Hook the Customer Up to the Machine, Please

Hook the Customer Up to the Machine, Please

They say you should never meet your heroes.

Well, a couple of weeks ago I did. In fact, I got to interview mine: Professor Steven Pinker, Harvard's biggest-haired cognitive scientist and language expert.

And he was great: smart (obviously), funny, humble and with that slightly spooky skill of being able to speak in really well formed sentences, as if everything you're asking is so utterly predictable that he's already thought of the answer, several weeks ago in fact.

But twice in our 90-minute tête-à-tête, he got just a wee bit riled.

It first happened when I asked him how he reacted, as a cognitive scientist, to the letters from banks and utilities that land on his doormat. The answer, I'm pleased to report, is that he gets just as narky as the rest of us, pulling his copious hair out until his professor persona reasserts coherent sentence control.

His gripe will be familiar: corporate platitudes that boast how much they care about us as customers, when the content of the rest of the letter suggests anything but. Tons of businesses still seem to think that right when they put prices up or fail to compensate us for bad service, we'll be gormless and gullible enough to believe they've got our best interests at heart just because they say so. They'll have tested these lame phrases entirely out of context on some poor suckers at a focus group in North London.

The difference between us and Professor Pinker, of course, is that he has a lab at his disposal and willing brains, ready to be hooked up to electrodes. He can see what's really going on.

And I think this is the future. Instead of running idiotic focus groups in which people with too much time on their hands are paid 40 quid, plied with cheap plonk and manky sausage rolls, and told to express their opinion on things they couldn't care less about, we should just get our hands on the data.

Let's see which bits of corporate writing light up which bits of our brains. After all, neuroscience tells us that the intellectual bit of our brain doesn't actually have much insight into the emotional bit, which is often much more likely to direct our behaviour. In short, those people in the focus groups don't know what they actually think in the first place, and that's before the Liebfraumilch.

I'd love to walk into the boardrooms of potential clients and show that when their customers open that brand's next email, they can't help but feel angry, or flummoxed, or disgusted (with the MRIs in my hand to prove it).

Steve's other gripe is that the disciplines of linguistics and cognitive science have been pretty bad at explaining what we've already learnt about language in the lab to the rest of the world.

Well, this might be the way to bridge the gap. It's time for the corporates to get their wallets out, and flash a tiny bit of cash. The scientists get to educate us laymen about what's really going on in our heads, and businesses get much more reliable information about how we react to their sloganeering in real life. And compared to what they're spending on focus-less focus groups, it's peanuts.

Neil Taylor is managing partner of The Writer, the world's largest language consultancy, and author of new ebook Business Express: Compelling Reports and Proposals


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