How do we communicate to our audience without bias?

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August 17, 2020
Topics covered in this article:

Writing with Authenticity

Unconscious bias in writing


I admit, “how do we communicate to our audience without bias?” wasn’t a literal content strategy question that I received. But “unconscious bias” is definitely on people’s minds. From TED talks to diversity and inclusion training videos, the topic is trending, and with good reason.


So when the Zoom talk by Dr. Sondra Thiederman, a cross-cultural communications professional and fellow San Diegan popped up recently in my Meetup suggestions, I signed up. The informal virtual presentation was hosted by the Orange County Society of Technical Writers, who made everyone feel welcome.


Dr. Thiederman’s first point was that bias is human. It does not make anyone a bad person. The important thing is that we are aware of it and we address it in our communications and discussions. This is something I’ve heard before: I remember Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, a social psychologist at Stanford University, recently saying in a TED talk that “If you have a brain, you have bias.”


While Dr. Thiederman was offering up scientific ways to enable people to check themselves for unconscious bias, that is, an “inflexible positive or negative belief regarding a particular category of people” (Dr. T’s definition), I kept thinking about the marketing industry’s tried and true methods of developing personas.


Do Our Brand Personas Include Biases?


Marketers and content strategists do a lot of research to develop authentic brand user personas and to avoid stereotypes. And with good reason. Personas lead to developing content that is useful and appropriate for those audiences. But what if we've unintentionally skewed the descriptions to fit who we think should be our audience? Do we ever do a reality check for unintended biases?


Bias prevents us from seeing people accurately, including their needs and wants, and reduces opportunities for success, Dr. Thiederman explained.


To flip this around, this means if we take the time to check our audience personas for bias, we’re increasing opportunities to authentically connect with the people who matter most to our business. We will see people more clearly and understand where we are falling short and what we can do more of to support them.


Three Ways to Check Your Brand Personas for Bias


Based on Dr. Thiederman’s recommendations to reveal bias, here’s a starter list I created to help check your audience personas for unconscious biases.


  1. First thoughts often contain bias. Look at your list of audience types and write down the first thing that comes to mind for each. Then test those thoughts by simply switching out the gender, race, or group. Is the description still logical and true?
  2. Avoid jumping to conclusions. Bias makes us see only what we want to see in the research and avoid the things that are unfamiliar or unexpected. It’s only human to want to be proven right. Pause to ensure that your initial interpretation is correct and complete.
  3. Ask questions to find the logic. If someone is rounding out your persona’s life description, keep asking, “What makes us think this?” Where is the proof?

    Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, a social psychologist at Stanford University, provides a impacting example for #2 and #3 in one of her TED talks. She shares how she worked with a police department to reduce unnecessary vehicle stops by police. Adding the question, “Is this intelligence-led,” prior to pulling someone over helped police officers make more logical decisions. Traffic stops decreased significantly, without impacting the crime rate.

  4. Avoid labels. Labels carry a lot of weight, and their meaning changes from person to person. But personas are filled with them, from Go-Getter Gabby to Shy Shiloh. I bet you have first impressions on those names, right? How can we describe our audience types without pinning them into a bias box?

    If you’re thinking that using images instead will help, well, not so much. This again according to Dr. Eberhardt, who explains that people’s first impressions of people’s faces are shaped by their own ethnicity, gender, and experiences.


How do we avoid labels to remember our user personas? The answer might lie in the idea of finding common ground.


The Common Ground Between the Brand and the Consumer


The needs of the brand and the needs of the consumer don’t always align, but when we focus on the commonalities — the areas where both parties want the same thing — we will create an “us” culture. Marketing and writing professionals will think of the consumers as individuals and have an easier time imagining how they might react to the brand messaging you’re developing.


Quick story. I recently needed to put a stop on a check that I sent in the mail, but was never received. I secure-messaged the bank, and a couple days later, I got a curt and almost rude message back. She wrote something like, “You cannot just stop a check. There are forms to be signed and filed. And you must pay a $25 fee." The tone I felt was that I was a problem. And an ignorant one at that.


Imagine if she had thought of me as a real person or even a friend (some common ground there), and that this was an opportunity to connect? The email could have been, “No problem at all. Do you want me to send you the forms to fill out or would you like to come into a branch? Letting you know there is a $25 fee, but we’ll take care of it right away.”


That tone would have put me at ease. Did she have an unconscious bias? I’m not sure what she was thinking. But I like my bank, so I’m going to assume she was having a bad day.


Take a look at all your personas; what do you personally have in common with them? What does the company have in common? This exercise may provide ideas to offer more support, security, and dignity throughout your communication efforts.


Exorcising Unconscious Bias in the Real World of Business


Dr. Eberhardt’s TED talks help provide context and proof that unconscious bias is worth paying attention to in our communication efforts. In one, she shares how the social platform company NextDoor was able to curb racial profiling by 75% by simply changing the language, “If you see something, say something,” to “If you see something suspicious, say something specific.” The edits create a pause for logic that created a powerful difference in outcomes.


Does your company have a process that helps keep biases from creeping into copy? Do you have any success stories or other PhD resources to share? I would love to hear them and update this post with your strategies.


Resources for Better Communications


VIDEO: How to check your unconscious bias by Dr Jennifer L. Eberhardt


QUIZ: Harvard’s Implicit Association Test: Discover your unconscious biases


VIDEO: Sondra Thiederman, PhD: Manage Unconscious Bias By Focusing on Common Ground


VIDEO: How racial bias works -- and how to disrupt it by Dr. Jennifer L. Eberhardt


GROUP: Orange County Society of Technical Writers


About the Author: Shelly Bowen

Shelly Bowen, content strategist


Shelly Bowen, MFA, is a content writer, content strategist, and founder of Pybop.

Shelly writes for businesses on complex topics from disease prevention and medical devices to alternative energy and leveraging data for the greater good. In her spare time, she hikes, kayaks, and works on her T-Bird.

A wide variety of brands rely on Shelly as an essential freelance writer and content strategy resource.

Follow Shelly on Instagram @pybop or connect on LinkedIn. More about Shelly and Pybop.

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