Once upon a time, a scrawny, pimple-covered, grade eight version of me sustained a significant back injury at wrestling practice. A damaged pair of discs and a few pinched nerves later, I was left with limited sensation in my right leg and pain that continues to nag me today. The event was a major turning point in my life, not because I can predict weather by the ache in my back, but because numerous doctor visits sparked a lifelong fascination and love affair with neuroscience and how the brain works.

After my injury I started reading up on experiments in nerve regeneration and poured through texts that mapped the brain’s connection to pain, sensation, and movement—learning whenever I had a free moment.

Now, no matter what project I am part of, I always find myself wondering how my audience’s brain (intended end user or not) will process—and ultimately comprehend—the output of my work.

So, as first principles go, comprehension first tends to be my buoy. It may seem like a simple concept, but one that often escapes strategists and content creators alike.

The problem, unfortunately, comes from the processes we use. Content strategy and many of its allied fields are analytical, logical, and detail oriented. At times, what we do is downright clinical. We audit, we analyze, and we recommend. That sterility often rubs off on the content we create. This is when our work gets a serious case of the “whats.”

What should this copy be to achieve optimal SEO value? What features should we highlight to promote this product? What chart should we add to give users more data? What? What? What?

Don’t get me wrong, there is value in “whats,” but I find it more helpful to focus the bulk of my effort on the emotional side of content (the “whys” and “hows”) for the simple reason that doing so results in stronger comprehension and retention for the end user.

Instead of the cold, hard facts, tell me why you make your products the way that you do. What is the deeper story behind your manufacturing process? What drives you to show up at a community soup kitchen every morning? In short, why do you do what you do? If a user even remotely identifies with the “why,” there’s a far greater chance it will stick with them.

How do we know this? Neuroscience!

Content and your brain. Seriously.

When we think, speak, read, listen to music, or attempt to do anything remotely detail oriented, we use our brain’s neocortex. As the language center, the neocortex is most concerned with the analytical, rational, and logical. In other words the neocortex cares about the “whats,” but has less to do with making decisions, memories or connecting with concepts on a deeper level than one might believe. For that, we have to look elsewhere, into one of the oldest parts of our brain from an evolutionary standpoint (think reptilian!).

Buried inside our cerebral cortex are the elements that make up our limbic system—the center for emotion and human behavior.

The human brain, showing limbic system

Despite being home to the brain structures that make us uniquely human, the limbic system’s primary function is to partner with the endocrine system to regulate the body’s automated functions. Our limbic system ensures we don’t have to think to breathe. It raises and lowers our blood pressure. It makes these decisions for us without our knowledge through an innate network of memories. These early connections and memories are among the first things to be wired as we develop in utero.

And just because the human machine loves to be even more complex (albeit efficient), these structures serve a secondary function; operating as a memory factory of sorts. The same limbic system elements that help keep us breathing without thinking or tell us not to breathe when there’s something threatening, also process various sensory information and relay it to different parts of the brain to form both short and long-term memories.

While all this is fine and good, this memory formation is being done in our “emotional” brain and we’re attaching “feelings” to memories based on our personalities, beliefs, and preferences. All of this sits in the limbic system. What it means is that how we feel about something has a much stronger role in decision making and comprehension than we’d like to believe. No matter how analytical we believe we might be, our emotional brain still decides how we ultimately internalize and act on language and data.

This happens because our limbic system matures in our teen years while our prefrontal cortex doesn’t mature until our early-to-mid-20s. Cue up your favorite bad haircut, piercing, or near death experience from your memory bank. Now you know what to blame it on. Go tell your mom. I’ll wait.

What does it mean to me?

The brief neuroanatomy lesson supports my first principle. While the “whats” (detail oriented content, messages, etc.) are important to a user, content they can connect with on an emotional/behavioral level (“hows” and “whys”) is what drives deeper comprehension because it connects to the area of the brain that defines our behavioral context. When we have content that addresses these behavioral factors, we stimulate the parts of the brain that create memory and ultimately make us able to truly comprehend something. When we have that, we have the potential to influence things like favorability, consideration, satisfaction, and even loyalty.

What that should tell you, my fellow lovers of content, is that the most effective strategy leads to work that speaks bi-directionally—to both the rational and emotional parts of our brain. If we only believe that retention happens when we present our case for a product, service, organization, etc., we’re assuming that the spatial/language-based portion of our brain governs our decision making process. Fact is, it just doesn’t have the final say.

Content works hardest when it stimulates the behaviors and emotions in the deepest parts of our brain and is supported by details that tickle our neocortex. See? Brain science = awesome.

So, next time you’re working on a content strategy project, don’t get too mired in the details and remember to focus on user comprehension. We all say we think about our users and that we want to create content that’s useful for them, but how often are we thinking of their emotions, pain points, and what drives behaviors when we make our recommendations? The web is becoming a far more personal place and it has never been a more exciting or opportune time to have our work follow suit.

You’re stuck with me

I’ll be a regular contributor to Contents, and while my new partners tell me they don’t want me to limit my scope to talking about context, my research or a single topic, you can rest assured that my first principles will be the connective tissue bringing my thoughts to life with each issue. Please join the conversation. This will be so much more fun if it’s a dialogue.