, we pair every summary of “what’s changing” with a companion summary of what is not changing. While a small step, it’s simple and can be introduced into every part of change content you are creating right now.

4. Use familiar “messengers” to help strengthen trust.

Our brains are wired to trust what is most familiar. When it comes to people, we are quickest to trust those most like ourselves. To communicate issues at work, choose messengers who are both credible in the subject matter and reflect the audience in some way — through shared skills, job histories, background, perspectives or location.

Changing invoice processing? Feature the accounts receivable veteran. Revamping shared services? Highlight the seasoned operations lead. Introducing agile technology to waterfall development stalwarts? Use your own head of software development. Wherever possible, feature messengers who are familiar and credible, even if it would seemingly be easier to bring in vendors or advisers from the outside.

5. Understand that human connection is more than a “nice to do."

It’s fair to say many organizations significantly underestimate the human need for social connection and the positive impact it has on productivity, engagement and results. Research shows us the negative effects when these social connections are frayed; feeling part of an “outgroup” lowered IQ points in one experiment.

One of the fastest ways to ensure a human connection is to empower front-line supervisors to communicate. Even when employees dislike their immediate boss, they want to hear from them at least as much as remote corporate leaders.

While these findings have broader implications for organizational life, another practical impact on the tactical level is to push our organizations and leaders to “speak human.” Business jargon, acronym overuse and other common language issues at work aren’t just confusing; they serve to distance those “in the know” from everyone else.

In short, these five tactics can help your communications use the way the human brain functions to get your messages heard and better support your employees as they navigate change.

Learn More About Employee Comms

Join hundreds of passionate PR professionals on May 15-17 in Phoenix for the 2019 PRSA Employee Communications Section Conference. Connect 19 is where you’ll discover the hottest trends, effective tactics and proven strategies in internal communications.

Janice Y. Burnham

Janice Y. Burnham founded ROC Group in 1998. The agency specializes in communicating the nuances of employment value, HR programs and change management. Prior to 1998, she was a principal with both Towers Perrin and PricewaterhouseCoopers.


Malika Reed Wilkins, PhD says:

Excellent article.

March 5, 2019

Joseph Fisher says:

Great article and I love that it touches on emotions, stories, certainty, familiarity and unity. I wouldn't have thought to bring that all together. I am sharing this with the pastor of our church as well. I think it can help from a leadership standpoint and also to structure his sermons. Thanks Jan! Joseph Fisher

March 14, 2019

Jan Burnham says:

Thanks - glad it helped!

March 18, 2019

Gerri Nowoczynski Stultz says:

Brilliant article! Have used elements of this and can testify it works!

March 27, 2019

Sarah Burke says:

Janice, I communicate to an internal population of technical engineers. Your insights into the speed of processing emotion vs. facts and the desire for clarity and familiarity will resonate with this employee population.

May 17, 2019

Post a Comment

Editor’s Note: Please limit your comments to the specific post. We reserve the right to omit any response that is not related to the article or that may be considered objectionable.


To help us ensure that you are a real human, please type the total number of circles that appear in the following images in the box below.

(image of seven circles) + (image of three circles) + (image of nine circles) =



Digital Edition