What links a black sheep in a field of white ones, a big bang and a red sock in a white wash?

Salience.

Or in other words, your brain’s innate tendency to focus on prominent items or information, while ignoring those that don’t grab attention.1,2 It’s a powerful mental shortcut, honed through years of evolution to make sure you don’t get eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger, or hit by a lorry when crossing the road.

It also increases your risk of ignoring important but low contrast information (but we’ll save that for below). And as with other cognitive biases, it’s all to do with your brain’s predisposition to simplify decision making.2

Salience bias in action

What you find salient depends on you. On who you are, on your personal interests and on what you’re currently doing; it also varies based on time and context.1,2 Imagine you’re at a cocktail party – other parties are available but this effect is called the “cocktail party effect” so we’ll stick with the cocktails. It’s a noisy environment. Lots of people talking. Some louder, and some more softly. How do you focus your attention on the person opposite you in conversation instead of that loud guest across the room?

The answer is salience. Your brain is pre-wired to be able to focus attention on just the voice you want to hear. And cleverly, it does it autonomously (ever heard a noise that you didn’t notice before, but once you did, you couldn’t unhear it?).

Social media, shops and advertising all rely heavily on salience bias to grab your attention and prompt you to make subconscious – or conscious – decisions based on what you find most salient.2

And they’re often highly successful. When you read the news, you’re much more likely to remember shocking, unexpected or unusual headlines that grab your attention, even if they’re not the most important stories.

Salience bias can affect the way we interpret data and lead us to make suboptimal decisions, because we are not considering all the relevant information. It may cause impulsive purchases or errors in decision making and can lead to inaccurate judgments about groups of people, leading to prejudice and discrimination. For example, we may be more likely to remember negative stories about people from certain groups, even if these stories are not representative of the entire group.1

Salience in market access communications

At redthread we talk a lot about two things. The first is that market access is full of complex data and information overload. As a consequence, if you leave your reader on their own to decide what’s salient in your access communications then you’re asking them to dedicate a lot of mental load to processing that information. There’s no shortcut for the brain and you can quickly exhaust mental processing and ability to focus. Using salience judiciously to highlight important information is crucial for helping people to quickly process new information.

The second thing we talk about a lot is narrative or story-telling. While this might seem only tangentially linked to salience, humans are hard-wired to connect with stories. Stories have salience. We like to read them. To listen to them. To tell them. So writing better stories, with an interesting narrative, is crucial.

At redthread these two components are part of our framework for writing brilliant communications. Or adding our redthread sparkle, as we call it.

Sounds great, but how can salience be used in practice?

Salience bias is a powerful force, and it’s important you’re aware of it so that you can mitigate its effects and/or use it judiciously in your own communications materials. For example, it’s best to avoid presenting key information with low contrast, so that it doesn’t stand out. This is also the reason why the “kitchen sink” approach to slides – where you throw everything at them – leads to cluttered, hard-to-read and boring deliverables. It leads to information overload, and – ultimately – to readers missing crucial information.

More is not more. In fact, it’s often less.

 


Fundamentally, identifying a clear story and communicating data simply and visually can both aid interpretation of your communication deliverables and mitigate any potential negative consequence of unintended salience bias. It sounds easy, but it’s not!

 

Here’s a few things we think about at redthread when writing. Feel free to use them in your own communications, or let us find your red thread for you:

  • Know your story and your audience. Both of these are crucial for great communication. Think who you’re writing for, what they want to know and then tell a great story. Always start with the end in mind.
  • Edit, edit, edit. Word count is your enemy. The more you write, the more people have to read and the more likely they are to miss the important point. Write like you’re being charged for each word you commit to the page and this will help you focus on just including the salient information.
  • Focus on getting the design right. Judicious use of colour, layout, font size and imagery are all critical in directing attention. And don’t forget that white space. If you’re ruthlessly editing what you write – as recommended above – then you’ll have the space to leave some of the page blank. It’s an extremely effective way of influencing salience.
  • Consider different perspectives. We talked above about how salience is in the mind of the reader, not the writer. Talk with people with different perspectives. Ask yourself whether you’ve considered everything that your audience might consider salient.
  • Beware publication bias. Not all publications are created equal. Assess each potential source on its merits and on the quality of data. Don’t be afraid to question the statistics and credibility of various evidence sources as this will help you use accurate, unbiased, and relevant data.

What’s the impact?

Well, at redthread it allows us to create impactful materials that concisely communicate what’s important. That means writing concisely around a clear narrative, and carefully considering layout, fonts, colours, bolding and contrast. No “kitchen sink” dossiers, and no 50-slide value propositions!

If that sounds like something you want support with, get in touch and let us help you find your redthread.


References

  1. Psychology. Salience. Available at: http://psychology.iresearchnet.com/social-psychology/social-cognition/salience/. Accessed 30 April, 2024.
  2. The Decision Lab. Why do we focus on items or information that are more prominent and ignore those that are not? | The salience bias, explained.  Available at: https://thedecisionlab.com/biases/salience-bias/. Accessed 30 April, 2024.