The Experiment

Do writers worry too much about the wrong thing?

May 11, 2015

If journalists have a superpower, it’s our ability to communicate. With lightning speed, ideas are pitched to editors, interviews are conducted with sources, stories are written for every platform, and deadlines beat down by the minute. Typically, we pick a type of storytelling that we’re comfortable with and settle in. We ask the Who? What? When? Where? As effective communicators we are to write to our audience, digital or otherwise. What would they like to hear? See? Read? But in the haze of content, a journalist can lose sight of the big picture. Are we writing too much within the context of our own emotions when what we should really be focusing on is the way our readers think?

Is it possible, in other words, that writers are thinking about the wrong thing when they communicate? A fascinating exercise suggests that we worry too much about adjectives and sentence structure and don’t think enough about how our brains function.

If you’re a fan of the ubiquitous personality tests, then you’ll love the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI). And if you’re a journalist, it might be worth paying attention.

The HBDI is an exercise that allows you to become aware of your communication style as it relates to your thinking preferences. HBDI was developed by Ned Herrmann. He wondered why he could be imaginative and artistic—which is right-brain thinking—as well as proficient at problem solving and analytical skills—which are left-brain thinking.

Buried deep inside the brain is the limbic system, the principal location for emotion and memory, directing our affective and interpersonal processes. Herrmann customized this body of research into the four-quadrant “Whole Brain” model that is a metaphor for how we think.

For all you left-brain thinkers out there, you’ll find the discussion so far very interesting, and all you right brainers are thinking, “When is she going to get to the fun part?” In an effort to write this piece using my “whole brain,” here you go.

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The HBDI model was brilliantly framed to fit and assess anyone in any business or career.

For journalists—as with everyone, really—different situations require different types of thinking. The Herrmann exercise claims that understanding your personal thinking preferences will enable you to optimize your ability to adapt the way you perceive the world to a method of communication style that is most effective. It also explains why it is easier to communicate with some people than it is with others. We’ve all had that interview that left us wondering, “What just happened?” This method also casts light on why some elements of your work seem more effortless and satisfying and why some job functions are more interesting and appealing to you. See the illustration for a clear example of the method.

I spoke with Chuck McVinney, the principal of McVinney & Company, a training and development firm that has used the HBDI assessment for 20 years. He travels the country consulting organizations, trying to incorporate these concepts into their workplace. One of his experiments included journalists to whom he asked the question, “What if four journalists reported the same accident from each of their style preferences? What would each story look like?” Chuck was kind enough to share his findings with me. They would read something like this:

“A tearful, screaming mother attacks the cowering suspect as police officers hold off an angry mob at the terrifying scene of a tangled school bus and the bloody victims of the accident.”

“At 3:30 pm, Thursday, April 9, on Route 9, 15 miles north of Columbus, a black 1978 Plymouth four-door sedan traveling at 75 mph in a 35 mph school zone …”

“Once again . . . forensic science, using the undeniable facts of blood type, fingerprints, and spectrographic analysis of paint fragments, proves beyond a doubt …”

“This accident demonstrates the lethal combination of drunk driving and faulty car design. These two issues are national in scope and deserve urgent Congressional attention if future generations are to be adequately protected.”

It’s interesting to see storytelling from each perspective. The “Who” thinker is capturing the emotion of the scene using adjectives that create emotion: “tearful,” “screaming,” “cowering.” The “How” thinker is focused on organization, listing the details of the accident and how fast the car was going. The “What” thinker is very critical, wants to prove who did it, and has “undeniable” facts and data. And the “Why” thinker is invoking opinion, “faulty car” and consequences that “deserve congressional attention.”

In the haze of other conversations about apps, aggregation, native advertising, and social media, it’s worth remembering that the future of journalism is equally tied to a basic concept from the past—good communication. And it may well be that understanding how our brains function is as fundamental to our future success as is anything else. 

Four Kinds of Reporters

“The What Journalist”

You tell stories from the Upper Left Quadrant of your brain. You are very analytical, technical, and a critical and logical thinker. You are typically drawn to investigative stories and reporting. You have a realistic focus, know how things work, quantify, and like data.

Questions you ask: Is this piece logical? Rational? Radical? Theoretically Sound? Data-based? Example: What happened on the night of the accident? What were the factors involved?

“The Why Journalist”

You instinctively communicate from the Upper Right Quadrant of your brain. You are the risk taker. You like to be creative and are drawn to stories that break the rules. You are impetuous, a visionary, you like surprises. You’re curious, speculative and imaginative.

Questions you ask: Does this piece have a big concept underpinning it? Did I communicate the big picture? Is it innovative? Imaginative? Forward thinking? Strategic? Example: How many other cars with this make and model had similar accidents? Is this a manufacturing default?

“The How Journalist”

You instinctively communicate from the Lower Left Quadrant of your brain. You take preventive action in your reporting and writing, establish procedures, get things done. You’re reliable and timely.

Questions you ask: Is this piece organized and in sequence? Is it reliable? Tested and proven? Operationally planned? Scheduled? Doable? Example: What time of day did it occur? Which direction were they traveling?

“The Who Journalist”

You instinctively communicate from Lower Right Quadrant of your brain. You are sensitive to others and like telling first-person stories that touch people. You are supportive, expressive and feeling. You prefer long- over short-form writing, because you like to teach.

Questions you ask: Is this piece communicative? Sensitive? Empowering to others? Example: What are you feeling right now as you see this mangled debris? Did the sound of the crash wake you up?

Teri Washington is the owner of Shofar Communications, which publishes a digital lifestyle magazine called Harvest. She is the author of the book Take off the Mask.