If your business comrades don’t understand what you say, you may not get far in your career. And if you don’t process the information they offer, you’ll miss out on lucrative opportunities. But research into how the human mind works offers ways to improve your communication skills and better your chances for success.
Failure To Recognize
Even if you believe that you process the information that you read and hear incredibly well, research from the Economic and Social Research Council (ERSC) demonstrates that the majority of our brains often fail to recognize key words that can completely alter the meaning of a sentence.
Here’s a quick quiz (if you’ve heard these before, they are less effective at diagnosing your communication skills):
Today a plane carrying 254 people crashed over the desert. Where should the survivors be put to rest?
Would it be wrong for a man to be married to his widow’s sister?
According to the researchers, it is likely that about half of the people reading the preceding questions answered the first question in a way that would have meant burying people that are still alive. With regard to the second question, the researchers similarly posit that many people think it is perfectly fine for a dead man to marry his wife’s sister. This is representative of our weakness for semantic illusions.
Researchers at the University of Glasgow set out to better understand why people are susceptible to semantic illusions using electroencephalography (EEG) to examine what happens in our brains when we process sentences containing trick wording. They found that humans often process language not by deeply analyzing each word in a sentence, but in a way that is shallow and incomplete.
For instance, the researchers noticed that as long as a word that can completely alter the meaning of a sentence fits grammatically in the general context of the statement, our brains tend to pay little special attention to the peculiar word.
In order to communicate effectively and avoid semantic illusions, the researchers offer simple advice for both giving and receiving information.
Be sure to emphasize important words when giving information, to make clear the point of your message: “We know that we process a word more deeply if it is emphasized in some way. So, for example in a news story, a newsreader can stress important words that may otherwise be missed and these words can be italicized to make sure we notice them when reading,” said one lead researcher.
Another suggestion is to use the active voice whenever it is possible to do so. The researcher explains: “It’s a good idea to put important information first because we are more likely to miss unusual words when they are near the end of a sentence. Also, we often use an active sentence construction such as ‘Bob ate the apple’ because we make far more mistakes answering questions about a sentence with a passive construction – for example ‘The apple was eaten by Bob.’”
Research also shows that if you are reading this article while clipping your toenails as a news report blares on a television nearby, you aren’t likely to take much information away. Previous studies have shown that multitasking can impair visual interpretation by up to 29 percent and distort what you hear by as much as 53 percent.