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The Neuroscience of Editing

Posted on Tuesday, September 29, 2015 at 11:38 PM

Adopting a whole-brain approach to writing and editing content.

By William Dunkerley

A 2014 Huffington Post headline reads, "Scientists Achieve Direct Brain-to-Brain Communication Between Humans." It discusses an experiment in which brainwave electromagnetic communication was effectuated between two people via the Internet. Think of the possibilities that this presents.

Does this mean that sometime in the future we'll be able to connect up the brains of our authors with our readers directly? All the authors would have to do is think through the message they want to convey to readers and, bingo, it would go via the Internet right to the readers' brains. Well, actually, we wouldn't be able to call them readers anymore because the reading process would have become obsolete.

Gosh, if reading were obsolete, where would that leave us editors? What would be left to edit?

What Is Brainwave Communication?

Don't worry about your jobs yet, though. The futuristic notion suggested by the headline is quite misleading. The story reports on a university experiment. This research may indeed be more meritorious than just junk science. But the Huffington Post's handling of the story is junk editing.

The notion of robust brainwave communication seems to lack technical feasibility. From the science of information theory we know that the speed and volume of information that can be communicated by electromagnetic means is directly proportional to the bandwidth available. For instance, simple telephone voice communication requires a bandwidth of 3,000 hertz. Television needs a 5,000,000-hertz bandwidth. But the brainwaves detected by an electroencephalograph occupy only 50 hertz. That's enough to communicate at least the blink of an eye or the twitch of a finger, but it's a far cry from being able to transfer any sophisticated thoughts.

Nonetheless, we editors should start giving more thought to the neuroscientific aspect of what we're doing.

Categorizing Brain Activity and Anticipating Reader Response

We all know that brain activity can be categorized in a few contrasting ways: rational vs. emotional, conscious vs. subconscious, left-brained vs. right-brained.

Marketers have long recognized that much of the brain activity that goes into making a purchase happens at a subconscious level. Many contend that, deep down, many decisions are made on an emotional basis. Rational thought only comes forth when buyers attempt to rationalize purchases to themselves or to others.

Few editors, however, consciously consider how the brains of their readers are going to process the content of their articles.

If you edit a publication that is intended purely for entertainment, you are likely to be good at communicating with readers at an emotional level. Editors with readers who are primarily interested in garnering information from the publication tend to be less aware of the emotional, subconscious, and right-brained side of communication.

Engaging Readers' Whole Brain: The Experiment

This came up one time when I was helping an editor to develop a subscription promotion piece. She was the editor of a technical publication. Her first draft was very rational and left-brained in its approach. I did an alternative draft that tried to appeal more broadly. Her draft spelled out all the features of the publication in a very matter-of-fact manner. Mine attempted to get the recipient to dream of the benefits that would accrue from subscribing.

The editor's response was something like this: "My readers are serious, highly educated people. They won't fall for that kind of solicitation. It may work for a glossy entertainment magazine, but not for us."

We agreed to put the two versions to a test. We split the universe receiving the solicitation randomly. One half got the editors' version; the other half received mine.

The Results

And the results?

My text that appealed to the whole person, the whole brain, far outpulled the strictly rational and emotion-free version. It communicated more effectively

How are you appealing to your audience?

You may have a publication that deals with information, not entertainment. But are you presenting your information primarily in a sterile, rational, and unimaginative way?

If you are, you might consider the neuroscientific angle of your approach. Think about communicating with the whole brain of your readers. This could enable greater effectiveness in your communication, give your readers a more enjoyable reading experience, and even increase your renewal rate!

Oh, and one more thing: If you ever decide to run a story about brain-to-brain communication, fact-check your report and try to understand what it's all about before you publish the article. The rational side of the communication process is still important, too.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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