Co-authored by Mary Stewart
How the President’s Primetime Address Used Brain Science to Unite the Country
On Thursday, March 11, 2021, much of the country tuned in to President Biden’s first primetime address to the nation. His challenge was clear: unite the country to act according to his plan, and bring on the end of the pandemic. The audience, no doubt, was diverse in its attitudes toward Biden and readiness to follow his lead. How would he persuade resistant Americans to do the right thing?
We are in the business of aligning organizations around a change and creating positive momentum. So we feel you, Joe. And we think you did the right thing. You used the principles of brain science to your advantage, just like we do.
When we help our clients manage a change, we make it feel Familiar, Controlled, and Successful (FCS). Here’s how the President used FCS in his speech.
Our brains see new things as dangerous. Any change generates fear, which causes resistance. Creating connections between your change and other experiences makes people feel it is familiar, which turns off fear.
One way to do this is to compare your initiative to something people know and remember as being successful.
“I’m using every power I have as the president of the United States to put us on a war footing to get the job done. Sounds like hyperbole, but I mean it, a war footing. …It’s truly a national effort, just like we saw during World War II.”
”The development, manufacturing, and distribution of vaccines in record time is a true miracle of science. It’s one of the most extraordinary achievements any country has ever accomplished. And we all just saw the Perseverance Rover land on Mars. Stunning images of our dreams that are now reality.”
See what he did there? He didn’t just talk about the Trump administration’s initiative, or even invoke other pandemics, like H1N1 or Ebola. He used winning WWII and landing on Mars. He tapped into familiar, positive feelings and attached those feelings to the current initiative.
We don’t like to move forward in the dark. Our brains crave control. Adding choice, structure, and predictability makes the change feel controlled, so people feel less anxious, more engaged, and feel free to take action.
One way to create feelings of control is to give people information, so they aren’t surprised.
“I met a small business owner, a woman. I asked her, I said, ‘What do you need most?’ …and she said, ‘I just want the truth. The truth. Just tell me the truth.’”
Another way to create feelings of control is to talk about milestones. Tell people what is going to happen, and when.
“I said I intended to get 100 million shots in people’s arms in my first 100 days in office. Tonight, I can say … we’re actually on track to reach this goal of 100 million shots in arms on my 60th day in office… All adult Americans will be eligible to get a vaccine no later than May 1.”
A third way is to give people something to do, so they feel like they have a part in the change.
“But I need you, the American people. I need you. I need every American to do their part. And that’s not hyperbole. I need you. I need you to get vaccinated when it’s your turn and when you can find an opportunity.”
Finally people who have clear instructions and tools feel in control because they know exactly what to do.
“…in May, we will launch…new tools to make it easier for you to find…where to get the shot, including a new website… No more searching day and night for an appointment for you and your loved ones.”
He said he’d give accurate information, previewed the road ahead, told people how they can take action, and promised them support to do so. All of those messages grant control to the listener.
Winning releases dopamine—the feel-good neurotransmitter. Sharing successes releases oxytocin—the connection hormone.
One way to create a feeling of success is to create and highlight small wins.
“You can drive up to a stadium or a large parking lot, get your shot, and never leave your car, and drive home in less than an hour.”
“Millions and millions of grandparents who went months without being able to hug their grandkids can now do so.”
Another way to foster success is to celebrate collective wins.
“When I took office, only 8% of those over the age of 65 had gotten their first vaccination. Today that number is 65%. Just 14% of Americans over the age of 75 …had gotten their first shot. Today, that number is well over 70%.”
“…if we do this together, by July the 4, there’s a good chance you, your families and friends, will be able to get together in your backyard or in your neighborhood and have a cookout or a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day.”
The President talked in vivid terms about success—individual success through quick shots and warm hugs, and collective success through high vaccination numbers, culminating in a national day of celebration.
Mr. President, we’re big fans, both of your pandemic plans and the way you convey them. Brain science to message and epidemiology to protect—that’s a winning team.