Understanding Illusion: A Case for Business Communicators
I am in the company of millions when I admit that my amusement and interest was piqued by the “gold and white” – er, blue and black dress debate of 2015. Since then, there has been tremendous discussion on illusion and the relationship between perception and reality, and neurology and ophthalmology.
What we subjectively see often influences – consciously or unconsciously – what we believe to be objectively true. The question on everyone’s mind is, “What is real?”
Michael Abrash, chief scientist for Facebook’s Oculus, quoted “The Matrix” character Morpheus when he posed this question during his virtual reality keynote at the F8 Developer Conference this week. He declared that real “is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
As human beings, our brains have a sophisticated architecture that is continuously drawing on patterns and relationships from past experience to build conclusions. As Mr. Abrash explained, “we are inference machines.” I’s prbly wy yu cn ead ths rght nw; yur rain flls n te blnks for ou.
The world is ambiguous. We construct reality with our minds. Optical illusions are everywhere – from OK Go’s gravity-defying new video to the black and white Teletubbies video that has transformed colorful friends of children into terrifying creatures of doom, all by playing with your senses.
There are lessons in illusions for those of us in business communication. Challenging ourselves to see something in an unexpected or unconventional way is a significant part of the creative process and connecting with stakeholders.
As professional communicators, it’s valuable to acknowledge that every person’s brain has evolved to see the world through individual experience. Often, failing to see the metaphoric “gold and white” or “blue and black” can lead to confusion, disruption and an escalation of issues. As George Bernard Shaw stated so well, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
For clarity, we can turn problems inside out and upside down. Helio Fred Garcia, author of The Power of Communication, also a mentor and my boss, refers to this as strategy. He defines it as “ordered thinking.” Too often in business, the first question teams jump to – for any problem – is, “What should we say or do?” This is ineffective, however, because the answer is based on any number of assumptions – or illusions – that vary from individual to individual.
Instead, according to Garcia, an effective leader needs to ask a sequence of strategic questions to make sense of the situation, establish goals, and identify audiences and attitudes. Only after that discovery process will there be the clarity to prescribe a course of action, or the “what should we say or do.”
Neuroscientist and artist Beau Lotto contends that, “context is everything.” Indeed, ordered thinking works to reveal the context and framing that is meaningful to individual audiences. With this understanding, companies have greater opportunity to effectively trade illusion for clarity and shape messages that will be consequential to their stakeholders. The outcome? Stakeholders who are inspired to think, feel, know or do something in service of a goal…as they uniquely see it.