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