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Using Neuroscience to Advertise Learning


Thu Nov 20 2014

Using Neuroscience to Advertise Learning

ATD is celebrating Employee Learning Week December 1-5. Learning professionals around the world are using this limited time to highlight the critical connection between learning and achieving organizational results. In essence, participating learning teams are running an ad campaign, selling their services to the consumers of training within their organization. 

Let’s talk about why you should participate and how you can use neuroscience to make your “advertising” more effective.


 Why advertising works 

Advertising is intended to drive behavior, such as purchase a product. Almost as soon as human beings started writing, they started advertising, by letting people know about events, products, and services in written form. From the very beginning, even though they didn’t know it at the time, these early advertisers were applying neuroscience to their work—because nothing gets our attention at a conscious level without first engaging the brain. 

Advertising works because it enlists our brain’s bias for survival. When our species was just growing up, those of us who didn’t pay attention to specific cues from the environment died before passing on our genes to offspring. Those of us who survived passed on our bias towards pattern recognition and over time we developed a brain that is programmed to alert us to changes that may indicate potential danger. 

Today, our brain is still on the alert for threats to our survival. It evaluates all information in part on its value to keep you alive. You can actually watch the brain reacting to a television ad on YouTube. Notice where the eyes focus and the varying intensity of the electrical signals in the brain. The more intense the signal, the more engaged the brain is at the moment. Patrick Renvoise calls this approach “neuro-marketing.” 

Using neuroscience to promote learning 


Nielsen, the advertising and marketing firm, has just opened a division entirely focused on applying neuroscience to advertising. The company is studying how consumers react to various offers, using brain scans and eye-tracking sensors to measure attention. They hope to be able to make advertising more targeted and effective for their clients by finding the optimal combination of text, images, and video that engage attention and foster the formation of long-term memory. 

While you may not have the budget to hire them to create your Employee Learning Week campaign, there are a few things you can do to apply neuroscience to promote the value of organizational learning. 

Tap into emotion. At its heart, all learning is emotional. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex plays a key part in making decisions of value, factoring in our emotional response to create a decision. You may find that using fewer facts and figures, and more images that can elicit an emotional response, such as pride, excitement, or even fear, will get your message more attention and be more memorable over time. 

Tell a story.  The brain is pre-wired to respond to stories. In fact, the brain can’t really tell the difference between a story and the real experience. If an executive reads a vividly-told story about how another manager improved performance through training, his brain fires in the same places it would have fired if he had been the one going through the experience. A recent study showed that our brain processes information differently when told in a narrative. In summary, they found that the new neural pathways formed while reading the story are much more likely to persist, making it easier to remember information presented in story form. 

Make it visual. Ninety percent of the information that enters the brain is visual. In fact, our verbal ability as a species is a relatively new skill when compared with the more deeply ingrained and more natural capability to process images. Look for a compelling way to get your numbers out in a visual manner by using infographics or other visual media. If you are making a presentation about your team’s contributions, be sure to include relevant images that will make it easier for your audience to process critical information. 


Build trust with consistent performance 

We tend to reject information that does not come from a trusted source, so building a relationship with your audience is essential for selling them on the value of learning. Trust is registered in the caudate nucleus, a part of the brain that anticipates a reward and gives us, in advance, a hit of oxytocin. Oxytocin is linked to experiences such as “runners high” and sexual orgasm. 

When we have decided to trust someone, we start rewarding ourselves for benefits we expect to receive, even before the actual benefit has been delivered. So the better you get at delivering value and communicating that value, the easier it will be communicate your value proposition going forward. 

Send your message all year long 

Our brains are constantly deciding where to focus attention and which experiences to commit to memory. If you want the people in your organization to see the training department as a competitive advantage, you will need to keep up your advertising all year long, not just one week a year. Still, Employee Learning Week is a good placed to start. 

Are you changing behavior and driving business results? Let the world know! You can find some great customizable materials to get you started on the ATD Employee Learning Week page.

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