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GEO ASKS Andy Goodman of The Goodman Center

Publication date: 
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Andy Goodman The Goodman Center

(The following post is a sample from “GEO ASKS,” a series of interviews that are released in GEO’s quarterly, members-only newsletter, Impact. GEO ASKS is normally only available to GEO members, but we’re sharing the following interview on the conference blog because it’s likely to be of interest to conference participants who may like to attend Andy Goodman’s short talk.)

In this issue’s GEO ASKS we talk to author, speaker and public interest communications consultant, Andy Goodman about how the brain processes information. Knowing whether your audience is receiving information in “filter mode” or “computer mode” can have a significant impact on the way you present your story and that of your grantees. Goodman discusses how to tell a story that will reach your audience, whether it they are beneficiaries, board members, member of the public or peers in the field.


GEO ASKS: How do our brains switch between functioning as computers or filters?

First, let’s be clear about the distinction. If someone is explaining to you how the new copier works, your brain will receive and process that information without a whole lot of analysis. We’re just talking about a piece of office equipment, after all, so your brain can operate like a computer, routinely accepting and cataloging information for future use.

On the other hand, if someone is trying to convince you to support their cause, a greater number of thought processes come into play. You may start wondering if they’ve got their facts right or you may start considering how you feel about their issue. Now your brain is acting more like a filter, deciding which bits of information it will let in for further consideration and which it will ignore.

This kind of switching happens automatically and unconsciously. We slip into “computer mode” or “filter mode” several times a day, moving back and forth, sometimes moment to moment. When you start your day by turning on the lights to your office, switching on the coffee maker and booting up your computer, your brain is in computer mode. The minute you start sorting through your email, however, the filter is turned on.

GEO: How can we recognize whether our audience is listening as a computer or filter?

In the public interest sector – and here I’m talking about foundations, nonprofits, government agencies, educational and cultural institutions – our communications are almost always running into filters. We’re asking people to consider large issues (e.g., universal health care, educational reform, global warming) or even change the way they live (e.g., quit smoking, enroll children in preschool, install energy efficient appliances), and virtually nobody’s going to respond without a fair amount of thinking. So their filters are turned on, and it makes it incumbent on us to present a compelling case if we’re going to make it past those filters for further consideration.

GEO:  So, how do we make the most compelling case?

This is where stories are so important. When I say your brain acts as a filter, I mean that it’s actually searching your memory for stories that help make sense of the world. Whatever story it finds becomes the filter through which your brain looks at the new information. For example, let’s say my nonprofit wants to do away with the death penalty. If I present statistics to you that prove the death penalty is not a greater deterrent against murder than a life sentence, you may hear those numbers, but what’s happening deep within your brain is more significant.

Instantaneously, you’re searching your memory for a story that relates to capital punishment and that crystallizes your feelings on the issue. For most Americans in the 20th century, the story they found could be summed up in five words: An eye for an eye. And national polls confirmed this, showing approval rates up to 75% for the death penalty. Even when presented with hard evidence, most people held firm to this belief, their brains acted like a filter, and the numbers were discounted or disregarded altogether.

Things started to change in the 1990s, however, when The Innocence Project started telling stories about death row convicts who had been executed but who had later been exonerated thanks to DNA evidence. And they reframed the battle over the death penalty with this question: Shouldn’t we delay executions (if not end them entirely) to avoid making tragic mistakes that can never be corrected?

Faced with this question, Americans had to reconsider the issue and look for new stories in their memories to help them make up their minds. “An eye for an eye” no longer worked, because that simple formula had clearly resulted in innocent people dying. Whatever story they chose, by October 2011 a CNN poll showed that the majority of American preferred a life sentence over the death penalty. And that was the first time in the history of CNN’s polling that public support for the death penalty dipped below 50%.

Ultimately, every battle for hearts and minds comes down to which story resonates with the most people. It’s incumbent on us to tell the best story.

GEO: Does that mean the data doesn’t matter?

Not at all. I believe the data will help you make the complete case and close the deal. But the important point here is that data will not even be considered until you’ve told a story that ensures the right kind of filter is in place and your data will make it through.

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