Communication in cybersecurity is not easy. In fact, one of the most pressing issues in the cybersecurity domain is communicating complex technological and security topics to various audiences without using language that alienates them. These audiences might be business executives, families, or potential new clients. Cybersecurity marketers often resort to fear, throwing tons of statistics at audiences and missing the context of the message.
With these thoughts in mind, I asked my friend Dr Savvas Trichas to shed light on the complex skill of communication.
Dr Savvas Trichas is a powerful keynote speaker who combines cutting-edge research with instruction, creating motivational moments with practical value. He is a Harvard Business Review contributor and a 3-time TEDx speaker (Las Vegas, Lausanne, and Athens). Dr Trichas has collaborated with Stanford University, the Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT), and the Ministry of Education of Cyprus. He is also associated with the FBI National Academy Associates Cyprus, where he serves as a guest lecturer on management, communication, and lie detection. In addition, Dr Trichas is the author of the bestselling books “The Power of Communication” and “Start Yesterday” (available in Greek). His academic research is published in world-class peer-reviewed journals such as The Leadership Quarterly, with his publications ranking globally #1 and #2 in Google Scholar under the keywords “leadership” and “facial expression.”
With such an interesting background, it is only natural that our discussion was exciting and insightful. Without further ado, this is what we talked about.
In your book, you say, “Whether we like it or not, we communicate.” What is communication?
Savvas: Communication is exchanging information, ideas, and thoughts from one mind to another. However, most people don’t realize that communication is not about what is being said but what is being heard. For that reason, anyone aiming to master communication needs to appreciate better how people interpret and assign meaning to the information they receive.
In 1990, Dr Elizabeth Newton, in a genius psychological experiment, assigned people to the roles of “tappers” or “listeners.” Tappers had to tap the rhythm of well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You,” to a listener by knocking on a table. Listeners had to guess the theme based on the rhythm being tapped. 120 songs were tapped out as part of the experiment.
The result? Listeners guessed only 2.5% of the songs: 3 out of 120!
The explanation? When tappers tap, they hear the song in their head. However, the listeners can’t hear that tune. They are trying to create meaning without all the things you know. The psychology behind this simple yet powerful experiment is similar to the rules of communication. If you can’t find a way to transmit all the necessary information (your message’s “tune”), your audience hears a bunch of disconnected sounds.
The tappers and listeners are everywhere in our professional lives. From a leader to an employee and from an employee to a customer, a tune is always involved. When a CEO discusses the organization’s vision, a tune is playing in their head that the employees might not hear.
How can we effectively communicate our message with empathy and context to various audiences?
Savvas: This is a vast topic that we usually develop through workshops and training. There are two primary channels, the verbal and the nonverbal. These spread to several branches (e.g., phonetics, syntax, choice of words for verbal communication, and facial expression, posture, and gestures for body language). It is vital for anyone who tries to communicate with empathy to hear what is said and what is not. When you can read those voluntary and involuntary cues, you can make every moment you spend with others valuable, and if you are in business, you can make it profitable.
There are many practical examples we can discuss here in terms of how we can effectively communicate our verbal message with empathy and context, but let’s mention a simple one that our readers can employ immediately in their repertoire:
Use of active voice and action verbs. Avoid contaminating the message with “qualifiers” that compromise the meaning: “Sort of, Tend to, Kind of, Seemed to, Could have, Probably…” Remember Warren G. Bennis’s famous quote, “Leadership is like beauty. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.”
Powerful huh? Let’s see what happens if we add some qualifiers to the above quote. “I sort of think that leadership is like beauty. As it seems, it’s hard to define, but you will probably know it when you see it.”
Words create worlds. Use them wisely.
What do we mean by persuasion? Is it a way to drive behavioral change?
Savvas: Persuasion is the act or process of influencing someone’s beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors through communication and reasoning. Of course, there is a way to drive behavioral change, but only if things change inside you, things change around you. Change is an inside job, so if you want to influence behavior, you need to dig deep.
Most people try to tell others how to tie their laces without being in their shoes; that is why their persuasion attempts fail.
As you probably know, Steve Jobs was not like “most people.” A few years after founding Apple, Jobs wanted to hire John Sculley (the CEO of PepsiCo at the time) as CEO. At the time, PepsiCo was a titan compared to Apple. It was a massive step back for Sculley, so he rejected Job’s offer repeatedly.
Despite their professional paths, the two of them became friends, and they would meet occasionally. One day, as they were chilling, Jobs asked Sculley: “Would you like to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” The rest is history. Sculley admitted that at that moment, he realized that he would wonder for the rest of his life what he had missed.
Persuasion will lead to behavior change, but empathy is a severe moderator to that algorithm. Jobs invested in a relationship that allowed him to reveal something much more important than money or position for Sculley: the potential to participate in something bigger.
Is communication a tool to persuade people or a means to engage and empower them?
Savvas: Communication can be both a tool to persuade (even manipulate) people or a means to engage and empower them. Undeniably, communication generates power and can help you to achieve your goals. However, learning how to use it strategically is like getting a hammer in your hands. You can use it to fix things in your house, to break a window, or even to kill somebody. As they often say in superhero movies, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Dr. Jessica Barker said in a recent presentation that “perception is truth.” How can we change perceptions to foster a more robust cybersecurity culture?
Savvas: There are several strategies we can use to change perceptions. Use of dynamic storytelling, analogies, and humor. Let’s take humor, for example. We are hardwired to absorb information in a funny format.
In his Netflix stand-up comedy special, Michael McIntyre humorously highlighted the evolution of password requirements over time. Initially, companies insisted on a capital letter, leading people to merely capitalize the first letter of their password. As internet popularity grew, the demand for a number led to adding “1” at the end. But the real comedic twist came when special characters were introduced. The audience laughed as McIntyre mentioned the exclamation mark, which they added to their now capitalized password. Ultimately, his hilarious take on password changes left everyone in the theater contemplating the need to update their passwords.
There is a reason that this specific part of the whole Netflix special went viral on several social media platforms. It’s because it was true. It was a funny way to make people reconsider a fundamental cybersecurity habit.
What is the role of storytelling in talking cybersecurity to various stakeholders (executives, clients, partners)?
Savvas: Stories make people feel. They make people see. They make people use their inner senses. Contemporary research shows that stories can change our perceptions, beliefs, and behavior. Specifically, findings in neuro chemistry amplify the above statements, showing that when we hear a successful story, a hormone known to induce kindness and cooperation, called oxytocin, is secreted in our bloodstream.
In other words, when we hear a good story, we are more likely to lean forward, metaphorically and literally, and be more open to receiving ideas from the person who relays them to us. Such a story will captivate people’s hearts by appealing to their brains first. You cannot push your message into people’s brains. Their brains need to open up and absorb your message. Stories have that power. They make people’s brains open up and absorb whatever content is inside the story.
Think about your own reaction to the humorous story with the password. The core message was not flashy or juicy. It was about choosing a strong password. But with a humorous story, the message was absorbed effortlessly. It was entertaining, memorable, and, above all, valuable.
Can you share some tips that can help us more effectively take a human-centric approach to cybersecurity communication?
Savvas: I will answer your question with an amazing discovery from the world of medicine, specifically radiology.
One skill that separates outstanding radiologists from average ones is their ability to identify “incidental findings,” abnormalities on a scan that the physician wasn’t looking for and that aren’t related to the ailment for which the patient is being treated. For example, if I break my leg, I will probably need an x-ray. If my doctor sees something extra in my x-ray, that is an “incidental finding.”
Israeli radiologist Yehonatan Turner one day decided to test his hypothesis: If a doctor sees a patient as a human rather than a case, they are more capable of spotting such incidental findings. He tried his idea by attaching a picture of the respective patient next to their computed tomography (CT) scan. Three months later, he ran the same research only, this time without the picture of the patient. Repeating the study was not a problem as radiologists read so many images each day they couldn’t recognize that they were reviewing the same scans after ninety days.
The outcome was shocking. 80% of the incidental findings were not spotted when the photograph was excluded. Even though the radiologists were looking at the same CT scans, they were far less accurate this time. A single photo made the doctors better at their jobs. The truth is that the picture per se did not increase their skills, but it humanized the whole process, added a sense of responsibility, and unconsciously made the doctors sharper.
Returning to your question about a human-centric approach to cybersecurity communication, the answer is in that picture. When you somehow feel connected with the receiver, the solutions you find are more relevant, suitable, and valuable. So, suppose I am going to talk to teenagers about intimidation. In that case, I will be using different language, activities, and examples rather than if I am talking about the same subject to internal auditors. Additionally, I will try to “plug in” to the everyday reality of my respective audience to be able to speak their language.
In November, I will be the keynote speaker at a yachting conference. Honestly, I had no idea about yachts a couple of months ago, but since then, I have been obsessed with yachting. From talking to people in the industry to mystery shopping and actual yachting with friends, I even downloaded a skipper’s manual. I want to understand my audience to create a message that will be easy for them to consume.
It’s the same with cybersecurity. Who am I talking to? Before sending my message, I must attach a picture like the CT scans.
A pretty powerful interview, don’t you think? Thank you so much, Savvas mou!!! If you want to follow Savvas, you can reach him on LinkedIn, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. And if you enjoyed the interview, you can find similarly enlightening ones in our back catalog.