Years before Nielsen embraced neuroscience as an effective tool for media companies, I approached The Johns Hopkins University about its value to radio programming and marketing. What I learned and have successfully applied in the real world is transforming.

Here is the first article of its kind that explains how the mind actually works in relation to radio programming and our marketing messages.

Private Parts finalAccording to researchers from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at The Johns Hopkins University – where a healthy slice of the world’s brain research is conducted – Kevin Metheny was right! In the movie Private Parts, Howard Stern unaffectionately called Kevin ‘Pig Vomit’ in part for asserting that listeners would more easily recall having listened to WNBC instead of WABC if personalities overemphasized the “N” by saying W-NNN-BC.

Advertisers have long known that using a gimmick to help someone remember their name or product works. However, while gimmicks may induce trial and/or temporarily increase usage, research has proven that strong perceptual images in just a couple areas most important to a station’s format (or a client’s product) are the real catalyst to continued usage i.e., strong ratings.

To achieve this perceptual superiority, programmers and advertisers develop positioning statements to describe, demonstrate and differentiate their products. Like a professor, we lecture and review information we want listeners and customers to understand. “We play all the hits,” “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance,” “all natural synthetics,” etc.

However, creating and maintaining meaningful perceptions has become more complicated. We can blame this on competition: other marketing messages, smart phones, Facebook updates, etc. They all compete for our mind’s attention.

What’s the Gist Scientist?

yassa 2 final

Dr. Michael Yassa, from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at The Johns Hopkins University

To find out what science has to offer those of us who craft the perceptions of radio stations and work with clients in formulating marketing messages, I went to an expert, Dr. Michael Yassa, from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at The Johns Hopkins University.  He’s one of world’s foremost experts in brain science.

Yassa says that the capacity of our brain is almost infinite; it never ‘fills the spills’ the information.  However, we do not store most of our information with great detail. “We can encode as much information as you can throw at us but we do have abstraction logic. We compress things. It’s like a JPEG version of pictures,” says Yassa. “That means we can support a large amount of information without a problem.”Many things on mind

There are two basic types of memory, long-term and working memory. The two can be likened to your computer that has a hard drive used for storing information for long periods of time, and RAM memory which is used temporarily to process information. Yassa explains, “The problem becomes when things are competing for attention in our working memory, there we have limited resources. We can only encode a certain number of things at the same time. The capacity used to be thought of as seven, plus or minus two, then that number went down to four and many now believe the magic number is two.”

Pick a card, any card. Then, go to the end of the article or click here

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courtesy of Craig Stark, UC Irvine


Learning – The First Step to Forgetting

Hermann Ebinghaus

Hermann Ebbinghaus

To fully understand learning, it helps to understand what we already know.

Learning theory first hit the big time in 1885 when Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted studies on the learning, retention and then the forgetting of information.

Ebbinghaus was able to establish that a message repeated with relatively short spacing between exposures led to increased recall.  He also documented what is known as “The Curve of Forgetfulness.” The curve  demonstrates the rate at which recall diminishes over time after exposure to a message ceases.

Ebbinghaus Curve of ForgetfulnessHis work showed that about 40% of what we learn is forgotten within 20 minutes of being learned and that we retain only 30% after 6 days of exposure [1] and we after 6 weeks of exposure we only retain 15% of the information to which we were exposed [2].  The remaining information is deeply encoded into our minds.

[1] Lakshmi Sandhana, 02 June 2011

[2] Psychology By Don H. Hockenbury, Sandra Hockenbury – Macmillan, 2005


Brain Undergoes Physical Change As It Learns

Since the work of Ebbinghaus in the late 1800’s, much has been learned about the processes that take place within the brain during learning, including ways to enhance it. While we have intuitively known some of this information for years, it is only recently that we have learned specifics regarding how the brain “encodes” or stores information.

For example, we have known for some time that information is transported from one neuron to another by chemical impulses. However, it is now commonly suspected that the efficiency of the connection is the information; not the chemical impulses themselves.

Also surprising is the recent discovery that the “efficiency” of the connection between neurons manifests itself physically. Yassa elaborates, “Neurons Communicate through a connection called a synapse, a chemical signal that goes from one to the other. When the two communicate one sends a signal to another. Normally that signal may or may not influence the behavior of the other neuron. That’s because the connection may start off interpreting information as might occur during the first exposure(s) to a message (like the positioning statement ‘80s ’90s  Now’).”

“However, as a result of learning (encoding) – the process of acquiring and storing information for later use – that connection is [firmly] established, it’s that physical increase of efficiency, the conductivity of the synaptic connection between two neurons that results in deep encoding or the learning of information,” says Yassa. “Then the information can be propagated. Ultimately that is where we think these memories (information) are being stored, in the efficiency with which one neuron communicates
with the other.”

In programmer speak; a station better known for playing a certain style of music than a competing station in the same genre has a physical advantage of sorts. This can be likened to the size of bars in a graph that demonstrate the difference for an image between stations.

Brain Mode Affects Encoding of Marketing Messages

Yassa 1 final

There are many factors that determine how the brain attends to a message. The first of which is the mode a brain is in when a message is heard. The mind toggles in and out of two basic modes when awake; Alpha and Beta. While in Alpha mode the brain is relaxed and pays less attention. In Beta mode the brain is engaged and is more likely to attend to, and encode new information.

The question becomes this: How can we as radio programmers and marketing executives apply psychological and cognitive brain science to our art of crafting messages?

Yassa provides theoretical advice on how to effectively communicate information to listeners so messages will be deeply encoded into memory. We will also put real-life radio scenarios under the microscope in an effort to provide straightforward advice. These techniques should be viewed collectively rather than individually as most are related to one another.

1. Keep Length of Message Short

K.I.S.S. This concept needs little explanation. The shorter and simpler the message, the easier it is to remember. As Yassa points out, “working memory” is restricted to some degree.  Even when deep encoding occurs the mind will often compress information, removing some details.

2. Focus on Message can be both Beneficial and Detrimental

We are able to teach listeners about multiple station characteristics almost simultaneously. “If you have four messages that are rotating but playing at different times and not back-to-back within the same spot, that is completely [effective] because the messages are not going to overlap with one another, they are not competing for the same resources at the same time and therefore are not going to inhibit each other,” says Yassa.

While you might believe this is good news for stations that want to simultaneously develop impressive images for its music, morning show and contests, keep reading.

The hidden danger in our ability to equally encode or teach listeners about multiple station attributes is that the resulting perceptions would be equal in magnitude.  In other words, a station could be perceived as a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ and fail to become most known for any one particular attribute. Yassa clarifies, “If you have a [singular] consistent message that a station plays great music, that is going to be the bottom line. That is a message that I have. If you keep repeating this information as a concept, over time it becomes fact.”

There are also hidden dangers in becoming known for just one thing. For example, say you sign on a brand new station that wants to be predominately known for it’s music, but at some point also wants to have an entertaining morning show. For the sake of this article let us assume this is a “we play anything or everything we want” format. So you flip the switch and play nothing but music and run frequent promos touting the attributes of your music, perhaps even differentiating your music product from competitors.  After six months to eight months, ratings begin to level off and pressure builds to take sales and ratings “to the next level.”

Confident that you have firmly and strategically established the station’s music position, you move to construct the next layer of your image profile by adding the world’s best morning show. In the manner you established music images, you introduce the show and copious promos demonstrating its greatness. However you are then surprised when listeners reject what you know to be a much better show than the one across the street.

Yassa explains that this scenario creates a clash between the encoded information and what the brain is now hearing “…different messages can sometimes conflict one another. So I have this fact ingrained in my brain that this station is all about its great music. Now you are now telling me that this station has a great morning show. [While the messages are] not competing, they present conflicting information.  I thought of this station for its music, that’s what I listen for. However, you are now telling me about the morning show.” Having not programmed a radio station, Yassa says this example is theoretical. However some reading this article have lived Yassa’s theoretical nightmare.

Perhaps the way to avoid this scenario is not to create false exceptions.

“I send out an e-mail advertising for events or programs that I’m running to the students at Johns Hopkins who have a million other things competing for their attention.  I have a limited window to be able to get their attention,” says Yassa. “I will advertise a single event, but include a little thing at the bottom saying we do have other things going on…check out this other page. Then I will promote the next event.  I will always have a tiny bit of information about something else.  While insignificant to the major message, its inclusion, at that small of a degree, prevents it from being perceived as conflicting.”

In communicating that philosophy to radio, Yassa says – “if you play one morning show promo for every several music promos then flip the rotation, the morning show information won’t be conflicting because the brain will have stored some information about the [morning show].” In other words, Yassa is saying that the limited exposure of the morning show promo, while initially a throwaway of sorts, will ultimately make it easier to teach listeners about that attribute without it conflicting with the music message.

3. Provide an Opportunity for Deep Encoding

The concept of deep encoding involves persuading a listener or customer to actively think about the message they are hearing. The opposite of this is passive response (shallow encoding) which does not require the listener to critically think about the message. In other words, in one ear and out the other.

An example of deep encoding is to give someone three words then ask them to use the last word in the sentence. Asking a subject to use the word in a sentence evokes what psychologists call ‘elaborative rehearsal’ which leads to a deeper encoding of the information.

“Radio is a passive medium, but we have to try hard to make it become an active medium of sorts by making people think. Depth of encoding is about getting the listener to think about the message, that active mode goes a long way to getting a message stored in the brain,” says Yassa.

To test this theory, give someone in the office three words but ask them to use the third word in a sentence.  Twenty minutes later ask them to recite the words. In most cases, your test subject will experience some difficulty remembering all but the word used in the sentence because it is more deeply encoded into memory.

Bob FM final


4. Change the Context of Message to Keep Brain Engaged

Promos and commercials are examples of what scientists call ‘information.’ In my conversations with Yassa, I was introduced to studies that conclude messages which have already been processed and encoded into the brain do not “burn out” as many programmers believe, but rather are “tuned-out.”

This distinction is important in that it will lead to a new philosophy for writing and scheduling promotional announcements. The brain is not motivated to pay attention to a message it has already processed. Though repeating a strategic message can have benefits in teaching your message listeners, changing the delivery context such as production, demonstration model and comparative means, will increase the likelihood that the message is paid attention. This will deepen the understanding of your station’s position in the minds of listeners.

Yassa also points out that changing the frame of reference does not always represent a change in presentation. “Context is something that also incorporates the circumstances of the listener like the time of day, how bored or attentive I am, etc.”

5. Distinctive Delivery Gets Brain’s Attention

Creating a distinctive message delivery can enable a commercial or promo to stand apart from competing messages. “Using a unique character can be more easily distinguished in memory; someone that is very different, that doesn’t look or sound like everybody else. It’s easier to remember ads with a real person, a real character, someone who has their own way of speaking,” says Yassa.

This is where Pig Vomit got it right. W-NNN-BC was unique and set it apart from WABC. “Anything that deviates from the norm, which differs from the typical every day experience, that capitalizes on a unique experience is distinctive. This is why shows with distinctive personalities do well” added Yassa.

The use of alliteration or rhyme can also help create a distinctive retrieval cue. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” “set it and forget it,” “Kasem’s Kountdown,” “Ten-in-a-row on the Jack Diamond Morning Show,” “90s at 9,” are all examples of memorable alliterations or rhymes.

Using a unique name also helps. Examples: “Bubba, the Love Sponge,” “Wolfman Jack,” a meteorologist called “Dallas Raines,” a traffic reporter named “Tori Signal.”

6. Emotional Messages Fast Track to Deep Encoding

Dr. Yassa says, “Stirring up extremely positive or negative emotions makes memories more long-lasting by circulating norepinephrine throughout the brains circuitry. So whenever we can associate something to an event that is widely emotional, that is not an everyday occurrence, like the day that you won this huge award…something that was very emotional is quite effective at making people retain information. So being able to stir emotions that way can be a very effective means of increasing the brain’s arousal,” says Yassa.

Oldies and Country formats are perhaps the best at using emotion to appeal to listeners. Oldies stations do this by linking their music to emotional memories. Country stations have built in emotionality in the lyrics of their music.

If you have ever worked on a Children’s Miracle Network radiothon, you know that telling an emotional story is more successful in lighting up the phone banks than just asking for a donation. Equating a $50 donation to the cost of a red wagon used to transport a young patient to chemo-therapy instead of a cold steel gurney is more effective than just asking for donations as well.

Another example of effective use of emotionality can be found in the Subaru campaign.  The spot depicts a father handling car keys through the window to a toddler strapped in the driver’s seat preparing to drive away.  As the father lectures on the merits if safe driving, the toddler morphs into a teen.  The emotionality of the commercial is something every parent can relate to, even of their child has not yet reached driving age.

7. Making Message Personal Increases Recall

While this is somewhat difficult to achieve in mass media, Yassa says, “We have knowledge and interpretation devices within our minds called schema. This preexisting framework is used for the analysis and interpretation of incoming information. Any information you give me I’m going to incorporate into my personal schema and to the extent that it is consistent with my preexisting schema it will be easy to encode. Knowing the schema of your target demographic will help you fit information in with preexisting knowledge, making it easier to create information that is remembered.”

The aforementioned Subaru is an example of schema adaptation.  While the exact situation in this commercial did not occur, a parent’s angst of a child driving away – alone – for the first time is a personal experience.

8. Intelligent Repetition May Be Key In Communicating Messages

Geico copy

Intelligent repetition, a phrase often used by Yassa, involves combining several techniques already known to enhancthe deep encoding of information. “Intelligent repetition involves various retrieval cues, various contexts to the extent possible that can be associated with the product, intelligent repetition provides people with more to hold on to,” says Yassa. “The assumption is there is a linear or additive property to each element.”

A current example of Yassa’s intelligent repetition theory can be found in the Geico television and radio commercials. These messages create an effective retrieval cue by utilizing a distinctive character with a distinctive voice. They also change the contextual delivery by placing the Geico gecko in new and different  scenarios. Yet each spot leads to the company’s consistent strategic message “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance.”

In other words, the use of intelligent repetition could include combining the use of a distinct character or voice with a change in contextual delivery and a memorable retrieval cue all leading to the delivery of the strategic message.

A radio programmer can utilize Yassa’s intelligent repetition theory by opting out of a traditional voice-over talent to deliver his station’s ‘80s ’90s and today’ message and create a memorable retrieval cue by using a distinctive voice like that of a great-grandmother. This blatantly old, perhaps somewhat shaky voice praises the stations ’80s and ’90s music mix but exalts the highest praise for the new Lady Gaga song. “This song is s-w-e-e-t” she exclaims before breaking into the song before the audio morphs into Lady Gaga herself. Following the hook, she then delivers the station’s positioning statement then comically ends the message by saying that she streams the station on her iPhone from the senior center.

9. Cater To More Than One Sense

Tom Hanks The Da Vinci Code final

“We’re primarily visual creatures by nature,” says Yassa, who is a confessed fan of Dan Brown novels. Using Brown’s work as an example he illustrates our natural use and the power of visualization. “Let’s say you have the audio book version of ‘The Da Vinci Code’ then see the movie, which one is going to be better remembered?  Then the new book, “The Lost Symbol” is released. After seeing the movie, by nature, I will be visualizing Tom Hanks in the role of Robert Langdon. I am using my schema or preexisting framework of having seen the movie to imagine the new novel as I am reading it.”

To overcome radio not having pictures to accompany audio, Yassa says radio must engage listeners’ imaginations by creating audio images. Yassa believes this is a potentially powerful tool the industry can use to its advantage. “You can make radio more of an active medium by allowing listeners to visualize their own experience. When someone is able to construct their own experience from scratch, it is powerful and is different from the other passive medium of television in which someone does not have to engage their imagination.” Again, any time the brain is actively and critically engaged, deep encoding occurs.

“Having said that, it is difficult for people to have the time and attention to sit down and listen and be able to visualize what they are hearing. So we have to keep the other rules in mind like keeping it short and simple. If you are able to do that you are going to be much more successful in having the message retained.” When was the last time your station told a story with a client message or promo using sound effects to help a listener visualize the message – instead of just using a music bed for background filler?

10. Testing is Most Effective Means to Deep Learning

Testing is most often thought of as a tool for assessing knowledge, rather than an instrument of learning. However within the last few decades researchers have firmly documented that testing does more to aid in What Station does that copy rthe deep encoding information than an equivalent amount of time spent studying for an exam[3]. Those involved in brain science have labeled this phenomenon as “the testing affect.”

So remarkable are the results that many believe this is the most important development in learning theory to come along in many years. This technique boils down to being another means of getting the brain to critically think and assess information through elaborate rehearsal which is a catalyst for deep encoding. In other words, practice makes perfect.

One study conducted by Washington and Duke Universities says, “The testing effect and repeated retrieval have shown powerful mnemonic benefits of retrieval practice…The finding that retrieval of information from memory produces better retention than restudying the same information for an equivalent amount of time.”

Studies also indicate that testing recalls information better than cramming for a test. While “cramming” for a test may improve upon a subject’s performance, cramming is not nearly as effective as artificial testing. Furthermore, information processed during cramming is more easily forgotten. A real-life example of elaborate rehearsal might be a comparison to the first time you drove to a new location.  While driving you frequently refer to your GPS instrument.  Over time you find that you refer to it less frequently, if at all.  “The more times you drive to the locations or answer the same question on a test, the more confident a response you are able to provide.

How does this apply to marketing? Asking a listener or customer a question about a product or radio station theoretically equates to the aforementioned quiz. The question is asked, the brain formulates it’s response.  It is the formulation of the response that results in the deeper encoding of information.

A practical example of the testing effect would be turning your positioning statement into a question.  “Which radio station plays Cleveland’s Classic Rock from the ’60s and ’70s?” Perhaps the question is followed by a plethora of a-u-h’s and m-m-m’s. This would invoke the testing affect through elaborate rehearsal.

“When a question is asked, a listener is likely to automatically take the test. When you provide the opportunity to test people’s knowledge through some sort of quiz, radio show listeners are playing along. It’s human nature,” says Yassa. “It’s subtle, not something that every advertiser attempts to do. Testing is probably the most effective means to learning that we’ve ever noticed in cognitive psychology [related to learning].”

Listeners would be playing along, as it were a trivia question, formulating their answer thereby more deeply encoding the information into the brain when the correct answer is provided.

[3]Henry L. Roediger III and Andrew C. Butler – The Critical role of retrieval practice in log-term retention, Trends in Cognitive Science, January 2011, Vol. 15, No. 1

Where’s Your Card?

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Gist List – 9 Things to Better Communicate a Message

1. Get to the Point – Keep it as short and simple as possible.

2. Create reasonable expectations – If you promote that you’re “music intensive and have a personality-oriented show, promote that as well, but not as much.  This will keep listeners from disbelieving your music message.  

3. Create a scenario that evokes active listening – Depth of encoding – Allow opportunities for  the listener to think about what they are hearing.  Built an audio ‘vision’ of the message.

4Change the context of your delivery – A change on the way you present you point will present the listener wit another retrieval queue. That said, keep your strategic message on point.

5. Use Distinctive personalities and presentation – Use unique examples or characters that may be more easily distinguished in memory. 

6. Make your message emotional – stir up either extremely positive or negative emotions to make memories more long-lasting.

7. Make it personal – Fit information with preexisting knowledge and schema to make it’s recall easier.

8. Use Intelligent repetition – Repetition that includes multiple retrieval cues and various contexts instead of rote repetition increases the likelihood encoding will occur.

9. Cater to more than one sense – Even if your advertising is only limited to a single medium (e.g. radio), use images that stir up the imagination and other senses.

10. Utilize the testing effect – Answering questions has a remarkable positive effect on learning. Find ways to creatively ask a question.