March 08, 2023

Why you should be considering perception in communications

Have you ever considered the implication of different perceptions within your communication campaigns?

Perception is a funny thing. Individuals perceive messages differently, no matter the medium the messages are in, whether it’s optical illusions, through design or written content. And that’s viewnique.

Most people take in information through their five senses, but your perceptual field (the world around you) includes so many stimuli that it is impossible for your brain to process and make sense of it all. So, as information comes in through your senses, various factors influence what actually continues on through the perception process.

[source: Fiske, S.T. and Taylor, S.E. (1991) Social Cognition. 2nd Edition, McGraw-Hill, New York.]

All organisations should communicate with their audience by taking into account the different ways their messages may be perceived.

So, what is perception in communication?

By knowing how perception works, you’ll be able to clear up any communication misunderstandings before they happen.

In communication, perception is a 3 three-step process: selecting, organising and interpretating. The effect that perception has on the process of communication pertains to how different people might interpret the same message in very different ways.

[Source: ‘Perception Role & Influences | What Is Perception in Communication? - Video & Lesson Transcript’. Study.Com, Accessed 21 Feb. 2023.]

Step 1: Selecting

In the first step, people select the information they want to perceive, and this affects the rest of the perception process. There are a number of different messages that everyone is bombarded with, and it’s not possible for someone to perceive each one. That’s why the brain selects specific parts of a message to concentrate on.

For example, if two people are watching an advert about a local hair salon, they may both focus on a different aspect. One might concentrate on the different hairstyles the salon is able to do, while the other may pay attention to the location of the salon.

Step 2: Organise

In the next step, people organise the information they have selected to perceive. Each individual has a different way they categorise their information, and it’s related to past perceptions and experiences. For example, the person that focused on the different hairstyles in the advert may be looking for a hairdresser for their upcoming wedding. If they have been researching local hairdressers, they may categorise this information with other similar ones they’ve researched.

Step 3: Interpret

In the last step, people assign meaning to the information they’ve selected and organised. Like all aspects of perception, interpretation is based on a number of factors the person has experienced. For example, if the hair salon advert says that the location is within walking distance from a certain area, the person that’s focused on location may interpret that to mean it’s close to their house.

[source: ‘Types of Perception in Communication’. Bizfluent, Accessed 21 Feb. 2023.]

So, how can we ensure the right message is being absorbed?

In any form of communication, whether that is a visual advert or copy orientated newsletter, audiences tend to pay attention to the information that is salient. Salience is the degree to which something attracts your attention in a particular context. The thing attracting your attention can be abstract, like a concept, or concrete, like an object.

The degree of salience depends on three features: (Fiske & Taylor, 1991) whether the object is visually or aurally stimulating, whether it meets your needs or interests, and whether it meets or challenges your expectations.

Visual and Aural Stimulation – It is probably not surprising to learn that visually and/or aurally stimulating things become salient in our perceptual field and get our attention.

Needs and Interests – We tend to pay attention to information that we perceive to meet our needs or interests in some way. We also find salient information that interests us.

Expectations – The relationship between salience and expectations is a little more complex. We can find both expected things salient and find things that are unexpected salient.

Consider a guerrilla marketing campaign for instance, they are considered as visually stimulating, they are often objects that are enlarged or out of place, they challenge most people’s expectations in terms of the ‘normal’ advertisement they see. Guerrilla marketing represents an impossible scenario created through visual stimulation, that generates salience.

As a communicator, you can use this knowledge about salience to your benefit by minimizing distractions when you have something important to say.

[source: eCampusOntario. Perception. Apr. 2018.,]

When you’re prepping your next comms piece, consider the message you want to convey, the key takeaways for your audience and the campaign salience. Focus the visuals, sound, touch, taste and smell to direct to that salience.

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