The Robots are Writing… It’s Time to Dial Up the Humanness

By: Michael McQueen

A couple of years ago, I caught a typo in the Wall Street Journal. It was in one of the regular email newsletters that I had signed up for, called The Future of Everything. Written by staff at the WSJ, the newsletter always has a warm and conversational tone while keeping the polish and elegance of a publication of such prestige.

Somehow this glaringly obvious typo had been missed. What was interesting to observe about my own reaction, however, was that I immediately felt like the text I was reading was more honest and organic than previous editions I had received. I didn’t suddenly perceive the team of writers as incompetent or unprofessional but rather recognised them as imperfect and real like the rest of us. This article was no longer the product of a journalistic machine, but a normal person who is human enough to miss a typo in her writing.

Ironically, my trust and engagement with the newsletter and the people producing it increased. Their mistakes made them ­more credible, not less.

Neuroscientist and author of The Trust Factor, Paul Zak, has spent years studying what builds rapport and intuitive trust between individuals, and his findings explain exactly how I felt in response to this newsletter.

According to Zak, the most important element of gaining or regaining trust is to dial up our ‘humanness’. Appearing to be real, vulnerable and even fallible results in the release of the chemical Oxytocin in the brains of others. This is the neuro-mechanism humans have unconsciously used for centuries to determine who was safe enough to trust and work with. [1]

Dial Up The Humanness

My response to the human behind the newsletter typified these findings. This was well before the now famed advent of ChatGPT and the proliferation of AI which is unsettling in its ability to perfectly replicate concise, clear and credible prose.

Given that the age of AI-generated writing, conversation and creation is no longer an approaching trend but an everyday reality, this understanding of the human need for humanness could not be more crucial. Yesterday’s standards of polish and perfection have now been embedded into programs which can achieve them far more effortlessly and flawlessly than we can. It is now not only possible, but probable, that the articles you are reading have been spun together in a second by a program that is not even sentient (not this one – I promise). What feels like a warm and conversational tone is likely now the simple product of good coding.

The age of sanitised language and corporate spin died years ago. Corporate communications departments for years were relying on carefully crafted messages to deliver a curated and predictable version of their brand. In our era of transparency and scepticism, the market for this has well and truly died.

The advent of ChatGPT, though, is the final nail in the coffin. Now, not only does corporate spin and polished comms lack humanness, but they may just lack a human altogether!

The reality remains though that humans crave humanness, and more than that, humans crave connection with other humans. While we might be easily fooled by AI’s excellent replication of warmth and sincerity, there is nothing that cuts through the noise and speaks to the soul like a real human – flawed enough to make a typo, just like us.

Humanity Gains Respect

In recent years, there have been several very public examples of leaders and brands embracing their humanness and garnering the world’s respect and support as a result.

One such example emerged in the political realm of New Zealand in March 2019 when a gunman attacked two mosques in Christchurch. Rather than pose before a press conference with some wooden, crafted statements, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded by being physically present with the people and literally holding them as they wept. With such a genuine, empathetic and human response, it is no wonder her image earned her global admiration in the following weeks.

In the business world, the power of humanness expressing itself through humour and self-deprecation was demonstrated after a mishap with KFC. In 2018 after running out of chicken in 80% of their stores across the UK, the company’s unconventional response garnered a lot of attention.

Rather than issuing a stuffy corporate apology or shuffling their leadership team in an act of contrition, KFC ran a full-page ad in the Sun and Metro newspapers featuring the picture of an empty bucket of chicken but the brands iconic 3 letters re-arranged on the bucket to spell FCK. Irreverent and unconventional by all means but also incredibly effective – consumers couldn’t help but warm to the humanness of the response.[2]

This principle of authenticity and sincerity extends to every form and function of communication. For instance, it was once standard practice to write your LinkedIn profile in the third person. We would refer to our achievements, experience and role description as if they were the bio paragraph in an article for The Economist. According to social media branding strategist Kirryn Zerna, author of How to Stand Out Without Selling Out, this approach simply no longer resonates. Today, the profile page and social posts of leaders and brands must be conversational, sincere, but above all, authentic.

The days of putting your best foot forward are over. As the technology we have created can now do a better job at the curated warmth of corporate comms, we are being given the opportunity, and also being exposed to the necessity, of embracing our humanness more than we ever have before. And the reality is that those of us who fail to do so will inevitably lose to the robots.

[1] Snow, S. 2017, ‘Why Major Institutions Lost Public Trust, And How They Can Get It Back Again’, The Content Strategist, 15 December.

[2]  2018, ‘KFC’s Apology For Running Out Of Chicken Is Pretty Cheeky’, BBC News, 23 February.

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

Feature image: Photo by Thom Milkovic on Unsplash 

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