We have all heard that when it comes to effective communications, it’s not just what you say; it’s how you say it. But it turns out that when you say it is also important. Through experiments across the past three decades, psychologists and behavioral economists have documented how the order in which we encounter ideas shapes how we recall, evaluate, and respond to them.
Certain “spots” in a communication matter more than others: We are more likely to remember items and ideas that come at the very beginning, or the very end, of a sequence. These are called the primacy effect and the recency effect, respectively.
Once an idea is called to mind, it shapes the way we interpret the information that follows. This is a process known as priming, and it means that the way we start a communication has an outsize effect on whether we make people open to our ideas or cause them to shut those ideas out.
Priming works in different ways. A vivid image, an evocative anecdote, or a term with strong connotations—like poverty or violence—can trigger pre-existing associations and assumptions. These associations quickly dominate people’s thinking and can derail our communications.
On the other hand, we can tap into the power of priming by activating ways of thinking that help people consider and engage with our ideas. For example, priming people to think about how interdependent we are as members of society can influence openness and support for social policy solutions. And priming someone to think about their legacy can make them more willing to support preventative climate policies. The frame you start with influences the thinking that follows.
Bottom line: order matters. Here are three ways we can organize our communications for change.
1. Lead with values.
Values are widely shared and cherished ideals. Using statements that evoke a value is a proven way to effectively open communications on social issues, which are usually complex and politicized.
Take this example. An opening line describing raging wildfires exacerbated by a warming climate sends people to scan their mental files for what they have heard, and believe, about climate change policy and politics. Some people will pull up associations that work for you—but many will not. An opening line about protection—we have a duty to protect the places that people depend on—sends people to mental files with labels like shared responsibility and safety. This helps people see the issue as a shared concern that warrants a public response. It presents the communication as believable and uncontroversial, and opens people up to hearing and considering what comes next.
2. Explain causes before mentioning effects.
The way people think about the underlying causes of a problem shapes their attitudes and opinions about appropriate solutions. When we show the structural or systemic roots of a problem, we give people a way to reason about policy-level solutions. If we skip the causal explanation or offer it late in a communication, people fill in the missing mechanism for themselves. Given the human tendency to attribute outcomes to the choices and characteristics of individuals, people will likely blame those experiencing a problem for their own circumstances. To set up policy change, rather than better individual decisions, as a solution to social problems, it is critical that we include systems-level explanations early in our communications.
Offering a causal explanation before we mention racial, social, or economic disparities can also be helpful. If our messaging highlights negative indicators or outcomes affecting a community or group without offering an explanation grounded in policy choices or social conditions, people tend to fall back on negative stereotypes about those communities to explain the statistics. We can avoid perpetuating stereotypes or stigma by showing how it happens before talking about who it happens to.
3. Offer key takeaways and main ideas before details or complications.
Early parts of a communication work like signposts, putting people on the path to understanding what comes next. If these signs are clear and point in the general direction we want to take people, they are more likely to find their way to our key ideas.
Sometimes, especially when translating research, we begin with a set of directions focused on where not to go: A new study offers tantalizing findings—though researchers caution that the data is limited, that the conclusions may not be generalizable, and that some studies point to a different conclusion altogether. Such caveats are important elements of faithful science translation, and they certainly have a place. But that place is not before the main idea we are hoping people will take away.
A more effective order for relating scientific or research-based ideas flows in the following way: what was found (general principle or main conclusion), what it means (social implication), and how it was determined (methods). After this storyline has had time to unfold, caveats and cautions can be added.
Order is a framing choice that shapes how people respond to our messages. Leading with values, foregrounding explanations, and emphasizing big ideas before getting into details are ordering strategies that can increase the effectiveness of our communications.