Below the Tip of the Iceberg: Harnessing the Subconscious to Become More Effective Communicators

By Tess Levy, Intern

In the industry of communications, every op-ed, slide deck, and memo is based on a fundamental human practice: the transmission of ideas. In order to persuade, educate, or inform an audience (whether one person or millions), we have to take into account both the logical lines of conscious reasoning and the subconscious processing that occurs beneath the surface. The subconscious mind – known by most in association with Freud – is an active, essential influence over all thoughts, preferences, and behaviors, and should be embraced in our pursuit to optimize communication.

The conscious mind can be understood as everything that happens in your mind of which you have awareness. A popular example of this is your mind when you’re first learning to drive a car: every other vehicle is a glaring threat that you are acutely aware of, and every turn of the wheel requires precise calculation. The subconscious mind, on the other hand, describes all of the processes that exist below the level of awareness, that we are not “hearing” or “seeing” in our mind. Returning to our example, an experienced driver of many years can navigate the roads subconsciously, simply knowing how far to turn the wheel and not explicitly registering every possible obstacle around them. Beyond just surviving rush hour traffic, the subconscious mind operates during every interaction and is particularly influential in our conveyance and reception of ideas.

Part I: The Subconscious’ Role as Decider 

A pivotal 2008 study asserted just how vital the subconscious is in decision making. The scientists told participants in the study to hit one of two buttons at any point that they felt compelled to do so. The scientists measured the participants’ brain activity as the trial occurred to identify when the brain produced a signal deciding which button to push. Their results show that participants subconsciously made their decision up to 10 seconds before they were consciously aware of their own choice. This study not only provides ample material for a debate over free will, it also reorients our understanding of when and how choices are truly made. 

Another study sought to explore the role of the subconscious in making larger-scale decisions–future travel destinations. Using an eye-tracking device and a measurement of brain activity, the scientists measured the immediate emotional and cognitive responses of participants in reaction to images and videos of various travel destinations. They concluded that 20% of variance in travel destination choices were dictated by the subconscious’ immediate reaction to the photos and videos. 

Despite the laborious thought and time we may pour into decisions large and small, our conscious consideration of pros and cons has only so much influence over our final choices. Understanding the power of the subconscious over how we lead our lives motivates further exploration into how we can influence it. 

Part II: The Speaker, the Listener, and the Subconscious 

The literature that supports the subconscious’ centrality in belief-formation, decision-making, and persuasion is vast. Entire fields are dedicated to harnessing the research of the subconscious to maximize businesses’ influence and impact (ever wonder why McDonald’s logo is red and yellow?). While I don’t intend to tackle the immense totality of that research in this article, we can use some of the relevant literature from neuroscience and psychology as an entrypoint to understanding how our words–spoken or written–are received without our awareness. Consider the aspects of speech that may be subject to subconscious processing: the voice of the speaker (both vocal quality and the quantity of voices), word choice, and facial expressions. 

Researchers from Boston University performed a study which found that “processing mixed and discontinuous talkers’ speech is less efficient (i.e., there is greater neural activation) than processing a single talker’s speech.” Listening to one speaker instead of multiple requires less cognitive “work”, making comprehension more efficient and increases working memory of what the speaker said. This doesn’t mean that speech can only be effective when delivered by one person, but warrants consideration of how to maintain a diversity of perspectives while ensuring your audience’s straightforward comprehension. 

A 2017 study by USC scientists explored the hidden ways in which a speaker or writer’s word choice (even when deciding between two synonyms) affects a listener’s judgements. The study compared the use of the words “cause” versus “produce” and “utterly” versus “totally.” Despite the nearly identical definitions of the synonyms, the study found that “cause” and “utterly” were perceived by listeners as more negative; participants reported worse impressions of an “utterly unconventional boss” than of a “totally unconventional boss,” and were more likely to vote for a political candidate who “produced” budget changes than one who “caused” them. Though a thesaurus may be helpful in expanding your range of vocabulary, it has the power to entirely alter the implicit messages you convey.

An experiment conducted in 2018 found that listeners subconsciously imitate a speaker’s smile. Researchers played audio clips of people speaking for participants in which the speaker’s lips were stretched to sound as if they were smiling. Without any visual representation of the speaker, the participants’ facial muscles subconsciously engaged to form a reciprocal smile. Such a subtle difference in your voice will make your audience smile back. 

Before launching into the high-level details of the data you’re presenting or sophisticated arguments you’re making, these studies collectively emphasize the value in taking a step back to ponder the comprehensibility and emotional resonance of how you deliver your messages. 

Part III: The Connectivity of the Subconscious

A seminal study conducted at Princeton in 2010 sought to understand the patterns in a speaker’s and listener’s brains during speech. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, the scientists measured the brain activity as one person told a story and the other listened. Their finding proves just how immense the power of speech is: the listener’s brain activity was completely synchronized with the speaker’s; this synchroneity was only broken when the listener stopped comprehending what the speaker was saying. 

While you’re speaking, whether you’re a CEO preparing a presentation at a conference or an associate looking to get alignment across your team, your words shape the brain activity of your listeners. It’s impossible to micro-manage every detail that will shape a listener’s reception of your ideas (we can’t always find research on which synonym produces a more positive bias), but it’s essential to understand the weight of what is most central to communications. The practice of sharing ideas is fundamentally about connection, and it happens without us even noticing.